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Higher Education Postcard – University of East London

This week's card from Hugh Jones’ postbag tells a fiery story of the finest technical institute in the Kingdom
This article is more than 1 year old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Stratford. This is the West Ham Technical College, the oldest of the precursor institutions to the University of East London.

Its origins date back to 1892, when, under legislation freshly passed enabling local authorities to own and operate technical institutes, the County Borough of West Ham decided to establish a Technical Institute. Opening in 1898, the Technical Institute shared a site with a library; and no doubt provided huge benefits to the local community.
But in the early hours of Monday 23 October 1899 a fire broke out. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, the following Sunday, tells the story:

GREAT FIRE AT WEST HAM. TECHNICAL INSTITUTE DESTROYED. A fire which resulted in the destruction of the West Ham Technical institute and the Free library in the Romford road, Stratford, broke out early on Monday morning. Shortly before two o’clock a Mr. Mayhew, whose house in Ferns road backs on to the institute, was aroused by the barking of his dog, and then he saw what seemed to him to be an ex- plosion in the chemical laboratory. Mr. Mayhew at once aroused the caretaker and sent for the fire brigade, which promptly arrived. By this time the hydrants in the building had been got to play. but it was seen that the fire had got a hold of the whole building, which, with the Free library, Is a square block covering three acres of ground. After the Stratford engine came others, including nine of the Metropolitan Fire brigade, and the firemen reported extraordinary difficulty on the road on account of the dense fog prevailing. For three or four hours 13 fire engines and a number of hydrants were at work, and it was not until past nine o’clock that the conflagration was got under. With the help of willing workers, among whom. were members and officials of the West Ham corporation, the greater part of the books in the Free library were saved from the flames and housed in an empty mansion opposite, which belongs to the town council, and is the site for projected baths. The upper floors of the Technical Institute, which covered part of the Free library, were burnt out, the roofs fell in, and the magnificent central hall was destroyed, the total damage being estimated at between £90,000 and £100,000. The fire is supposed to have arisen from the spontaneous combustion of chemicals in the laboratory.
The Technical institute – the only municipal institute in the metropolitan area – was opened 12 months ago, and was considered by many persons to be the finest institution of its sort in the kingdom. On its western side, on the day of the opening of the Technical institute, the foundation stone was laid of a Natural History museum to be erected at the expense of Mr. Passmore Edwards. This building is now nearly out of the hands of the contractors. and fortunately the firemen were able to save it from the flames, as they did the Free library on the northern corner of the site.”

But the Victorians were not to be daunted by fire. On 18 October 1900, the Institute was reopened by John Passmore Edwards, whose philanthropy had enabled the Institute’s construction.

The Institute offered courses in science, engineering and art, and had a Women’s Department. Students could study for University of London degrees. In the early years of the twentieth century, provision expanded, including classes for younger students. In 1921 it was renamed as the West Ham Municipal College, and subsequently the West Ham College of Technology.

In 1970 the College merged with two others in the borough (the South-West Essex Technical College in Walthamstow and the South-East Essex Technical College in Dagenham) to create the North East London Polytechnic. In 1989 this became the Polytechnic of East London and, in 1992, the University of East London – UEL.

The Romford Road buildings continue in use by the University, forming part of its Stratford Campus. They are still magnificent. Look at these tiles, snapped by me on a visit in 2015:

Books still accomplish miracles, they persuade men.

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