London History Bulletin – February 11

University College London was granted its charter on February 11th, 1826. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Short. Sweet. And near and dear to me. Personal, really. And that’s by way of saying, Happy Birthday University College London. Happy birthday to my alma mater. Yes, UCL – London University as it was initially known was granted its charter on this day, February 11th, 1826. So it’s coming up to its 200th birthday. 

And look, as long as we’re at it, that Latin phrase – it literally means ‘nourishing mother’ – isn’t widely used in this country. Whereas in the States, where I grew up, it’s common currency. Needless to say, it identifies the school, college or university that one formerly attended and/or graduated from.

It’s got a great lineage. The University of Bologna adopted the motto Alma Mater Studorium – “nurturing mother of studies – to celebrate the university’s historic status as the oldest and longest continuously operating university in the world. And the Latin word alma is cognate with alumnus – or alumnae in plural – meaning a nursling or one who is nourished. A graduate, in other words.

And a neat American connection, the College of Wiliam and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia has been called the “Alma Mater of the Nation” because of its ties to the founding of the United States.

But anyway, let’s get to London. Get to Gower Street. Get to UCL. Get to 1826. In those days, to matriculate at one of the ancient universities and to graduate from the other you had to sign the Articles of Faith of the Church of England. By ancient universities I of course mean Oxford and Cambridge.

And that stipulation – that requirement – having to sign those Articles of Faith of the C of E – of course meant that dissenters – Methodists, Jews, Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, Atheists, etc. were persona non grata at Oxford and Cambridge. They were effectively denied a university education. The only possible response to that state of affairs: if you can’t join them, beat them. Set up your own university. Which is precisely what happened. The first building – it’s still there – went up toward the northern end of Gower Street. And I suppose inevitably, the first couple of generations of UCL students – one of whom was the great Victorian Robert Browning – were known as “the Godless students of Gower Street.” I was proud – and indeed, overjoyed, it was life-changing for me – to become one of those Godless students of Gower Street 150 years later.

And here’s another quick takeaway for you, the architect of Old Main I’m tempted to call it – the main UCL building – was William Wilkie. Whom we also have to thank for the National Gallery, London. It’s all about connections. Getting a feel for it, it’s all about making connections.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 11th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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