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Merchant Taylors' School

MERCHANT TAYLORS' SCHOOL was founded in 1561 by the Merchant Taylors' Company of London, a guild of tailors and linen-armourers. Its first headmaster was the famous schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster. The school still educates young minds today.

Famous past students of the school include Edmund Spenser, Thomas Kyd, Lancelot Andrewes, John Webster, and James Shirley.

The following is W. Carew Hazlitt's description of the history of Merchant Taylors' School, which he attended 1842-1850.

Excerpted from:
Hazlitt, W. Carew. Schools, School-books, and Schoolmasters.
London: J. W. Jarvis & Son, 1888. 136-145.

The origin of Merchant Taylor's School is thus described by Wilson:—

"Towards the close of the year 1560, or early in the following spring, the Merchant Taylors' Company conceived the laudable design of founding a grammar school; and and part of the manor of the Rose, in the parish of St. Lawrence-Pountney (a mansion which had successively belonged to the Duke of Buckingham, the Marquis of Exeter, and the Earls of Sussex), seeming eligible for the purpose, Mr. Richard Hills, a leading member of the court, generously contributed the sum of five hundred pounds towards the purchase of it; but the institution was not thoroughly organised till the 24th September 1561, on which day the statutes were framed and a schoolmaster chosen."

With the statutes I have no farther concern than with the clause which directs that the two hundred and fifty scholars, to which the school was limited, were "to be taught in manner & forme as is afore devised & appointed. But first see that they can the catechisme in English or Latyn, & that ever of the said two hundred & fifty schollers can read perfectly & write competently, or els lett them not be admitted in no wise."

It is rather curious that the hours of attendance were originally from seven till eleven A.M. and from one till five P.M., and that in winter the boys were to bring no candles of tallow, but candles of wax. This was following the statutes of Dean Colet. Thrice in the day there were prayers; but instead of one of the sixth form saying them for the rest, as was subsequently customary, each boy seems at first to have prayed for himself. The printed form usually employed was brief enough, and not, like the Manual prepared by Bishop Ken for Winchester, adapted for the use of "all other devout Christians."

The staff consisted at the outset of a headmaster and three ushers, whose united emoluments were forty pounds a year, and the first chief teacher of the school was Richard Mulcaster. It appears that the earliest Probation Day, as it was termed, was in November 1564, when Dean Nowell and others examined the ushers and the boys with a very gratifying result. These appositions were renewed in 1565, and probably still continue from year to year. They commenced in 1564 at eight o'clock in the morning, and so they did in my time [1842-1850]. The practice of visitation by the Court on this day seems to have ceased in 1606.

Merchant Taylors' School, 1874

Alderman Sir Thomas White, some time subsequently to the foundation of the school by the Company, augmented the endowment, so as to enable the institution to develop itself, and enlarge its sphere of utility in connection with Oxford University and in other ways. White was a member of the Court when the scheme was adopted, but he was not, strictly speaking, as he has been usually termed and considered, the founder of Merchant Taylors'.

We do not arrive, meanwhile, at any clear or complete notion of the books which were used at the school, but it is to be inferred that Lily's Grammar was the Latin text-book. In the rules made for Probation-Day in 1606-7, I find Æsop's Fables in Greek, Tully's Epistles, and the Dialogues of Corderius named as works in which the boys were to be tested. The subjects taken on this day were Greek, Latin, and dictation, writing being necessarily included. Neither Hebrew, nor arithmetic, nor the mathematics are enumerated; there are the six forms, but no monitors or prompters.

The School's Probation presents itself for the first time as a printed production, or at least as something compiled in book form, under the date of 1608. It is printed entire by Wilson; but he does not state, nor do I know, what original, whether printed or not, he employed.

School Room at Merchant Taylors' School

Probation-Day still continued in my time to be an important event—a sort of red-letter day in our calendar. The hour for assembling was eight o'clock, instead of nine; it had been half-past six while the school was exclusively composed of residents within a limited radius; but the enlarged time was a sore trial in the winter where one had to travel from a suburb, as I did from Old Brompton. They supplied breakfast at the place, not gratuitously, but at a fixed tariff. It would not have been much for a wealthy Company to provide an entertainment once or twice a year for two or three hundred lads at a shilling or so a head; but the Merchant Taylors, I think, have always been notorious for parsimony. Very little was accomplished before the meal, and after its completion we had to set to work, the old room upstairs being as ill-adapted for the purpose of an examination as can well be imagined, the boys having to use the forms as desks and to kneel in front of them. We were a very short distance from the Middle Ages. Matters were not much changed since the time of the original establishment of the charity. Indeed, it appears from Dugard's School's Probation, 1652, that in the seventeenth century the Company paid for some kind of collation:—

"There shall be paid unto the Master of the School, for beer, ale, and new manchet-bread, with a dish of sweet butter, which hee shall have ready in the morning, with two fine glasses set upon the Table, and covered with two fair napkins, and two fine trenchers, with a knife laid upon each trencher, to the end that such as please may take part, to staie their stomachs until the end of the examination. . . ijs."

The number of boys was in 1652 comparatively limited; but of course without a revival of the ancient miracle two shillings' worth of victuals would not have gone far in allaying the hunger of a far smaller gathering, and this allowance must have simply been for such as had missed their meal at home, or desired additional refreshment.

The old examination itself presents numerous points of curiosity, as we look at it through the present medium. Considerable stress seems to have been laid on dictation. The master opened, on the sudden, Cicero, the Greek Testament, Æsop's Fables in Greek, and read a passage, which the boys of a particular form had to take down, and then turn into some other language, or into verse, or make verses upon it—a pretty piece of trifling, much like the nonsense-verses which we used to have to compose in my day, and as profitable.

Some of the English sentences to be turned into Latin are odd enough: "Bacchus and Apollo send for Homer;" "I went to Colchester to eat oysters;" "My uncle went to Oxford to buie gloves;" "The Atheist went to Amsterdam to chuse his religion." Others might have been autobiographical: "Marie was my sister, she dwelt at London;" "Elisabeth was my Aunt, she dwelt at York;" "Anna was my Grandmother, she dwelt at Worcester."

In another place, under Sententiæ Varietas, there are five-and-twenty ways of describing in a sentence the great qualities of Cicero.

Greek was certainly studied with a good deal of attention here in the early time, judging from the space which is devoted to it in the scheme of Dugard, in whose small volume the questions and theses in that language occupy twenty pages. Erasmus had, doubtless, had a large share in popularising among us the cultivation of Hellenic grammar and letters.

Even when the present writer was at the school, Hebrew was by no means assiduously or scientifically followed, nor do I believe that on the staff of masters there was any one who properly understood the language. But it was part of the programme, and the late Sir Moses Montefiore, who usually attended on Speech and Prize Day, was the annual donor of a Hebrew medal.

Speech-Day at Merchant Taylor's was the sole occasion on which the large schoolroom in Suffolk Lane was ever honoured by the presence of the fair sex. The lower end of the room was converted into an extempore stage, and the monitors and prompters took part in some recitation, or select scene from the Latin or Greek dramatists. At a later period French themes were introduced.

As far back as the reign of Charles I, the large contribution which the ladies and other friends of the scholars made to the audience, and their imperfect acquaintance with the dead languages, rendered it a subject of regret and complaint that the entertainment was not given in the vernacular, and the writer of a small volume called Ludus Ludi Litterarii, 1672, purporting to report a series of speeches delivered at various breakings-up, states that the majority of them were in English on this very account. As early as the time of Henry VIII, the practice of exhibiting some dramatic performance at the close of the term, and usually at Christmas, was in vogue; but these spectacles were, it is to be suspected, almost uniformly in the original language of the classic author, or in the scholastic Latin of the period.

A feeling in favour of a reform in these arrangements had, as has been mentioned, arisen when Hawkins wrote for the free school at Hadleigh in Suffolk his play entitled Apollo Shroving, 1627, where one of the characters desires the Prologue to speak what he has to say in honest English, for all their sakes, and describes the predilection for employing Latin as more appropriate to the University.

Occasionally, instead of plays, there were musical entertainments; and the custom of signalling the termination of the school-work seems to have been followed by the private academies.

But the antipathy to change and the temptation to a display of erudition have always proved too strong an obstacle to improvement; and when the writer was last present at this anniversary, the ancient precedent was still in force, and the Court of the Merchant Taylors and general company listened in respectful silence to interlocutions or monologues as mysterious to them as the Writing on the Wall.

Hazlitt, W. Carew. Schools, School-books, and Schoolmasters.
London: J. W. Jarvis & Son, 1888. 136-145.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study: Draper, F. W. M. Four Centuries of Merchant Taylors' School 1561-1961.
           Oxford University Press, 1962.

Watson, Foster. The Old Grammar Schools.
           RoutledgeFalmer, 1968.

Wilson, Harry Bristow. The History of Merchant-Taylors' School.
           London: 1812.

Merchant Taylors' School on the Web:

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