The family originally came from the village of Gresham in North Norfolk, and must have got their Grasshopper crest from being the village squires in the middle ages. The similarity of sound suggests as much. James Gresham is referred to as the local agent of the Paston family in the Paston Letters. In the mid-fifteenth century they migrated all of five miles to the market town of Holt. Richard Gresham was born there in 1485; he was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Mercers of London in the last years of Henry VII’s reign. He later went into partnership with his brothers John and William and between them they began to make money hand over fist.
Mercers were dealers in textiles, and this formed the principal part of their trade, but the Gresham brothers were interested in anything which would turn them a profit. As well as exports of woollen cloth they imported grain from Germany, wine from France and exotic goods from Turkey and Russia. All were handled by ships belonging or lent to the Greshams.
Richard became especially close to his fellow East Anglian Cardinal Wolsey, and did much to find the continental wall hangings that decorated his new palace at Hampton Court. When the Cardinal was on his death-bed, abandoned, alone and charged with High Treason, he wrote of his ‘fast-friend’, Richard Gresham. Richard paid for the funeral of Wolsey, although this was a muted affair at Leicester Abbey, where the Cardinal was interred without ceremony or memorial.
Richard and John were influential in the City Corporation of London, both becoming Lords Mayor, Richard in 1537 and John ten years later. Both were knighted in recognition of their services. The brothers were not ashamed to indulge in dubious financial arrangements; these would be regarded as sharp practices today, and even in the sixteenth century these actions got them many enemies. But their great wealth protected them; the government was permanently short of money and the Gresham brothers were experts at negotiating foreign loans. Richard was elected MP in the mid 1530s, and served again in the Parliament of 1545; both he and John acquired titles in the Royal Household.
Richard’s son Thomas went on to even greater heights during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was apprenticed to his uncle John and was admitted to the livery of the Mercers’ Company in 1543. As their agent in the Low Countries Thomas became adept at financial arrangements and was able to rescue the pound from impending disaster. For this the government was extremely grateful and rewarded him with grants of land. All the Greshams benefited enormously from the Reformation, as plenty of the Church’s former lands came their way, either as gifts from the Crown or by purchase. Thomas Gresham provided the capital needed for the Royal Exchange building, which was officially opened in 1571. It was modelled on the Antwep bourse and became the focus of London’s burgeoning importance as a financial centre, a position that it still retains. A few years before his death in 1579 he established the first successful paper mill in England, on the river Brent in Middlesex. Before this corn mill was converted to produce paper all the books printed in this country had to use imported material. This paper had to come from the Low Countries, where Gresham would have got the skilled workers the mill needed.
For all the ruthless business practices displayed by these family members, they all had an abiding interest in education. Richard sent his son Thomas to university at Cambridge, a highly unusual course of action for someone destined for a life in trade. They bequeathed much of their wealth in endowments that have provided for education in England down the centuries. Sir Thomas left instructions to establish Gresham College in London, which was to provide lectures on academic subjects. These lectures are free to all members of the public; the college has no formal students and awards no degrees. It is a highly democratic institute of Higher Education, and is unique in its constitution. This opened in 1597 and has been giving lectures ever since.
It is assumed that the brothers Richard and John Gresham were educated by the Augustinian canons at Beeston Regis Priory near Sheringham. This school closed as the result of the seizure of Church lands by Henry VIII. To address the ensuing shortage of educational facilities in North Norfolk Sir John established a Grammar School in Holt. In 1546 he began to purchase land around Holt with a view to endowing the school. As a younger son he had not inherited the Manor at Holt, and so he had to buy the property that was to form the basis of the school. He passed this endowment to the Fishmongers’ Company shortly before his death in 1556, and they still govern the school today. For more than three centuries this country Grammar School provided a modest education for the sons of the local gentry, sending one or two scholar every now and then to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, from which they would emerge as doctors, lawyers or clergymen. But in the last years of the nineteenth century it was transformed into a Public School of national acclaim. A number of leases on property in central London had fallen due for renewal, and this provided the huge sums of money that were invested in the school. New boarding houses and a chapel were built. Just one pupil of the old foundation remained. The recently opened Holt railway station became a magnet for pupils from across the land. Since the refoundation of the school Gresham’s has produced such figures as the Scot Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, the Yorkshire born poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and inventor Sir James Dyson. Although most pupils of the Public School are the sons (and since the latter part of the twentieth century the daughters) of the wealthy, the school provides scholarships to members of the local community who have the wish and ability to benefit from the education provided. This in the spirit of the original Free Grammar School, which would educate any suitable candidates from the Holt area gratis, although the boarders had to pay.
Widely despised during their lifetimes, the Greshams have been responsible for much good done since their deaths.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Downing Street was built at the end of Charles II’s reign by Sir George Downing, after whom it takes its name. It is suggested that Sir Christopher Wren was involved in the design, but the terrace was cheaply built as a speculative development; at this time (the early 1680s) Wren was occupied with designing the (never built) King’s House in Winchester, and it seems that Wren’s input to the architectural appearance of Downing Street was small.
George Downing was born in Dublin in 1623 and educated in the American Colonies. This was a bold move for the first part of the 17th century. He was among the first nine students to graduate from Harvard College in 1642. He then went to the West Indies as a preacher, but abandoned that career for government positions in England. He became established during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but moved easily into the new political realities of the Restoration period. He retained an interest in America and was responsible for the English assuming control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. He was at the time Ambassador to The Hague. The city was renamed New York after Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. Downing was opposed to the Dutch as the main commercial rival of England; this was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars. By the end of his life he had amassed a great fortune, and was regarded as exceptionally mean. In 1663 he had become Sir George Downing, having been raised to the baronetage, and his grandson the 3rd baronet (who was not so close with his money) founded Downing College in Cambridge. Downing having spent his early adult life in America, there are Downing Streets there too, in Manhattan and Massachusetts, named after him.
The construction of Downing Street preceded the evolution of the post of Prime Minister. I have to mention East Anglia in this context, and Sir Robert Walpole was the son of a Norfolk country gentleman who was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. After a successful business career he went into public life as a Whig politician. He was the first person to be regarded as Premier Ministre, a French phrase initially used as a term of contempt by political rivals. His official title was First Lord of the Treasury, and so it remains today. It was King George II who provided the house in Downing Street, now known as No. 10, as his official residence. This was in 1732, half way through his period of office. Since then it has remained the official home of the Prime Minister. There have been 75 Prime Ministers since Walpole, although the scope and nature of the position have changed over the 300 years since its inception, not least being the appearance of women among its holders. Only one Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, has been assassinated and that was over 200 years ago.
Downing Street used to be just another public street in Whitehall, and it was popular among tourists to have their picture taken outside the door of No. 10. I remember going into Downing Street to see the seat of Government with a group of school friends on a visit to the capital. This was during Harold Wilson’s time as PM, and there were already mutterings among the security community about public access to so important a cul de sac. Harold Wilson however would have no restrictions placed on the public who wished to visit the street. It is a sad refection on the changed nature of the country that it would be unthinkable today to allow anybody, without impeccable credentials, into Downing Street; let alone a bunch of giggling schoolboys.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND
MILLICENT MASON was my Grandfather Mason’s sister. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, but I met Aunt Millie in 1953 when she was living at Bixley Manor (just outside Norwich) for the birth of Timothy Colman’s first child. She was a highly respected and competent midwife, who had worked in Harley Street earlier in her career. In this way she had established a reputation for excellence among the greatest in the land (the baby she was looking after was a close relative of the Queen Mother). She had worked her way up from very humble beginnings as a housemaid, working at Strangers Hall in Norwich when it was still a private residence. The owner was a solicitor called Leonard Bolingbroke and he gave the house to the city to be turned into a museum of social history.
In 1920 Millicent began her nurse’s training at a hospital in South London. In 1923 she qualified as a midwife and by 1925 she was staff nurse in the maternity ward. It was for her not a job but a vocation, and one she pursued with kindness and humanity. Although the work as night sister was hard, she was able to return home regularly to see her father who was living in a cottage in Trowse, Norfolk. I have a picture of Aunt Millie with my Great-grandfather standing in his allotment, tending his beloved flowers. Great-grandfather was still working as a carter in Colman’s mustard business when she moved to London, but he enjoyed a long retirement which was made possible by Lloyd George’s new Old Age Pension. Colman’s were also good employers, who looked after their old employees.
The outbreak of war in 1939 caused the hospital in central London where she had been working to close, but her fine work around the new-born meant she had no difficulty finding other employment. Working throughout the Second World War presented her with plenty of other difficulties however. She retired to Tunbridge Wells where she died unexpectedly at the age of 70.
ST JAMES’ HOSPITAL
OUSELEY ROAD, BALHAM, SW 12 26th February 1925
It gives me much pleasure to testify to the merits of Miss Millicent M. Mason who came to this Hospital in March 1920 as a probationer nurse and is now leaving us. I have had considerable opportunities of observing her work throughout her stay, first as probationer, then as pupil midwife and latterly as staff nurse in charge of the lying-in ward at night.
She has proved herself highly competent in these various capacities and her wide experience of nursing in its medical, surgical and obstetrical aspects makes her a valuable member of any team. I always found her most pleasant to work with. I am sorry to lose her services.
Wm L. Maccormac, Medical Superintendent
3 UPPER WIMPOLE STREET, CAVENDISH SQUARE, W1
It gives me great pleasure to write a testimonial for Sister Mason. She has been in charge of the Maternity, Children’s and Infant’s wards of the London Local Hospital for nine years. During that long time she has done her work excellently and to the satisfaction of the Board. Personally I do not think anyone could have done the work of this difficult post in a better manner. She is kindness personified.
To: Mr Charles Hughes, a nephew of Aunt Millie:
28th October 1958
Dear Mr Hughes,
I was very sad to hear of the death of my dear friend Millie, & do thank you very much for letting me know. I felt there must be something wrong, not hearing from her for so long, the last I heard from her she was hoping to come to Bournemouth. I have known her since my son was born 34 years ago & she came to his wedding just over three years ago, which was the last time we saw her.
I was hoping she would be coming this month to see my little grandson. She would have been so pleased as she was very fond of my son. We do take the Telegraph every day, but I seldom look in the deaths column.
One thing we do know, she did not suffer, and thank you once more for writing.
Mrs Y. E. Woodbridge
FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
It is difficult to recognise today quite how revolutionary St Paul’s Cathedral was when it was built. In Italy it would not have raised an eyebrow; since the Renaissance all architecture had been carried out in a classical style. But in England, and in Northern Europe generally, we were much slower to adopt the modern style.
Hampton Court Palace, which was begun almost a century and a half before St Paul’s, was perhaps the most impressive building in England in a post-medieval style of architecture. Nevertheless, it was not cutting-edge design, and appears quite homely compared to the grandeur of Wren’s cathedral. Virtually no churches had been built in England since the Reformation, and any modifications that were carried out to existing ecclesiastical buildings were continued in a late medieval manner. A generation before Wren, Inigo Jones had been the first to introduce a true classical style to this country. The Banqueting House in Whitehall is his best known building, but his church in Covent Garden is just about the only religious building that had been built in the 17th century, until the Great Fire made the rebuilding of London’s churches a priority. The Great Fire of London also provided the authorities with the opportunity to redesign the whole city on modern planned lines. This proved to be too big a step, but at least St Paul’s was to be rebuilt as a worthy centre piece for the city. Although its scale it is now dwarfed by the Shard and the Gherkin among others, it is still a magnificent symbol of London.
The Wren churches, and the slightly later ones built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, were a breath of fresh air, but they were not followed by any more Anglican churches until the nineteenth century. The religious buildings constructed across the country in the 18th century are all Nonconformist chapels. One of the finest examples of a chapel built on classical lines is the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, but there are many others. By the time the Church of England returned to the drawing board the neo-Gothic style had banished classical architecture. When Methodism became the great force for change in England the style was a practical form of architecture, neither classical nor Gothic. The Classical architecture of Wren and the neo-medievalism of Pugin were both shunned by these reformers. Typically the windows of these chapels were round topped, not the pointed arches of neo-medievalism that characterised the Church of England in the nineteenth century. The architecture could hardly be called classical however, and even where the doors and windows of Methodist chapels had slightly pointed arches, the effect was very similar. The idea was to build a solid house of God, rather than to inspire with beautiful architecture.
In 1970 I was studying Baroque English architecture as part of my degree. I planned a visit to the capital from Oxford to view the more unusual parts of Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest work. The Whispering Gallery, which runs round the Dome just below the lights, was open to the public, as I believe it still is; it would cost you an arm and a leg today, but as far as I remember in 1970 it was free. There was a collection box for you to contribute to if you were feeling generous, but there was no set fee.
The Dome of St Paul’s is in fact two domes, an inner one and an outer one. The outer dome is more pointed than the inner one, and the two are held together by chains. As you may see from the photo I took, once I had inspected the inside of the Dome I went outside to view the city from the Stone Gallery, the circular walkway that runs round the periphery of the Dome.
The Dome is an impressive structure, one of the largest in the World. The whole exterior of the cathedral is faced with white Portland Stone, brought from Dorset to the Thames by ship. I had visited Portland Bill a few years earlier with my sister Margaret. There I saw the quarry and the blocks of stone that are still mined there, although now they leave by road transport rather than by sailing barque.
The medieval cathedral was already in decline when it was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666. An earlier fire in 1561 had brought the spire crashing down, and it was never rebuilt. It took nearly forty years to complete the new St Paul’s, and Sir Christopher Wren was hauled up to the top of the lantern above the Dome to celebrate; he was a very old man by then.
When I went to see the cathedral it was a long time ago, but I still have the photos I took to prove I was there that summer in 1970.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF THE PAST
19th APRIL 1994. The Post Office HQ at Old Street.
On the 19th of April I went up to London by train on a Royal Mail rail warrant. This was to attend Royal Mail’s first employee forum at their headquarters at Old Street, EC. Here is the report I wrote at the time.
The Delegates. Eight postmen and line managers from across the country – for example a rural postman from Radnorshire and an acting office manager from Exeter – took part. The initial gathering was hosted by Graham Harvey, the editor of the Courier, the Post Office newspaper. Managing Director Peter Howarth was present for the main discussion only. There were no female delegates, no women having come forward with questions.
The Meeting. The delegates arrived at 12.15 p.m. The meeting was preceded by an informal discussion over lunch. This was off the record, and served several useful purposes. The delegates got to know each other a little, and we clarified who was going to ask what. It was a fairly talkative group of people, and this discussion could easily have gone on all afternoon. Mr Harvey also found it a useful part of the day, or so he said, and I am sure he wasn’t just being polite. The formal part of the meeting was held in the boardroom, where we were introduced to Peter Howarth. The meeting began at 2 p.m. with my question on morale. There will be a report in the next edition of the Courier, and I will just mention a few points which seemed to me to be particularly relevant. On the question of morale, Mr Howarth stressed the importance of good communication for boosting morale. I pointed out how much postmen valued personal contact with managers at any level.
The question of training was also raised, particularly in respect of the introduction of the new priority services. Apparently a budget of “several million pounds” was allocated to training, but the consensus was that the actual training of postmen was minimal. Since the theme of the meeting was “beating the competition” the M.D. gave a brief outline of the competition we were facing, how we can meet it under present legislation, and the possibilities that would be open to the business if these constraints were removed. Several delegates raised the possibility of more vigorous marketing, and the role that delivery officers could play in this. Here I wasd able to raise again the points for which I won the most recent Courier Innovations which are more fully detailed on the back page of the Courier for March 1994. Other points raised concerned the utilisation of assets, the problems of functionalisation and sickness procedure. The meeting ended on a lighter note with a question of what it was like to be Managing Director of Royal Mail.
Summary. We covered a lot of ground, and could have covered a lot more if time had allowed. Some details will be improved next time (we were told) – for instance seating arrangements, as some delegates felt they were placed on the edge of the discussion. Personally I found it a rewarding and useful experience – I like to know what is going on. However, the business will only benefit if this experience can be more widely shared. Obviously, only a small number of employees will be lucky enough to participate in the national forum, but I understand that local forums are planned. This will enable many more people to share in this initiative.
2014. Retrospective. I was impressed by the portraits that lined the walls of the HQ in Old Streett. These were of the Postmasters General who ran the English Postal Service from 1517 until the position was abolished by Tony Benn in 1969. Unfortunately (but understandably for such an important collection) these portraits were only reproductions. They were in black and white which was not necessary however.
The lunch was a nicely presented salad; this was the first occasion that had been served radishes cut into intricate shapes like thistle heads.
If Royal Mail were still running employee forums in 2013 I would expect them to be more pro-active in seeking out the opinions of female employees. But the privatised Royal Mail does not appear to be interested in seeking the opinions of the staff any more, whatever their gender, and I think such forums are no more.
Graham Harvey died in London on June 12th 2007 aged only 54. Peter Howarth died in Cheshire on the 5th January 2012. Bill Cockburn however, the managing director of Royal Mail when I started as a postman and the predecessor of Peter Howarth is still going strong having reached the age of 70 in 2013. .
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST