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By Richard Jones

For those adventurous enough to penetrate the inner sanctum of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL a true surprise awaits.

Having turned, a sharp left you will find yourself confronted by a large, wooden and, it must be said, somewhat antiquated looking cabinet, in which sits a man in old-fashioned dress.

A walking stick sits between his legs, his large, and gloved, hands rest, somewhat uncomfortably on his knees. His glasses lie on the small table next to him, and his face stares out from beneath the brim of a particularly magnificent hat.

You can't help but agree with the college's observation that this cabinet and its occupant have, for many, many years, "been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors."


Jeremy Bentham was born in Spitalfields, East London, on 15th February 1748.

By the time of his death, on the 6th June 1832, he had succeeded in cramming an immense amount into his 84 years..

He was a philosopher, a jurist, a social reformer and, in addition to all his other momentous achievements, is regarded as the founder of modern Utilitarianism, the chief tenet of which is the principle that the greatest happiness of the greatest number...is the measure of right and wrong.

In death, his auto-icon (or self image) has most certainly stuck religiously to this guiding principle, as it has, most certainly, over the years, been a great source of happiness, amusement and bemusement to a great number of people.


Bentham is often referred to as a founder of University College London, a claim which, in the physical sense of the word, is not, strictly speaking true.

In fact, in any sense of the word it is demonstrably untrue.

What is most certainly true is that, many of the founders of UCL - in particular James Mill and Henry Brougham - were most greatly influenced by his belief that education should be available to all rather than, as had been the case at the traditional universities of Oxford and Cambridge, open only to the wealthy and/or members of the Church of England.

So, although not a founding father of the University, Bentham was most certainly a spiritual father.


In his will, drawn up shortly before his death Bentham gave detailed instructions about what was to happen to his body.

"My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct ... he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written Auto Icon. The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in the my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained ... my name at length with the letters ob: followed by the day of my decease. If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet ."


Bentham's original intention had been that his auto-icon should feature his own head (it had, after all, served him perfectly satisfactorily for 84 years) and he instructed that it should be preserved using a process known as desiccation, as practiced by New Zealand Maoris.

The head of Jeremy Bentham

Unfortunately, when the good Doctor Southwood Smith went to work on Bentham's head, the results of the mummification weren't quite as anticipated and he ended up looking like one of those modern celebrities who has undergone a few too many Botox injections.

In fact, the finished article looked positively repugnant, and so a wax head in Bentham's likeness was created, attached to the shoulders, and Jeremy Bentham's remains, dressed in his best clothes and padded out with hay, took up residence in the household of his disciple, embalmer, mummifier, and (almost) preserver, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith.

His real head, meanwhile, was placed between his feet and the glass eyes, which Bentham had, apparently carried around in his pocket for the ten years preceding his death, were inserted into its lifeless sockets, giving it an even more macabre appearance.


In 1850 Dr. Southwood Smith downsized to a smaller house and - well, you know what it's like, you have to get rid of a few prized possessions that you've horded over the years; cutlery, books, chairs, old coats, mummified friends inside eight foot high wooden cases - and so he offered the auto-icon to UCL who were happy to accept and thus Jeremy Bentham settled into the place that has remained his home for over 150 years.


And, it must be said, his time here has been, to say the least, eventful.

I mean, let's be honest about this, students and mummified remains co-existing in the same complex is a mix that is bound to lead to some memorable situations.

The presence of his (almost) mummified head, left in situ in the case between his feet, is rumoured to have proved an irresistible temptation to some students, and stories abound about its having been frequently stolen by the bounders over at King's College and only returned on payment of a King's ransom!

There is also a story that, on at least one occasion, students were found playing football with the cranium that once enclosed one of philosophies greatest brains, a story that, given the decidedly delicate state of the relic, seems extremely unlikely. But it's a good story nonetheless!

The head is now kept in a secure wooden box well away from those who would subject it to the indignities it has undergone in years gone by.

It is also claimed that Bentham's auto-icon is wheeled into meetings of the College Council where his contribution is noted in the minutes as "present but not voting".


But why did Jeremy Bentham instruct that his body be preserved in such a way that he could be ogled in death by anyone who happened to encounter him?

The honest truth is that we don't know his motivation.

Some say it was his idea of a posthumous practical joke aimed at posterity.

Others suggest that he may well have had an over inflated sense of his own importance.

Another suggestion is that he intended it to question religious sensibilities about life and death.

What is certain though is that, whatever his motivation, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon is a curious relic that amuses and bemuses onlookers in equal measure and which stands - or, to be more precise, sits - as a testimony to the man whose ideals and beliefs were a guiding principle in the founding of the London institution at which he has been an honoured resident for over 150 years.