Born on Broad Street: Gresham's Ground Breaking College

Sir Thomas Gresham

By Dr Wendy Piatt, Chief Executive of Gresham College

Broad Street ward should be very proud of its role in nurturing the wonderful Gresham College, London’s first ever higher education institute. The College’s birthplace in 1597 was a magnificent mansion on Bishopsgate, just off Broad Street, former home of its founder, Sir Thomas Gresham. Arranged around a quadrangle just like an Oxbridge College, the house remained the residence of Gresham College until 1768. You can see a plaque on the site of the old NatWest Tower (Tower 42).

The College was a hub of intellectual activity – fizzing with new ideas and theories; Sir Thomas wanted ordinary folk of London – merchants and craftsmen - to hear all about the latest breakthroughs in both academic and practical knowledge – what he called the ‘new learning’. But traditionally, higher education was conducted only in Latin as was the practice at Oxford and Cambridge at that time. So in a ground-breaking move, Sir Thomas called for the lectures to be taught in English for the very first time in England. This linguistic innovation may have even encouraged one playwright based just across the River at the Globe to frequent the College. Ben Jonson apparently criticised William Shakespeare for having “small Latin and less Greek”! It is entirely possible that the Bard himself listened to some Gresham lectures.

And for me there is a personal coincidence when it comes to speculating who may have engaged in intellectual exchanges in those very early days of the College. My own doctoral thesis focused on a group of writers working mainly in the 1590s who also may have paid a visit to Gresham. I joke about the stars being aligned when the College embarked on their hunt for a new CEO last year. But it is certainly true that the College embodies the values and ethos that have motivated me throughout my career. The location of the College may have changed since it was founded – we are now based at the stunning 14th -century Barnard’s Inn Hall, one of the original Inns of Court. But the mission – to make world-class knowledge freely accessible to the public - has stayed the same for over 400 years. And this fruitful marriage between history and modernity that runs through the DNA of the College prevails to this day. So while the time-honoured format of the university lecture is core to what we do, we harness cutting-edge technology live-streaming most lectures and posting all our videos on our website and YouTube.

And while we have retained the 7 Professorships enshrined in Sir Thomas’s will which range from medicine to music, 3 more disciplines – Environment, IT and Business – have joined the fold. Indeed, another great strength of the College is the breadth and diversity of the topics the lectures tackle. For example, this year we have a course on the history of the Universe, called Cosmic Revolutions, a primer on The Principles of Finance including a lecture on how to save and invest; and a course on Six Tech Inventions that Changed the World. And a series by our Professor of Medicine who is also the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, on Infections and their Routes of Transmission. And if that’s not your cup of tea, take a look at our website – there are over 3000 fascinating lectures and films to choose from!