Our heritage

Although the University received its Royal Charter in 1900, the foundations for its establishment were being laid for years previously. Already pushing forward the boundaries of research in medicine and the sciences, Birmingham was beginning to change the world.

The early days

The University grew out of Mason College, which can trace its roots back to the medical education seminars of Mr John Tomlinson in 1767-68. He was ‘First Surgeon’ to the Birmingham Workhouse Infirmary and his 28 weekly lectures on anatomy were the first to be held outside London or south of the Scottish border. Mason Science College was founded by Kidderminster-born Josiah Mason in 1875. From humble beginnings, Mason made his fortune by mass-producing key rings, pens, pen nibs and electroplating. 

He became one of the country’s most esteemed industrialists and philanthropists and was knighted for his generosity in establishing a great orphanage in the suburb of Erdington. The College became Mason University College in 1898 with the Rt Hon Joseph Chamberlain MP becoming the President of its Court of Governors.

Josiah Mason (left) and front exterior of Mason College circa 1880 (right).

The socio-political landscape

To set the scene, at this time, England’s only other independent universities were in Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and London. While compulsory education had been introduced in 1880 for children between the ages of five and ten years old, most of the population entered work by the age of 14.

Joseph Chamberlain was acutely aware of these limiting factors when he proposed the establishment of the University of Birmingham. He sought to provide ‘a great school of universal instruction’, so that ‘the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances’. It was his ambition that ‘the individual trades of the new University [would] forever associate their name and their industry with this new institution’. Many aspects of Chamberlain’s vision continue to inspire and guide the University today, including our continuing responsibilities to, and aspirations within, our region; providing a skilled, professional workforce and ground-breaking research that benefits regional industries.

Establishing the University

Chamberlain’s impact on the city of Birmingham, beyond the establishment of the University, was immense, particularly in his improvements to living conditions and education. Thanks to Chamberlain's tireless work, the University was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria on 24 March 1900 - and with the generous donation of land and funds, the University of Birmingham was born. Since then we have led the way with research discoveries and Nobel Prize-winners.

Preserving and researching our history

While we highlight Chamberlain’s legacy in terms of the impact on establishing our University as a centre of education for the many, we are committed to encouraging our expert historical researchers to reflect on our past and acknowledge contested narratives. 

Happy 120th Birthday, University of Birmingham!