Liverpool: The university

A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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'Liverpool: The university', in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911) pp. 53-54. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]


The first attempt to establish in Liverpool an institution for higher education was the foundation of the Royal Institution, opened in 1817; it maintained collections of scientific objects and paintings, it also organized series of lectures in its early years. (fn. 1) But, though highly valuable as a nucleus for the meetings of various learned societies, it never developed, as its founders had hoped, into a great teaching institution. In 1857 an attempt was made to develop, in connexion with the Mechanics' Institute (now the Liverpool Institute), a system of courses of instruction in preparation for London degrees. (fn. 2) This organization was called Queen's College; but, based upon the fundamentally false idea that instruction of this type could be made to pay its own expenses, it never attained any success, and being merely a drain upon the resources of the flourishing schools to which it was attached, it was finally suppressed in 1879.

Meanwhile, in 1834, the physicians and surgeons of the Royal Infirmary had organized a Medical School, which attained considerable success, though quite unendowed. This school was to be the real nucleus of the university. It was from the teachers in this school—all leading medical men in the city, among whom should be especially named the late Sir W. M. Banks and Dr. R. Caton—that the main demand came for the foundation of a college, during the seventies, when such institutions were springing up in most large English towns. (fn. 3) They received warm support from a few of the most enlightened citizens, especially from the Rev. Charles Beard, whose influence in the early history of the university can scarcely be overvalued; and the proposal to found a university college was formally initiated at a town's meeting in 1878. But the merchants of the city were found to be hard to convert to any interest in the scheme. It took a year to collect £10,000; and it was not until Mr. William Rathbone, (fn. 4) relieved from Parliamentary duties by a defeat at the election of 1880, took up the cause that money came in freely. In a few months, mainly by his personal efforts, £80,000 were collected. In October 1881 a charter of incorporation was obtained, based on the lines laid down in London, Manchester, and elsewhere; in January 1882 the institution, under the name of University College, Liverpool, commenced its work in a disused lunatic asylum on a site beside the Royal Infirmary and the Medical School, provided by the corporation. At the outset there were six chairs and two lectureships.

The next stage in the history of the university was marked by its admission in 1884 as a member of the federal Victoria University, in association with Owens College, Manchester, and (after 1887) Yorkshire College, Leeds. In order to obtain this admission an additional endowment of £30,000 was raised by public subscription, out of which two new chairs were founded; while the old Medical School was formally incorporated with the college as its medical faculty. The association with the Victoria University lasted for nineteen years, and was in many ways advantageous. The progress of the college in equipment and teaching strength during this period was both rapid and steady. A series of admirably equipped buildings was erected; a spacious chemical laboratory (opened 1886, enlarged 1896); a large engineering laboratory (the gift of Sir A. B. Walker, 1889); the main Victoria building, including a fine library presented by Sir Henry Tate, and the clock tower erected from the civic subscription to commemorate the jubilee of 1887 (opened 1892); magnificent laboratories of physiology and pathology, given by Rev. S. A. Thompson Yates (opened 1895); and a handsome botanical laboratory given by Mr. W. P. Hartley (1902). During the same period eight additional chairs were endowed, and many lectureships and scholarships were founded. Throughout the early history of the college it had rested mainly on the support of a comparatively small group of friends; among those whose munificence rendered possible the rapid development of the college, special mention should be made, in addition to those already named, of the fifteenth and sixteenth Earls of Derby, successive presidents of the college, both of whom founded chairs; of Mr. George Holt, most princely of the early benefactors; of Sir John Brunner, Mr. Holbrook Gaskell, and Mr. Thomas Harrison, all of whom founded chairs; and of Mr. E. K. Muspratt, Mr. John Rankin, Mr. J. W. Alsop, Mr. A. F. Warr, Mr. C. W. Jones, Sir Edward Lawrence, and others. But the chief feature of the later part of this period was the gradual acquisition of the confidence and respect of the city at large. This came slowly; but it was due especially to the demonstration of the utility of the institution which was afforded by the creation of a remarkable series of special schools, due in large measure to the vigour and inventiveness of the teaching body, among whom may be especially named Professor (now Sir Rubert) Boyce and Professor J. M. Mackay. A training college for teachers, a school of architecture and the applied arts, the first of its kind in England, a school of commerce, a school of law, a school of public health, and, most remarkable of all, the now world-famous school of tropical medicine, were successively organized. These organizations brought the college into intimate contact with the most important intellectual professions of the city, demonstrated to the community the direct value of higher studies, and earned the growing support both of the public and of the city council, which cooperated in the organization of most of them. They also gave to the college a distinctive character of its own, and rendered its continued association with other colleges, developing along different lines, more and more inappropriate.

The establishment of an independent university in Birmingham sharpened this feeling, and in 1901 a movement began for the securing of a separate university charter. This demand, which involved the dissolution of the Victoria University, met with keen opposition. But it also aroused a quite remarkable and unexpected popular interest in the city. An endowment fund of £180,000 was raised in a few months; the city council unanimously supported the application, and later voted an annual grant of £10,000; and in 1903, after a searching inquiry by the Privy Council, a royal charter was granted establishing the University of Liverpool. It began its career distinguished among British universities by the intimate relations in which it stands to the city which is its seat, an intimacy which time increasingly accentuates.

Since the grant of the charter, the growth of the university has been remarkable; despite the large subscription of 1903, each year since that date has brought gifts of the average value of £30,000. A series of new buildings, including the George Holt Physical Laboratory, the William Johnston Laboratory of Medical Research, a new medical school building, laboratories of zoology and electrical engineering, and the first British laboratory of physical chemistry, built by Mr. E. K. Muspratt, have been erected. Thirteen new chairs have been endowed, besides numerous lectureships, fellowships, and scholarships. The number of students has grown rapidly, from 581 in 1901 to 1,007 in 1907. But perhaps the most striking feature of these years has been that while the more utilitarian studies, to which some hostile critics expected the whole strength of the new university to be devoted, have by no means been starved, the greatest developments have been in the field of advanced research in pure arts and science. Several chairs exist exclusively for the encouragement of research. Perhaps the most astonishing result of the establishment of the university has been the institution, in a trading town, of the most powerfully-organized school of archaeology in Britain, a school which possesses three endowed chairs, has got together admirable teaching collections, and has organized expeditions for the excavation of sites in Egypt, Central America, and Asia Minor.

The university is governed by the king as visitor, by a chancellor, two pro-chancellors, a vice-chancellor and a treasurer, by a court of over 300 members representing donors and public bodies, a council of 32 members, a senate of 42 members, a convocation of graduates, and five faculties. Its capital amounted in 1907 to £735,000, (fn. 5) entirely provided by private gifts, and its annual income to £61,000, derived in part from interest in endowments (£17,000), in part from government grants (over £12,000), in part from municipal grants (over £14,000, of which the largest item is £11,750 per annum from the Corporation of Liverpool), and in part from students' fees (£15,000). The university is divided into five Faculties—Arts, Science, Medicine, Law, and Engineering. Of these the Faculty of Arts is the largest, both in the number of students and in the number of its endowed chairs; the University of Liverpool having been from its initiation distinguished among modern English universities by the prominence which it has given to arts studies. All the principal hospitals of the city are connected for clinical purposes with the Faculty of Medicine, while St. Aidan's College, Birkenhead, Edge Hill Training College, and the Liverpool Training College are affiliated to it.


  • 1. Life of W. Roscoe, ii, 151 ff.; Rep. of the R.I.
  • 2. Rep. of the Liverpool Institute and of Queen's College.
  • 3. J. Campbell Brown, First Chap. in the Hist. of Univ. Coll.; R. Caton, article on The Making of the Univ. (1907); Univ. Coll. and the Univ. of Liv.: a Retrospect (1907).
  • 4. E. Rathbone, Life of W. Rathbone.
  • 5. R. Muir, The Univ. of Liv.: its present state, 1907.