Birkbeck Road, RM7

Place Name

The name immortalises, like many roads across Greater London, Dr George Birkbeck (January 10, 1776 – December 1, 1841) who was a doctor and a pioneer of adult education. Born into a Quaker family (his father was a merchant and banker) in Settle, West Riding of Yorkshire, he studied medicine in Edinburgh. Before practising as a physician, however, he initially embarked on an academic career, being appointed professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian Institution, which later became the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. When mechanics started asking questions about the apparatus he used in his lectures, he had the idea of holding free, public talks on the “mechanical arts”. These Saturday evening events proved so popular that they continued after his departure to London, leading to the formation in 1821 of the first Mechanics’ Institute in Glasgow. Working as a doctor in London in 1823, Birkbeck, along with Jeremy Bentham and MPs John Hobhouse and Henry Brougham came together to discuss the education for the working men of London. To achieve this they established the London Mechanics Institute in November 1823 – of which Birkbeck was the first president. Birkbeck died in 1841 at his home in Finsbury Square. However the London Mechanics’ Institute concept lived on and was quickly adopted in numerous other cities and towns across the UK and overseas, and his association with the ground-breaking London institution was marked by it being renamed the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution in 1866. Among the earliest cohort of students at the LMI was Francis Ravenscroft, an heir of the wig and tailoring company Ede & Ravenscroft. In 1851, Humphrey Ravenscroft, Francis’s father, an admirer of Birkbeck’s ideals launched the Birkbeck Bank. This was taken over a few years later by Francis when his father died. The young man continued to perpetuate his father’s ideals, namely by encouraging education and helping others to further themselves, as a result they helped to finance much of the 19thCentury residential development across Greater London through the Birkbeck Freehold Land Society. By 1903 the bank, now managed by Francis’s son Clarence Ravenscroft, was boasting that it had: “Invested funds, ten millions.” In 1911 the firm was taken over by Westminster Bank. Several streets financed by the bank remember both the bank and its inspiration and the Ravenscroft family.

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