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Our history

Since Queen Victoria presided over the grand opening of Royal Holloway on 30 June 1886, the College has continued to grow in size and status to become one of the top research-led institutions in the country.

Today, Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, is regularly welcomed as a distinguished guest in her role as the present Chancellor of the University of London. This maintains our privileged association with royal families past and present.

Find out more about our royal visits on our Royal Connections timeline|.

Our connections with Runnymede and the Magna Carta| are celebrated annually through the lecture series marking the forthcoming 800th anniversary of the signing of the document, which happened in Runnymede in 1215. The lectures are hosted by Royal Holloway in association with the  Magna Carta Trust|.

Explore our history further by clicking on the tabs below, viewing the College Archives  |or by checking out our timeline|.

Royal Holloway’s founder Thomas Holloway was a self-made multi-millionaire. Born on 22 September 1800 in Devonport to a baker and his wife, he made his fortune in patent medicines.

After pursuing a mercantile career in France and failing to set himself up as a merchant in England, he turned to medicine. In October 1837, he started advertising his first remedy – Holloway’s Universal Family Ointment – in the Sunday Times.

Hollowaypillpots During 1839, he started making digestive pills and moved to large premises on the Strand. In 1840, he married Jane who was 15 years his junior. His business in patent medicine continued to expand thanks to Holloway’s grasp of publicity in an era where newspapers were springing up in Britain and the rest of the world.

He regularly visited the London docks to bring his products to the attention of ships’ officers and passengers and to gain information about overseas markets. Holloway also wrote thousands of letters to missionaries and other foreign residents to discover the best newspapers to advertise in abroad.

By 1879, Holloway had more than enough money to initiate a public debate inviting suggestions as to ‘How best to spend a quarter of a million pounds or more’. It was his wife Jane who suggested a college for women as the means by which Holloway’s money might create the ‘greatest public good’. Royal Holloway was born.

Holloway’s first great philanthropic enterprise, the Sanatorium at Virginia Water, which opened in 1885, was followed by Royal Holloway College.

The latter was largely inspired by the Château Chambord in the Loire Valley and was opened by Queen Victoria in 1886.

Built around two quadrangles, today, the College continues to impress as much by its size as by the exuberance of the roofline with its many turrets and towers. As solid as it is extravagant, it epitomises the wealth, optimism and spirit of philanthropy so characteristic of the Victorian age.

Founder’s Building is now home to students, staff and the Royal Holloway Collection. The Collection consists of Victorian paintings comprising Millais, Frith and Landseer among others housed in the Picture Gallery  – this was the final touch to Holloway’s generous endowment.

Elisabeth Jesser Reid,nee Sturch, a pioneering social reformer, founded Bedford College (which later merged with Royal Holloway) in 1849. It was the first college in Great Britain for the higher education of women.

Our history

Reid was born in London on 25 December 1789 to a wealthy Unitarian ironmonger and his wife. In 1821, she married the physician John Reid who died 13 months later. After her husband’s death, Mrs Reid used her independent income to support benevolent schemes set up by women as well as anti-slavery campaigns in America.

A college for women had been Reid’s dream since childhood so she put up the money to found Bedford College in 1849.  Expecting hundreds of applications, the College only received a dozen or so at first, mostly from Reid’s friends. Notable students of Bedford College in its early days included Sarah Parker Remond, the first black woman to undertake a lecture tour in Britain on the slavery question, artist Barbara Bodichon and novelist George Eliot.

In 1900, both Bedford and Royal Holloway were admitted as Schools of the University of London, when it was constituted as a teaching university.

Today, the University of London is made up of 19 institutions and offers the widest range of higher education opportunities in Great Britain.

During the 20th century, Royal Holloway was home to some notable women including the novelist Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett DBE, the first female professor at Harvard Professor Helen Cam CBE and Countess Frances Lloyd-George CBE, the wife and private secretary to Prime Minister David Lloyd-George.

In 1912, the College appointed Margaret Benson as Professor of Botany – the first female professor in Great Britain, while its students included Richmal Crompton and Ethel Williams.

During the Second World War, Bedford College was evacuated to Cambridge while Royal Holloway remained in Egham. In 1944, the latter appointed Sir William Hunter McCrea FRS head of Mathematics. His discovery that the sun is mainly composed of hydrogen led to the development of the Big Bang Theory.

Between 1954 and 1960, our notable graduates included Jean Rook, Baroness Janet Fookes DBE and Professor David Bellamy CBE.

Both establishments admitted male undergraduates for the first time in 1965 becoming fully co-educational. Their commitment to women’s education remained.

In 1982, the partnership agreement between Bedford and Royal Holloway was signed as a result of severe cuts in government spending on higher education. This paved the way for the merger in 1985.


The newly merged Royal Holloway and Bedford new College was inaugurated in 1986 by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at a ceremony in the College Chapel. The merger provided more academic diversity and strength as well as greater financial security. It also preserved the pursuit of innovation and excellence which characterised the founders of the two establishments.

Notable students of the merged Colleges included Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s first foreign minister, Emma Freud OBE, director of Red Nose Day and Simon Thurley CBE, chief executive officer of English Heritage.

In 1992, the College Council, on the recommendation of a group established to look at the College identity, endorsed a proposal that the College should present itself under the shorter name Royal Holloway, University of London.

The full name was retained as the registered title. The adoption of Royal Holloway, University of London, as the College’s everyday title does not mean we have lost sight of the unique contribution made to education by Bedford College. The Bedford heritage is still commemorated in many ways, including the Bedford Library.

After this, the Brit award-winning singer and songwriter KT Tunstall graduated in Music and Drama in 1996 and the Information Security Group won the Queen’s Prize for Industry in 1998. 

The Celebration Year 2000 – marking the Bicentenary of Thomas Holloway’s birth – provided an opportunity to both look back to Royal Holloway’s beginnings and to make future plans. 

A major programme of new building and renovation, an investment of £100 million, between 2003 and 2008 has delivered state-of-the-art facilities both for teaching and improving the campus as a living environment. New buildings include the Windsor building, modern halls of residence and places to eat such as Imagine and The Hub. 

Basketballvolunteering In 2003, Community Action Volunteering was founded to allow students to help out in their local area and on campus, while gaining transferable skills. Ten years on, this scheme is still going strong and continues to attract large numbers of students. 

In the same year, Sir Andrew Motion, the poet laureate at the time, was appointed Professor of Creative Writing, while rapper and singer Example was one of our notable graduates.

Comedian Lenny Henry CBE gained an MA in Screenwriting in 2010. In the same year, renowned alumnae sopranos Dame Felicity Lott, Susan Bullock and Sarah Fox performed at the College to mark the Silver Jubilee of our merger.

Sophie Christiansen

The following year (2011), Sophie Christiansen, the winner of five Paralympic Gold medals, graduated in Mathematics. As a mark of her achievements, we have a golden post box on campus.

Continuing on the Olympics theme, Royal Holloway became the Olympic Village for Rowing in 2012. Meanwhile our particle physicists contributed towards the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

2013 is now off to a good start as our Music department was awarded a prestigious Regius Professorship by the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee.  Only two of these Professorships have previously been created in the last century.

We have grown substantially in the last 25 years and today we have a student population of more than 8,000 and a worldwide network of alumni, which is some 40,000 strong.

Royal Holloway and Bedford New College: A History


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