From Museum to University College: A Guided Walk


10 and 18 July 2019


The University’s Founders

At Exeter University’s upcoming graduation ceremonies, students will be given a souvenir programme containing a page about two of the founders of the University - Sir Stafford Northcote and Miss Jessie Montgomery


Sir Stafford (later the first Earl of Iddesleigh) was born in 1818 and, after studying at Oxford,  was appointed as one of the secretaries to the Royal Commission (headed by Prince Albert) which set up the 1851 Great Exhibition, Britain’s showcase for arts and manufacturing.  

In the year of the Great Exhibition, Northcote suggested that Exeter should set up its own museum, art gallery, school of art and public library.  This fell on deaf ears, although a school of art (of which he was president) was established in 1855 in rooms above the Lower Market (now the Corn Exchange).


Northcote (whose statue is in Northernhay Gardens  - see left) returned to this idea when Prince Albert died in 1861, and proposed that a new building for a museum and school would be a fitting civic tribute. This time the idea received wide support, including that from the working men’s society, which pushed for science classes. Funds were gathered and the foundation stone was laid on 30 Oct 1865. 


It is unusual for a woman to be celebrated as one of the founders of a University, except as a wealthy patron, and Jessie Montgomery was not wealthy!  She simply had energy and a passion for extending educational opportunities to as many people as possible. She had received no formal education, but her uncle and aunt (with whom she and her mother came to live) had a splendid library, and her uncle, who was one of the Cathedral's canons, was himself interested in education for women. 

Jessie started with the University Extension Scheme in 1875.  Oxford and Cambridge, the only universities in England then, devised a scheme in which lecturers visited provincial towns to give lectures for a term. These were delivered twice, in the afternoon for the leisured and in the evening for workers.  After each term there were optional exams which provided credits towards a degree. Jessie was among the first to enrol.  The scheme flourished and in 1885 Exeter became a recognised university extension centre. Jessie became one of the centre’s joint secretaries and was a keen promoter of the scheme.


Then in 1891 new government funding for technical education became available and the city council had to decide what to do with it.  Jessie doggedly argued that the money should be spent on creating a single educational establishment, the University Extension and Technical College, which would unite the schools of art and science with the new technical education courses and the university extension centre. Notwithstanding many other suggestions, she won and for the next twenty years she nursed the new organisation through expansion – physically, as we shall see - and, in its remit, to become the Royal Albert Memorial College.

The Museum Building


Entering through the Garden Entrance, we stopped briefly at Gallery 10 with its case histories and now the new home of Gerald the Giraffe and companions!  Crossing the bridge between the new and the old (passing one of the original external walls), we turned into the North Wing's Gallery 22. Originally this was a classroom for the School of Art - a serious matter in the 1850s.  With no computers or photocopiers, technical drawing was a cornerstone of so much design work and these courses were a ladder of opportunity. Certainly not for young ladies doing just watercolours!   Behind here was the printing room and beyond that the cast room, essential for moulding plaster copies.


The challenge was to fit all the functions in Sir Stafford'svision into an affordable building. The museum was only part of the demand for space.  There was also to be an art gallery, the school of art (now well established), the school of science (newer) and – something of an afterthought – a free public library funded from the rates. Basically, the schools of art and science were to be housed in this wing on the first floor.  In what is now the Museum shop on the ground floor were the library and reading room and on the south side were planned the museum and art gallery. 


Thinking it would be easier to raise more money if people could see what the museum would be like, the trustees embarked on the building before they had the money to fund the whole.  Opening part of the site for schools would also enable them to access a government grant.  They therefore opened the main building in April 1868 with a fund-raising bazaar to tempt visitors and raise funds for completing the South Wing.  

This wing opened a year later with the Natural History Museum housing the ethnological and natural history collections in large rooms on the first floor and the Antiquities Collection on the ground floor (very much as it is now).  We admired what had been the Art Gallery, carefully lit from the top, and looked down on what had been the ethnological museum below – and, until more recently, the home of Gerald the Giraffe.  Now it’s part of the café.  JULIA IS THE ETHNOLOGICAL COLLECTION ON 1ST OR GROUND FLOOR ??  I SEEM TO HAVE GOT IT WRONG SOMEWHERE.

No less grand is the museum’s exterior.  The architect, John Hayward, was already well known in Exeter and had designed St Luke’s College and Exeter Prison. An ex-pupil of Charles Barry, who had designed the Houses of Parliament, Hayward followed that style, generally known as Gothic Revivalist (derived from 12th century French Gothic architecture).


The building sits on a plinth of grey limestone while the exterior facing of the walls is composed of red Felspathic Trap from Pocombe Hill, just across the river, relieved with bands of Chudleigh Limestone and buff Bath stone detailing.  The principal entrance is through a tripartite arcade, supported on columns of polished Aberdeen granite with early Gothic capitals, and the whole frontage follows a tripartite composition.


To achieve the high standard of sculpture he wanted, Hayward contracted Harry Hems to come to Exeter to perform his miracles after which Hems, as we know, settled here and set up his own business as sculptor and woodworker.

Kent Kingdon Extension

Turning left round the outside corner of the museum, we observed the depth of the original building and then the changes in the building line. This is theKent Kingdon extension with slightly recessed bays and a somewhat different and fancier architectural style, still Gothic Revival, but more Italian Gothic (copying the 14th Century) than French (12th Century!).


Kingdon, who died in 1889, had been a supporter of the project since its earliest days and left money in his will for acquisitions to the museum.  He also directed that when his sister died (which she did three years later), some of her money should be used to finance an extension to the museum. 


He left very precise instructions about the extension and specified that the supervising architect should be the Rev. Medley Fulford (who had gone to Australia and had to be summoned back by telegram!).  But Kingdon’s plans were too big for the available site so it was decided to buy and demolish an adjacent house on Paul Street rather than challenge the terms of the will in court! 


This extension was desperately needed as the museum, the free library and the Schools of Art & Science were so popular that the original building was overflowing.  The 1891 union of all the various courses under the title of the Exeter Technical and University Extension College, made possible when national funding became available and through Jessie Montgomery’s efforts, enabled students to progress through secondary to advanced courses without leaving Exeter.  But more and more space was needed.   

Building commenced in 1894 but it was not officially opened by the Duke of Devonshire until 1898 (see plaque left).   Two additional laboratories and more classroom space meant that the schools could offer more courses – for example the "natural science and pharmacy" needed by medical students before admission to medical courses.   But soon the space problem re-occurred as: 

  • More and more collections (zoology, ethnography, books and pictures) were being bequeathed to the museum and the library.
  • Increased numbers of students were enrolling on courses and expecting a wider range of subjects.
  • The university extension lectures, which had initially been held in the Athenaeum (now the Devon & Exeter Institute), relocated to the museum - to ever larger audiences. 

The only solution was another new wing.  Many locals had subscribed to the Jubilee Memorial Fund and it seemed fitting to commemorate the Queen’s Jubilee by extending the building named after her husband.  Even the students raised £100.  

The new extension – to be called the Victoria Wing - looks just like a town house but is a great deal bigger than it appears as it extends backwards to wrap around behind the existing buildings.  The foundation stone was laid in September 1898 and this new wing contained five large classrooms, a laboratory, apparatus rooms, a students’ reading room, a cast room, lavatories and offices.   Innovatively, they were all to be fitted with electric lights!!


Who should be asked to open the extension? The Queen was 80 - far too old. The Prince of Wales could come but not on the dates the city needed.  Fortunately his eldest son, the Duke of York with his wife (later King George V and Queen Mary) agreed to open the new wing on 4 July 1899, re-naming it the York Wing.  At the same time it was announced that Her Majesty had graciously consented to the prefix ‘Royal’ being added to the name of the Museum.  So in 1899 the Albert Memorial Museum was renamed the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and the college became the Royal Albert Memorial College.

The Phoenix 

By 1900 the Museum had expanded to fill the whole of the original site and all of Upper Paul Street.  Then Henry Willey of Willey’s Foundry made the case to increase the technical side of the college, which he saw developing into a full Engineering and Manual School.

Ideas came thick and fast as education expanded. The introduction of compulsory primary education and development of secondary education had meant a big increase in the numbers of teachers required and existing colleges couldn’t cope.


The only teacher training college in Exeter was St Luke’s, exclusively for men (women had to go to Truro).  Jessie Montgomery and Principal Clayden planned to set up teacher training for 40 women and 20 men but the Board of Education refused  a grant for it unless it was housed in a dedicated building, not scattered here and there in classrooms in the Museum.   So a halt was called to the 1902 proposals, and the city agreed to purchase and clear premises at Bradninch Place and Gandy Street.  This was done in 1906 and a new free-standing building designed to house both teacher training and engineering.

 The Council agreed and planned an extension to the rear of the existing building connected by a covered corridor. They even got the Lord Mayor of London – who ran an engineering firm himself – to come down and lay the foundation stone in 1902.  But it was never built. (We eventually found, stuck in a nearby wall, the memorial stone marking the 1902 commencement of building work - see left). 

So a halt was called to the 1902 proposals, and the city agreed to purchase and clear premises at Bradninch Place and Gandy Street for a new free-standing building housing both teacher training and engineering. (We subsequently found, stuck in a nearby wall, the memorial stone marking the 1902 commencement of building work - see left). 

But though plans were passed for an entirely new building, the Board of Education then came up with another objection – that secondary education in the city needed to be re-organised so that teaching practice could be undertaken to a satisfactory standard. It was not until 1909 that Exeter’s mayor laid the foundation stone (which can be seen on the right on the front wall) and building work began in earnest.  


There are three entrances! … Probably the front entrance (on the right in the picture below) was for visitors, and the two round the side were for the students – one wing for the teacher training college and one for the Engineering and Manual School. Each wing had laboratories, lecture rooms, class rooms and student and staff rooms.  The trainee teacher wing also had a library and  staff and student accommodation.

The exuberant fantasies of the museum architecture have given way to a more sober building faced in Portland stone, signalling the earnestness of the endeavour. Space originally intended as a site for a Great Hall is now just used for car parking.


On 20 October 1911 the Lord Lieutenant, Earl Fortescue, as representative of His Majesty, formally opened the building which remained in use until the late 1960s - even after the university was set up on the Streatham Campus.


We strolled up towards Northernhay Gardens and were delighted to locate, set in a newish bit of wall, the 1902 memorial mentioned earlier.   Leaving the Gardens (with happy memories of its Shakespeare in the Park days) we crossed Castle Street to Bradninch House, formerly called The Vineyard.

The new teacher training college was attracting women students from all over the county and even beyond.  Many needed accommodation during term time.   A number of houses to be used as hostels were purchased and this lovely eighteenth century house (right) was the largest.  It was acquired in 1902 and Jessie Montgomery became its first warden.  Sadly, she died in the autumn of 1918, just before the end of the war.  She therefore never learned the outcome of her labours for a university for Exeter but she did know that she had been successful in her campaign for parliamentary votes for women. 


One benefit of this building was the substantial development area (one time gardens?) beside and behind.  This enabled the Council to build the large Edwardian extension that now overshadows it and it took up to 80 women students instead of the original twelve.  We sauntered round to the back of this building to see how very large the Edwardian extension is.


We also admired the plaque at the front of Bradnich House commemorating the fact that it had been used as a hospital (No. 5) during the First War.   Its large collection of dormitories, which could easily be adapted as hospital wards, made it a prime choice to be one of the WW1 temporary war hospitals run by the Red Cross. 


We then headed up the hill to the Castle where we learnt that the College Governors had been applying for a number of years for university status for Exeter. Universities were becoming established in other parts of the country – Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, for example.  But Exeter had been turned down time and again because the teaching accommodation was deemed inadequate. Then the Phoenix opened, which dealt with that argument.


 Next, however, came a more difficult problem. The Board of Education decided that the new university must have an endowment fund. The Governors agreed in 1911 to set one up and to raise at least £30,000. Unlike other cities, Exeter had no wealthy manufacturer on hand to provide such an endowment. It was going to have to be scraped together.


The war, of course, interrupted their work, and then, when the war was over, the Board set the bar even higher. They were not willing to grant independent university status to any further establishments, but they were willing to grant a charter to a University College which would serve the whole of the south west beyond Bristol if it was affiliated to the University of London. The cost difficulty was overcome when all Devon and Cornwall’s local government agencies agreed to contribute to the funding of the University College.


But without the agreement of Devon County Council, which was sited at the castle in those days, the national award of government funding would not have been agreed and the project could have gone no further.  Fortunately, Sir Henry Lopes, the Council Chairman, persuaded his fellow councillors to make a major financial contribution to what was to become the University College, no longer just of Exeter, but of the South West.


So, on 1st August 1922, a charter was issued for the incorporation of Exeter University College as the University College of the South West. The new body had an independent but representative Court of Governors, a Council, and a Senate. From then on students would be prepared for university degrees here in Exeter, although it would take a further 33 years for those degrees to be issued by Exeter University itself.


All talks are now on the second Thursday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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