IT was one of the first acts of her long and historic reign.

When Queen Elizabeth II took the throne 60 years ago, she soon confirmed university status for the Southampton University College.

Since then, the institution has gone from strength to strength, establishing itself as one of the country’s elite, and at the forefront of pioneering research in a wide range of important fields.

But the university’s story actually dates back 150 years, having begun life as a legacy of the heir of successful family of wine merchants, who had a vision of promoting the study of the sciences in Southampton.

When Henry Robinson Hartley died in 1850, he left virtually all his estate to the Corporation of Southampton, insisting it be used to “best promote the study and advancement of the sciences of natural history, astronomy, antiquities, classical and oriental literature in the town”.

Eight years and much debate later, the Corporation decided to use the £40,500 – about half of what Hartley had set out in his will – was to set up an institution.

With great fanfare, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston opened the Hartley Institution in High Street in October 1862, with facilities including a library, museum, reading room, lecture hall and five classrooms. By the turn of the 20th century, the Institution had become Hartley College, and in 1902 it achieved university college status.

After the Board of Education had slashed the newHartley University College’s funding because its students didn’t reach university standard, a delegation led by Vice- Chancellor Claude Montefiore, the co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, went to see Chancellor David Lloyd George.

The future Prime Minister agreed to reinstate the grants, but only if the college helped itself, and a move from High Street was hatched.

After cash was raised for new buildings, including an arts building, 28 lecture rooms, and single-storey, brick-built laboratories for biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, the renamed Southampton University College was officially opened in June 1914 at its new Highfield site by the Lord Chancellor Viscount Haldane.

By the end of the 1940s a “special relationship” was in place with London University over the setting and marking of final exams, and in 1951 work started on preparing a petition to the King to create a new university.

A year later, on April 29, 1952, 50 years after the Hartley Institution had become a university college, the Queen founded the University of Southampton by granting it a Royal Charter.

In the following decades, many of the homes around the campus have been incorporated into the university and later demolished to make way for the ever-growing facilities.

But the expansion has also happened away from Highfield, with the addition of halls of residence in Glen Eyre and Wessex Lane, the oceanography centre at Dock Gate 4, the acquisition of the former Richard Taunton College, the development of the University Science Park in Chilworth, and the purchase of the Winchester School of Art.

The university is now home to several world-leading research centres, including those studying optoelectronics, sound and vibration, life sciences, web sciences, origins of health and disease, statistical sciences and oceanography.

• Celebrate the university’s anniversary at Saturday’s community open day at the Highfield Campus from 10.30am to 4pm.