Hilaire Belloc was Head of English Language and Literature 1911-1913 at East London College (the former name of Queen Mary University of London). We recently re-discovered this connection because of a photograph in our collections. This role as university educator is not one that has been highlighted before in Belloc’s biography. He is otherwise remembered for his politics, poetry and journalism.
Image caption: Hilaire Belloc (centre) with his English class at East London College c. 1911-1913 [Ref. QM/SB/29/30]. This photograph was donated by the niece of Gladys Moore (third from right back row) whose recollection that Belloc was “hopeless!” on the reverse was remembered by her brother and noted by her niece.
This discovery is also surprising as it locates Belloc in the context of Edwardian East London, then one of the most deprived areas of London with a busy dockland industry. Belloc grew up and was at the time living in rural Sussex, which he idealised, and where his birthday is still celebrated as “Belloc Night” 27 July.
Belloc was born in France 27 July 1870 but the family soon moved to Slindon, Sussex after his father Jean-Hilaire Belloc died. His mother Bessie Rayner Parkes was an important women’s suffrage campaigner.
In 1895 Belloc received a first-class Master of Arts degree from Balliol College Oxford. He believed he was prevented from continuing to a fellowship because he was Catholic. He married Elodie Hogan, an American woman, in 1896.
Prior to his work at East London College he was an “extension lecturer” in Oxford 1896 and in 1897 he completed an American lecture tour. He published large amounts of literature including children’s stories, poetry, travel guides, political critiques, historical and literary criticism. He was literary editor of the Morning Post 1906-1910 and an elected Liberal MP for Salford South 1906-1910.
The period Belloc taught at East London College was a period of constant change as the college pushed for recognition within the University of London and a distinct identity from the wider People’s Palace project. He was appointed during a reorganisation of College departments and left as a result of another.
His appointment as Head of English Language and Literature was approved on his birthday 27 July 1911. He was required to “attend [the college] as far is necessary to enable him to be personally in touch with students and to act efficiently” in his role and was compensated £400 per year for his work (equivalent to around £50,000 in 2022).
He was also appointed to the Professorial Board on which all heads of department sat at East London College. He only attended two meetings of this however as the timing clashed with his “other business” (ELC minutes 5 Dec 1911).
Belloc gave his inaugural lecture 17th Oct 1911 on “English as a Classic Tongue.” He taught two classes for English Language and Literature Honours Day students and one for evening class students, both on a Tuesday. He also gave a fortnightly Wednesday Seminar in the 1912-13 session. His class titles were “The Angevin Origins of English Letters”, “The Rise and Decline of the Formal Heroic Couplet in English Verse”, “The Prose and Verse of the later 17th and 18th Century” and “The Formal verse of the Augustan age and 18th Century Prose”. He also gave two special public lectures in 1912-13 session “English Patriotic Verse” and “English Historians”.
By May 1912 East London College started bidding for funding from London County Council to create new “Chairs” (Professors). They were successful in securing a funded Chair in the Engineering Department and this freed up the funds for the college to pay for a Chair for the English Language and Literature department themselves. At the same time a new scheme for the foundation of East London College was being drawn up which established more formal administration. In it the Professorial Board was replaced by an Academic Board; this was sealed by the charity commissioners May 27 1913.
The new University Professor in the English department would replace the need for a Head of Department. Belloc was informed of his dismissal by the end of the 1912-13 session. He was never invited to apply for the role, perhaps because he could not compete with the cultural cache his replacement Sir Sidney Lee brought, or perhaps because of his perceived lack of commitment to East London College in his failure to attend meetings of the Professorial Board. The photograph of Belloc and his class is annotated on the back with “Hilaire Belloc – lecturer (hopeless!!)”. So perhaps his teaching style also left something to be desired.
A college history by George Godwin published in 1939 states “[The Department of English’s] development as a modern University Department can be dated from Sir Sidney Lee’s appointment to the Chair in 1913.” So by 1939 Belloc had been quite literally written out from the history of English at Queen Mary University.
While working at East London College Belloc continued to publish particularly focusing on politics and political history. We also know he participated in public debates on his views such as a the 1911 "Socialism and the Servile State: A Debate Between Messrs. Hilaire Belloc and J.R. Macdonald." He founded a weekly newspaper in 1911 The Eye-Witness (later called The New Witness) which criticised capitalism, communism, the British government’s corruption and is well known for breaking the Marconi scandal.
His critique of Jewish figures in power in his editorial from this period has an anti-Semitic prejudice. He later published a book in 1922 “The Jews” which was collected by the Leo Baeck Institute London for the study of German-Jewish history and culture. A note inside the book describes it as “a supposedly neutral approach to the "Jewish problem," littered with propagandistic assumptions and conclusions.” This attitude is interesting to consider in the light of the location of East London College within the large community of Jewish East Enders during this period.
1908 Hilaire Belloc joined the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League which opposed women being granted the vote in parliamentary elections. The League campaigned against women’s right to vote until 1918 when the right to vote for some women was won. While teaching at East London College Belloc would have taught mixed gender classes where women were “admitted on the same terms as men”. In fact, as is obvious from the class photo of Belloc, Arts subjects were dominated by women in this era. So Belloc was actively campaigning against the rights of his students to participate in society during this period.
Photograph of East London College English Literature and Language Class 1912 [Ref. QM/SB/29/30] Queen Mary University of London Archives
Queen Mary College Calendars 1911-1913 [Ref. QMC/TEMP/2] Queen Mary University of London Archives
East London College Professorial Board Minutes 1907-1913 [Ref. QMC] Queen Mary University of London Archives
East London College Minutes 1909-1913 [Ref. QMC] Queen Mary University of London Archives