This year marks the 125th anniversary of London South Bank University, which first opened its doors in 1892 as the Borough Polytechnic Institute, Becky Morton writes…
The University has a colourful history from serving meals to bombed out locals during the Blitz, to baking a giant cake in the shape of Westminster to mark the Houses? of Parliament?s 750th birthday.
At the end of the 19th century Elephant and Castle suffered from widespread poverty and deprivation. In an attempt to tackle this, in 1887 a local solicitor and educationist, Edric Bayley, launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise money for a polytechnic institute for South Londoners. Thousands of individual contributions, combined with a grant from the City of London and ?150,000 from the Charity Commissioners helped establish the Borough Polytechnic Institute in 1892.
The original aim of the institute was to promote ?industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young men and women belonging to the poorer classes?.? Courses were aimed at all backgrounds, rather than just the privileged, at a time when compulsory schooling ended at the age of 11.
Speaking at the opening of the Polytechnic, Lord Rosebery, the then Foreign Secretary, described it as ?the outward expression of a desire, which is so common now in this country, that there should be something done to raise and to unite the different classes of this great society?.
The Institute?s original prospectus stressed it ?intended to reach and benefit the workers of both sexes in receipt of a small weekly wage, and the subscription to the Institute and class fees have been therefore fixed by the Governors at an exceedingly low rate?.
There was an emphasis on practical subjects intended to train for trades and evening courses were put on for those who worked during the day.? Classes covered everything from laundry, needlework and cookery for women to brickwork, masonry and plumbing as well as more academic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic. The Institute gave a particular focus to Southwark?s local industries, such as leather-tanning. Today the University continues to draw around a quarter of its students from the surrounding area.
A spirit of civic engagement continued during the two world wars with the Institute doing its bit for the war effort. It manufactured munitions, trained service men and even offered a community centre for locals who lost their homes in the Blitz, serving hot meals and providing classes in cookery and ?Mend and Make-Do?.
The staff of the women?s department organised the wartime Londoners? Meal Service, which provided over 500 meals a day to those who could not cook at home. It was during the First World War that female students were first admitted to the Institute?s National Bakery School, as so many men were away fighting. The school helped cook meals for bombed out locals during the Second World War when Southwark suffered heavy bombing.
The National Bakery School, established in 1894, is famed as the world?s oldest bakery school. It has had an array of famous clientele from the Lord Mayor of London to the royal family. In 1948 the school baked a cake to celebrate the silver anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as well as a christening cake for Prince Charles. In 1989 the team then produced a cake to mark the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor of London, which stood nearly three metres tall and featured a model of Dick Whittington and his cat. The cake went on display at the Guildhall where a drunken partygoer climbed onto it in an attempt to steal the models. More recently, in 2015, the school presented a 3 ? feet long, three-tier fruit cake in the shape of the Palace of Westminster, to commemorate the 750th birthday of the Houses of Parliament.
The University has undergone a huge transformation from a polytechnic institute, teaching subjects including laundry and bricklaying, to achieving University status in 1992, with courses in everything from forensic science to film. However its original values ? providing vocational education rooted in the local community – have survived.