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A history of Foundation Day at the University of London

This year, as we take our annual Foundation Day online, we take the time to look back at the history of this prestigious event, its inception in 1930 and at the illustrious honorary graduands along the way.

Written by Maria Castrillo |

Sir Alexander Fleming receiving his honorary degree from the Chancellor at Foundation Day, 19 November 1948
Sir Alexander Fleming receiving his honorary degree from the Chancellor at Foundation Day, 19 November 1948

In the beginning

On 24 November, the University of London will celebrate Foundation Day, a landmark date of the annual calendar marking the institution’s first royal charter granted by William IV on 28 November 1836, and an occasion to confer honorary degrees to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to all spheres of life.

The foundational charter is a solemn and formal document, preserved in the University Archive, that encapsulates the ethos of the University since its inception. As we approach Foundation Day many of its words still ring true, for the University of London was created:

...for the advancement and the promotion of useful knowledge, to hold forth to all classes and denominations of Our faithful subjects, without any distinction whatsoever, and encouragement for pursuing a regular and liberal course of Education; and considering that many persons do prosecute or complete their studies both in the Metropolis and in other parts of Our United Kingdom.

 

Over the next seventy years, the University became a force for social and educational change, being the first university in the UK to enable distance learning through the establishment of its external programmes (1858), to open up examinations to women (1868), and to award degrees to women in the same terms as men (1878).

By the early 20th-century though the institution had evolved out of necessity, adopting a federal structure and reinforcing teaching and research as part of its new functions and ambitious vision.

Foundational Charter 28 November 1836
University of London Foundational Charter, 28 November 1836

The first honorary degrees: a matter for debate

It was in this context that the University sought to create new ceremonial opportunities, including the award of honorary degrees to exceptional individuals, to showcase its renewed unity and to draw students and teachers together.

In February 1903 a special committee was established to decide on the best way to take forward the idea. The manuscript minutes of these meetings found in the University Archive afford us a privileged window into the discussion that ensued. Whilst the Principal, Sir Arthur Rücker, was in favour of awarding such honours only in very exceptional circumstances and primarily to members of the royal family, other high officials of the University such as Sir Edward Busk felt inclined to open them up to distinguished members of science and knowledge.

The final list of the first honorary degrees included the Prince and Princess of Wales; mathematician William T. Kelvin for his work “to link together distant continents by the electric telegraph”; surgeon Joseph Lister for his discovery of antisepsis that contributed to “overcoming surgical infection”; and the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, who turned away the honour on the grounds that he had rejected similar awards in the past.

This choice of recipients of honorary degrees reflected the historic links between the University and the royal family, but more crucially, it celebrated the contribution of individuals whose work had advanced human progress and welfare.

Invitation to first Foundation Day
Foundation Day admission ticket, 28 November 1930

A ceremony fit for a world-class university

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.

Barbara Hepworth receiving an honorary degree from the Chancellor at Foundation Day, 26 November 1970
Barbara Hepworth receiving an honorary degree from the Chancellor at Foundation Day, 26 November 1970

The honorary graduands

Since the establishment of Foundation Day in 1930, the University of London has awarded honorary degrees to an impressive list of women and men who have contributed to the advancement of human progress and knowledge across many disciplines and specialisms.

A cursory look at the Book of Honorary Degrees shows well-known names such as Dame Iris Murdoch, ballerina Margot Fonteyn, opera singer Janet Baker, or artist Barbara Hepworth who received honorary degrees in recognition for their creative endeavours and contribution to literature and the arts. Others such as Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth General-Secretary, were honoured by the University because of their instrumental role to advance good governance and democracy, brokering peace agreements and for bringing to an end the system of apartheid in South Africa.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku receiving an honorary degree from the Chancellor, HRG The Princess Royal, at Foundation Day, November 1997
Chief Emeka Anyaoku receiving an honorary degree from the Chancellor, HRG The Princess Royal, at Foundation Day, November 1997

The world has been wrestling with a novel virus throughout 2020, so it would be fitting to close this whistle-stop history of Foundation Day, remembering one of the University’s most distinguished honorary graduands: Sir Alexander Fleming.

His discovery of penicillin and antibiotics was a game changer for it enabled the successful treatment of infectious diseases, saving millions of lives around the world, and laid out the foundations for the modern pharmaceutical industry. Fleming, who received his honorary degree from the University in 1948, rightly said that:

For the birth of something new, there has to be a happening. Newton saw an apple fall; James Watt watched a kettle boil; Roentgen fogged some photographic plates. And these people knew enough to translate ordinary happenings into something new...

And it is in this spirit of human ingenuity that the University of London comes together every year to celebrate innovation, inventiveness and progress by conferring the honorary degrees on Foundation Day.

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