UCL versus KCL: Diving into the 200-year rivalry

The history of how these two famous institutions came to be rivals is linked deeply with the development of British society. Yet many students that apply to the two are completely unaware of it.


Asha Bukharbaeva

9/12/20235 min read

University College London (UCL) and King’s College London (KCL) are considered two of the best-performing universities in the UK, so it is only natural that they should be enemies. The United Kingdom is well known for being home to some of the oldest universities in the world. But London only welcomed its first university seven centuries after the UK’s oldest university – the University of Oxford – had been established in 1096. The history of how these two venerable institutions came to be rivals is deeply intertwined with the development of British society. Yet many students that apply to the two are completely unaware of it.

When was UCL founded?

The “London University”, now known as UCL, was founded in 1826. The University was created as an alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, that were only giving degrees to members of the Church of England. UCL, on the other hand, was the first university to admit individuals regardless of their religion. Later on, the capital’s first institution was also the first to admit female students on equal terms with male students.

When was KCL founded?

UCL’s liberal approach to education and it being founded by Jews, Utilitarians and non-Anglican Christians were not praised by members of the Catholic elite at the time. They believed the capital of the country should have an institution that corresponds with the Church’s values. That is why in 1829 they have founded King’s College London (KCL), that was initially supposed to be a religious, catholic institution.

Image: UCL Main Library in black and white. UCL is one of the oldest universities in the UK.

When did the UCL and KCL rivalry begin?

Differentiating on both religious beliefs, purposes, and styles, it is not surprising that the rivalry between the schools has started shortly after. Since the late 19th century, KCL and UCL were highly involved in Student Rags – a series of charitable student fundraising activities – that also featured some long-running campaigns to capture each other’s mascots. UCL’s mascot, Phineas Maclino, and King’s Reggie the Lion have both become victims of violent student acts. Following the Second World War, Reggie the Lion was kidnapped multiple times by UCL and other London colleges students. In some cases, the statue was transported to other cities, like Inverness and Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, where Reggie was dumped. What is more, the poor lion was also emasculated with a tin opener, so after the full restoration, it was decided to fill Reggie with concrete to prevent further kidnap attempts. However, KCL students have also been guilty of some violent acts, including the infamous robbery of UCL founder Jeremy Bentham’s head.

The interwar period of 1919-1938 was marked by a rise in tensions among students. Student life at the time was flourishing with new social, sport, and fundraising activities, and more Student Rags were being organized in the London. In December 1922, KCL students stole Phineas and ignored UCL’s demand to return him to his usual residence. As a result, UCL students stormed KCL's quad. Strand Campus of KCL was guarded by students with rotten fruits and vegetables taken from Covent Garden Market nearby. A truce was enforced only after the police had arrived to the battle scene, however several students had been injured and a part of a balustrade of the building had collapsed by then.

1927’s Student Rag has also left its mark on the history of the rivalry. This time, it started with UCL students capturing Reggie and filling his body with spoiled apples before returning it to King’s. In response, a group of female KCL students marched to UCL at dawn, chanting "For Reggie!", while their peers entered through the back entrance and seized the bust of Jeremy Bentham. The next day, KCL students taunted their rivals by parading the captured bust outside UCL. The rivalry reignited a week later, focusing on the UCL quad, where both sides engaged in battle using rotten eggs, fruits, and vegetables as ammunition. The intense clash led to at least six students getting injured, who were subsequently taken to the nearby University College Hospital for treatment.

Image: A statue on the KCL campus which was created to pay homage to Reggie the Lion.

What is the UCL and KCL rivalry like today?

Nowadays, the rivalry extends beyond mascot stealing and Student Rags. Official Varsity matches are being held annually in various sporting disciplines including football, tennis, rugby, rowing, and many others. The event is meant to identify the Best University Sports Team in each discipline and overall based on the number of disciplines won. Varsity is considered to be one of the most popular events each academic year, with tickets being sold very fast and special varsity merchandise created for each year available to be purchased at the KCL and UCL campuses. Students also create special chants aiming to discourage their opponents, media teams are being prepared for capturing the best moments of the tournament, and members of each sports team are training to showcase their best performance. Overall, Varsity is a very big deal, especially when it comes to two universities that have been rivals for about two centuries. UCL was successful at the last Varsity, as they won the cup collecting twice as many points as KCL.

Conclusion: Productive competition that carries through to today

In general, the KCL-UCL rivalry has stood the test of time and remains a significant aspect of both institutions' identities. It has become a source of inspiration encouraging students to strive for excellence and showcasing the best of what each university has to offer. The fierce competition has led to advancements in research, academics, and the overall student experience. Additionally, the rivalry has also contributed to London's reputation as a global academic hub, attracting talented individuals from around the world.

If you’re thinking of applying to either UCL or KCL, it’s worth bearing in mind how their founding histories impact the universities today. Whereas UCL is slightly better known for having an excellent analytic philosophy department, thanks to its utilitarian underpinnings, KCL is more known for continental philosophy, arts, and religious studies. UCL does also tend to rank slightly higher for scientific subjects, whereas KCL has been home to many influential writers. If you’re struggling to choose which universities to apply to, feel free to reach out at oxbridgefasttrack@gmail.com or hello@oxbridgefasttrack.com, and we are happy to offer a free initial consultation!