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.

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
Jonny Matfin is a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, working on the history of the college, ahead of its 200th anniversary in 2023. His research, funded by Birkbeck as part of its bicentenary, is a focused, microhistorical analysis of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology (HCA) itself, from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. This doctoral project aims to freshly examine macro-level shifts to UK universities in the period – punctuated by major reports on higher education in 1963 and 2003 – through a close analysis of everyday departmental teaching and research practices in one section of one institution – HCA at Birkbeck. As such, it is particularly concerned with the development of part-time and mature higher education during this time. The work, set for completion in summer 2022, is based on archival materials held both at the college in Malet Street, Bloomsbury, and a storage facility in Ely, Cambridgeshire – together with oral history interviews.
Ciarán O’Donohue is also a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, His research, funded by Birkbeck as part of its bicentennial celebrations, focuses on the college’s development from the London Mechanics’ Institution as it was found in 1850, to its hard won accession to the University of London as Birkbeck College in 1920. It examines the changes that made this possible in the educational landscape of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, not by merely adopting a top-down approach but assessing the reactions and negotiations of the real people who made up “the institution”: from students to staff. In doing so, it seeks to forefront the importance of individual agency in affecting large scale change, and creating the world we all inhabit. Scheduled for completion in 2023, the year of the bicentenary, it utilises the extensive institutional archive held at Malet Street, as well as a wealth of cultural documents including student magazines, memoirs, and newspaper reports.
Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is the Director of a Wellcome Trust-funded project entitled “SHaME” (Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters). In September 2022, her history of Birkbeck for the college’ bicentenary will be published by Oxford University Press. It is entitled Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People.

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