Polytechnic Institutions of London

Some historical background:

Royal Polytechnic Institution (Incorporated 1838)The genesis of the Polytechnic movement was the foundation in 1838 of the Polytechnic Institution located at 309 Regent Street and 5 Cavendish Square – figure opposite. The driving force in its creation was George Cayley (1773-1857) who was a noted inventor accredited with the foundations of aerodynamics and aerial navigation. The Polytechnic opened on 6th August 1838 with exhibitions and demonstrations of printing, optical equipment, power looms etc reflecting the intended practical applications focus of the institution. The building included laboratories and lecture rooms. It received a Royal Charter in 1839 and became known as the Royal Polytechnic Institution. The Polytechnic offered a non-classical, non-university education organised around popular public lectures and research into the rapidly developing technologies of the time. It is important to remember that there was still a great deal of resistance and prejudice among the then traditional universities e.g. Cambridge and Oxford to science and technology. An example of this ridiculous attitude was the vice-chancellor of Cambridge who commented on hearing that Joseph Priestley (discoverer of oxygen) had been appointed as professor of chemistry at Warrington Academy (see biographies on this website) ‘chemistry is not a suitable subject for universities’. The Royal Polytechnic existed for over forty years and was among the few institutions to pioneer technical education.

The Polytechnic Institutions

In 1881 Quintin Hogg (see biography on this website) purchased the buildings occupied by the Royal Polytechnic to develop further his educational work for the “poorer classes”. The new institution became known as the Regent Street Polytechnic and was opened in 1882 and so the Polytechnic movement was born with the Regent Street Polytechnic providing an exemplary model to tackle the problems associated with the education of young people in London. It must be remembered the parlous state of education provision for young people at this time.  The London Polytechnic movement was created at the end of the 19th century to address and tackle some of those deficiencies in the educational and training opportunities for young people who had left school and were working during the day. In 1880 London had three quarters of a million young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty five but less than 2% of that male population and an infinitesimal percentage of those females attended any form of educational institution. The polytechnic movement was remarkable and possibly unique at this time in its intention to combine instruction, social interaction and recreation for its students. They were not to be a place of amusement with a few educational classes added; nor were they educational institutions that provided limited opportunities for recreation. The interplay of these three elements was devised intentionally to address the specific needs of this age group living in deprived areas of London. The moral purpose of these institutions was to steer young people away from crime, alcohol and prostitution. The polytechnic movement owed much to the earlier Mechanics’ Institutions e.g. Birkbeck College represented a direct link with the Mechanics’ Institution movement.

It is to Quintin Hogg and his commitment and pioneering work for the education of working young people and his philanthropy that the London Polytechnic movement was established. It was largely the success of his work that created the foundations for the other London Polytechnics.  But no one individual, however generous, could fund the development of other institutions across the city.

What gave the subsequent Polytechnic movement added impetus to expand and extend over London was the City Parochial Charities Act of 1883. The Act provided for the application of any surpluses to be spent on the following priority areas to improve the physical, social and moral condition of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis and specific objectives were:

  • To promote the Education of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis by means of technical, secondary or art education, or evening lectures
  • To establish and maintain libraries, museums or art collections
  • To promote and extend provident institutions, and working men’s and women’s institutes
  • To preserve, provide and maintain open spaces, and recreation, or drill grounds
  • And generally to improve the physical, social and moral condition of the poorer inhabitants of the Metropolis.

To gather evidence about the then current state of technical education members of the Commissioners had visited the Regent Street Polytechnic, the People’s Palace* and analysed data and information from the Report of the Royal Commission on Technical Education and the work of the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) (see biographies and history on this website). The success of the Finsbury Technical College also provided useful evidence for the polytechnics structure and management. As a result of their work they proposed a regional development of similar Polytechnics across London in the East, North, North-West, South, South-East, South-West and West the intention being to create a ring of institutions in London. After a great deal of argument and discussion and subsequent refinement of the purpose of institutions the Commissioners issued a schedule for the Institutions stating that the primary object was the promotion of industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young people belonging to the poorer classes namely:

  • “Instruction in: (i) The general rules and principles of the arts and sciences applicable to any handicraft, trade or business. (ii) The practical application of such general rules and principles in any handicraft, trade or business. (iii) Branches or details of any handicraft, trade or business, facilities for acquiring the knowledge of which cannot be usually obtained in the workshop or other place of business. The Classes and Lectures shall not be designed or arranged so as to be in substitution for practical experience of the workshop or place of business, but so as to be supplementary thereto.
  • Instruction suitable for persons intending to emigrate.
  • Instruction in such branches and subjects of Art, Science, Language, Literature and General knowledge, as may be approved by the Governing Body.
  • Public Lectures or courses of Lectures, musical and other entertainments and exhibitions.
  • Instruction and practice in gymnastics, drill, swimming, and other bodily exercises.
  • Facilities for the formation and meeting of Clubs and Societies.
  • A Library. Museum and Reading Room or Reading Rooms.”

The funds provided by the City Parochial Charities were greatly enhanced from other sources particularly the Livery Companies. For example the Drapers’ Company took over the People’s Palace whilst the Goldsmiths’ Company assumed total responsibility to create and maintain the proposed Goldsmith’ Institution located in Lewisham High Road, New Cross. Also the Clothworkers’ Company gave significant funds to the Northern Polytechnic at Holloway whilst other City Companies assisted in other ways. A number of Polytechnics absorbed existing colleges e.g. City of London College.

In 1903 there were twelve polytechnics institutions and three branches namely:

North of the Thames:

The East London Technical College, Mile End Road, E with its branches, the Bow and Bromley Institute.
The Northern Polytechnic, Holloway, N. (Opened 1896).
The Regent Street Polytechnic, Regent Street, W. (Opened 1882).
The South-West London Polytechnic, Manresa Road, Chelsea, S.W. (Opened 1895).
The John Cass Institute, Jewry Street, EC. (Opened 1899).
The City Polytechnic, comprising:
The Northampton Institute, Clerkenwell, E.C. (Opened 1896)
The Birkbeck College, Bream’s Building, Chancery Lane, E.C.
The City of London College, White Street, Moorfields, E.C.(First opened in 1860)

South of the Thames:

The Battersea Polytechnic, Battersea Park Road, S.W. (opened 1894).
The Borough Polytechnic, Borough Road, S.E. with two branches, the Herold Institute, Bermondsey, S.E., and the Norwood Institute, Knight’s Hill, S.E. (Opened 1892).
The Goldsmiths’ Institute, Lewisham High Road, New Cross, S.E. (Opened 1891).
The Woolwich Polytechnic, William Street, Woolwich, S.E.  (Opened 1891).

The Polytechnics addressed the needs of the apprentice and artisan including the architects’ drawing-clerks. They developed specialised faculties for their local needs. For example the Northampton Institute established provision for metal-work and technical optics; the Borough Polytechnic programmes for builders, plumbers and bakery, whilst the John Cass Institute developed provision in metallurgy. Woolwich Polytechnic provided scientific instruction to the workers at the Arsenal. Battersea Polytechnic developed engineering for the London and South West Railway. Chelsea Polytechnic focused on provision for commercial and clerical work and Regent Street Polytechnic offered provision in art, commerce, science and trade. Between them the Polytechnics offered a very wide range of courses ranging from bookbinding, building trades, cabinet making and furniture trades, carriage making, carpentry and joinery, goldsmiths/silversmiths, house painting and decorating, metal plate working, plumbing, printing, and wheelwrights’ work as well as introducing provision for women covering book-keeping, domestic economy subjects, languages, and shorthand.

Attached to several of the polytechnics were eight other special schools catering for example for girls wishing to study domestic economy subjects. Therefore the polytechnics offered a wide range of subjects at different levels. So it was possible for young people after passing the Public Elementary School fifth grade to remain in the polytechnic day school up to sixteen or seventeen; on leaving school at any age, continue education in any branch of study, in either evening or day classes; to prepare either for manual labour, commerce and the higher levels of technical education. Also it was possible to undertake a classical curriculum similar to that of a university, to qualify for membership of the professional association or take a London degree and finally to specialise in post-graduate investigation or research in various areas of art, literature or science.

The Polytechnic Institutes of London proved a great success and developed parallel to similar technical institutions across Britain and contributed to the development of technical and commercial education and training in the country. The institutions underwent many name changes merging with other institutions and a number form part of the modern universities in London.

*Peoples Palace was started in the East End of London after the publication of Walter Besant’s ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men’  as a place of education and recreation initially providing day and evening classes in the trades and industrial occupations. Classes in mechanical, electrical engineering, chemistry, science and art were offered as well as social and other activities. The Palace then became the East London Technical College and is now part of London University.


The London ‘Polytechnic’ title had no connection with institutions so named in mainland Europe e.g. France, Germany and Switzerland. The name was carried over from the George Cayley Royal Polytechnic when Quintin Hogg purchased the premises after the Royal Polytechnic went bankrupt.

A useful definition of Polytechnic is an institution teaching many art and technical subjects up to and including degree level and offering a number of modes of attendance e.g. full and part-time.

Useful References:

Webb. S. London Education’. Longmans, Green and Co. 1904.
Millis. C. T. ‘Technical Education. Its Development and Aims’. Edward Arnold. 1925.
Sadler. M. E. Continuation Schools in England and Elsewhere’. Manchester University Press. 1907.

One Response to “Polytechnic Institutions of London”

  1. Mark A Williams

    I was a philosophy student at the NLP Prince of Wales Kentish Town 1976-79, I would like to know the names of the lecturers in philosophy at that time. I am at present writing a philosophical treatise and am grateful to NLP and those lecturers.


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