The royal charter

Colin Penman, Head of Records, unravels the story behind the ‘cockney university’ and UCL’s rarely seen



Although the University of London (as UCL was first known) was founded in 1826, it took 10 years for it to be awarded the Royal Charter. It was a new kind of progressive foundation that ruffled a few feathers and met with considerable resistance along the way. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, it was explicitly not teaching theology and had no direct connection with the Church of England. The university’s founders included several non-conformist Christians, Jews and even atheists (although the latter kept that a secret) and it accepted students regardless of their faith. Unlike at other universities, the students did not live on campus but at home or in local lodgings.

To create a more affordable and accessible academic option, albeit for the wealthier sons of the middle classes, the university was set up as a joint stock company, in which individuals bought shares. This was revolutionary at the time and met with sneers of derision from the press who branded it ‘the cockney university’; they thought that education should be above the grubby business of money. There was even a cartoon of one founder, Lord Brougham, as a street seller hawking degrees. With opposition from the church, Oxbridge and the medical schools, it took a change of government for the university to finally receive its charter.

The elegant calligraphic script on parchment details the recognition of the institution as University College London, its purpose and how it would be governed by a council with shareholders as proprietors. We don’t know who was behind the penmanship, and the decorative borders do not have any specific relevance to the university. Of equal interest is the ingeniously shaped box, designed to protect the rolled-up scroll
and its royal wax seal, which was attached by a ribbon. The Charter was probably kept in the council room or the secretary’s office to be occasionally referred to but was superseded by an Act of Parliament in 1850. This fragile document, now held within the University’s Special Collections is a reminder of UCL’s fundamental progressive principles, which still hold true today.

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Portico Issue 6. 2019/20