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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Most major studies of the discipline of English that I know of, such as Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989) and Franklin E. Court’s Institutionalizing English Literature: Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750–1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), situate its birth as “English language and literature” in 1828 at the University of London (referring to UCL rather than the federated research university that currently takes the name University of London). This also features in Ted Underwood’s (excellent) Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

However, in the department at Birkbeck, we have been discussing the fact that Birkbeck College, originally the London Mechanics’ Institute, apparently included lectures on English literature from the very beginning in 1823. This was not a degree programme, but it was part of the set of lectures. For instance, Thelwall apparently spoke on Milton in 1830. If this is the case, then the College has a potential claim to being the oldest university English department in the world, with unbroken continuity.

My colleague, Anthony Bale, also consulted C Delisle Burns’s Short History of Birkbeck College (from 1924) and found that by June 1839 there were classes in ‘English grammar’, ‘writing’ and ‘literary composition’. Thi appears to make Birkbeck among the oldest Creative Writing institutions in the world. In 1843 the Institution was apparently offering ‘a course of instruction in English Grammar’ and classes in ‘Literary Composition’: ‘these Classes each meet once in every week and can be attended by the members and students at a trifling expense’. The 1857 report includes notices of lectures in topics such as ‘The Christmas Books of Charles Dickens’, ‘Characters in Imaginative Literature’, ‘The Romance of Biography’, and ‘Entertainment by Elocution Class’. Arthur Pinero came to Birkbeck in 1870 ‘attracted to it by the opportunity it offered for joining in dramatic performances’, and the Literary Society put on an odd selection of medieval and early modern plays, such as Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay, Arden of Faversham and The Interlude of the Pardoner and the Friar. The College was organised as Departments in 1895-6, presumably with an English department.

Several sources have also found evidence, in recent years, that Oscar Wilde lectured at Birkbeck. For instance, Saint-Amour, Paul K., ‘Oscar Wilde: Orality, Literary Property, and Crimes of Writing’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 55.1 (2000), 59–91 notes that:

‘Wilde lectured at least once on the “marvellous boy,” on 24 November 1886 to an audience of eight hundred at London’s Birkbeck College’. (‘The audience count is Wilde’s, from a 7 December 1886 letter to Herbert P. Horne (see Letters, p. 192). Wilde evidently gave the lecture a second time, on 7 April 1888; he agreed to it (“If I must, I must!”) in a letter to the lecture’s hostess, postmarked 9 March i888 (see More Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis [London: John Murray, 1985], p. 73). Ellmann (p. 284) places it in March’).

Likewise, Bristow, Joseph, and Rebecca N. Mitchell, Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015) places the lecture on 24 Nov 1886.

I have also found evidence, in the Birkbeck archive, however, that Oscar Wilde lectured in the English department. Here, he writes to Mr (George Webb?) Appleton: “I lecture on Nov 4 at Birkbeck institution. - Oscar Wilde”.

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It is possible that the letter I have contains an error (“4” for “24”). However, if taken at face value, this may be referring to a different lecture.

Updates and edits As I had hoped, this provoked a number of responses – and the most glaring were gestures towards the Scottish system. Thomas Docherty suggested that I look towards “Hugh Blair, Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Edinburgh, lecturing in English and other literatures from 1760 onwards” and Matthew Sangster’s pointed me to Robert Crawford’s The Scottish Invention of English Literature. Certainly, also, the Mechanics Institutes from which Birkbeck sprang also had an origin North of the border…