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The London Centre


by Jamie Huish

Winter evenings in England fold in with soft gray and blue tones and a breeze of cool air, often accompanied by a light drizzle. Streetlamps cast halos of light, and the cozy city buzz drones on as people pop umbrellas, board double-decker buses, or duck into Tube stations heading for home.

Inside two stately Victorian mansions on 27 Palace Court in Kensington, the evening glow from lamps reflects cheerfully on forty-one college students, two resident managers, and four faculty members, who, with their families, bow their heads in prayer, and then meet at the large oak tables for an evening meal. Some students eat quickly and don coats and scarves to guard against the cold night—there are shows to attend, plays to see, and a whole new side of the city to explore.

To Be or Not To Be . . .

The London study abroad program began small but determinedly. The program kicked off in June 1975 with twenty-eight students directed by Stanley A. Taylor, a political science professor,
and John B. Harris, an English professor. Students and faculty lived at the Onslow Gardens hotel and attended classes nearby at the Hyde Park Chapel.1

It was not the first program of its kind. The first BYU student international study program began in 1958, with students studying French in Canada. A few Spanish-language programs in Mexico cropped up at the same time, but they were held inconsistently with professors primarily working on their own. Dean Harold Glen Clark, of the Division of Continuing Education, questioned the possibility of regular study abroad programs in the early 1960s. At Clark’s request, Richard H. Henstrom, associate dean, conducted a national study of existing study abroad offerings at other universities. Henstrom worked with Robert C. Taylor, Department of Travel Studies chair, to examine BYU’s options. Both decided BYU would benefit from such programs.

An official BYU study abroad program began in Salzburg, Austria, in 1965. Studies focused on intensive language training with an emphasis on music and the humanities. Directed by the Division of Continuing Education, programs expanded to include French language in Grenoble, France, Ancient Near East studies in Jerusalem, and Spanish-language training in Madrid.

As property rates rose and student involvement grew, the Division of Continuing Education considered finding permanent property for the programs. Up to that point, students had been housed in university dormitories or private homes in the various countries. The university purchased property first in Vienna, then Paris, Madrid, and, finally, Jerusalem.2

Initially, interest in study abroad centered on language programs—London did not receive immediate attention. Richard Henstrom recalled sitting in a Continuing Education board meeting in the early 1970s when Elder Thomas S. Monson raised the question of why the university had not considered sending students to London.3 Students had also been inquiring about the possibility of studying in London, so Henstrom again began investigating to see if the option was economically sound and academically feasible. The board decided to approve an experimental program beginning with Taylor and Harris in 1975.4

Students loved being in London from the beginning said Harris. He and Taylor coordinated curriculum to teach English literature, history, and humanities. Their goal was to bring a wider experience to the students than they could get in Provo. Harris recalled sending students on little assignments as they traveled the six blocks between the hotel and their classrooms. He would send them on excursion exercises to examine the architecture at Royal Albert Hall or to investigate inexpensive restaurants to get the students involved in the city.

Taylor viewed the early programs as a good start but difficult for ongoing work since the hotel where the students lived also housed regular travelers. “The room quality was spotty, and the costs were quite high. At times, the walk from the hotel to the Hyde Park Chapel was difficult,” he said.

After a year, the board approved the London program for open-ended continuation. At this point, the division began to cast its vision beyond the hotel to a permanent place for the students in London.

A Residence of Their Own

As the program expanded, the need for an actual BYU facility in London became pressing. Local inflation, coupled with the need to consolidate living and learning facilities and ensure university-standard accommodations, led the board to recommend the purchase of a suitable space. Dean Stanley Peterson appointed Henstrom to find a suitable facility.5

Finding the perfect space was a stiff order. The location needed to be accessible by Tube, with a suitable proximity to museums, theatres, and local sights. The program needed a building in quality condition that would hold up under the wear and tear of students year-round, while still providing a comfortable living environment. Dormitories, living areas, and classrooms, with a separate area to house the faculty and their accompanying families, was imperative.

Henstrom scoured the city but remained unsatisfied with any facility he saw. Finally, he took to the streets, searching up and down for any For Sale signs in the ornate, elegant windows of London boroughs. During that trip, his real estate agents became aware of a building in Notting Hill, in the Kensington borough. He immediately went to the site to inspect the building. A former Polish Embassy, 27 Palace Court was then being used as a training area for international medical residents by the King Edward Hospital Fund of London.6 Henstrom noticed the adjoining building, 29 Palace Court, also belonged to the hospital.

“The location and the facility was ideal. I told them if they’d sell both, we’d buy them immediately, and we’d pay cash,” Henstrom said.

After making purchase arrangements, Henstrom went about the arduous task of sorting through the legalities associated with foreign real estate. As each borough has its own rules for purchasing and owning property, it took legal experts on both sides of the Atlantic several months to wade through the paperwork.

Students occupied the London Centre during June 1977. The facility still includes five floors of classrooms, dormitories and living spaces for about forty people, with the neighboring connected building containing flats to house faculty and their families. The historic old building is not without its quirks. Students chuckle at the tiny closet enclosing the sole telephone, fondly referred to as “the booth,” which can get a little crowded on Sundays as students line up to phone home.

Having a space designed for the program benefited both students and faculty, as well as ensured the program’s continuance. Both noticed an increase in the program’s quality. At the centre, students live dormitory style, sleeping in communal bedrooms filled with bunk beds. Sharing a bedroom with thirteen other people and living out of a closet the size of a gym locker for four months can be an adjustment for some students, but it’s an easy tradeoff for the sights and adventures of living in the heart of a big city. Students traverse the streets and Tube systems daily, and soon they’re the ones being stopped on the street for directions. They know the baker in the corner cafe, the clerk at the local convenience store, and the Italian neighbor who walks her poodle in Hyde Park in doggie designer ensembles.

“Our own building allowed us to maintain better standards, develop a small library, have study areas, control our own kitchen, and spend less time during the day walking between the chapel and the hotel,” former director Stan Taylor said. “It was great to control our own classroom, have our own equipment, sit with students in the lounge, and discuss the day’s experiences without non-student lodgers all around us.”

The other European centers closed one by one after the board noticed an increase in expense that could not be met by the number of participants. As language was the main focus in the other centers, the university decided to house students with local families and provide them with an immersion experience to bolster their language skills.7 By contrast, the London Centre remains open and is filled to capacity year-round.

The City is Their Campus

Several mornings a week, students begin their day in the classroom on the centre’s second floor. While they look at slides and discuss the works of art in their textbooks, their professor plans a trip to the National Gallery, only a short Tube ride away, to view the paintings in person. Sometimes the classroom is abandoned altogether and lectures are held on-site at museums, galleries, or theatres. This hands-on philosophy has guided the program from the beginning.

“The city itself is an extension of our classroom,” said David Dalton, emeritus professor of music, who directed the winter 1981 London program, teaching humanities.

As part of his course, Dalton required his students to complete a final research project that forced them to get out on the streets and delve into their studies. One student wrote a paper on the composer Puccini’s time in London, where he was inspired to write Madame Butterfly. The student visited the Duke of York Theatre, where the opera was performed, as part of his research.

Dalton also urged his students to expose themselves to religions outside the LDS community. He took his students to an Anglican mass at a nearby chapel, and they watched a baptism performed by a female minister.

In another instance, Dalton took his students to Canterbury Cathedral to hear Evensong, an evening performance of praise sung by a young boys choir. Dalton wrote to the minister beforehand to ensure that his group would not be overstepping their bounds by attending and was assured that they were welcome.

“It was a very cold night, and we went in and felt sheltered,” Dalton said. “The Cathedral has a Druid feeling; it is draped with centuries.”

After listening to the performance, the minister said a prayer and invoked a blessing upon the students from BYU, blessing them that their studies might be beneficial and their experience would be expansive and culturally fit. All were deeply touched that this minister would go out of his way to focus on the students.

“If only we could be as hospitable to those of other faiths as we were treated here,” Dalton said.

Faith of Our Fathers

Though far from traditional LDS meetinghouses, students nevertheless have an opportunity to practice their faith. On Sundays, students head for the Tube station in small groups carrying hymnals, Primary manuals, and Sunday School lessons. They’re off to family wards all across the city to teach, strengthen, and worship with their British brothers and sisters. Many students have English ancestors, who left homes and birthplaces to follow the counsel of a prophet to move west. Now the students are the ones in a new land—heeding their prophet’s counsel to get all the education they can.

The religious educational opportunity became a dominant justification for retaining the London Centre as the other European centers closed. After visiting London, President Gordon B. Hinckley said he wanted the students to be out and about, learning about their heritage.8 As a result, students regularly take a religion course about Church history in England or world religions. “Not teaching Church history in England would be like being in Nauvoo without doing Church history,” said Lynn Elliot, International Study Programs director. “You could do it, but why would you want to?”

Students take field trips to memorable church sites in England where early missionaries first attracted converts. Benbow Farm, where Wilford Woodruff baptized and converted many early members, remains among the most popular. Students also visit Gadfield Elm, the first LDS chapel in Britain, and hold brief religious services commemorating the early Saints.

Around the World in Thirty Days

Though current students participate in two day trips a week, many programs also include additional travel during the semester. Groups travel to the North Country, Scotland, and sometimes Paris. When the other European centers were still open, programs would rotate for a month, spending a week at each. Shelley Larson participated in the rotation program during winter 1982. She loved the broadening experience of traveling outside the United Kingdom to see the places and masterpieces she had studied.

Her group went to the Van Gogh museum in France to see his works of art they had covered in a humanities class. Afterward, the students bought flowers at a neighborhood market and found Van Gogh’s grave in the local cemetery.

Some of Larson’s experiences, while memorable, weren’t always fun and games. After spending a week in Austria at the Vienna Center, the students boarded a bus to Yugoslavia.

“We got up at about 4:00 a.m. and were about an hour out when I woke up in a panic,” Larson remembers, “I left my passport on the back of the door in the room where I was staying in Vienna!” Embarrassed, but panicked, Larson made her way around sleeping students to the front of the coach and relayed the news to her professor. They turned the coach around, and she retrieved her passport in time. Larson still recalls the relief she felt.

“Thank goodness we weren’t all the way to the border when I realized,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know what they would have done with me then!”

Larson considers herself a much more seasoned traveler now and said London is responsible for giving her the “travel bug.” She moved to London this year with her husband and children so her husband can participate in a three-year exchange program with an international company.

“Study abroad is probably why I’m so open to doing this,” she said. “This will be an adventure, and I’m not afraid of it.”

Kip Clark in London (1983)

The centre itself has been through numerous remodels, the most significant one occurring right after the university acquired the property. Kip Clark participated in an early group to live in the newly renovated London Centre in 1983. His study abroad experience was a bit of a surprise, even for him.As an English major, Clark had taken several Shakespeare and British literature classes. Study abroad became his chance to see the places where his favorite authors had lived and wrote. “I’ve always been a humanities person, so seeing the museums and paintings, the landscapes, and the documents I’d read about made it real,” Clark said.

The city became a laboratory of living experiences for Clark. “I read Paradise Lost, then went to the house Milton lived in when he wrote it,” he recalled. “I learned how he was almost completely blind when he wrote it, so he would compose passages at night and tell them to a scribe in the morning.”

These experiences set the semester apart from any of Clark’s classes in Provo. “It’s the sense of actually being there and seeing things that you’re learning about,” he said. “It’s going to class in the morning and studying British history, then seeing the Magna Carta or attending Parliament in the afternoon.”

In addition to classes, the group also participated in short trips outside the city to notable sites and landmarks. One of Clark’s favorites was a conference about William Wordsworth, at the poet’s former home in the Lake District of northern England. Amid the damp greenery and wispy fog, Clark connected to the poems from his textbook.

“There were scholars from all over the world there, and many presentations went way over my head, but what I liked most was being in the actual area where Wordsworth wrote,” Clark said. “I remember going to the lake by Wordsworth’s, where he often wrote, and feeling a breeze off the lake. Wordsworth wrote about the wind as inspiration and it was so easy for me to imagine what he was feeling when the wind was blowing. I could get a sense of why it was his source of inspiration.”

The months away from Provo, in close proximity with so many students, also became a time for Clark to blossom socially. “I grew up shy, but there you’re around a constant source of friends with so many things to do, so you get to be really close,” Clark said.

At the London Centre, living together means eating, sleeping, studying, traveling, and exploring together. Friendships often take on a deeper bond as students experience things that are singular to their time spent abroad. Though students have the freedom to navigate the city alone or in small groups, many seek out like group members to share in unforgettable times and events. As do many study abroad participants, Clark still counts his former housemates from the London Centre as friends on a level different from his Provo comrades.

Former Study Abroad students (1980s) at the London Centre and environs.

Opportunity Cost

All the travel and adventure can be costly, and the London program continues to be more expensive than a semester spent in Provo. The program fills up quickly as eager students vie for a priceless experience. A few scholarships are offered to supplement some of these costs; the Mae Covey Gardner Award remains a foremost possibility.

Mae Covey Gardner was a daughter of Stephen M. Covey, who originally owned the Little America hotel chain. When Gardner’s father sold his companies, he bestowed his children each with an inheritance. Gardner wanted to do something beneficial with her portion honoring her mother, Hannah Ashdown Saunders Covey, a pioneer whose parents pushed a handcart to Utah. Gardner’s mother had also always been very interested in the humanities. Stan Taylor, then-Kennedy Center director, married a niece of Gardner’s and encouraged her to utilize her funds to benefit students in the London program.

“I learned that Mae Covey Gardner was going to make a fairly large donation to the university. Three programs were chosen to make a presentation as to how they would use the money—the Kennedy Center, the Marriott School, and the Clark Law School. I knew Sister Gardner, and I knew of her love for art and humanities. I developed a presentation showing how her money would be used to subsidize concert and museum attendance for all study abroad students. She liked the idea, and we received the award,” Taylor explained.

Gardner’s heritage was from Northampton, England, so she gravitated toward the idea of supplementing the education of students in the land of her ancestry. An avid traveler, Gardner filled her Salt Lake home with treasures from around the globe. Her trips were always preceded by careful study of each place she went including the people, the arts, and the culture.9

The money Gardner provided helped Taylor establish the Hannah Ashdown Saunders Covey Endowment with a threefold purpose. The money gave partial scholarships to London and Vienna students, who demonstrated a financial need. It also was used to subsidize the cost of group attendance of museums, plays, and performances. Some programs have used the money for Shakespeare plays at Stratford-on-Avon, others attended ballets such as Swan Lake, or a variety of musical or theatrical performances. Any remaining funds were intended for guest lecturers to be brought to the centre or in appropriate venues in the city such as galleries or theatres.

In honor of Gardner’s ongoing generosity, it was decided that the London Centre’s front parlor should officially be named the Mae Covey Gardner room. Decorated with plush settees and elegant draperies, the room was the perfect place to honor this benefactress. Henstrom commissioned a portrait of Gardner to hang permanently in the room, which was dedicated in 1987.

Karen Akagi, a recipient in 1983, said, “Without the grant, I would probably not have gone because of finances, so it was a real blessing to me.”

Akagi felt her time in London continued to benefit her after she returned to Provo. When writing a senior history paper for graduation, she chose to write about Charles Dickens and the Industrial Revolution, which she called a direct outgrowth from the learning experiences while in England.

“Interestingly, I read a lot of Dickens while on study abroad whom I had not read before. He wrote many of his works in the serial fashion—publishing one chapter at a time in the newspaper until the whole work was completed. I read his work, Great Expectations, in the reverse fashion. I bought a used paper back copy and took it with me. Students are limited in what they can take and luggage space is at a premium. I tore out the chapters as I read them and threw them away so my copy of Great Expectations got smaller and smaller as I traveled, until it was gone,” she recalled. Akagi won the European History Award for her paper that year.

Unearthing Generations

Karen Akagi’s real adventure came about halfway through her London semester when she prepared for a live-in experience. Students live with LDS families throughout Great Britain for about a week, seeing the culture and day-to-day life on a firsthand basis. Because they spend the majority of their semester in a group home, university officials feel that students also need to immerse themselves in the everyday living. Usually in pairs, students pack a gift for their host families and travel by bus or train to the coast of England, the North Country, or Scotland or Wales. Akagi counted this experience as a defining moment during her stay in the British Isles.

“I specifically requested Northern Ireland because my grandfather emigrated from Bangor, County Down, which is near Belfast. Surprisingly, and in my mind, miraculously, they found a host family in Northern Ireland! Not only that, but the family lived in Bangor, the very town I had hoped to see! So I had a very special visit to the hometown of my grandfather’s family.

“The McFerran family had all left for America in the early 1900s, so I did not expect to find relatives there, but I hoped to find a family gravesite. Being a very naïve, untrained genealogist, I only knew they lived in Bangor at the turn of the century and helped build the Bangor wall. So my week with the Napier family, I set out to explore the cemeteries. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. There were several cemeteries, and I needed to choose between Protestant and Catholic. Finally, I was directed to an old church with a rundown, unkempt graveyard. As I poked around the dilapidated markers and overgrown grounds, unexpectedly, I found a very weather-worn marker with the name McFerran on it. It was the gravesite of my great-great-grandfather along with other family members! I took a picture of the marker and copied the information.”

Akagi also gained an appreciation for the sacrifices Church members make for their faith. For a girl from California, it was an eye-opening memory:

At that time, there was one stake. The prospects for marrying another Mormon were very slim. Basically, you helped convert someone and married them or else married them and then hoped they would convert. It was also difficult for the boys to serve missions. Usually, they would start apprenticeships at sixteen for their trade. They would work for the next four years hoping to get a job with the same firm you apprenticed with. It was very difficult to go on a mission and come back and get a job. I was very impressed with the members I met and their faith. They were committed to the gospel even though it was not convenient or popular in their country. I also learned firsthand about the religious and political conflicts in Northern Ireland.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways . . .

In 1986, the Division of Continuing Education transferred the responsibilities of study abroad to the Kennedy Center, under the direction of Ray C. Hillam, where it was deemed most appropriate. In 2000, the department was renamed International Study Programs to reflect the broad range of programs beyond traditional study abroad now available to students.

Today the London program remains the most popular study abroad choice, sending about 160 students overseas each year. Of the students who participate in an international study program, one in six goes to London. Typically, three times as many students apply as get accepted.10

The program is continually improved with suggestions from students and faculty. The university is striving to provide an excellent, choice experience that reflects the same goals since the program’s earliest conception. “We’re looking to give new perspectives, new outlooks, and new worldviews to our students,” Elliott remarked. “It forces you to reveal why you do things the way you do and hopefully makes people more tolerant and less judgmental.”

While students from all majors are encouraged to apply, directors place emphasis on majors, such as English or humanities, that will especially benefit from the curriculum. The curriculum itself has been standardized to include British literature, humanities, social sciences, and religion classes with some variation depending on the director.

The London Centre, freshly remodeled in spring 2005, includes new couches and dining room tables, but the same happy din of students and professors clamors on. Formal studies are finished for the day, but each hour brings new learning experiences for BYU students in the London study abroad program. Summer students lounge in upstairs window alcoves as breezes filter in through the open bedroom windows. They snack on British candy and cookies, while giggling at pictures from their most recent daytrip. Relaxing on their bunks, other students flip through tour books about the city, planning tomorrow’s activities. Every group feels a connection to the centre and the city; this is their place, their home abroad.

Each group will come and gain what they never could from sitting in a campus lecture hall, staring at PowerPoint slides. These students have seen it, touched it, heard it, and, most of all, felt it and lived it.

1. Henstrom, Richard H. The World is Our Campus: History of the Division of Continuing Education at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1875–1997, Brigham Young University, 1997, p. 311.
2. Ibid., pp. 287–291.
3. Interview with Richard H. Henstrom, 29 March, 2006.
4. Henstrom, Richard H. The World is Our Campus: History of the Division of Continuing Education at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1875–1997, Brigham Young University, 1997, pp. 311–312.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., Interview with Joseph O. Baker, 30 March 2006.
8. Interview with T. Lynn Elliott, 24 March 2006.
9. E-mail interview with Stanley A. Taylor, 28 March 2006.
10. Henstrom, Richard H. The World is Our Campus: History of the Division of Continuing Education at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1875–1997, Brigham Young University, 1997, p. 333.
11. Interview with T. Lynn Elliott, 24 March 2006.