Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People by Joanna Bourke - review by Gordon Marsden

Gordon Marsden

Where It’s Always School Night

Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People


Oxford University Press 656pp £35

Joanna Bourke has spent three decades at Birkbeck in London as an academic and professor of history. Yet in her intensely detailed history of the college, published on its 200th birthday, she doesn’t leave out the blemishes.

Birkbeck started life as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI) in 1823, just four years after the Peterloo massacre. The impetus for its establishment was not unique. Manchester University, which will celebrate its bicentenary next year, can trace its origins to the founding of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute in 1824. The common motivation was to provide access to learning to Nonconformists and the working classes, to break the Church of England’s monopoly of higher education and to widen the number of practical and scientific courses available.

The LMI, which was created in Westminster’s Crown and Anchor tavern, long associated with radical causes, courted controversy from the outset. Its five founders – Joseph Robertson (a patent agent and editor), Thomas Hodgskin (a navy man turned radical economist), Francis Place (a social agitator and atheist), Henry

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