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Royal Polytechnic Institution

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 1753 RPI
Held at: University of Westminster
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Full title: Royal Polytechnic Institution
Date(s): 1837-1881
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 10 boxes
Name of creator(s): Polytechnic Institution | London
Royal Polytechnic Institution | London
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Polytechnic Institution was opened in August 1838 to provide the public with (in the words of its prospectus of 1837) 'a practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science connected with Manufactures, Mining Operations, and Rural Economy'. The idea was that of Charles Payne, former manager of the Adelaide Gallery in the Strand. William Mountford Nurse, a builder, provided the initial capital. Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), landowner and aeronautical scientist, became chairman of the provisional committee and later of the directors. His influence helped to raise the necessary share capital. A house at no 5 Cavendish Square was purchased, and a new gallery building (designed by James Thompson) added, with an entrance on Regent Street. The Institution received its charter of incorporation in 1839. The Gallery housed a large exhibition hall, lecture theatre, and laboratories. Public attractions included exhibitions, working machines and models, scientific lectures, rides in a diving bell - a major attraction - and, from 1839, demonstrations of photography.

In 1841 Richard Beard opened the first photographic studio in Europe on the roof of the building. The Polytechnic became known for its spectacular magic lantern shows, pioneered by Henry Langdon Childe (d 1874), and a new theatre was added in 1848. John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) was appointed lecturer and analytical chemist in that year. He was its most famous showman, also expanding the teaching role of the Polytechnic, which began evening classes in 1856 under the auspices of the Society of Arts. By the 1870s these were formalised under the Polytechnic College. By 1841 the Institution was calling itself the Royal Polytechnic, probably due to the patronage of Prince Albert. Expansion gradually gave way to financial difficulty, reflecting a long-standing tension between education and the need for profit. A fatal accident on the premises in 1859 caused the first company to be wound up and a new one formed. Various regeneration schemes were considered, but in 1879 a fire damaged the roof, precipitating the final crisis. By 1881 the Royal Polytechnic Institution had failed, the assets sold at auction and the building (no 309 Regent Street) put up for sale. It was purchased by the philanthropist Quintin Hogg (1845-1903), and the RPI succeeded by his Young Men's Christian Institute (later known at the Regent Street Polytechnic), which opened in 1882. Hogg lived for some years in the house in Cavendish Square. See also Richard Altick, The Shows of London (1978); and, on the Polytechnic and the history of photography, Helmut Gernsheim and Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography (1969); Brenda Weeden The Education of the Eye (2008).


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Royal Polytechnic Institution (RPI), 1837-1881 and undated, comprising:

Leases of premises, 1838-1876, including no 5 Cavendish Square; prospectus, 1837; correspondence and papers concerning the foundation of the Institution, its provisional committee, shares, status and affairs, 1837-1839 and undated, including its charter, 1839, and papers on arbitration on a dispute between W M Nurse and the Institution; correspondence and papers relating to activities and affairs of the Institution, 1838-1842 and undated, including documents on the alleged infringement by the Institution of a patent for a diving dress, 1838, and an agreement with W H F Talbot permitting the use of his patented photographic process, 1841; photocopy of a letter from Robert Longbottom, RPI Secretary, to Samuel Morse, 1846; copy of charter, 1852; letter concerning a school visit to the RPI, 1858;

Catalogues of the Polytechnic Institution (copies), 1838-1840, and Royal Polytechnic Institution, 1844-1845; programmes for 1861, 1876, 1878 and 1881; bound volumes of RPI programmes, 1873-1878; reports, 1879-1880; particulars and conditions of sale of the RPI premises, 1881;

Books by authors associated with the RPI, including various publications by John Henry Pepper: The Boy's Playbook of Science, 2nd edition, 1860.; Popular Lectures for Young People and Half Hours with the Alchemists, 1st edition, 1855; The Playbook of Metals, 1st edition, 1869 and Cyclopaedic Science Simplified, 1st edition, 1869; The Book of The Lantern by T C Hepworth, 2nd edition, 1889; Memory by William Stokes, 2nd edition, 1888 and Rapid Writing by William Stokes, 4th edition, 1873; issues of various contemporary journals containing information on or advertisements for the Institution [1839]-1845, some with illustrations, among them scientific equipment, including four parts of the London Polytechnic Magazine, 1844, six parts of its continuation, The Polytechnic Review and Magazine, 1844, and five parts, 1845; advertising poster, 1840;

Book of press cuttings relating to the Institution from 1842, many lacking details of their source; five tokens bearing the name of the Institution, 1840; photogenic transfer made at the Institution, 1840; a ceramic plate fired at the RPI, 1866;

Illustrations and photographs of illustrations from 1840, some undated, including the great hall and other shots of the interior and exterior, 1843, and demonstrations, including the diving bell.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Largely chronological (where possible).

Conditions governing access:

Open, subject to signing the Regulations for Access form.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copies may be supplied, for research use only, unless copyright restrictions apply or the item is too fragile to be copied. Requests to publish original material should be addressed to the University Archivist.

Finding aids:

Typescript handlist to item level.

Archival Information

Archival history:

The assets of the Royal Polytechnic Institution were sold following its bankruptcy in 1881, and the archives were presumably dispersed or destroyed. Some items survived, but in some cases it is clear that only some of the records relating to a transaction have been preserved.

Immediate source of acquisition:

Separately acquired by various means.

Allied Materials

Related material:

The University of Westminster Archives also holds records of Regent Street Polytechnic (Ref: UWA RSP) and its successors.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

'160 Years of Innovation: the Polytechnic Institution to the University of Westminster 1838-1998' (University of Westminster [1998]).

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Compiled by Rachel Kemsley as part of the RSLP AIM25 project, additional information added by Samantha Velumyl, AIM25 cataloguer.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Dec 2001 and May 2008.

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