The University of Westminster boasts a rich history and has been providing students with academic excellence, cultural engagement and personal enrichment since its inception as The Polytechnic Institution in 1838.

Here you can find out more about our unique heritage, and the traditions of excellence that help to shape the University today.

A place for pioneers

The Westminster story began in 1838, when Sir George Cayley opened the Polytechnic Institution at 309 Regent Street in London. In 1881, philanthropist Quintin Hogg bought the Royal Polytechnic Institution building and moved his Young Men’s Christian Institute into 309 Regent Street, which soon became the publicly funded Regent Street Polytechnic.

Since then, our education institution has secured a reputation as a place for firsts. These include:

  • the first polytechnic in London and one of the first in the UK (1838)
  • the opening of the first public photographic portrait studio in Europe (1841)
  • the venue for the first public moving picture show in the UK, organised by the Lumière brothers (1896)
  • organising the first marathon race (at the London Olympics) over the now traditional distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (1908)
  • offering the first degree courses in Photographic Science, Photography, and Media Studies (1960s and 1970s)
  • the first modern university to win the Queen’s Award for Enterprise – International Trade


1838–1881 Royal Polytechnic Institution

1838 The first polytechnic – The Polytechnic Institution – opened to the public at 309 Regent Street on 6 August 1838, under the chairmanship of the distinguished scientist Sir George Cayley. Its aim was to demonstrate new technologies and inventions to the public. The Polytechnic played a significant role in the popularisation of science, and became a major tourist attraction in Victorian London.

1839 The Polytechnic was one of the first institutions in London to demonstrate the new invention of photography, and in 1841 the first photographic studio in Europe opened on the roof of the building.

1841 The name changed to The Royal Polytechnic Institution when Prince Albert – Queen Victoria's consort – became Patron.

1848 A new theatre was added to the building, which became world famous for its spectacular magic lantern shows.

1850s–1870s The director of the Polytechnic, Professor John Pepper, was internationally known as a showman and popular science lecturer; he helped develop the popular theatrical illusion known as Pepper's Ghost.

1881 The Royal Polytechnic closed in 1881.

1864 Quintin Hogg, a young businessman, established the York Place Ragged School and Mission, to provide basic education for some of London's poorest children in the slums of Covent Garden.

1870s Hogg developed his vision to provide educational, social, sporting and social opportunities for young working men in The Young Men's Christian Institute.

1881 Hogg purchased 309 Regent Street and the Institute moved into the West End, where it soon became known as the Polytechnic.

New day and evening courses in technical and commercial subjects were introduced to support the expanding economy as London became the world's largest city.

1884 A gymnasium and swimming pool were installed in Regent Street and the remarkable growth and success of the Sports Clubs began.

1886 The Polytechnic Secondary School was opened. Its successor is the Quintin Kynaston Academy.

1888 The first school journey abroad to Switzerland. This developed into the Polytechnic Touring Association.

1891 In the national debate about the need to improve standards of technical education to support the economy, Hogg's Polytechnic became the model upon which others were founded – and the name Polytechnic entered the education system.

1891 The Polytechnic became publicly funded, and was renamed Regent Street Polytechnic. The first Board of Governors was created.

1896 The first public presentation of moving picture in the UK was held in the Polytechnic Theatre, which in later years functioned as a cinema.

1903 Quintin Hogg died. His memorial included a statue in Regent Street (later moved to Portland Place) and the purchase of the sports ground at Chiswick.

1908 The Olympic Games were held in London. The Polytechnic organised the marathon trial and event, and also the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.

1910–12 The old Polytechnic building was demolished and rebuilt, retaining the theatre, swimming pool and gymnasium behind the new façade. The Fyvie Hall was added. King George V and Queen Mary opened the new building in 1912.

1914–18 The heavy losses suffered by the Polytechnic during the First World War are recorded on the memorial in Regent Street foyer. Courses were directed to the war effort, and training provided for the Royal Flying Corps. The Polytechnic took the lead in retraining the large numbers of disabled soldiers returning from war.

1920s–30s New subjects, such as journalism, planning and management, were introduced after the war. In 1929 the Polytechnic Extension building in Little Titchfield Street was opened by Queen Mary. A new stadium was built at Chiswick, which was home to national and international events.

The Polytechnic Touring Association expanded its range of holidays into southern Europe and north Africa and the first air charters were introduced. In the 1960s it became part of Lunn Poly.

1939–45 During the Second World War, the secondary school and some teaching departments were evacuated out of London. Courses were developed for the Army, Navy and Air Force by the Schools of Engineering.

The Polytechnic boathouse and the Ladies' Pavilion at Chiswick were damaged by bombs.

1945–70 Courses expanded to meet the training needs of returning ex-servicemen and women. Changes in national provision for higher and further education reshaped the Polytechnic. Traditional craft-based subjects – such as tailoring and hairdressing – were dropped to concentrate on degree-level courses.

From the late 1960s new degree courses were validated by the Council for National Academic Awards.

A major new expansion scheme was planned for Regent Street Polytechnic, transforming it into a multi-site institution. A new site in Marylebone Road was to house a college of architecture and advanced building technologies, while a second new site in New Cavendish Street was to house engineering and science.

By the time the new buildings had been completed, Regent Street Polytechnic had merged with Holborn College of Law and Commerce to form the Polytechnic of Central London, known as PCL.

The Students' Union was founded in 1965, and the late 1960s and early 1970s saw many student protests against national and international political issues and also against the management of the Polytechnic.

Jimi Hendrix, Cream and many other leading 60s bands played at Polytechnic student concerts. Pink Floyd were formed at the Polytechnic.

1970–92 PCL was one of 30 new polytechnics formed in 1970 awarding degrees from the Council of National Academic Awards.

PCL continued its commitment to part-time and evening education, and pioneered an extensive programme of short courses for mid-career professionals which attracted more than 20,000 students a year.

Links were formed with overseas institutions, such as the Ngee Anne Polytechnic in Singapore where PCL validated diploma courses. Postgraduate and research work increased.

1990 Harrow College of Higher Education merged with PCL.

1992 PCL gained University status, bringing the right to award its own degrees and to participate in publicly funded research.

Expanding overseas activity resulted in the University being awarded the Queen's Award for Enterprise in 2000 and again in 2005.

2013 The University of Westminster arrived at a major milestone, as we reached our 175th anniversary. We were proud to celebrate 175 years of world-leading research, pioneering teaching, and providing education for all, regardless of background or financial status.

2015 The restored Regent Street Cinema re-opened to the public, transformed into a state-of-the-art space for the cinematic arts.