Robert Lowe and the University of London constituency

Ahead of tonight’s IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar we hear from Professor Jon Parry of Cambridge University who spoke at our special Parliaments, Politics and People seminar marking UK Parliament Week (‘One person, multiple votes: university constituencies and the electoral system, 1868-1950’). He discusses the history of the University of London and its first MP, Robert Lowe, who represented the constituency between 1868 and 1880. 

150 years ago, at the general election of 1868, the graduates of the University of London were grouped into a parliamentary constituency and elected their first MP, Robert Lowe.   This University seat had been created by the 1867 Reform Act.  The main aim of that Act was to enfranchise the bulk of urban working men; it more than doubled the number of people able to vote in Great Britain, and heightened fears of democracy.  The creation of an additional seat to represent one of the major Universities of the country was a small measure to offset this democratic trend.  It was a gesture to signify that graduates – men of learning and wisdom – should have a specific voice in the House of Commons.   The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin had returned their own MPs since the seventeenth century, but they all had close links to the Established Church.  The University of London was much more in tune with the spirit of the mid-Victorian age.

The University had been set up by the government in 1836 as a degree-giving body.  It was funded by the state through an annual parliamentary grant, and run by a Senate appointed by the Home Office.  For the improvement-minded whigs and utilitarians who ran the governments of the 1830s, it was a model for how higher education might develop in the future.  It had three great principles:

  • Intellectual excellence and breadth
  • A lack of religious exclusions and distinctions
  • National and potentially global reach
ILN, 11 May 1850
Graduates receive their degrees at the University’s first public degree ceremony. Held in the great hall at King’s College, London, 1 May 1850 (Illustrated London News, 11 May 1850)

Intellectual excellence was to be achieved through rigorous exams.  The University ran bachelors’ degrees in Arts, Law, Medicine and, starting in 1860, Science, plus higher degrees in Law and Medicine.  However it was not a teaching body at all; it was an examining board of ‘persons eminent in literature and science’.   Colleges outside of London could also apply for affiliation so that their students could take its degrees, and from 1858 students (except in medicine) could enter for degrees without being at an approved college at all.   Degree exams were deliberately designed to set a high intellectual bar that would raise the standards of all the institutions that taught the students, many of which were provincial colleges run by Dissenters and Roman Catholics.

The examinations were open to anyone, irrespective of religion.  This marked London out from its three rivals in England, Oxford, Cambridge and Durham; their degrees were only open to those willing to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.  The exclusiveness, expense and complacency of Oxbridge was widely criticised by reformers in the 1830s, and though the government did not feel able to tamper with it, it hoped by example to create a new norm for higher education.  In its petition of 1853 to be granted a seat in parliament, the Senate of the University boasted of its connections with all the theological, medical and general collegiate institutions in the country, except those associated with the Established Church.  It also claimed that its tough exams had had the effect of broadening the narrow theological curricula of the Dissenting and Catholic colleges affiliated to it, implying that the same had not necessarily happened at Oxbridge.

The London based University College, King’s College, and Highbury College, and Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, were some of the many institutions affiliated with the University of London (University of London Almanac, 1846, from N. Harte, The University of London, 1836-1986: An Illustrated History (1986))

Many of these affiliated colleges eventually developed into the civic universities of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Manchester, Nottingham and Leicester.  Moreover in 1865, 1866 and 1867 the University started to offer its degree courses to candidates sitting them abroad, in Mauritius, Gibraltar and Canada. In addition, the idea of one central and tough examining board, setting standards for affiliated colleges of all types and religious persuasions, seemed an attractive liberal model for other pluralistic societies.   It was exported to Ireland in 1850, with the foundation of the Queen’s University, and to India in 1857 when Universities were established on this basis in each of the old Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. In the House of Commons in 1867 Robert Lowe, its future MP, pointed out that London was ‘metropolitan and cosmopolitan, extending its influence more and more every day all over the world’.

Lowe was elected unopposed as the first representative of the University at the 1868 election.  Though some others had originally sought the nomination, including the journalist Walter Bagehot (a London graduate), Lowe emerged as the clear front-runner because he was a politician of national standing, known for his defence of intellectual excellence, and of the value of examinations.  He appealed to Liberals for his anti-clerical views, and to the more conservative elements of the constituency (mainly the medical graduates) for his high-profile opposition to democracy.  Through his outspoken speeches in the Commons in 1866 and 1867 opposing the extension of the franchise to working-men, Lowe had become a celebrity – and had also made himself unelectable for a populous constituency.  He and the new University seat were thus made for each other.

Robert Lowe
Robert Lowe, ‘Statesmen, No. 4’, by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair, 27 February 1869, (c) NPG

Lowe was committed to all the defining principles of the University, particularly the lack of tests and the separation of teaching from examining.   After he graduated from Oxford and made an impulsive marriage he could not get a college fellowship and became very critical of its complacent culture.  His most famous policy initiatives featured examinations.  In 1862 as education minister, in what was seen as an attack on Church schools, he brought in the rule that examinations in the ‘3 Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) should be used to measure the quality of teaching in elementary schools for funding purposes.  In 1870 he was responsible for the introduction of competitive examinations into most of the civil service.   In 1873 he was among the strongest advocates of the principle of a national examining board in Ireland, as created by the Gladstone government’s ill-fated Irish University bill, believing that it would improve and liberalise the teaching obtained by the Catholic middle classes.

Lowe was one of the major advocates of the idea of an enlightened, disinterested civil service.  ‘The cause of true progress’, he wrote, could only be promoted ‘by pure and clear intelligence’.   In his acceptance speech as the University’s MP in 1868 he urged the introduction into newly democratised Britain of some constitutional ‘safety valves’ – including allowing some civil servants the right to be life senators with seats in the House of Lords.   One other reason why he was such a strong candidate for the University constituency was because of his popularity in the London medical colleges.  This was the result of his work as health minister after 1859 in strengthening the powers of the medical department of the Privy Council and its secretary John Simon, who then built up a powerful and subsidised vaccination inspectorate.

For all his dislike of popular pressure on government, Lowe remained a Liberal throughout the twelve years that he represented the University – before getting a peerage in 1880.  At the 1874 election the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli criticised Lowe and his fellow cabinet ministers in Gladstone’s retiring government for ‘harassing’ the country, which he claimed wanted peace and rest, not endless reforming legislation.  Lowe responded by declaring his support for ‘harassing’ legislation: it had created the University of London and had attacked vested interests like Oxbridge and all other ‘persons and institutions which held privileges adverse to the general welfare’.  He prophesied that the institution that he represented, which had ‘had to fight so hard a battle against obstruction, custom, and prejudice’, would never approve of Disraeli’s ‘inert and sluggish principles’.  This was a safe bet – he was re-elected unopposed.

Jon Parry

For more on the creation of the London University seat see Dr Martin Spychal’s blog on the Victorian Commons.

Our next seminar takes place at the IHR on 27 November at 17:15 in N202, when Dr Glen McKee, University of Buckingham, will be speaking on Standing orders and precedents in the Irish House of Commons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

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