Gresham College lectures have been taking place since Elizabethan times. From spies and break-ins through to Dickens and a flood of gin, here are some of the highlights from our 400 years of free public lectures…
Gresham College was founded
Gresham College was founded in the former mansion of Sir Thomas Gresham, located where Tower 42 now stands on Bishopsgate.
It was the first 'university' in England besides Oxford and Cambridge, making it London's oldest higher education institution still in existence today.
Professor of Music smashes down the walls
One of the original conditions of being a Gresham Professor was that they lodge at the College. John Bull, the famous English composer, friend of Queen Elizabeth I and the first Gresham Professor of Music, took these conditions of employment very seriously...
Fearful of losing his Professorship even before his first lecture, due to the fact that his rooms were still occupied by Sir Thomas Gresham's stepson, William Reade, Bull forced entry to the rooms by engaging a mason to help him break down a wall.
Naturally, this rather annoyed Reade, who then took legal action against Bull. Sadly, we do not know what came of the case.
Queen Elizabeth sends Gresham Professor on an espionage mission
There is evidence that Queen Elizabeth I sent her friend, the first Professor of Music at Gresham College, John Bull, on an espionage mission to Europe during 1601-2.
Although the trip was claimed to be ostensibly for reasons of health, it has never been satisfactorily explained, and Bull's activities and whereabouts when there remain a mystery.
John Bull sacked...
Having been personally recommended for the job by Queen Elizabeth ten years earlier, John Bull was forced to leave his post as Gresham Professor of Music, after he fathered a child with an unmarried woman. However, it is unclear whether he lost his job for this, or for the fact that he then married her, since marriage was forbidden to Gresham Professors at that time…
Sir Christopher Wren becomes a Gresham Professor
Christopher Wren was appointed the 9th Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in 1657. Later to become the architect of modern London after the Great Fire, one of England's greatest ever scientists and much else besides, Sir Christopher was only 25 when he began his Gresham lectures, which he delivered for the next three years.
The Royal Society is founded at Gresham College
On the 28th November 1660, immediately following Sir Christopher Wren's lecture as Gresham Professor of Astronomy, there was the first ever recorded meeting of The Royal Society. The report from this reads:
"Memorandum November 28, 1660. These persons following according to the usual custom of most of them, met together at Gresham College to hear Mr Wren's lecture, viz. The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paule Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill. And after the lecture was ended they did according to the usual manner, withdraw for mutual converse."
There was a period when members of the Royal Society were colloquially known as "Greshamites."
Robert Hooke appointed Gresham Professor
One of England's greatest scientists and inventors, Robert Hooke, was appointed Gresham Professor of Geometry in 1665. This was also the year in which he published his revolutionary and best-known work, Micrographia, which Samuel Pepys described as "the most ingenious book I ever read in my life."
Hooke remained a Gresham Professor until his death in 1703, when he was unfortunately outlived by his great rival, Isaac Newton. It is reputed that Newton is responsible for there being no known surviving contemporary portrait of Hooke…
College mobbed by 3,000 City traders
The Great Fire burnt down most of London, but not Gresham College.
However, since the Royal Exchange was razed by the fire, the King decreed that the traders would meet to do business at Gresham College. Thus overnight the College changed from a sleepy home of academia into being a heaving place of commerce.
Thomas Smith describes the situation in his letter of the 13th of September: "ye merchants meet at Gresham College, instead of ye Exchange, and yesterday above 3000 appeared upon it"
It is not recorded how the Gresham Professors felt about that...
Samuel Pepys watches an experiment on dogs
One of the first blood transfusions was carried out at Gresham College. This was recorded in Samuel Pepys' diary in typically brilliant style:
"at the meeting at Gresham College to-night there was a pretty experiment of the blood of one dogg let out, till he died, into the body of another on one side, while all his own run out on the other side. The first died upon the place, and the other very well, and likely to do well.
"This did give occasion to many pretty wishes, as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like; but, as Dr. Croone says, may, if it takes, be of mighty use to man's health, for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body."
This was in one of the meetings of the Royal Society, which operated within Gresham College during this period.
A Stellar Investment…
The Gresham Committee very generously gave Robert Hooke £40 to renovate his rooms at the College. Typical to that great scientist, he had a hole knocked through his roof and had a telescope platform installed. It was thanks to this that he was able to carry on his groundbreaking work in astronomy (work that included one of the first observations of a double-star system).
The Royal Society move out of Gresham College
Having been founded at the College in 1660 and spending the subsequent 50 years operating within the College, The Royal Society finally got enough money to move out to their own place. It was in Crane Street, near Fetter Lane, not far from where Gresham College is based today.
Barnard's Inn is flooded with gin during the Gordon Riots
Next door to Barnard's Inn Hall in 1780 there was a distillery owned by a Roman Catholic, Mr Langdale. When the Gordon Riots broke out the distillery was burned down by a mob and Mr Langdale only escaped by scrambling through a small hole into the cellars of Barnard's Inn. The Inn's cellars then became flooded, and one of the officers of the Inn, on the second day after the fire, reported...
"a sturdy fellow at the pump, pumping up not the pure water now flowing in this excellent spring, but gin scarcely impregnated with the water, which he doled out for 1d. a mug to the crowd of miscreants thirsting from the heat of their exploits…"
The College features in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Gresham College featured in an entry in the best-selling '1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' by Francis Grose:
"WISEACRE'S HALL - Gresham college."
The entry before sheds some more light on this: "WISEACRE - A foolish conceited fellow."
...Oh well, at least it's not as bad as it could have been!
Gresham College ceased to require lectures be delivered in Latin by its Professors in 1821. The requirement to offer lectures in English and Latin had been in place since our founding in 1597, when it was an assurance of the accessibility and usefulness of the lectures. Sir Thomas had wanted his College to be a place of international learning and so he wanted visiting scholars from all over the world to be able to meet and learn at Gresham. 224 years later, Latin was no longer the way to achieve this, but the accessibility mission continues.
The “New” Gresham College is opened
Gresham College gets a new home, on the corner of Gresham Street and Basinghall Street. The building is still standing and although it is today used for other purposes, the hall and many of its original furnishings are still as they were.
Great Expectations is published
When Pip, the hero of Charles Dickens' novel, comes to London, he lodges in Barnard's Inn. His first impressions of the building are not exactly complimentary:
"I had supposed that establishment to be an hotel kept by Mr Barnard… whereas I now found Barnard to be a disembodied spirit, or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together, in a rank corner, as a club for Tom-cats."
We can assure you that Barnard's Inn is much more pleasant these days!
10,000 pennies scattered on the lecture hall floor
Karl Pearson, perhaps the most important mathematician of modern statistics, was Gresham Professor of Geometry between 1891 and 1893. His lectures on 'The Geometry of Statistics and The Laws of Chance' were very popular, drawing audiences of as many as 300 students.
It is, however, likely that the College's administration didn't think him quite so wonderful, due to the props that he would sometimes use. - Reports tell us that in some lectures he used dice, roulette results and 10,000 pennies scattered on the floor!
Party in the Blitz!
The College ceased to offer lectures during the bombing of London throughout WWII. The College premises did not sit idle though: having been used briefly by the Air Raid Disasters Department, it was subsequently used as a venue for dances and concerts. In the summer of 1942 around 27,000 people paid to attend concerts in the hallowed halls of free learning…
Cecil Day-Lewis appointed Gresham Professor of Rhetoric
Later to become Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis was appointed Gresham Professor of Rhetoric in 1963. As one of the most important writers to have held a Gresham Professorship, we hope that his lectures on the poetry of Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy etc. will one day be rediscovered...
Some of the most famous lines from his work include those from "Walking Away":
selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
What's the sound of charcoal burning?
Undoubtedly one of the more interesting composers to ever hold the Gresham Music Professorship, the Greek-French composer, theorist and architect, Iannis Xenakis, was appointed in 1975. As a pioneer of "musique concrete", his key works included Concret PH (consisting of the sound of charcoal burning), and Nomos Alpha (a work for solo cello depicting the rotations of a cube). We would also imagine that he is the only Gresham Professor to have lost an eye fighting for the Communist revolutionary forces against the British army…
The first lecture in our online archive
Lord Scarman's 1983 Gresham Special Lecture on 'Human Rights and the Democratic Process' is available as a PDF on the Gresham College website. This is the first of over 1,800 free public lectures available on our website.
The lecture can be found on the website here.
The College moves into Barnard's Inn Hall
The College finds a new permanent home in the 14th Century hall off High Holborn.
Barnard's Inn was established as an Inn of Chancery in 1454, where it acted as a school for law students. The hall as it is today dates from the 15th Century with 16th century linen fold wood panelling. The roof timbers include the only surviving crown posts in Greater London, as the Great Fire of London stopped metres away from the hall on Fetter Lane.
First female Professor
Heather Couper became the first ever female Gresham Professor in 1993, when she was appointed Gresham Professor of Astronomy... after only 396 years of the College's existence!
400 years of Gresham: Read all about it!
Having been founded in 1597, the College celebrated its quadricentennial in 1997 with a book on the College's history. Written by Richard Chartres (Bishop of London and Emeritus Gresham Professor of Divinity) and David Vermont (former Chairman of the Gresham College Council), the book is as interesting and strange as this history would suggest.
Please contact the College if you are interested in obtaining a copy of this book.
The first ever lecture to be filmed at Gresham College took place on Monday 14 February 2000: Governance and the City by Professor Daniel Hodson.
The video quality leaves much to be desired, but it can be watched online.