University College

Pages 87-90

Survey of London: Volume 21, the Parish of St Pancras Part 3: Tottenham Court Road and Neighbourhood. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1949.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.



The principal part of the present site of University College (known as the University of London until 1836) was a piece of land belonging to the Mortimer estate. (fn. 81) It was sold by public auction in November, 1824, for £22,050 to Bevan, a banker of Lombard Street and it was at one time intended to erect on it a square called Carmarthen Square. It was, however, purchased from Bevan in November, 1825, by John Smith, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid and Benjamin Shaw for £30,000 and transferred by them to the London University on 17th November of that year.

The idea of a Metropolitan University, free of any religious test, was conceived by Thomas Campbell (1777–1844), the poet, in conversation with certain German professors whom he met in Bonn, 1820. Campbell subsequently propounded the idea in The New Monthly Magazine which he founded, and in 1824 it was much canvassed in dissenting and free-thinking circles in London. Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778–1859), the Jewish financier, introduced Campbell to Henry Brougham (1778–1868), later Baron Brougham and Vaux, and his friends, and Brougham, James Mill and others became prominent figures in the scheme. Jeremy Bentham is traditionally supposed to have participated, but his influence came rather through his disciple, Mill. A Council was formally appointed on 11th February, 1826, and a Deed of Settlement of the University of London executed in the same year. Plans for the new building had been advertised for in 1825 and those of William Wilkins, M.A., R.A. (1778–1839) were selected. C. R. Cockerell was among the unsuccessful competitors. (fn. 82) The contract was put out to tender and the lowest tender, that of Messrs. Lee for £107,000 (exclusive of stone ornaments to the value of £3,000), accepted. The foundation stone was laid, with much ceremony, on 30th April, 1826–27, and the college was opened in October, 1828. In the spring of 1829, the last work was done on the dome and portico; the interior was not completed till 1838.

Although Wilkins was the author of the accepted design he executed the work in partnership with J. P. Gandy-Deering (fn. 83) (1787–1850). The accepted design (Plate 33), published in 1826, shows buildings surrounding three sides of a quadrangle, the fourth side (towards Gower Street) having colonnades or "ambulatories" meeting at a "propylaeum." Only the main (east) block was completed in the first instance and in this an important departure from the "accepted" design was made. Wilkins' plan shows the portico as the frontispiece of a great hall, projecting into the quadrangle. In execution this was omitted, the portico giving access merely to the octagonal space under the dome. The great hall was relegated to the central wing at the rear, originally proposed as a council suite, but it was never completed, and was used for various purposes till it became the general library. Apart from this sacrifice of one of the main features of the plan, the executed work conforms with the main lines of the "accepted" plan.

When the University opened, in 1828, it was divided into a medical department and the general department, comprising arts, laws and science. Professor Hale Bellot (fn. 84) gives a diagram showing how the different rooms were allocated among the various schools at that time and subsequently up to the year 1876. A separate building in the north court was devoted to anatomy and this was extended in 1838. In 1845, on the formation of a Chair of Practical Chemistry, the Birkbeck Laboratory was built immediately to the south of this extension. It was remarkable for the design of the students' benches and for its cast-iron roof trusses.

It should be noted here that in 1836 the college surrendered its title of University of London to a new body, which was empowered to hold examinations and grant degrees, and took the title it still holds of University College. Its function was to teach and prepare students who desired to work for a London University degree. The functions of the University were further extended by the London University Act of 1898, under which University College appoints two members to the Senate of the University.

The first substantial alterations to Wilkins' main building were those undertaken consequent upon a fire in 1836 when the unfinished great hall, then being used by University College School (founded by independent proprietors in 1830) was burnt down. Some work was done on the shell forthwith, but it was not till 1848 that Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795–1885) was commissioned to rebuild it with a library on the main floor and mathematics and physiology class-rooms below. (fn. 85) At the same time Donaldson built the present main staircase and remodelled the space under the dome as a sculpture gallery, (fn. 86) for the reception of a collection of works by John Flaxman (1755–1826), presented to the college by the artist's sister-in-law and adopted daughter, Maria Denman. (fn. n1) Crabb Robinson declared himself to have been the means of this legacy being bequeathed. The gallery was opened in 1851.

Up to 1869, the University buildings consisted only of the east block with the portico and library and the two semicircular theatres, together with the few separate buildings at the rear. In that year, however, the first section of the south wing was opened, to be followed by further sections in 1873 and 1876, while the north wing was begun in 1870 (consequent on the Slade bequest) and completed in 1880–81. (fn. 87) Both these wings were designed by T. Hayter Lewis who had succeeded Donaldson in the Chair of Architecture in 1865. Lewis wholly revised Wilkins's scheme, which had introduced petty versions of the main dome in the central pavilions of the wings and, instead, substituted the present semicircular projections with Corinthian columns.

A new Physical Laboratory was built in the quadrangle south of the library in 1892 and in the following year the south wing was extended at right angles to the existing building, southwards along the Gower Street frontage. This, devoted to new Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Laboratories, was designed by T. Roger Smith who held the Chair of Architecture from 1865 to 1903. In 1892 the roadway between the College and University College Hospital was sold to the Vestry of St. Pancras and became a public highway.

The remainder of the College buildings belong to the present century and include the north-west wing (1911) and the new Chemical Laboratories in Gower Place (1912), both the work of Professor F. M. Simpson. The Anatomy building, in the south-west wing (opened 1923), and the Ramsay Laboratory (opened 1924), were designed by Professor A. E. Richardson, who also converted All Saints Church, Gordon Street (see p. 101) into a Great Hall.

In this present year (1947) a considerable part of the buildings of University College is in a ruinous state owing to the fire started by incendiary bombs on the night of 15th October, 1940. Part of the dome was burnt and the Flaxman Gallery badly damaged by water. The first floor (Science Library) northwards from the dome was gutted and also the two theatres projecting from the main block. The great hall and the mathematics block were destroyed by a high-explosive bomb on 18th September, 1940.

The original part of the College, forming the eastern side of the quadrangle, is a two-storey building. In the centre at first-floor level is the Flaxman Gallery, octagonal on plan, and rising into a dome. This inner dome, however, is constructed within a brick cone which supports the stone lantern and round which the timbering of the outer, lead, dome was built. Since the removal (1944) of the damaged outer dome the brick cone—a miniature imitation of the device which Wren used at St. Paul's—has been visible.

The Flaxman Gallery has columns of the Ionic order in the angles of the octagon and between them the Flaxman models are let into the walls. In the centre of the gallery is a circular railed opening admitting light to the ground storey (Plate 35).

Eastwards from the Flaxman Gallery, and at a higher level, extends the general library, a brick structure with a coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling and book-stacks forming a series of bays on either side of the central gangway (Plate 37).

To north and south of the Flaxman Gallery extend the two wings which comprise most of the original class-rooms. At ground-floor level these contain the "Cloisters," which originally opened towards the north. They were glazed in 1865. Each is supported by a range of Greek Doric columns. None of the class-rooms is, or was, of architectural distinction, but in two of the class-rooms on the south are cast-iron columns with interesting capitals, presumably designed by either Wilkins or Gandy-Deering.

The main front of this building consists of the portico and steps with, on either side, eleven bays separated by antae at first-floor level, supporting a full entablature which forms a roof parapet, without a blocking course being introduced. There is a full entablature also at first-floor level with carved wreaths in the frieze. The ground storey has simple horizontal rustication. All the doors and windows have classical dressings.

The portico rises at first-floor level from a podium comprising two flights of steps which lead to a central flight at a half-landing. The portico itself is prostyle octastyle and appears to follow Vitruvius in the matter of proportion rather than any Greek model; the details are, however, characteristically Greek throughout. Above and behind the portico is seen the octagonal stone drum on which rests the dome (Plate 36).

The two semicircular theatres, projecting at the north-east and southeast angles of the building, have been destroyed. The south (Botanical) theatre retained its original appearance till its destruction and had a proscenium of classical character with an anta order. The Provost's Room (also destroyed) at the south-east corner of the building had a good marble fireplace with carving in low-relief.

The blocks to north and south of the quadrangle repeat the design of the centre block, except where they break into pavilions having semicircular projections (entrance halls); these carry detached Corinthian columns ranging with the anta order continued from the east block.

All the buildings looking on to the quadrangle are faced with Portland stone. The portico is of the same material, though the coffered ceiling appears to be finished in stucco. At the rear, the buildings are brick-faced with stone (or, in the case of the Library, stucco) dressings.


  • n1. Ely, Catalogue of Works of Art in the Flaxman Gallery, etc., 1900. Some of these sculptures, which are first casts in plaster from the clay originals, were damaged by enemy action in 1941. Most of them were photographed at that time by the National Buildings Record.
  • 80. University College, London, 1826–1926.
  • 81. Survey of London, St. Pancras, Part II, p. 18, and this volume, p. 76.
  • 82. Victoria and Albert Museum (Phené Spiers Collection).
  • 83. J. Elmes, Metropolitan Improvements, 1827, p. 125.
  • 84. Op. cit, pp. 172–3.
  • 85. Tenders in Builder, 1848, p. 287.
  • 86. Ibid., p. 599.
  • 87. Engraved and described in Builder, 15th and 22nd January, 1881, pp. 81 and 90–92.