This month marks the 140th anniversary of the official opening of, and the start of teaching at, University College, Dundee (now the University of Dundee). Kenneth from Archive Services gives us a brief overview of the genesis of the University.

There had long been interest in Dundee having an institution that provided University education, but starting such a venture required overcoming many challenges, not the least of which was obtaining the funds to do so. In December 1880, Dr John Boyd Baxter who had long been the leading advocate for starting a college in Dundee announced that he had secured the funding to make such a proposal viable.  This was because his distant relative, Miss Mary Ann Baxter, was prepared to donate the bulk of the money needed. A year later a deed of endowment was agreed  to found the College. Under Miss Baxter’s terms, this specified that all subjects taught would be open to students of both sexes and no member of the College would ever be required to declare their religious opinions both of which was unusual at the time.

Mary Ann Baxter

In 1882 work started on appointing staff and a site for the College was acquired at the west end of the Nethergate. This would see the four Georgian houses known as Whiteleys converted into the main College building, this was where the Tower Building now stands.

The original houses
Perth Road frontage early 20th century

The official inauguration of University College, Dundee occurred on Friday 5 October 1883 with 373 students enrolled, 75 of whom were women. Of the 373, 138 were day students (teaching started at 8am) and the remainder were signed up for evening classes.

The first matriculation record, the first two students were brother and sister of UCD’s first principal, William Peterson. The well known social reformer, Mary Lily Walker, is number 15.

The inauguration was marked with a poem by William McGonagall. It is very much in his unique style and pays particular tribute to the principal founder of the College, Mary Ann Baxter.


While it would be easy to mock McGonagall’s verse, the poem serves as a reminder of the fact that the start of university education in Dundee was seen as a major event and attracted much interest in Dundee at the time. Many of those who had advocated for a College, had done so because they felt that it was important for Dundee’s status to have a centre of higher learning. In historical terms, the events of the early 1880s would prove crucial to Dundee’s long term future, as today the city’s universities are at the heart of its economic and cultural life.

In 2022 the University published a report based on research into its links with slavery and in particular into the source of the fortune of the Baxter family. The report’s conclusion is that while the Baxters did not trade in or own slaves themselves, they were indirectly linked with slavery through the production and export of manufactured goods to transatlantic markets, and particularly clothing worn by enslaved people.


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