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The Imperial Institute


The Imperial Institute was established in 1888 to hold and apply the property and assets arising from the contributions given almost exclusively by private citizens from across the Empire in a nationwide collection conceived by the then Prince of Wales in 1886 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. No funding was given by Her Majesty's Government (HMG). It had defined purposes which had a primary emphasis on the exhibition of collections to showcase the various countries' industrial and commercial products and development; and included industrial intelligence gathering and dissemination; the promotion of technical and commercial education; and the furtherance of colonization.

The Imperial Institute building was opened in 1893 by Queen Victoria. The Institute's early activities are detailed in its journals. It had a department of commercial intelligence and an active scientific and practical research department from 1895 which was principally engaged in research that supported the industrial and commercial development of the natural products and resources of the dominions and colonies.

The building proved too large for the Institute's needs and when HMG wished to find a home for the University of London, a transfer of leases was agreed in 1899 under which the Institute assigned its 999-year lease (with the consent of the landlord) to the Commissioners of Works, who contemporaneously sub-let back to it approximately half of the building, free of rent and rates and with the benefit of various communal services including maintenance, heating and lighting. The transaction also included a capital payment and in later years was portrayed as a gratuitous act of rescue by HMG, however while the Institute had an unencumbered property asset of such substance and value and the power under its Charter to borrow on the security of such assets, it was not at risk financially.

The Board of Trade became interested in the commercial and industrial intelligence that had been developed by the Institute, and advanced the view that the interests of both the government of the United Kingdom and the Institute could be best served if the purposes of both bodies were merged, with an indispensable condition of the proposed transfer being that "the buildings and funds of the Imperial Institute must not be employed for the general purposes of the State". This was effected in 1902 by statute with the then Prince of Wales remaining as President of the Institute. The building and endowment fund set up from the initial collection were recognised as charity assets which were consequently vested in its Trustees. With its President as Trustee and also as the responsible Minister, the Board of Trade was required to fulfil the purposes of the Institute, which remained unchanged.

Departmental and Ministerial responsibility was transferred to the Secretary of State for the Colonies by the Imperial Institute (Management) Act 1916 to reflect the development of administrative responsibility that had occurred since 1907. More comprehensive changes were made with the Imperial Institute Act 1925 after a substantial enquiry into the activities of the Institute, whose findings were considered at the Imperial Economic Conference of 1923. Its purposes were reconfigured with a change in prominence from the exhibition galleries, to the promotion of "the commercial industrial and educational interests of the British Empire".

The Imperial Institute was housed in a substantial and architecturally noted building of the same name on Imperial Institute Road (now Imperial College Road), which ran bertween Exhibition Road and Queen's Gate in South Kensington, from 1893. The building was designed by T.E. Collcutt and built by John Mowlem & Co from 1887 to 1894; and was paid for almost entirely by public subscription. Originally, it had three copper-roofed Renaissance-style towers, but a single 85-metre tower, Queen's Tower, (only saved owing to public pressure and the objections of the Royal Fine Arts Commission), is all that remains of the Imperial Institute after demolition in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for the expansion of Imperial College.

As the Trustees of the Imperial Institute were required by the Imperial Institute Act 1925 to hold the Institute buildings for the purposes of the Act, it was determined that a new Bill would be required to allow for the buildings to be demolished and the Imperial Institute to be rehoused. This was effected by the Commonwealth Institute Act, 1958 which included a name change for the Institute to the Commonwealth Institute to recognise the political developments with the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1949 and the increasing number of countries that had been granted independence and become members of the Commonwealth. At the time the responsible Minister was the Minister of Education. The Act also detailed the new site and parameters of size and cost for the new building; and stated that expenses incurred by the Trustees relating to the conditions of the lease of other net expenses incurred by the Minister of Education in connection with the Commonwealth Institute were to be "paid out of moneys provided by Parliament". This reflected the arrangements made in 1899 under which the Institute (then a Royal Charter company) was granted a fully repairing lease in exchange for releasing, at the request of the Government, approximately one half of its building for the use of the University of London.

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