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The history of Birkbeck
Birkbeck has been helping people access higher education and transform their lives for nearly 200 years. We have an illustrious, unconventional and radical history that we are very proud of.
Birkbeck was founded on the evening of 11 November 1823, when around 2000 people flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of educating the working people of London. Supporters present at the event including Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and originator of Utilitarianism, Sir John Hobhouse, a Radical MP who held several important government posts across his career, and Henry Brougham, a liberal MP, anti-slavery campaigner and tireless educational reformer.
Following this initial meeting, the London Mechanics’ Institution was formally created at the same location on 2 December 1823, with the stated aim of educating working people.
This foundation meant that, for the first time, artisans and craftspeople could learn about science, art and economics; a concept so controversial that George Birkbeck was accused of ‘scattering the seeds of evil’. Undeterred, George Birkbeck called his supporters to action: ‘Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.’ Many donors were convinced by the important mission and enough money was raised to open the Institution and pursue a radical new vision.
Seven years later, in 1830, the Institute took a further radical step by becoming one of the first colleges to admit women as students – nearly 40 years before the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1858, the ratification of the University of London’s Charter meant that any student could sit degree examinations. Birkbeck fast became the best choice for students who wanted a university education, but who could not afford to study full-time.