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Library Guides

Using the University Archive: From 1838 to the present day

This guide explains how to find and access the University's archival resources

Introduction

The University was founded in 1838 as the Polytechnic Institution. We have had a rich and varied history, and we are constantly adding to the archive to ensure that our story can be told. This page gives you an overview of the types of documents available in the archive and the kinds of research they might be useful for. It is not a complete list of everything we hold, so get in touch if you can't find what you're looking for.

Photographs

The University has a long and rich relationship with photography, from the demonstration of Fox Talbot's Calotypes at the Royal Polytechnic Institution to the development of the UK's first undergradate degree in Photography. Along the way we have amassed a collection of several thousand photographs.

The photographs mostly show the University's buildings, students in classrooms and leisure activities such as cycling and rambling. We also hold photos from holiday tours to Switzerland and Norway as part of the Polytechnic Touring Association archive.

Some of the ways you might use these photographs in your studies include:

  • researching changes to the University's architecture
  • using the images in creative projects such as films, fashion or artwork
  • as content for a website or mobile app
  • as a prompt for a short story or poem
  • as historical evidence for the types of subjects taught at the University
  • looking at the different photographic processes and techniques from the 1840s to today
  • considering why these photographs were taken and how the images in an album were compiled

You are welcome to look at original photographs in our Reading Room, individually or in small groups, and we can supply digital copies of most photographs for you to use in your work.

Student work

The University Archive does not collect all student work, but we do hold some examples, primarily from arts-based subjects. These include:

  • examples of printing works from the 1890s
  • notes and diagrams from the Ladies Garment Cutting course in 1929
  • notebook used by students on electrical courses during World War Two
  • glass plate negatives taken by a photography student in the 1950s
  • architectural drawings and models from the 1950s and catalogues for end of year show from the 1980s onwards
  • photographs and videos of student fashion shows from the 1990s onwards
  • magazines and newspapers produced by Communication students in the 1980s
  • Undergraduate photography thesis by the photographer Jo Spence

These items are all available to view in the Reading Room.

Architectural records

The University Archive keeps historic plans for all its buildings, although details of more recent works are held by the University's Estates department. As well as plans, you can also find information about construction or renovation work in Board of Governors minutes, correspondence and newsletters. There are also sometimes photographs of building work taking place.

Sporting activities

Ever wondered why the University's sports grounds are in Chiswick? Quintin Hogg originally purchased a boathouse there for the Polytechnic in 1888, and the playing fields were added in his memory in 1906. Hogg believed that sport was an important part of life and encouraged the development of many different activities at the Polytechnic including boxing, cycling, rowing, athletics, swimming and archery. Some of these activities were carried out in the part of 309 Regent Street known as the Old Gymnasium.

The University Archive holds extensive records of these activities, including important historical figures in athletics such as Mary Lines, Harry Edward and Sam Mussabini. These include photographs, paper ephemera such as tickets and programmes, medals and trophies, statistics, correspondence and administrative papers.

Student life

Students have been producing their own magazines at the University since the 1940s.  They give a great overview of what it was like to study and live in London over the last 80 years. The magazines are a great resource for anyone interested in youth subcultures, music, left-wing politics and social justice issues. 

Topics that could be studied in the student magazines include:

  • LGBTQ awareness and rights 
  • London club culture in the 1990s/2000s
  • attitudes towards immigration and race
  • contemporary responses to popular music, films and books
  • women's rights
  • student responses to changing higher education policy
  • disability rights and awareness
  • affordability of London living and accommodation over time
  • development and changing role of the Students' Union

The student magazines have not been digitised but you are welcome to take your own photographs or we can lend you a digital camera.

 

Travel

In 1888 the Regent Street Polytechnic (as the University of Westminster was then known) began organising tours for students and members to Switzerland, with Paris, Ireland and Scotland following in subsequent years. This was the start of the Polytechnic Touring Association, a holiday company later known as Lunn Poly, and now part of the TUI brand.

From the 1890s the PTA owned chalets in Lucerne and operated cruises to Norway, as well as operating holiday homes around the UK. The tours were temperance-based - no alcohol was allowed - and had a strong self-improvement ethos. From the 1930s the company developed into more typical package holidays and by the 1960s was offering trips to seaside resorts around Europe.

The Polytechnic Touring Association archive is a rich resource of visual ephemera that can be used as source material for creative projects, as well as for studying changing approaches to travel, leisure and marketing. The majority of the collection has been digitised and is available through the Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture website [on-site access only].

World War One

World War One had a huge effect on the Polytechnic. 309 Regent Street became a recruiting station as soon as war was announced. By November 1914 the Poly had already filled 2 regiments – the 12th London and the Kensington. Meanwhile 400 men who couldn't enlist joined up to the Polytechnic Volunteer Training Corps to fight on the Home Front. By April 1915 the Poly had over 1,600 men on active service.

Much of the building was also given over to training, primarily in wireless operation and first aid. The Polytechnic's buildings in Riding House Street and Langham Place were also used to billet the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor to the RAF). From 1917 the Polytechnic also began work to re-train disabled ex-servicemen, with classes including tailoring, photography, electrical and motor repairs, commerce and architecture.

Those at home were also keen to aid the war effort. Through fundraising activities such as concerts, sporting events and donations the Poly raised £3,603 (over £155,000 today). The women also knitted socks, hats and jumpers and sent over 5,500 parcels to the enlisted men. 

Those who died during World War One are commemorated in the foyer of 309 Regent Street. We also have photographs and newsletters from the time in the University Archive. Learn more in our online exhibition