Fonds RPI - Royal Polytechnic Institution

Side 1 Side 2 Side 1 Side 2 Particulars and conditions of sale - side 1 Particulars and conditions of sale - side 2 Poster advertising the Royal Polytechnic Institution programme Programme for week commencing Friday Aug 23rd 1861 at the Royal Polytechnic Institution Programme for Christmas-time entertainments & lectures at the Royal Polytechnic Institution - cover Programme of lectures and entertainments for the week commencing September 2nd 1878 - Cover
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Royal Polytechnic Institution


  • 1837-1881 (Creation)

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Extent and medium

11 boxes

Context area

Name of creator

(Aug 1838-1881)

Administrative 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 Institution 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.

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 within the building, becoming the property of Regent Street Polytechnic and its successors. The fonds has been subsequently increased through the acquisition of relevant records.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Records of the Polytechnic Institution and Royal Polytechnic Institution (RPI), 1837-1881 and undated, comprising administrative records, programmes and images.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

This fonds is currently being catalogued. Newly catalogued material will be added on a regular basis; in the meantime we have endeavoured to make available an outline of the fonds. Please contact the Archivist for more information.

RPI/1 Deeds and leases

RPI/2 Administrative and business records

RPI/3 Catalogues, programmes, posters and flyers

RPI/4 Publications and press cuttings

RPI/5 Artefacts

RPI/6 Illustrations

RPI/7 Related contemporary material

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Status: Open. Access is subject to signing the Regulations for Access form, unless the records are restricted under the Data Protection Act 2018 or under exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000

Conditions governing reproduction

Language of material

  • English

Script of material

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Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Finding aids

Typescript handlist to item level for some items.

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Catalogues of the Polytechnic Institution are copied from originals in the City of Westminster Archives Centre (1838), the Royal Society of Arts (1839), and the Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne (1840). The photocopy of the Robert Longbottom letter to Samuel Morse is from the National Digital Library Programme, Library of Congress.

Existence and location of copies

Related units of description

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

Related descriptions

Publication note

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); '160 Years of Innovation: the Polytechnic Institution to the University of Westminster 1838-1998' (University of Westminster [1998]); Brenda Weeden, 'The Education of the Eye' (2008).

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