UCL Department of Geography
A Very Brief History of the Department
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A Very Brief History of the Department

In November 1833, the newly-founded University of London (now UCL) appointed Captain Alexander Maconochie, Secretary to the Royal Geographical Society, as its first professor of geography. This was the first such appointment in the British Isles. Maconochie resigned in August 1836 to take an appointment in Tasmania and subsequently became a reforming governor of the penal colony of Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean. Click here to view a poster of Alexander Maconochie.

Members of the geology department at UCL gave lectures on physical geography in the final decades of the 19th century but not until 1903 was the chair of geography re-established. Its occupant was Lionel William Lyde who had been a schoolmaster specialising in the classics and history. He had developed an interest in geography and enjoyed remarkable success as a prolific writer of textbooks. He taught alone during most of his quarter century at UCL. The professor of geology continued to give introductory lectures in physical geography (an arrangement that survived until 1961) and in the mid 1920s Lyde had support from three assistant lecturers.

When Lyde retired in 1928, he was replaced by Charles Bungay Fawcett who occupied the chair of geography for twenty one years, retiring in 1949. Fawcett brought nine years of experience from the University of Leeds and gathered a small team of lecturers around him at UCL. The department remained small but as well as teaching undergraduates the professor supervised doctoral students, with Robert E. Dickinson (1933) being the best known of these. In 1937 Geography moved from a house facing Gordon Square to premises in Foster Court that it would occupy until 1979. During the Second World War, the Department was evacuated to the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, returning to Foster Court in 1944. Amazingly, the building had suffered no more than a few broken window panes even though adjacent premises were destroyed in bombing raids. With Fawcett, Dickinson and the economic geographer R.O. Buchanan on the staff, the small department at UCL was gaining a reputation for human geography.

darby.jpgFollowing Fawcett’s retirement, the rising star of British human geography, Henry Clifford Darby, was appointed to the Chair at UCL. Although not yet 40 years of age, he already had a formidable record of research and publication, had effectively directed the Cambridge centre that researched Naval Intelligence Handbooks during the war, and had held the chair of geography at Liverpool since 1945. Darby embarked on a programme of expanding his department in terms of academics, undergraduates and postgraduates, and enhancing its quality. Throughout the seventeen years of his tenure he appointed completely new staff and took every advantage of making strategic alliances with cognate disciplines at UCL. Among one of his initial appointments was William R. Mead who would succeed Darby upon his return to Cambridge in 1966. The young staff that Darby appointed duly reached academic maturity and at the time of the International Geographical Congress in London (1964) there were over twenty lecturers but only one professor. The Department prepared undergraduates for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Sc. Econ degrees, trained research students (M.A., M.Sc, Ph.D) and developed an international reputation as a focus of research in historical geography, Darby’s speciality.

When Professor Bill Mead became head of department in 1966, the Department was academically strong but severely overcrowded. As many of Darby’s appointees moved to chairs in other universities, a cohort of young staff was appointed during the second half of the 1960s, most of whom went on to spend their entire careers at UCL. Under Bill Mead the Department acquired more chairs (Eric Brown, Paul Wheatley) and continued its tradition of receiving academic visitors from North America and Europe. The Geographical Society flourished. The Department was, however, in urgent needs of more space and of laboratories for physical geography, cartography and data processing. The solution came in 1979 through what was then believed to be a temporary move to spacious premises in a new building at 26 Bedford Way, 5 minutes’ walk from Foster Court.

The challenge of running a large department in a new building during the straightened economic climate of the time required fresh approaches that were provided by Ron Cooke who returned to head Geography at UCL (1981-91). Under his firm leadership, the Department went on to strengthen physical geography (notably with Richard Battarbee who pioneered work in palaeoecology) and cultural geography (David Lowenthal). Doctoral training was placed on a more efficient footing, influenced by the North American model of a ‘graduate school’, and successful funding applications attracted growing numbers of research assistants. The once spacious premises in Bedford Way became full to bursting, just as Foster Court had done.

general_upload-buildings_jpg-PearsonBuilding2.jpgRon Cooke left UCL in 1993 to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of York. His successor as head of department was Richard Munton (1991-1997, 2002-2005) who continued Cooke’s ‘hands-on’ management style as well as heading an important research team in rural geography. Many colleagues who had been appointed in the 1960s acquired personal chairs at UCL, whilst others moved to senior posts elsewhere. Overcrowding was one of the challenges facing Peter Wood when he became head of department in 1997 and one that threatened to hamper future research initiatives. The only feasible solution was for sections of the Department to move to other buildings, notably the temporary relocation of computer-based physical geography, remote sensing and GIS to Chandler House. After Richard Munton re-assumed the headship in 2002, a new opportunity arose to relocate the physical geographers, the Environmental Change Research Centre, some human geographers and all graduate training facilities to the Pearson Building, a completely refurbished space, complete with basement laboratories, on the Front Quadrangle right at the heart of UCL.

At present,  most human geographers remain at 26 Bedford Way. Recent heads of department, Alan Gilbert (2005-2007) and Mark Maslin (2007-2011), have witnessed the retirement of a whole cohort of professors and the appointment of a large numbers of young colleagues. Jon French took over as head in the autumn of 2011. Building on an initiative first headed by Richard Munton, Mark Maslin has headed the College-wide Environment Institute whose core staff are also housed in the Pearson Building. With important new initiatives in cultural geography, development and migration, environmental change, remote sensing, spatial analysis, and urban studies, the Department has arguably experienced “a new beginning” (to quote a favourite phrase from H.C. Darby) in the early 21st century that is perhaps comparable to that of the early 1950s and the late 1960s. With forty academic staff, including fourteen full professors, the Department faces the future from a position of scholarly strength but its members do not underestimate the magnitude of new challenges in teaching, research and organisation.