Archive for August, 2014

I’ve received many notifications the past week or two from dear friends, via LinkedIn, to congratulate me on my “work anniversary”. I must apologise to them for LinkedIn’s impertinance and, I suppose, thank them too for acquiescing to the bot. (book title? album title?)

But at least is served to remind me that London Historians has been going for four years. Already. So I’ve spent a little  (a lot) time going through photos of our events over this period. I’m struck by actually how many there have been: about a hundred, I reckon. But also, it’s reminded me that in London Historians we do actually have a jolly good time. Most of all, though, I’m humbled by the number of wonderful people who have “got” the London Historians thing, and backed us by becoming Members. That is what this is all about.

Rather than create another album on Flickr of grand palaces, livery companies, historic bridges and so on, I’ve made one that focuses on our Members. Each image has a caption about the event featured. Although we started in August 2010, these begin early in 2011 because it took us some months to get a little Membership going. We’re now over 500, if you’re asking.

The full album on Flickr is here.

By way of introduction, I’ve chosen one for each year to put here, but do go and see the full set which I think goes some way to answering the question: What are London Historians like? And if you fancy joining our gang, that’d be terrific. You can do so here.

London Historians Launch Party

16 March 2011. Scene from our official launch party at Georgian Group HQ, Fitzroy Square.

10 March. Tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain's oldest business.

10 March 2012. Tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain’s oldest business.

16 April. In a bascule chamber beneath Tower Bridge.

16 April 2013 . In a bascule chamber beneath Tower Bridge.

12 June. Checking out the King's Topographical Collection (K-TOP) at the British Librar with Head of Maps, Peter Barber.

12 June 2014. Checking out the King’s Topographical Collection (K-TOP) at the British Librar with Head of Maps, Peter Barber.


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gresham grasshopper

The Gresham family badge: a grasshopper.

Elizabeth I’s most well-known favourites were bellicose types like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh or Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, whose head in the end was too hot for his own impatient, impetuous shoulders. They smote the queen’s enemies and filled her coffers using fire and sword.

Far more considered and cerebral ways of benefiting the Exchequer were employed by an altogether lesser-known servant: Sir Thomas Gresham (1518/9 – 1579). From a family of Norfolk merchants, this London-born entrepreneur gave the City not one but two great institutions: the Royal Exchange and Gresham College.

Gresham achieved better results than most by more peaceful means.

His upbringing was a privileged one. He was the younger son of Sir Richard Gresham, a successful merchant and Lord Mayor of London 1537. Born at his father’s house in Milk Lane in 1518/9, Thomas’s boyhood remains obscure but he spent some years at Gonville Hall, Cambridge, where he didn’t complete his degree but instead was apprenticed in the mercer’s trade under his uncle, John Gresham. Young Thomas spent much of the seven year apprenticeship on the continent, learning French and Flemish, building on his family’s network of trade contacts and indeed taking on much of the work. He soon caught the eye of royal agents – including Thomas Cromwell – who began putting royal work his way.

sir thomas gresham

A self-confident Thomas Gresham in his mid-20s. Gresham Collage.

This marked the start of service under four Tudor monarchs which saw its apeothis under Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth herself. Gresham’s skill, acumen and a studied disinterest in religion and politics gave him a cloak of immunity during the religious tumult of these reigns. He was the perfect servant for an avaricious and thrifty monarch such as Elizabeth.

Gresham spent his best business years from the late 1540s to the mid 1650s working both on the family’s account and as a royal agent, mainly in the Netherlands, occasionally Spain. In the Gresham interest he acted as both merchant and agent in the cloth trade and also the universal staple of guns and ammunition (“harness”). As the royal agent, his aim was to reduce the royal debt in Antwerp to from around £250,000 to zero. By anticipating interest rates in an extremely volatile market and negotiating the best deals (better than the Habsburgs themselves were able to secure) with bankers, brokers, underwriters, etc., by 1565 Gresham had reduced the Royal foreign debt to a mere £20,000. It was during this period, in 1559, that Gresham became Sir Thomas, before departing on a diplomatic mission.

While all this was going on, domestically Thomas was thriving too, having inherited family estates after his father’s death in 1549 and through an advantageous marriage to Anne Read, the widow of William Read, a wealthy fellow mercer and family friend. So at home in England, in addition to his ongoing mercer’s business, Gresham had considerable holdings in Norfolk, Suffolk and within the City of London.

Although Gresham had illegitimate progeny, his son Richard died in 1564, leaving him with no heir. Like most of the great philanthropists, he pondered his legacy and how best to use his fortune. First, he addressed something that he and his father both hankered after for London so that it could properly better its European rivals: a bourse, or exchange. So he bought up many properties in the Cornhill area, demolished them and built the first Royal Exchange, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1571.

thomas gresham, royal exchange, london

Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange. Thanks to Liz Lloyd for image.

Today. The third Royal Exchange on the same site, by William Tite. It's now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

The third Royal Exchange in Cornhill, by William Tite. It’s now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

He financed eight almshouses at the rear of his house in Bishopsgate, a common and popular type of endowment during this period.

Finally, and crucially, he wished for London to have a prestigious seat of learning like Oxford and Cambridge. It was unthinkable that the City should lack such an institution. So he left provision for Gresham College to have a premises and funding for seven professors, each to deliver a lecture once a week in Latin and English. The chairs were, and are: Astronomy; Divinity; Geometry (i.e. Mathematics); Law; Music; Physic; Rhetoric. An eighth chair – Commerce – was added in 1985.

The College has had various homes over the centuries. Since 1991 it has resided at Barnard’s Inn in Holborn, formerly the Mercers’ School. The mediaeval Barnard’s Inn Hall is the gorgeous centrepiece of the complex where Gresham College holds many of its free lectures. There are over 100 of these every year, both at the college and the Museum of London. I can’t recommend them too highly. Full programme for 2014-15 is here. And, superbly, all lectures are recorded, there is a huge back-catalogue of worthy material to enjoy.

Gresham College

The first Gresham College and former home of Sir Thomas. Image: Gresham College.

Gresham College

Entrance to Gresham College in Holborn.

Barnard's Inn Hall, Gresham College

Barnard’s Inn Hall.

It is London Historians’ massive privilege to be holding our inaugural annual lecture at Barnard’s Inn Hall on 4 September. Adrian Tinniswood will be talking about Sir Christopher Wren who was once the Gresham Professor of Astronomy. Unfortunately, if you haven’t a ticket yet, it is fully-booked.

Gresham College website
Wikipedia on Sir Thomas Gresham
Wikipedia on Gresham College
Excerpts from Gresham’s Will

A Brief History of Gresham College (1997) by Richard Charteris and David Vermont
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription site), where the writer is overall quite mean about Gresham’s achievements!

Gresham College.

Gresham College.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian  period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Greshamiana 2: Stained glass panel depicting Gresham Arms in an office building in Basinghall Street. Gresham’s family home was once in the same street.

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Many of our Members are qualified London guides. In recent years several have entered and qualified for the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association who are now recruiting for the 2014/15 intake. Course director and LH Member John Finn writes:

“Take your enthusiasm for London’s history onto the streets themselves by training as a walking tour guide. And if you are a guide already, here’s a chance to extend your local London knowledge, and enjoy a chance to refresh your guiding skills. Applications are now open for the Clerkenwell and Islington tour guiding course, held at the University of Westminster in Marylebone Road, starting in September. Several London Historians Members have joined the course in previous years and are now qualified, badged tour guides.

The course is taught to accredited academic standards by experienced lecturers and guides and reward you with a Diploma of Special Study in Tour Guiding. Last year the course received an award from the Association for Tourism in Higher Education. The course is hosted by the University’s Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment, which is also home to the Centre for Tourism Research.

The emphasis throughout the course is on developing the skills to design and deliver walking tours that engage the audience with a compelling, well-researched narrative.

Clerkenwell is sometimes described as London’s medieval suburb and takes in one thousand years of history, including St John’s Gate (the site for our interior guiding training) and Charterhouse. By contrast, Islington’s history is one of Tudor villages, enlarged with elegant Georgian terraces, and then swallowed up by Victorian housing development – a typical London story. All of which provides a chance to explore architecture, social history and the lives of famous and infamous.

Admission to the course will be by interview in August and September. Apply or find out more by visiting the course website, and download the course flyer.”


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