The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Innovation and Reform: educational institutions in 19th-century Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton  

In the course of researching the UCL Bloomsbury Project, a Leverhulme Trust funded research project studying the establishment of reforming educational, medical, and social institutions in 19th-century Bloomsbury, my colleagues and I have identified over 200 such institutions.  In this essay I will single out three important ones for scrutiny; they span the century from the mid-1820s to the mid-1890s, but they are physically located very close to one another, from Gower Street to Gordon Square to Tavistock Place.  The three are University College London, University Hall in Gordon Square, and the Passmore Edwards Settlement, begun in Gordon Square and continued in Tavistock Place.  Between them, they offer a broadly characteristic picture of educational innovation in Bloomsbury, its progress and the obstacles it faced.

  1. University College London

The idea for a university in London had two main motives: to bring the rapidly expanding metropolis, the capital city of the most advanced country in the world, into line with many European cities which already had universities; and to offer a university education in England to students who were unable to graduate from the two ancient universities, Oxford and Cambridge, because they could not subscribe as required to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.  The London University, proposed in 1825 and opened for classes in 1828,  would embrace dissenters, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists.  It would also expand the syllabus beyond the classical, mathematical, and theological subjects which dominated Oxbridge.  In its early years UCL, as it became known after King’s College was opened in the Strand in 1831 as a Church-and-King rival, advertised the first chairs in the country in many subjects, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew,  geography, geology, botany, and physiology. 

UCL’s founders were radicals and liberals, many of them associated with the agitation for political reform going on in Parliament and journalism in the 1820s.  Jeremy Bentham was an influence, and the prime mover, the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell, brought his experience of Scottish and German universities to the table.  George Birkbeck, begetter of Mechanics’ Institutes for the education of labouring men, Zachary Macaulay, James Mill, and Lord John Russell were among those who served on the first Council of UCL. Their undisputed leader, and Chair of Council until his death in 1868, was Henry Brougham, the most famous lawyer of his day and Lord Chancellor in the first Whig administration after the passing of the Reform Act in 1832.

Brougham and Birkbeck were also the prime movers behind another reforming educational venture, begun in 1826 at the same time as plans were being laid for the new university, namely the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, or SDUK.  The Society’s aim was to bring education to working people of little or no education, by publishing cheap treatises on all sorts of subjects, including up-to-date scientific topics like hydrostatics; it also published a very successful Penny Magazine and a Penny Cyclopaedia during its existence from 1826 to 1846.

The central figure in these projects, Brougham, brought the highest possible profile to the new academic institution because of his celebrity as one of Parliament’s best orators and as a stupendously successful lawyer (he had defended Queen Caroline in the famous House of Lords ‘trial’ of 1820, making fools of George IV and his supporters in the process). 

Press attention to the new University was welcome and much needed. Brougham’s influence, particularly with the Edinburgh Review, which he had helped to found in 1802, and The Times, whose editor Thomas Barnes was a friend, ensured that his doings were always in the news, often in articles penned by Brougham himself.  Thanks to him, the London University, though attacked in the ultra-conservative press, was given frequent favourable coverage in The Times.  On the other hand, Brougham acted as a magnet for negative responses too; these came from a range of anti-reform commentators, including members of the Tory government, the two ancient universities, and the bishops and clergy of the Church of England.   

Brougham was eminently caricaturable; his long upturned nose was a useful feature, as was the pronunciation of his name.  He often appeared in cartoons as a broom wearing a lawyer’s wig and gown, or as the new broom which would ‘sweep away’ injustices in the law, or as the ‘schoolmaster abroad’, carrying a birchbroom for chastising pupils.  ‘The schoolmaster is abroad’ became a well-known mantra, picked up from a famous speech by Brougham in the House of Commons in January 1828, in which he attacked the appointment of the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister.   This was not a time, he said, for the soldier to be prominent in modern society; ‘there was another person abroad…  The schoolmaster was abroad!  And he trusted more to him, armed with his primer, than he did to the soldier in full military array, for upholding and extending the liberties of his country’.[1]

Establishment commentators launched their attacks on a kind of composite entity.  It suited them to pretend that the University was intended for the working classes (who were in fact to be catered for by the SDUK) and that it would encourage those classes to ferment revolution in social, political, and religious matters.  Winthrop Mackworth Praed’s prophetic poem, ‘The London University.  A Discourse delivered by a College Tutor at a Supper-party’, published in the Morning Chronicle in July 1825, anticipates the tone of many others:

Ye dons and ye doctors, ye Provosts and Proctors,

Who are paid to monopolize knowledge,

Come make opposition by voice and petition

To the radical infidel College…

… let them not babble of Greek to the rabble,

Nor teach the mechanics their letters;

The labouring classes were born to be asses,

And not to be aping their betters.[2]

The University opened its doors in October 1828 against this background; it had no charter, little money – being in essence a joint-stock company in which interested patrons bought shares – and no residential arrangements for its students, whom Thomas Campbell in his long letter to The Times in February 1825 describing the plan for the new institution, had envisaged as being middle-class young London men living at home with their parents.  Professors were paid according to the number of students they attracted to their courses, which proved hazardous for some; they, too, had no college accommodation.  Many were recruited as clever young graduates of Oxford or Cambridge who had difficulties with the Articles (men such as the brilliant young Cambridge mathematician Augustus De Morgan) or teachers from the Scottish universities, particularly Edinburgh, from which a number of innovative medical men were appointed, only to carry on in London some of the debilitating quarrels in which they had already been embroiled in Edinburgh.

From the start there was disagreement on the Council about whether a clergyman might become a professor; if so, could that clergyman be an Anglican, or must he be a dissenter?  The liberal principles governing the foundation were interpreted in an illiberal way by some, who objected to clergymen of any colour, and others, chiefly the influential Unitarians among the shareholders, who wished to make UCL a dissenting academy in all but name.  False starts and resignations occurred in the early years on these and other grounds.[3]  Suspicion and sometimes antagonism from Oxford and Cambridge added to the difficulties faced by UCL, which struggled to find students at first.  By the 1840s, however, William Wilkins’s fine classical building on Gower Street, though denounced as the godless college by some, had established itself at the heart of fast-developing Bloomsbury.  The land on which it was built had been until then marshy and covered in rubbish tips and cesspools.  To the east of University College, Bloomsbury was being developed by the great speculative builder Thomas Cubitt, among others, and the streets and squares now appearing on the map naturally became both the habitat of UCL professors and their families and the location for new educational experiments and ventures.

2.  University Hall

Gordon Square, just to the east of UCL, was chosen for a new building, University Hall, in 1848.  Like many of the other streets and squares in the neighbourhood, Gordon Square  was developed during the first half of the 19th century on the Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate.  It was not started, though, until the 1820s, twenty years after James Burton had begun to develop Bedford lands with Russell Square  and its nearby streets.  In the 1820s Thomas Cubitt was building Gordon Square  and finishing nearby Tavistock Square  at the same time; Torrington and Woburn Squares were being developed simultaneously by James Sim.  All this was going on at a moment when the building trade was about to suffer a slump and when more fashionable housing was going up further west, near Regent’s Park, and in the neighbourhood of court and Parliament, in such areas as Belgrave Square (much of that being developed, ironically, by Cubitt himself).[4]

During the 1830s slump, no building went on in Bloomsbury.  John, the sixth Duke of Bedford, designed the gardens in the middle of Gordon Square at the end of the 1820s, and Cubitt built a few houses in the square in the 1840s, but by the early 1850s, the east and west sides were both unfinished, and the final houses on these sides were not finished until 1860, five years after Thomas Cubitt’s death.[5]  Given the difficulty of finding respectable families to occupy the houses, Gordon Square  ended up being less private and residential than most of the other squares on Bedford land.  Like his predecessors and successors, the sixth Duke did all that he could in the drawing up of contracts and leases to stop his Bloomsbury estate from becoming commercial, its houses, mews, stable yards, and alleyways from becoming multi-occupied or used for small trading.  In this he was largely successful, but he could not stop Gordon Square  from becoming partly institutionalised in the difficult 1840s.

(In 1868 William, the eighth Duke, objected to an academic resident of Gordon Square, Dr Adolf Heimann, Professor of German at UCL, opening in his large house on the south side (number 57; still there) an institution to be called ‘Gordon College’ for teaching German and accommodating students.  As Heimann’s friend William Michael Rossetti said, the Duke’s objection was that it would ‘deteriorate the property by bringing houses down from the private to the professional rank’.[6]  In the end Heimann opened his ‘Gordon College for Ladies’ to learn German in Queen Square  in a house not owned by the Duke of Bedford.[7])

Since private tenants did not come forward in enough numbers in the 1840s, sites on the west side of Gordon Square  were leased, perforce, to large building projects.  Hence the building in 1848-9, on the west side, of University Hall, now known as the Dr Williams’s Library.  Designed by UCL’s professor of architecture, Thomas Donaldson, the building was funded by a group of Unitarians who wanted UCL students to have a nearby hall of residence on the Oxbridge college model.  The Hall encountered several difficulties, many of which echoed those I have described as befalling UCL itself in its early years.

The question again arose: would University Hall be an entirely secular institution like UCL (where a compromise had been reached on the question of having reverend professors, but the trend was increasingly to appoint non-clergymen) or should there be a chaplain, in imitation of Oxbridge, and if so, of what denomination?  Much arguing and agonising on this point took place on the University Hall committee, as the voluminous diaries of one of its members, Henry Crabb Robinson, demonstrate.  (By a nice coincidence, Crabb Robinson’s manuscript diaries and correspondence are deposited in the Dr Williams’s Library, the very building which started life as University Hall.)  Crabb Robinson, an elderly lawyer and Unitarian, who lived in Russell Square, had been the friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, had known Blake, Hazlitt, and Lamb, and was a member of UCL Council as well as being a benefactor and founder member of the committee for University Hall. 

Some of the founders of University Hall wanted it to be a college in connection with UCL where Unitarian ministers and sons of Unitarians could receive a religious education;[8] some hoped for a merger in the new building in Gordon Square with the teachers and students of Manchester New College, the chief institution for training Unitarian ministers in the country; others thought of it more simply as a hall of residence to be open to students of all faiths and none.  In May 1848 it was resolved to hire land and put out a contract for the building; the Duke of Bedford would sell the fee ‘provided we obtain an Act of Parliament’, according to Crabb Robinson’s diary of 13 May.  The plan to bring Manchester New College to London was delayed several times, mainly because the Manchester professors feared losing their jobs or status, but was finally achieved in 1853, after the members of both University Hall and Manchester New College had come to see that their continued existence apart was endangered.  At that point the leading Unitarian minister in England, James Martineau, became professor at University Hall, at first dividing his time between London and Liverpool, where he had a large congregation, and later moving to Gordon Square for good.

The early years of the Hall, however, were dogged by bad luck.  The first Principal to be appointed, Francis Newman, professor of Latin at UCL and the brilliant younger brother of John Henry Newman, resigned before the building work was finished on the ostensible grounds that his wishes regarding the proposed accommodation for him and his wife had been ignored.  Crabb Robinson and others suspected that Mrs Newman was probably the cause of Newman’s withdrawal; she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and did not like the idea of keeping a lodging house for students.[9]  In any case, Newman’s own religious belief had changed over the years, as he documented in a series of confessional books, and by 1848 he was neither an Anglican nor a dissenter of any definite kind.  His resignation was accepted in November 1848, while building was still proceeding, and attention turned immediately to another brilliant candidate. 

This was Arthur Hugh Clough, the poet and Oxford don who felt he had to resign his Oxford fellowship over the issue of conscience and the Articles; in 1848 he came second in the competition to become Professor of English at UCL, and Crabb Robinson, impressed by him, supported his appointment in Newman’s stead to the University Hall post.  The committee met in December 1848, when opinion was divided; some were charmed and impressed by Clough, while others insisted on looking for a Unitarian to appoint.  By the end of January 1849 Clough had been uneasily appointed, and had uneasily accepted, answering the question whether he was willing to take Unitarian prayers every morning with the honest but not very satisfactory reply that he had left Oxford because of doubts about his religious belief, and hardly felt in a position to lead or advise young men about theirs.[10]  On taking up the position later in 1849, after the opening of the Hall, Clough wrote to his old Oxford friend Tom Arnold on 29 October, saying ‘Here I am’, breakfasting and dining with ‘my eleven undergraduates (that should be 30 and I hope will be some day)’, but expressing forebodings that ‘in the end I shall be kicked out for mine heresies’ sake’ by the ‘Sadducees’ (Unitarians) who ran the place.[11]  

Clough was not kicked out, but it was obvious his heart was not in it.  Someone else was appointed specifically to take prayers, which solved the problem of Clough’s doubtful religious position; but student numbers did not improve, as Clough made no effort in the matter; the Hall’s finances were in deficit by £500 in November 1850; by 1851 it was clear that Clough would soon be leaving by mutual consent.[12]  He was replaced by a much more suitable candidate for those Unitarians who really thought of University Hall as a residence for their co-religionists and who wanted Manchester New College to come south, so that the Hall could double as an institution for training Unitarian ministers – rather far, this, from the original principles of the mother institution, UCL.  The next appointment was Richard Holt Hutton, another brilliant scholar, this time a graduate of University College School and UCL itself, a Unitarian but not a clergyman and not – as his later career of literary and philosophical critic would demonstrate (he was one of the shrewdest critics of George Eliot’s novels, for example) – the ‘out-and-out’ Unitarian desired by some on the committee.  Unfortunately, Hutton lasted only a few months; he was forced to resign in June 1852 because of serious ill health which required him to go abroad.  Crabb Robinson, who had donated money to the venture, sat on its committees, and supported each of these young men in the face of opposition, now despaired at ‘another blow to this ill-fated institution, w[hi]ch cannot prosper except as a College for U[nitarian] ministers’.[13]   Later that year both University Hall and Manchester New College bowed to the inevitable and agreed to merge. 

The connection with UCL remained, but was from this time less troubled; University Hall continued to act as a hall of residence for UCL and its principals were drawn from the ranks of UCL professors, from William B. Carpenter, the biologist (1853-9) to Edward Spencer Beesly, the historian and socialist (1859-82), and Henry Morley, Professor of English and an enthusiast for allowing women to take degrees (1882-9).

3.  The Passmore Edwards Settlement

University Hall continued in its new double form until 1890, when Manchester New College removed to Oxford (where it still is, now called Harris Manchester College), at which point the trustees of Dr Williams’s famous library of nonconformist books bought the building.[14]  The Library immediately rented some of its rooms in the building, still called University Hall, to a new educational venture.  Its founder was John Passmore Edwards, born in Cornwall in 1823 to poor parents, who had taught himself from cheap books (including those published by Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge[15]) and risen to become a wealthy newspaper proprietor in London.  He was now putting some of his money into educational projects in London and Cornwall, chiefly by endowing public libraries.  In 1890 he established with Mary Ward a settlement for the education of local working people and the safe play of poor children in Bloomsbury.  The Passmore Edwards Settlement, as it was known, started in a couple of rooms in University Hall, then moved to a hall in nearby Marchmont Street, and from 1897 operated in a specially designed building on Tavistock Place, the building now known as Mary Ward House. 

Mary Ward – granddaughter of Dr Arnold of Rugby, niece of Matthew Arnold, and author of one of the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century, Robert Elsmere (1888) – used her considerable powers of persuasion to liaise between the eleventh Duke of Bedford and Passmore Edwards.[16]  She got the former to donate the land and the latter to put up the £14,000 it took to erect the building, which was designed in Arts and Crafts style, both functional and aesthetic, by two young Bloomsbury architects, A. Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, who were themselves residents at University Hall in Gordon Square.  The new Settlement building, with lodgings for residents  - mainly young lawyers and architects – who lived there free in return for lecturing and organising events in the evenings and at weekends, brought education to those who could not aspire to study at University College and who lived in the increasingly occupied smaller streets to the east of the elegant squares on the Bedford estate, the part of Bloomsbury reaching over to Gray’s Inn Road with its meaner streets and less particular requirements on its leases. 

The Passmore Edwards Settlement represented the beginnings of the play centre movement, with gymnastics, dance, and singing on the children’s curriculum.  Facilities for adults included free legal advice, classes in academic subjects, chess, art, and cookery, a library, and access to lectures in the Great Hall.  There was a coal club and a mother-and-toddler club.  In 1899 the Settlement opened the first school for disabled children in the country.  This forerunner of our modern day nursery schools and after-school clubs for children complemented the kindergarten movement begun by the German exile Johannes Ronge, established also in Tavistock Place in 1853.  The Settlement’s activities for adults supplemented the efforts of the Working Men’s and Women’s Colleges, established in 1854 and 1864 respectively, also in Bloomsbury. 

And so at the end of the nineteenth century Passmore Edwards and Mary Ward founded their educational settlement for the local poor just a short walk away from University College, which was by now well established, no longer the object of suspicion and satire, and still an innovator among English universities, having further led the way in widening opportunities by taking in women to study for degrees in 1878. 

For more information about the Bloomsbury Project, see 

[1] The Times, 30 January 1828.

[2] Morning Chronicle, 19 July 1825.

[3] See Negley Harte and John North, The World of UCL 1828-1990 (London, 1991), passim.

[4] See Donald J. Olsen, Town Planning in London: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (New Haven and London, 1964, reprinted 1982), p. 60ff.

[5] Ibid, p. 62ff.

[6] See The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. Antony H. Harrison, 4 vols. (Charlottesville and London, 1997-2004), I, 313-14.

[7] See Heimann’s advertisement in The Times, 15 October 1868.

[8] Henry Crabb Robinson diary, 9 July 1846, MS Dr Williams’s Library.

[9] Henry Crabb Robinson to his brother Tom, 11 November 1848, ibid; Walter Bagehot to T.W Bagehot, December 1848, Collected Works, ed. Norman St John-Stevas, 15 vols (London, 1965-86), XII, 289.  See also Rosemary Ashton, 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London (London, 2006), p. 30ff.

[10] Henry Crabb Robinson diary, 11 December 1848, 1 January 1849, and Crabb Robinson to Tom Robinson, 27 January 1849, MSS Dr Williams’s Library.

[11] Arthur Hugh Clough to Tom Arnold, 29 October 1849, Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough, ed.  Frederick  L. Mulhauser, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1957) , I, 273-4.

[12] Crabb Robinson diary, 10 October and 14 November 1850, MS Dr Williams’s Library.

[13] Crabb Robinson to Tom Robinson, 21 June 1852, ibid.

[14] See Survey of London, XXI.

[15]   See John Passmore Edwards, A Few Footprints, second edition (London, 1906), pp. 6-7.

[16] For Mary Ward, see John Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian (Oxford, 1990).