Birkbeck Street, E2

Place Name

Originally Bath Street. The name immortalises 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. His ideals lived on however and City philanthropist William Ellis named four schools after him. The one nearby was for children of “small tradesmen and others of moderate means”.

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