Despite this first attempt to establish honorary degrees, the University’s Senate was reluctant to make it a regular feature, and for the next two decades hardly any new honorary degrees were conferred, apart from the one awarded to Edward, Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII, in 1921.
Towards the end of the 1920s winds of change began to penetrate the institution once again as it approached its centenary. In 1930, a decision was made to establish Foundation Day at the end of November, a new annual ceremony to celebrate the University’s first royal charter and the perfect stage to present graduates with higher degrees, and to confer honorary degrees to outstanding individuals.
A plethora of documents, ephemera, photographs and moving images held in the University Archive document the formal aspects of the occasion throughout time. As well as the procession, which was and continues to be a central part of the ceremony, we know in great detail other aspects concerning etiquette, location of guests, order of proceedings, and other key moments of the ceremony such as the ‘hooding’, a highly symbolic act whereby the Chancellor places the hood over the head of the honorary graduand.
Menus and table plans of Foundation Day dinners afford a glimpse into the social angle of the event as well as on the changing tastes in food and drink through time. In many ways, these documents offer a snapshot of the University’s important place in the public and civic spheres.
In the collective imaginary of the University of London, Foundation Day is a date associated with the royal family, given a royal has held the position of Chancellor since the mid-20th century. To that end, the ceremony has been adapted to reflect the central role the Chancellor plays in the event.