Just a list of the old fellas who founded your uni, and whether they were a wrong’un
One uni was the subject of a pistol duel, while another was founded with money from Smirnoff vodka
With their gleaming towers and foreboding concrete libraries, the universities of this country can feel like they were always there. But, as it goes, people haven’t been studying management accounting at Birmingham since the time of Henry VIII.
Just like any bored Hollywood executive, we can’t resist an origins story. How did your uni come to be? Who founded it?
The answers are more complicated than you might think. Some unis have a bit of a complicated history, with trials and tribulations to get them set up. Others have been around so long that nobody knows exactly when they were established.
In most cases, it was wealthy men who set them up – but not in all cases. This is who founded every Russell Group uni, and whether they were a wrong’un or not.
University of Birmingham
Any Birmingham student can talk for days about Old Joe, the magnificent clocktower in the middle of campus. It’s named for Joseph Chamberlain – but contrary to the assumptions of most, he didn’t found the university.
Industrialist Josiah Mason is credited as founding the uni in 1870. Among other things, he made key rings, pens and nibs. Fitting, for what is essentially the Ryman of Russell Group universities.
University of Bristol
Bristol as a city has been reckoning with its colonial past recently, renaming concert halls and pulling down statues. Its main university is no different. A recent study found 85 per cent of the money used to found the uni had come from slave labour/had depended on slave labour.
The Wills, Fry and Colston families gave it the money to apply for a royal charter in 1876. You might remember Edward Colston as the one whose statue was pulled down.
Meanwhile, Henry Overton Wills III was the uni’s first chancellor. The Wills family made a fortune in the tobacco trade, which used slave labour. The uni’s iconic Wills Memorial Building is still named for him.
University of Cambridge
Cambridge was originally a splinter university. After three Oxford scholars were hanged, they started – understandably – going elsewhere. One of those cities was Cambridge, where a university was founded in 1209, given royal charter in 1231.
Nobody knows who those scholars are, but people do know who founded the colleges. Peterhouse, the uni’s first college, was founded in 1284 by Hugh de Balsham, the Bishop of Ely.
By all accounts, he was a bishop committed to sorting out his diocese.
Lord Aberdare was the first president of the university, and it was his report which laid the foundations for the founding of the uni.
A politician during the years of Gladstone, Aberdare clashed with miners while an MP, and lost his seat 14 years after being first elected. But, on his return to politics, he was made Home Secretary.
Lord Aberdare, to his discredit, notably reduced the hours alcohol could be sold at pubs. But after founding the uni, he became concerned with the welfare of prisoners. A mixed bag.
Durham started life as an Oxford college, founded by Thomas Hatfield, the bishop of Durham. However, it was much later, in 1832, that a university was founded in Durham to challenge the Oxbridge duopoly. Archdeacon Charles Thorp passed an act to let Durham establish a uni.
Thorp was a church man and anti-slavery campaigner. He set up a “penny bank”, enabling low income people to borrow cheaply, as well as a university in Sierra Leone for freed slaves.
University of Edinburgh
Think merky, and you probably don’t think of Edinburgh Uni. But it was founded with merks – 8,000 of them, to be precise. That was the currency during the time of bishop Robert Reid, who left money for a university to be set up. However, it was only decades later, in 1582, that the town council managed to persuade the king to grant a royal charter for the university.
Robert Reid was around during Mary Queen of Scots’ time, and served in her in court. Trusted as a political operator, he negotiated for peace with England.
He also wasn’t one to miss a party. While on his way to the Queen’s wedding in France, his ship crashed. Reid survived, and made it to the wedding.
University of Exeter
Fittingly for a uni that’ll churn out mergers and acquisitions drones, Exeter doesn’t necessarily have a founder as it’s the result of a merger.
In 1922, WH Reed donated a hall to the uni. Hector Hetherington was its first principal, however, a man who had his fair share of unis, including Liverpool and Glasgow
University of Glasgow
In 1451, a whole 570 years ago, the Pope gave permission to a man called William Turnbull.
Turnbull was a St Andrews grad. There’s nothing they can’t do. He was a bishop and a friend of King James II, who founded the university to give young men in Scotland the chance to study for the clergy.
Imperial College London
Thomas Huxley formed the Normal School of Science in 1881, which became the biggest part of Imperial when it was incorporated in 1907. It merged with the Royal College of Mines, which was set up under the patronage of Prince Albert.
Huxley was known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, and was bang into evolution. Prince Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband. You know him.
King’s College London
Was your uni the subject of a duel? Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, fought a duel with the Earl of Winchilsea, for the independence of King’s College London.
The person who first came up with the idea for King’s College London, in 1828, was George D’Oyly. But it was Wellesley who threw himself behind the project and chaired the project to establish the uni.
Prime Minister for two periods – one of nearly three years, and another of less than a month – from 1828 to 1834, Wellesley was a Tory, although they didn’t have Labour back then. As a soldier, he was credited with winning the Napoleonic wars, leading the army which defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Without him, we’d have one less ABBA song.
University of Leeds
There’s a bit of a tangled history to Leeds. In 1887, Yorkshire College became part of Victoria University, which spanned across Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds. Known as Yorkshire College of Science, an 1874 article published in the Nature journal credited Lord FC Cavendish, an MP, with chairing the college’s creation.
Cavendish was a protege of William Gladstone’s, but was assassinated in Dublin in 1882, on his first day as Chief Secretary for Ireland. A group called the Irish National Invincibles stabbed him, along with a civil servant named Thomas Burke – the true target of the attack.
University of Liverpool
The university began its days as a college, University College Liverpool , in 1881. Its Principal at that time was Gerald Henry Rendall, a scholar who believed that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Known as the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, it’s a debate which would have been easily settled had the bard used TurnitIn.
London School of Economics and Political Science
The LSE was founded by socialist power couple Beatrice and Sidney Webb in 1895. Contemporaries of Bertrand Russell and Clement Attlee, the Webbs also founded the New Statesman magazine and were some of the intellectual drivers of the British left from the turn of the 20th century.
University of Manchester
Starting its days as Owens College, the university was founded with money left by John Owens, whose family was one of the most important in the cotton industry.
Owens thought education shouldn’t depend on being a certain religion. Seems sound.
University of Nottingham
A man called Thomas Greenhow proposed the idea for the uni in 1831. He was a surgeon and epidemiologist. On one hand, Greenhow researched how to end the cholera pandemic sweeping London. On the other, he published a detailed account of his sister-in-law’s gynaecological status.
University of Oxford
Legend has it Alfred the Great started the whole thing when he had a days-long debate with some monks. In reality, nobody knows how founded the uni, or when – just that there was teaching there as early as 1096.
Queen Mary University of London
Queen Mary is the Russell Group uni everyone forgets. Perhaps a simplified origins story might help the institution seize the zeitgeist.
One element of the soup that made Queen Mary was Westfield College. It was founded in 1882 with the purpose to provide higher education for women by Constance Louisa Maynard. Unsurprisingly, she’s most known for championing of women’s education.
Another part, London Hospital Medical College, was founded in 1785 by a group including Sir William Blizard. Apart from having a cool name, he was into charity, but made his name as a doctor who introduced “walking the wards” – now a core part of any medical student’s education.
Queen’s University Belfast
QUB grew out of the Belfasst Academical Institution, founded in 1810. Its founder was a man called William Drennan, who addressed the public as “fellow slaves” when speaking, and campaigned for democratic reform.
University of Sheffield
Like many others, Sheffield is the result of a merger. Its oldest predecessor is the Sheffield School of Medicine, which opened in the 1810s. A man named Hall Overend was the first to start teaching here. He seemed like a chill guy, devoted to teaching students about medicine.
University of Southampton
The University of Southampton was first started with money from Henry Robinson Hartley. He’s described as an “eccentric straggler”, whose family made their money through the wine trade. As an “eccentric straggler”, he didn’t want a university to provide fuel for the ongoing industrial revolution, but rather as a means for the youths to get cultured.
Nowadays, students stand in front of the Hartley Library to take their dissertation pics before going off to dance to house at Switch and get rejected by KPMG grad schemes.
University College London
Myth: UCL was founded by Jeremy Bentham. While his body is still knocking about the place, he was the mere inspiration. Although he gave his backing to the idea in the 1820s, he didn’t do much to get the idea off the ground.
Instead, UCL in fact has other founders, depicted in a famous painting: Henry Brougham, Thomas Campbell, and Henry Crabb Robinson. James Mill was also instrumental in getting the university founded.
Brougham was a politician who played a big part in getting the abolition of slavery through parliament. Campbell, commemorated with a statue in Glasgow’s George Square, was a poet.
Robinson, first a war correspondent for The Times, later became a renowned lawyer. James Mill, not to be confused with his son John Stuart, was a philosopher and economist. His work on India was called the “single most important source of British Indophobia” by one historian.
University of Warwick
Let’s go for the romantic version of history here. The money to found Warwick Uni came from the family of a local businessman called John Martin. And how did he make his money? Smirnoff vodka.
How did Warwick stray so far from its fun roots?
University of York
JB Morrell, a director of Rowntree’s, who was well into York and its history, gave the university its buildings. The JB Morrell library is named after him, but he died months before the uni opened its doors to students.