While higher education may something we generally associate with more recent historical eras, London’s oldest higher educational institution in fact was founded in the dying years of the 16th century.
Gresham College was founded in 1597 by Sir Thomas Gresham (pictured, right) – son of Lord Mayor Sir Richard Gresham and the man behind the construction of the Royal Exchange (see our earlier post on Sir Thomas Gresham here) – according to instructions in his will (Sir Thomas died in 1579).
Under the terms of the will, part of his estate was left to the City of London Corporation and the Mercer’s Company and it is these who founded the organisation according to his request and still operate via the Joint Grand Gresham Committee.
According to the will’s terms, the corporation were to appoint professors in divinity, astronomy, geometry and music while the Mercer’s Company were given the responsibility of appointing professors in law, physic and rhetoric (a chair in commerce was added in 1985). There are also currently a number of visiting professorships.
The college – which was founded to provide free public lectures on subjects of scientific interest – is governed by a council with the Lord Mayor of London as its president.
Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (now the site of what was formerly known as the NatWest Tower) was the college’s first home. Professors, whose salaries were met by rental income from the Royal Exchange, continued giving lectures there until 1768.
Various locations around the city were later used for the college before the opening of a new college building in Gresham Street in 1842. It moved again in 1991 and is now based at Barnard’s Inn Hall in Holborn.
Among the professors who have held chairs at the college are architects Sir Christopher Wren (astronomy) and Robert Hooke (geometry) as well as Richard Chartres, current Bishop of London (divinity).
The college, which doesn’t enrol students as such and doesn’t award degrees, continues to provide more than 100 free public lectures every year and is also involved in running seminars and conferences and other initiatives.
For a detailed history of Gresham College, check out Richard Chartres’ and David Vermont’s book on the college’s history – www.gresham.ac.uk/greshamftp/historygreshm_bk2.pdf. For more on the college and its programme of events, see www.gresham.ac.uk. Lectures are available online.