In 1823 in London, in a room above the Crown and Anchor Tavern, a physician named George Birkbeck founded the London Mechanics Institute, an institution dedicated to the education of working people. Eventually rebranded Birkbeck College and incorporated into the University of London, it became an intellectual refuge for multiple generations of nontraditional students from wildly diverse backgrounds, from Ramsey McDonald to Sidney Webb, from Tracey Emin to Marcus Garvey. All were drawn by the college’s commitment to meeting their passion for learning by providing what was called “useful knowledge”.

London Mechanics’ Institute, Southampton Buildings, Holborn: the interior of the laboratory, in a cellar. Wood engraving by W. C. Walker after Mr. Davy [1828]. Wellcome Collection.
But what is useful knowledge? Useful for whom, and for what purposes? Those questions – about the politics of adult education – lie at the heart of a conference to be held online on the 23rd and 24th of February titled Useful Knowledge. In this episode of the History Workshop podcast, Marybeth Hamilton is joined in conversation by the conference’s organisers Jonny Matfin and Ciarán O’Donohue and by Joanna Bourke, whose bicentennial history of Birkbeck will be published in September 2022.

Produced by Marybeth Hamilton
Birkbeck College’s 200th anniversary conference, Useful Knowledge, to be held online February 23rd – 24th, explores the history of the college and the past, present and future of part-time/mature higher education more broadly. Speakers include Sir Richard J. Evans, Sally Alexander, Jerry White and Marai Larasi. For registration and more information, please click on the links below:
24 February: day conference

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