Memories are made of this

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The Founders building is the heart of the College. As soon as you enter the grounds through the main gates it strikes you in all its glory. Many alumni were struck by it when they arrived for their interview or when they first started their course and spent many hours in it during their student days. There were reported hauntings on some of the upper floors and the clock tower always let you know that time was passing.

As well as providing accommodation and dining for a large number of female students it also provided:-

  • the administrative centre for the University
  • the location for a high proportion of lectures and seminars
  • the main meeting room
  • Picture Gallery
  • Health Centre
  • Chapel
  • Student Union offices

In the 70s the accommodation rooms all had working gas fires which were ideal for toasting crumpets or just for creating a cosier atmosphere. These days the fire regulations mean that there are no gas fires any more and any alarm guarantees the arrival of several fire engines within minutes.

The construction of the building began in 1874, and was completed in 1881. The building and the college were a £600,000 "gift to the nation" by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. It was designed by the architect William Henry Crossland, and inspired by the Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley, France.

The building was officially opened in 1886 by Queen Victoria, who allowed the use of "Royal" in the college's name by Royal mandate. A statue of Queen Victoria sits in the centre of the north quadrangle. The centre of the south quadrangle contains a statue of Thomas Holloway and his wife Jane. The marble statues were sculpted by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (Count Gleichen).[1]

The Founder's Building houses the Picture Gallery, containing a collection of over 70 pieces of Victorian era art given to the college at the time of its founding by Thomas Holloway. The college's Main Lecture Theatre, non-denominational chapel, and one of three libraries on the RHUL campus are also housed within the building.

Today, the offices of the Department of Politics and International Relations, the Department of Classics and some offices of the School of Management are housed in the building, while other academic departments of the college are located in more modern buildings on the college's campus. Many of the college's main administrative offices remain within the Founder's Building. It is also a Hall of Residence for the campus, with rooms for over 470 students. A bar within the building is named "Crosslands" in honour of its architect.

It is the one aspect of the College that has remained most similar from outside - and inside, at first glance, but subtle changes in many areas have been made to make it more comfortable, more secure and more capable to deliver the facilities required by the student population today.

The Collection of paintings was to provide an essential element for the fulfilment of Holloway's ideal of a first-rate educational establishment. The importance he placed on the Collection illustrates a typically Victorian belief in art as the ultimate civilizing influence. Like literature, art could teach; not only in the obvious sense of portraying a moral lesson, or illustrating an edifying text; but, in its own unique and inimitable way, through the medium of visual beauty. A picture collection of the first quality would add the ultimate refinement to a programme of education for young ladies.

Heedless of cost, and using the only criterion he understood — his own judgement — Holloway made his selection, with the aid of his brother-in-law George Martin, almost exclusively from Christie's sales' catalogues. All but five of the pictures were acquired in this way, and only once is Holloway known to have been outbid. A considerable furore arose in the press in protest against the artificially high prices which his methods stimulated, and against the fact that it was the dealer rather than the artist who benefited. But like other self-made Victorian collectors of little education, Holloway was wary when purchasing pictures. A sound provenance was crucial to him; and he felt that this was more likely to be provided by the major dealers and auctioneers than by private vendors.

The collection

Among the scenes of contemporary Victorian life, Holloway was fortunate enough to acquire several of the most important ever produced. Frith's Railway Station (1862), a fitting successor to his Derby Day, now in the Tate, is the most potent and revealing image ever painted of mid-Victorian urban life. Like Holloway a self-made man, Frith proudly included himself in the centre of the picture as the typical Victorian paterfamilias, surrounded by his family and other varied groups, representing every class of society from the criminal to the aristocratic young bride. This entertaining panorama provides a stark contrast with two of the most significant works by a group of artists known as `Social Realists'.

Luke Fildes' Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874) remains the most savage indictment of poverty and homelessness produced by any Victorian artist; and Frank Holl's Newgate: Committed for Trial (1878) demonstrates the tenuous hold of the poor on respectability and the means of survival, both instantly under threat when the breadwinner takes to crime.

Read more: Picture Gallery

The quads were typically those places you passed through when travelling from one part of Founders to another but they also provided a venue for the occasional event such as a poetry reading or summer tea.


 The beautiful gilded chapel includes sculptures by Ceccardo Fucigna and a fine 3-manual organ. The Chapel is non-denominational and there are a variety of services and events held including Choral Evensong from the 1662 prayerbook, Compline and Catholic masses, with music usually playing a central role. Royal Holloway is also the only university that still maintains a tradition of sung morning services.

Read more: Chapel


The Picture Gallery is housed on the west side of the northern wing of the Founders Building. It houses a selection of pictures, many of them acquired by Thomas Holloway between 1881 and 1883 - the last years of his life. There were 77 paintings that made up the original collection which cost about £80,000 at the time (equivalent to over £6,000,000 in today's terms).

The picture collection has been on tour in recent years but has now returned to the picture gallery. The gallery itself has become a secure area with limited access. I have memories in the 70's of attending parties in the gallery with smoking, drinking and dancing in near darkness - and am wholly unable to reconcile that with the way the paintings are protected today. Does anyone else remember this or is it a false memory of mine?

Certainly the gallery was used for exams with single desks and chairs lined up in columns along the lenght of the room. There was one painting - Man Proposes, God Disposes - which used to be covered with a blanket during the exams as it was rumoured to be bad luck to see it while being tested.

There must be many other stories from the time - so time to get your recollections rolling and submitting an article about the gallery, some of the pictures, events that took place in there or some of the history and development of it.

The lecture theatre was one of the few locations at the College able to house a large group of people though, even at the beginning of the 70s, it was insufficient to hold all the students. It was a location for lectures, union meetings, film evenings and a variety of meetings.

Each bench seat would hold over a dozen people so once you were seated getting out again was no easy task and the hard wooden benches oftem made you want to get out. 

This section of the site will hold memories associated with the lecture theatre.

The Chapel was a magnificent location (and still is) and a centre for a significant number of students. This section will contain memories of events in the Chapel or stories associated with it. Whether you attended services regularly or only visited once jot down some of your thoughts about how its availability affected your time at the College and share them with others.

The Health Centre was one of those locations that you knew about but were never keen to visit. Some students spent time in there having been taken ill, had an accident or needed to recover from some incident. How many staff were there? How many beds / rooms were there? Were you one of the people that spent time there and how did you feel about it at the time or with hindsight?

The ground floor of the East wing at the Southern end of the building housed the office of the Union President and assorted other folk. Did the Social Secretary have an office there? What actually went on, what did the union officials spend their time doing? Some memories of who did what and when would liven up this part of the site.

How many people spent any time really understanding the parts of the building facing into the quads. There were hundreds of rooms that looked out over them and most people walked through them on a regular basis. They were occasionally used for poetry readings or picnics. This section of the site will (hopefully) develop to include some recollections of these areas.

The clock tower, the library, the admin offices; all were housed in Founders. Was there a TV lounge, a coffee bar, a common room. Were there tunnels linking Founders to the boiler room, was the top floor really haunted. Weren't those old fashioned lifts a pain to wait for but a joy to play in. What other parts of Founders do you remember.