Where’s London’s oldest…higher education institution?

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.

Famous Londoners – Sir Thomas Gresham

Remembered primarily for having founded the Royal Exchange as a centre for commerce in London and Gresham College, Sir Thomas Gresham was one of London’s leading merchants and financiers and an important advisor to successive monarchs during the sixteenth century.

Gresham was born in Milk Lane, London, to merchant Sir Richard Gresham (himself Lord Mayor of London in 1537-38) around 1518-19. He studied at Cambridge before being apprenticed to learn the family trade with his uncle, Sir John Gresham.

In 1543, he was admitted to the Mercers’ Company and subsequently spent time in the Low Countries, residing principally in Antwerp and acting as an agent for King Henry VIII. In 1544 he married Anne Fernley, widow of another London merchant. He also had a house in Lombard Street at this time.

Sir Thomas became an important advisor  to King Edward VI, helping him alleviate financial concerns, a role he continued to play during the successive reigns of Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I (although he spent some time out of favor during Mary’s reign).

Knighted for his services to the crown in 1559, he proposed to built his ‘exchange’ in 1565, offering to pay for it himself if the City of London and Mercers’ Company provided the land. Modelled on the bourse in Antwerp with a trading floor and shops and offices set around a large central courtyard, it was officially awarded the title ‘royal’ by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.

Sir Thomas died suddenly in 1579, apparently of a heart attack, and left the majority of his wealth to his widow but included clauses in his will stating that after her death rents from the Royal Exchange be used to create a college which would see seven professors offer free lecturers on subjects ranging from astronomy and geometry to rhetoric and divinity.

Known as Gresham College, it became the first institution of higher education in London when it was founded in 1597 and was initially based at Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (it’s now based in Barnard’s Inn Hall and, as it has for the past 400 years, still offers free public lectures).

In 1666, Sir Thomas’ Royal Exchange burnt down along with much of London but it was rebuilt immediately afterward (King Charles II laid the foundation stone of the new building) and rebuilt again following another fire in 1838 (at the time the building was largely occupied by two insurance companies, one of which was Lloyds of London).

It’s this third building, designed by Sir Thomas Tite to resemble the original plan, which stands on the site today. While trading has long since ceased there – it’s now a luxury-end shopping centre – Sir Thomas’s symbol, the gold ‘Gresham Grasshopper’, can still be seen on the weathervane. For more information on the Royal Exchange, see www.theroyalexchange.co.uk.



Famous Londoners: Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington

In the first in an occasional series on famous Londoners, we take a look at who Dick Whittington really was.

While he’s remembered by many today as a poor boy who made a fortune by cleverly trading his mice-catching cat, Richard Whittington was in fact born into a noble Gloucestershire family around 1350 and, after coming to London, rose in power and influence to become a four time Mayor of London who, after his death, set a new standard in philanthropy.

Sir Richard was born in the 1350s as the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of the Manor of Pauntley. As the second son, he was not able to inherit and so left home when his father died to seek work in London. There he served as an apprentice, before becoming a mercer (a dealer in costly fabrics) and subsequently became a supplier of valuable materials like silks and cloth of gold to King Richard II and later King Henry IV as well as other members of court.

Growing in wealth and influence (as well as dealing in cloth, he lent considerable sums to both kings and as a result was granted part of the wool tax collected at various ports), Whittington became a city alderman in 1393 and was chosen by the king as mayor in 1397 when the incumbent, Adam Bamme, died. He was subsequently re-elected in 1398, again in 1406, and in 1419.

Whittington died in 1423 and, as he and his wife Alice (who had died before him) had no children, he left his substantial fortune – estimated at some £5,000 – to charity. The money was used to establish almshouses (entrusted to the care of the Mercer’s Company, of which Sir Richard was master three times), as well as libraries and other public works including rebuilding Newgate Gaol and building a public lavatory known as ‘Whittington’s longhouse’. The Charity of Sir Richard Whittington is still operational. It’s undoubtedly his charity which touched so many Londoners which led to his fame.

While many versions of Whittington’s life have been told since the first recorded retellings in the late 16th and early 17th century, the story as we generally know it today (and one which has become a panto favorite) is that he was a poor boy from Gloucestershire who walked to London to seek his fortune and indeed found work there in the home of a rich merchant, Fitzwarren. He slept in the attic and kept a cat to keep down the numbers of mice.

Fitzwarren is said to have invited his servants to invest in a sailing voyage and as Dick had no money, he offered his cat, usually named ‘Tommy’, instead. Some time later he decided to leave London for his home and set out on foot but when on Highgate Hill on his way out, he heard the bells of London summoning him back, saying ‘Turn again, Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London’. (Although Whittington actually served as mayor four times, the first two times were back-to-back, meaning some may have considered it as three).

So he did and returning to the merchant’s house, he found the ship had returned and that his cat had played a starring role in saving the court of the King of the Barbary Coast from being overrun with mice. The king apparently paid a large sum to buy the cat and Whittington became a wealthy man, marrying Fitzwarren’s daughter Alice and, as the bells prophesised, becoming ‘Lord Mayor of London’ (actually mayors at the time of the real Dick Whittington weren’t given the title Lord).

These days a statue of Whittington’s cat – the Whittington Stone (picture above) – still sits on Highgate Hill, marking the site where he apparently ‘turned again’ (among other references to Dick Whittington in London is the Dick Whittington ‘ale trail’ – a free downloadable pub guide).

As to whether he actually had a cat? While there’s apparently no evidence he did, it’s nice to think there was a real cat behind the myth (even if he didn’t rid the Kingdom of Barbary of its mice)!