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Imperial College and Its History

Imperial College
Written by Lawrence Goldman

The following submission to the History Group at Imperial College, London, is made by the History Reclaimed group of historians.

Written by Lawrence Goldman for History Reclaimed

This submission focuses on three particular aspects of the review of Imperial’s historical origins and connections that the College has undertaken in 2021:

  1. the inadequacy of the overall process that has been followed, including the limited range of sources consulted, and the personnel involved in the inquiry.
  2. the case of Thomas Henry Huxley, whose name is to be removed from the Huxley Building. He has been misrepresented and his views have been distorted on the basis of a single short essay which has been misunderstood.
  3. the treatment of memorials to Imperial’s founding benefactors, the Beit brothers Alfred and Otto, and Julius Wernher.

Personnel and Process

The Imperial College History Group is composed of 19 members, one of whom is the College Archivist. Despite its name, it does not include a single historian at work in a university History department. Most of its members are teachers of natural science, engineering and medicine. The Group had two external advisors who attended half of the scheduled meetings.[1] The issues addressed by the History Group largely concern the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No member of the History Group, or among those providing external advice, is an expert in the history of the Edwardian period, when crucial institutional developments and financial transactions created Imperial College. No member or advisor has broad experience of the study of modern British biography. The History Group would surely benefit from the advice of historians of business and higher education. These specialisms are required to judge figures like Huxley, Wernher, and the Beit brothers. We also note how little historical literature is referenced in the History Group’s report and appendices.

The evidence adduced in regard to Wernher and the Beits has been compiled by the College Archivist. Experts who have published on the founders and the foundation of Imperial College, such as Dr. Jill Pellew, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, have not been cited nor consulted at any stage.[2] Adrian Desmond is the distinguished biographer of Thomas Henry Huxley, but this work was published nearly three decades ago in the 1990s, and it is insufficient to base decisions on just a single view of such a complex life. The controversial actions recommended by the History Group require evidence and assessment from several scholars, not only in Huxley’s case, but in all others as well. As it happens, we do not read Professor Desmond’s assessment and conclusion in Appendix 10 as providing the strong case required for the renaming of the Huxley Building. He seems rather to praise Huxley than to damn him.[3]

The History Group is, in short, remarkably lacking in historians, and in relevant historical expertise. Imperial College might have contacted dozens of highly-qualified and highly-experienced academic historians to advise it on each and every person under scrutiny and on the overall validity of the exercise in which it is engaged. It has chosen instead to act on insufficient evidence and with an inadequate number and range of opinions. This calls into question the whole exercise.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Huxley as a Liberal and Progressive:

Huxley’s reputation as a liberal and progressive is utterly secure. No one, with his record of support for noble historical causes could be thought worthy of ‘cancellation’ or renaming. He was a political liberal; an active proponent and supporter of women’s rights and education at all levels; an elected member of the London School Board, which brought elementary education to the children of the capital after 1870; president of a college for working men in London; a brilliant biologist in his own right and the most famous populariser of science in British history. His laboratory in the Science Schools Building in South Kensington was designed to be a symbol of a new scientific and industrial age. His annual summer course for teachers, which was held there, was transmitted by the participants to British schools and ‘became the foundation of the modern discipline of biology.’ He supported the emancipation of slaves in the United States, and everywhere else. When the Governor Eyre case split British intellectuals over Eyre’s handling of a rebellion in Jamaica in 1863, Huxley was with John Stuart Mill and other radicals in calling for Eyre’s prosecution.[4] All this – a remarkable record in the promotion of liberal and democratic causes – should have been weighed against his supposedly racist remarks in the 1865 essay ‘Emancipation: Black and White’. It is hardly mentioned.

Racism versus Racial Prejudice: Understanding the Difference

This leads to the 1865 essay itself in which Huxley presented entirely uncontroversial ideas about race for that era, whether in Britain or the United States. Adrian Desmond seems to be telling you this in his report on Huxley, but your Group has evidently chosen to ignore him. This is how mid-Victorians thought in 1865. To cancel Huxley because of these views is to cancel History itself. Furthermore, your History Group does not appreciate the crucial difference between thinking in racial categories and racial prejudice. Mid-Victorians thought in terms of distinct racial groups: the world was divided into races with different physical, emotional and intellectual attributes. In this sense, everyone in the 1860s was a racist because of the centrality of the category of race in all social thought. But crucially, many people of this era were NOT racially prejudiced: Africans and African-Americans might have certain distinct characteristics, but as Huxley is arguing so clearly in this 1865 essay, they should be in receipt of the same rights and opportunities as everyone else: discrimination was unacceptable. That is the very point of the essay and of its final sentence: ‘The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what Nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality’. Charles Darwin said the same in his chapter on slavery in The Voyage of the Beagle: ‘If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin’.[5]

On this subject we may take our lead from the great Harvard palaeontologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote thus in 1996:

We cannot use a modern political classification as termini of an old spectrum. The egalitarian end did not exist for the policymakers of Darwin’s day. All were racists by modern standards. On that spectrum, those we now judge most harshly urged that inferiority be used as an excuse for dispossession and slavery, while those we most admire in retrospect urged a moral principle of equal rights and nonexploitation, whatever the biological status of people.[6]

Which of you in the History Group will argue against the greatest historian of science of the modern era? Huxley was quite obviously in the latter camp, urging equal rights for blacks as well as women. We should admire him for doing so, not cancel him.

If Huxley then Darwin also:

But what will follow if the History Group has its way and Huxley is cancelled? Then you will have to cancel Darwin as well. For as Stephen Jay Gould makes clear, across Darwin’s life his ‘basic belief in a hierarchy of cultural advance, with white Europeans on top and natives of different colours on the bottom, did not change’.[7]

Darwin’s last major work, The Descent of Man (1871) is explicitly racist:

The races differ in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the lighthearted, talkative negroes.[8]

Is that not racism and racial stereotyping on a par with Huxley’s attitudes? But there is more from Darwin. He held in contempt the Fuegians, from the southernmost reaches of South America:

Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures placed in the same world…It is a common subject of conjecture, what pleasure in life some of the less gifted animals can enjoy? How much more reasonably it may be asked with respect to these men.[9]

And he had a low opinion of women’s intellectual abilities, as well:

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.[10]

Gould asks whether we should ‘simply label Darwin as a constant racist and sexist all the way from youthful folly to mature reflection?’ In answering his question he develops a ‘general argument [that] is obvious and easy to make’:

How can we castigate someone for repeating a standard assumption of his age, however much we may legitimately deplore that attitude today?[11]

The History Group at Imperial College is castigating Huxley for holding ‘a standard assumption of his age’. But if Huxley is to be cancelled on these grounds, it follows that Darwin, whom Huxley championed, must be cancelled in his own right as well. He also held views that we deplore today. Will you do so? If you will not, but choose to cancel Huxley on these same grounds, you will be pilloried in public for your inconsistency and hypocrisy. On the other hand, if you do cancel Darwin for racism, you will at that moment cease to be taken seriously as one of the preeminent institutions in the world for the study of natural science.

We note that people who have limited historical knowledge and are unused to working with the past often believe that ‘surgical strikes’ can be made on History and specific targets removed at a stroke. But History is not like that: contexts, opinions and ideas are shared across whole generations and communities. Pull at one hanging thread and the whole garment unravels. Quite simply, if you cancel Huxley who was Darwin’s champion, you must cancel Darwin as well, and on the same grounds. And if you do that, you will become a laughing stock.

Huxley, Eugenics, and Scientific Racism:

We note the claim that Huxley’s 1865 essay, ‘Emancipation – Black and White’ espouses ‘a belief system of scientific racism that fed the dangerous and false ideology of eugenics’. We would ask the History Group to provide evidence for this ‘belief system’ in Huxley’s work and for any association between Huxley and eugenics. The term eugenics was not coined by Francis Galton until 1883 and eugenic ideas only took hold in some sections of the intelligentsia in Britain in the Edwardian period, and then failed to make any impact at all on social policy. When Huxley was at the height of his powers in the 1860s and 1870s, eugenic ideas, such as they were, were largely ignored when they were not being ridiculed.[12] Above all, where is the evidence linking Huxley to eugenic thinking or the eugenics movement? We do not believe there is any. If the History Group is arguing that any thinking at all about race which runs counter to modern standards is eugenic by definition, you have once more been badly advised and have misunderstood Victorian intellectual history.

Finally, it should be noted that in the 1860s, as Adrian Desmond has explained elsewhere, Huxley, from his position in the abolitionist Ethnological Society fought bitter battles ‘against the ultra-racist Anthropological Society’ and  ‘refuted the anthropologicals’ linking of black anatomy with slavery’.[13] It was the leaders of the Anthropological Society who ‘promoted the pro-slavery dogma that black people were a separate species and inherently capable of no higher development than that of enslavement.’[14] It was the Anthropological Society which developed a pseudo-scientific racism, in other words: it was Huxley who opposed them. Eventually, in Huxley’s construction of a new Anthropological Institute in 1871, ‘the ultra-racists were purged’.[15] Huxley was a racist, like all mid-Victorians. But he was also the most vocal and vehement opponent of racial prejudice. And the origins of so-called ‘scientific racism’ can be found among Huxley’s most bitter opponents.

Sir Alfred Beit, Sir Otto Beit, and Julius Wernher

The History Group proposes to rename buildings and spaces associated with the Beits and Julius Wernher and to take action, yet to be determined, regarding the statues of these figures on the façade of the Royal School of Mines building. These men were founders of Imperial College in the Edwardian period and their very large benefactions were crucial to Imperial’s subsequent success, as the History Group acknowledges.

We hold no brief for these men, three of the so-called ‘Randlords’ who numbered perhaps a dozen in all. They made vast personal fortunes from the exploitation of the mineral resources of Southern Africa and the labour of thousands of Southern Africans. Several of them engaged in unscrupulous commercial, political and military action in the region; others were simply corrupt. But several, including the founders of Imperial, were very generous philanthropists, as well. About the Beits and Wernher, we wish to make three points concerning their status as founders; their differences from the other Randlords; and the spectre of antisemitism.

  1. Imperial should be free to decide what it wishes to do in relation to its founders. We would make the point, however, that there are more open, honest and educationally-beneficial ways of dealing with this trio than simply removing all trace of them. An institution which expunges its founders is open to the objections of dishonesty and the denial of its true identity. We would suggest that a better course of action, and one faithful to the historical record, is to continue to recognise their contributions to Imperial College but to contextualise them by providing full details of their lives and actions. This could include physical descriptions such as plaques and notices, virtual exhibitions, and actual displays within the precincts of the College. This would be an educational opportunity, a chance to inform people about the many issues involved, from racism and exploitation to munificence and public benefit. We think it is an opportunity that a great institution of higher learning should grasp rather than bury.
  2. Secondly, your documentation fails to differentiate the Beit brothers and Wernher from the other Randlords who were neither as honest nor as scrupulous as this trio. Not all Randlords were the same. According to Maryna Fraser, ‘The Wernher-Beit-Eckstein group enjoyed a reputation for fairness and honesty’. Alfred Beit ‘was the most popular of the Randlords…Wernher was the most respected.’[16] ‘An ardent belief in the great causes of the day’ led Alfred Beit ‘to distribute vast sums of money, but his benefactions were always made privately with rare self-effacement. Because of his close association with Rhodes, he was the target through life for much abuse, some deserved, some not.’[17] Julius Wernher meanwhile ‘remained aloof from politics generally’ and ‘supported a programme of reconciliation in the Transvaal after 1907’. He was ‘trusted and acknowledged as a leader, as much for his integrity of character as for his intellectual power.’ His chief pride ‘lay in the fact that he had earned the complete and profound trust of the industry which he had done so much to establish’.[18] There is a danger, in short, that in general condemnation of the Randlords, the distinctiveness of the founders of Imperial, who were known at the time, and since, to have been different from other members of this group, and also better, is forgotten or disregarded. As Jill Pellew has put it in an essay notable for the careful balance she strikes, in some contemporary views Wernher and Beit were ‘colonial buccaneers’ who ruthlessly exploited workers tied to their mines. But in others ‘they were creative and highly successful entrepreneurs, skilled in and passionate about their business, and about the development of the part of the world in which they operated’. They also sought to redress ‘England’s lack of technological skills’ by endowing Imperial College.[19] In thinking about these men we suggest that the History Group take into account Pellew’s findings.
  3. The Randlords were the targets of both popular and elite antisemitism, disdained not only for their wealth and the way it was made, but for a religious identity and heritage which several of them shared. According to Sir David Cannadine, they were subject to ‘political malice and religious, racial and social prejudice.’[20] Wernher was not Jewish, but the Beit brothers were of Sephardic Jewish descent. Though like many German Jews in this period, they had converted to Lutheranism, their heritage was not forgotten and they were lumped together with the other Jewish Randlords – Barnett Isaac Barnato, the Joel brothers who were Barnato’s nephews, Lionel Phillips, Sigismund Neumann and Maximillian Michaelis. We simply caution Imperial College not to take actions, that, in the name of anti-racism, will remind people of the antisemitism which men of this background experienced between the 1880s and the First World War, and which contributed to the rising tide of anti-Jewish feeling across Europe.

[1] Both external advisors are, without question, admirable and high-ranking scholars. One teaches in a Department of Geography, however, and expertise in modern British social, intellectual, business and educational history, which is required for this review, is not evident. The external advisors will have given their advice to the very best of their abilities. It is the responsibility of Imperial College itself to compose a committee genuinely equipped for the tasks it faces.

[2] J. Pellew, ‘A Metropolitan University fit for Empire: the role of private benefaction in the early history of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Imperial College of Science and Technology, 1895-1930’, History of Universities, xxvi, 2012, 217-31. J. Pellew, ‘Donors to an Imperial Project: Randlords as benefactors to the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College of Science and Technology’, in J. Pellew and Lawrence Goldman (eds.), Dethroning Historical Reputations. Universities, Museums and the Commemoration of Benefactors (London, IHR, 2018), 35-46.

[3] Professor Desmond writes: ‘from my perspective, if Huxley was guilty of something today that is popularly labelled ‘racism’…it was of a less pernicious sort than that held by many of those around him. And he lost some of what we would now term racial prejudice as he advanced in years, despite many of his confreres stiffening their racial resolve.’

[4] Adrian Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB)


[5] Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle (London, 1839), ch. xxi, Mauritius to England.

[6] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1981) (London, 1996 edn.), 422.

[7] Ibid, 416

[8] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871) (1875 edn.), 167-8.

[9] Charles Darwin, Beagle Diary, 25 Feb. 1834,


[10] Darwin, Descent of Man,

[11] Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 418.

[12] Lawrence Goldman, Victorians and Numbers. Statistics and Society in Nineteenth Century Britain (Oxford, 2022 forthcoming), 260-1.

[13] Adrian Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB)


[14] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a hatred of slavery shaped Darwin’s views on human evolution’, 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston/NYC; quotes from pp.332-3

[15] Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry’, ODNB.

[16] Maryna Fraser, ‘Randlords’, ODNB, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-95075?rskey=vE9PiW&result=1

[17] C. W. Boyd, ‘Alfred Beit’, ODNB, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-30676?rskey=n5QUxU&result=1

[18] I. D. Colvin, ‘Julius Wernher’, ODNB https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-36834?rskey=wuM3Ip&result=2

[19] Pellew, ‘Donors to an Imperial Project’, 45-6.

[20] D. Cannadine, Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Have and London, 1990), 345n.

About the author


Lawrence Goldman