The college opened in Battersea in 1872 as a teacher training college for women, drawing some of its first intake of 105 students from Westminster College. With the development of infant work it quickly gained a reputation for the teaching of reading. From 1903 onwards a few students followed degree courses, but in 1930, coinciding with the move to Wimbledon Parkside, only a two-year certificate course was permitted by the Board of Education. Between 1940 and 1946 the college was evacuated to Weston-super-Mare. In the 1960s, as extended certificate and degree courses were introduced, the college broke new ground by admitting men in 1965, offering diversified academic courses and the B.Ed., and, in keeping with its foundation, introducing professional training courses concerned with inner-city schools and ethnic minorities.
Southlands survived the college closures of the 1970s by joining with Digby Stuart (RC), Whitelands (CofE) and Froebel Colleges to form the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education in 1975. Each college retained its Principal and governing body and the Institute acknowledged their traditions and purposes. In 1997, when Southlands moved to new buildings in Roehampton Lane, close to Digby Stuart and Froebel Colleges, the Institute had 6,557 full and part-time students following undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and professional course validated by the University of Surrey. Of these, 1,294 were members of Southlands College. In 2000 the Roehampton Institute became the University of Surrey Roehampton and in 2010 the Southlands governors entered into a 125-year leasehold agreement by which the premises were transferred to the university.