Vic Keegan’s Lost London 72: the London roots of Harvard, Smithsonian and Yale

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 72: the London roots of Harvard, Smithsonian and Yale

What have some of America’s noblest institutions – Harvard University,  Yale University and the Smithsonian Institute – got in common? Answer – they were all founded by Londoners, though these stories have all become a bit lost in time. We often hear of American philanthropy in England, supporting the Peabody estates and the Wellcome Foundation to give two good examples. We hear far less of the philanthropy that has travelled in the other direction. Yet the bequests across the water of three London men were, and are, quite remarkable.  

First off the mark was John Harvard (1607-1638), who was reared in Borough High Street, then part of Surrey. His father owned a butcher’s shop there and an adjoining pub, where there is a plaque commemorating him. Harvard’s parents were rich enough to send him to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He later emigrated to New England, and settled in Charleston, Massachusetts, where he became a church teacher and preacher.

Two years before his death – at the age of just 30 – a college was founded at what was originally called Newtowne and then had its name changed to “Cambridge”. Harvard made a deathbed bequest to it, which resulted in its name being changed again, to his.   

The second great benefactor was Elihu Yale, who was actually born in America of an ancient Welsh family but left for England at the age of three. He was educated in London before spending a long period with the (British) East India Company in India, making a lot of money, often in controversial circumstances.  Yale returned to London in 1699. the Yale family lived in Queen’s Square, London, when they were not at the family seat in Wrexham, where Elihu is buried.

In 1718, Yale was persuaded to support the fledgling Collegiate School of Connecticut, which needed funds for a new building. He gave books, goods and artefacts, which the school sold to raise the cash it needed. Yale had hoped he might benefit from regular disbursements. Those never happened, but the new building was named after him and so, eventually, was the entire school, which became Yale College. Some believe another other donor, Jeremiah Dummer, had been more generous than Yale, but the trustees of the school feared Dummer College would not be a great name for a place of learning.

The third benefactor was the most amazing of all. James Smithson (1765-1829), the Paris-born illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland, gave $500,000  – reckoned by some to have been the equivalent of 1/66th of the whole US budget – to found what became the Smithsonian, the biggest museum and research institution on the planet. 

And he did this without ever having set foot in America. Why? No-one knows exactly, but it was almost certainly to further education and research in this new democratic country along the lines of what the Royal Institute and the Royal Society (of which, as a scientist, Smithson he was a member) were doing in London. It remains one of the most astonishing acts of philanthropy ever recorded. Smithson is remembered by a blue plaque at his home in Bentinck Street, W1.

Thought for the day: Would Donald Trump know all this if it came up in a pub quiz?

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.


Categories: Culture, Lost London

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