The story of City; life, learning and legacy part 1

Our first exhibition explores the very earliest days of City, known as the Northampton Institute. Here we focus on the foundation of the Institute; early building works and the opening festivities. Another exhibition, coming later this year, will focus on student life at City and the role the Institute played in public life. Many of these artefacts will be on public display for the very first time.

Now known as College Building, the original nineteenth-century building was heavily rebuilt during the major expansion schemes of the 1950s. In the exhibition, you’ll see the architect’s impression of the building as it originally looked, described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “an exceedingly successful example of the neo-French sixteenth-century style [with] fresh and playful enrichments.” Plans and documents relating to the construction of the building are also included.

The official opening, on 18th March 1898, was a grand affair, attended by the Lord Mayor of London and the Lady Mayoress and the Sheriffs of the City of London. The exhibition also contains a poster advertising the public opening of the Institute to Clerkenwell residents and images of some of the spaces that were open to local people.

The exhibition is located at the foot of the Grand Staircase, on the ground floor of the University Building. Step-free access is available from the main entrance, on Northampton Square. Admission is free and you can visit whenever the University reception is open.

You can also view photographs and information from the exhibition below along with additional items of interest. If you have any questions about the exhibition, you can contact the CityLibrary Archives team at

Building the Institute

The items on display illustrate the foundation and building of the Northampton Institute. The Institute was established through charitable and public funding and through donations from the Skinners’ and Saddlers’ Livery Companies. The 1 ¼ acre site was donated by the Marquis of Northampton and Earl Compton for a college with “a hall, a swimming bath, a gymnasium and for technical and industrial classes and for such other purposes as may be determined upon.” A competition was held to appoint an architect. All entries were anonymous. The winning entry, selected from four competitors, was designed by E. W. Mountford, whose other works include the Old Bailey and town halls in Sheffield, Battersea and Lancaster. The foundation stone was laid on 9th July 1894. Building work and student enrolment began in earnest in 1896.


Early governance

The first Governing Body of the Northampton Institute was made up of members from the London County Council, the School Board for London, the Skinners’ and Saddlers’ Companies and members of the Governing Bodies of the Birkbeck Institute and The City of London College. Additional co-optative members included figures in the watch and clock making industry which were the major trades in Clerkenwell at the time. The aims of the Governing Body were to provide technical evening classes to local workers who were employed in workshops and other places of trade during the day. This was to be supplemented by the “social side” including public lectures, musical entertainments, instruction in gymnastics and swimming and access to a library and reading rooms. The first meeting of the Governing Body was in 1892 at the Birkbeck Institution with J.J. Lambert as the acting clerk; his letter book is shown here. The first Principal of the Institute, Dr Robert Mullineux Walmsley was appointed and commenced his duties in January 1896. An important figure in the development of the Northampton Institute, Walmsley pioneered the “sandwich” course, where study was combined with placement in industry. Walmsley often personally arranged placements, even visiting students in their workshops. Aeronautical Engineering and Optics courses became well established during Walmsley’s principalship.



Following the laying of the foundation stone, the building was completed and handed over in stages. A second opening event, welcoming the residents of Clerkenwell and surrounding areas, took place on 10th June 1896. Engagement with the wider community was a strong motivating factor in establishing the Institute, which sought to promote “the industrial skill, general knowledge, health and wellbeing of young men and women belonging to the poorer classes.” The formal opening took place on 18th March 1898 and was attended by the Lord Mayor of London. Those attending the formal opening were invited to inspect the facilities, workshops and laboratories. For the 1898 session, enrolments grew and the Institute thrived, with an extension to the building in the same year.