Samuel-Johnson-plaqueThere is only one official blue plaque in the square miles of the City of London – that which marks the property of lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson in Gough Square (he always did like to stand out from the crowd) – and, like many of the plaques in the scheme, it’s not even blue.

Samuel-Johnson-plaque2The plaque was among the 35 erected in the first 35 years of the scheme – this one in 1876 – and was done so by the Society of Arts which then ran the scheme (later the Royal Society of Arts). In common with most of the first 35 plaques, it is brown in colour.

In 1879, just three years after this plaque was erected, the Society of Arts came to an agreement with the Corporation of the City of London that the corporation – the governing body of the square mile – would commemorate sites of historic significance within its boundaries and the agreement has stood ever since.

The hundreds of “blue plaques” since erected by the City of London Corporation are rectangular in nature and commemorate everything from structures like the long-gone historic gate of Aldgate (88 Aldgate High Street) to homes of the notable such as martyred Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas á Becket (86 Cheapside).

There’s a searchable database of all the City of London plaques which can be found here.

And, of course, Dr Johnson’s house, which he lived in from 1748-59 which compiling his famous A Dictionary of the English Language (the first comprehensive English language dictionary), is now a museum – for details of that, see our earlier post here.

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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.

Thomas-GreshamGresham 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.

London’s oldest hospital – St Bartholomew’s Hospital in what is known now as Smithfield – was founded in the 12th century.

The hospital owes its foundations – like the neighbouring Priory of St Bartholomew (London’s oldest church – see our previous story on this here) – to Rahere, a courtier (possibly a minstrel or jester) at the court of King Henry I who, tired with triviality, may have become a priest.

In any event, after the death of Henry’s son William – he is believed to have drowned when the White Ship foundered in November 1120 – and that of his wife Queen Matilda, Rahere went on pilgrimage to Rome. He did so but contracted malaria while there and, while under the care of  monks, he vowed to found a hospital for poor men if he recovered.

He did recover and on his return journey had a vision of St Bartholomew who informed him that it was he who had helped him to recover and now desired him to found a church in Smithfield (then known as Smedfield).

Back in London, Rahere as he’d promised and, after petitioning the king, was granted a royal charter in 1122 to found the priory of Augustinian canons and the hospital.Work began in March 1123 and it was completed by 1145 when Rahere died (his tomb can still be seen in the church).

The hospital – one of a number in London at the time – was probably little more than a single hall with a chapel at one end. Other buildings and some cloisters were added later as was the Church of St Bartholomew the Less.

Under a charter of 1147, it was open to the needy, orphans, outcasts and the poor as well as sick people and homeless wanderers. In the 14th century, the definition was honed to include the sick until they recovered, pregnant women (until delivery) and for the maintenance of children born there until they were seven-years-old.

As well as the master (Rahere was the first), other ‘staff’ at the hospital initially included eight Augustinian brothers and four sisters but the hospital gradually became independent of the priory and by 1300, the hospital has its own dedicated master. By 1420, the two institutions had apparently become completely separate.

Following the Dissolution in 1539, the hospital was refounded in the 1540s thanks to a deal brokered between King Henry VIII and the Corporation of the City of London. Along with Bethlem, Bridewell and St Thomas’, St Bartholomews was one of four Royal Hospitals administered by the City.

The first regular physician – a Portuguese man by the name of Roderigo Lopez – was appointed around 1567 (he was later hung, drawn and quartered for an allegedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I). Among the most famous physicians to serve at St Barts in later years was William Harvey, renowned for having ‘discovered’ the circulatory system.

The hospital survived the Great Fire in 1666 but in the 1700s most of the medieval buildings, with the exception of the tower in the Church of St Bartholomew the Less, were demolished as the hospital was rebuilt to the design of James Gibbs. The new design featured a central courtyard with a Great Hall contained in the north wing, reached by a ‘Grand Staircase’ decorated with images of the Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda by celebrated artist William Hogarth.

The famous Henry VIII gate (pictured above) dates from 1702, slightly before Gibb’s rebuilding project. Other buildings have been added in more recent times.

In more recent times, the hospital was amalgamated with The Royal London and the London Chest Hospitals in 1994 with the establishment of The Royal Hospitals NHS Trust (now known as the Barts and The London NHS Trust). St Barts is now a specialist cancer and cardiac hospital.

There is a museum at the hospital which houses exhibits including a facsimile of Rahere’s grant of 1137 (now in the hospital’s archives), amputation instruments dating from the early 1800s once used by surgeon John Abernathy and a display on William Harvey. Hogarth’s paintings are visible from the museum.  There are also guided tours of the hospital.

WHERE: Museum at St Barts Hospital (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday ; COST: Free (donations welcomed); WEBSITE:  www.bartsandthelondon.nhs.uk/about-us/museums-and-archives/st-bartholomew-s-museum/