LSE motto

Our history

From 1895 to today

His vision is to found, slowly and quietly, a ‘London School of Economics and Political Science’ – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects, but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work

Beatrice Webb's diary, 21 September 1894

LSE was the brain child of Sidney Webb, supported by his wife, the social investigator Beatrice Webb, the political scientist Graham Wallas, and the writer George Bernard Shaw.

All four were prominent members of the Fabian Society. In 1894, they decided to use a £20,000 bequest to open a specialist higher education institution.

The first students arrived in October 1895 and in 2020 we celebrated our 125th anniversary

LSE student group c1910. IMAGELIBRARY/899. LSE
LSE student group c1910. IMAGELIBRARY/899. LSE

From the start, LSE was open to women and men and welcomed students from overseas. The School was committed to providing its students with “scientific training in methods of investigation and research”. The 1895 LSE Prospectus states that:

The special aim of the School will be, from the first, the study and investigation of the concrete facts of industrial life and the actual working of economic and political relations as they exist or have existed, in the United Kingdom and in foreign countries.

 

LSE's early days

Known as the School, LSE first opened its doors in 1895 in three rooms in 9 John Adam Street, close to the Strand in central London. An economic historian, 29-year-old William Hewins, was appointed the first Director.

During our first year, 300 students enrolled for courses including economics, statistics and political science. In 1896 the School moved to larger premises at 10 Adelphi Terrace, overlooking the Thames.

The first prospectus lists 11 lecturers, and the subjects they taught as economics, statistics, commerce, commercial geography, commercial history, commercial and industrial law, currency and banking, taxation and finance, and political science. Classes were held in the morning and evening for working students.

In 1896 the Library was founded, known from 1928 as the British Library of Political and Economic Science.

Joining the University of London

In 1900 the School joined the reformed University of London, becoming the University’s Faculty of Economics. University of London degrees were first conferred on LSE students in 1902. 

The School’s new status required a permanent home and in 1900 the Bishop of London unveiled the foundation stone of our first building on Clare Market. Passmore Edwards Hall, built on land granted to the School by London County Council with funding from the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards opened in 1902.

On the eve of the First World War the School had 1,681 students which included 583 women and 234 students from overseas.

1919 to 1939

In 1919 William Beveridge was appointed Director, initiating a period of rapid intellectual and physical development for the School. 

In 1920 King George V laid the foundation stone by the main entrance on Houghton Street and in 1938 work was completed on a new building on the east side of Houghton Street. In 1925 Beveridge described the School as “an institution on which the concrete never sets”.

The intellectual expansion of the School was supported by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1931 in a speech to students, Beveridge declared: “Our scope is best defined as a study of man in society.”  Beveridge/5/10/16

In July 1921 Lilian Knowles was appointed Professor of Economic History – becoming the School’s first woman professor. Our first black academic, economist Arthur Lewis was appointed as an assistant lecturer In October 1938. He went on to win the Nobel Prize.

In 1933, William Beveridge was among the founders of the Academic Assistance Council (from 1936 the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) providing practical support for senior German professors dismissed on racial or political grounds. Appointments at LSE were supported by voluntary donations from staff.

Second World War

During the Second World War, LSE, under Director Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886-1966), was evacuated to Cambridge where we were hosted by Peterhouse College. The School continued to teach across the social sciences and courses were shared with Cambridge University and Bedford College. Student numbers fell and for the first time women outnumbered men among the student body.

In London Houghton Street was occupied first by the Ministry of Economic Warfare and then the Ministry of Aviation.

46 members of staff entered war service beginning with the School Secretary, Walter Adams, who worked for the Special Operations Executive and then became Deputy Head of the British Political Warfare Mission in Washington. 

At the Economic Section of the Offices of the War Cabinet, Lionel Robbins became Director in 1940 and played a major role at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference. 

Former Director William Beverige's The Beveridge Report, published in 1942, became the basis of the post-war Labour government’s legislation programme for social reform.

LSE returned to London in August 1945, marking our 50th anniversary by re-opening to students on 29 October.

1950s and 1960s

By 1951 the School had 2,200 regular students – 567 coming from outside the UK. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of consolidation and development as the School moved into the post-war world.

In 1950 Richard Titmuss was appointed to the Chair of Social Administration, leading the development of the Department of Social Policy and the psychologist, Hilde Himmelweit joined the School in 1949 and establishing the Department of Social Psychology in 1964.

In 1954, LSE sociologists produced the Nuffield-sponsored report on Social Mobility in Britain, the product of a five-year study that established the study of social stratification for the next 20 years.

Sir Walter Adams (1906-1975), the principal of University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, was appointed Director in 1967. The appointment was opposed by the Students’ Union and led to a period of unrest culminating in numerous sit-ins and the closure of the School after clashes with the School authorities over the installation of security gates. These actions secured student representation on School committees.

1970s and 1980s

Four Nobel Prizes in the Economic Sciences were awarded to economists with LSE connections during the 1970s: John Hicks in 1972, Friedrich Hayek in 1974, James Meade in 1977 and Sir Arthur Lewis in 1979.

In 1978 the Library moved from cramped accommodation in the Old Building into the former headquarters of WHSmith, now renamed the Lionel Robbins Building. The Library Appeal raised over £2 million and for the first time staff and students had direct access to the Library’s extensive collection of books and journals.

In 1986 the University Grants Committee judged the majority of LSE’s research “outstanding” and the Director, IG Patel, commented: “Our outstanding position in research at the frontiers of the economic and social sciences in this country (and abroad) has been recognised.”

This was confirmed in the 1989 Universities Funding Council Research Assessment Exercise when LSE scored 93 out of 100 marks.

Reaching the present

In 2006 the School obtained the right to confer our own degrees and the first LSE degree was conferred in 2008.

In recent years, LSE has continued to perform well in league tables and research impact exercises. 

Another area of focus has been developing our campus in the heart of London. We have established a presence on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The New Academic Building, designed by Grimshaw, opened in 2008, and in 2013, 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields became the home of the Department of Economics and related research centres.

The School’s first new build for 40 years was the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre. Designed by O'Donnell & Tuomey, the building was shortlisted for the 2014 Stirling Prize.

Today the Centre Buildings Redevelopment has re-shaped Houghton Street and Clare Market and won numerous awards. Work is currently underway on the Marshall Building at 44 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Our 125th anniversary celebrations in 2020 took place in the midst of a global pandemic. Part of our COVID-19 response was the Shaping the Post-COVID World initiative. It demonstrates the importance of social science research and investigation to the world we live in. 

LSE continues to develop and change but our founding purpose remains as important as ever.