The Gresham Society was founded in 1994 by the late great David Vermont, senior past master of the Mercers, with support from the equally great George Webb and other stalwarts who wanted to build up a group of people who sympathised with the aims of the newly re-launched Gresham College.
A key idea was to enable professors to maintain their links to the College even after their normal three-year term of office had come to an end, and this was extended to members of Council and the Joint Grand Gresham Committee. By 1999 we had 99 members – nearly a third of whom are still with us!
Membership grew steadily, in particular during the chairmanship of Jack Wigglesworth (2003-2006) and his successor, Professor Tim Connell has continued to build on this, drawing on the wider range of Fellows as well as Professors. There is still a welcome place for the Gresham regulars who frequently support a particular professor or subject area, but who bring with them a background in professional or public life which would make them an asset to the organisation – and someone interesting to talk to when we hold one of our events.
The Society has three key events: the AGM and Dinner which takes place between late January and mid-February. Professor Tim Connell is celebrated for his deft committee skills and firm chairmanship in keeping the agenda to less than ten minutes and the Dinner for some years has been at the National Liberal Club. Just before Christmas every other year (not wishing to wear out our pool of talent) we hold the Gresham Soirée. Part 1 is offered by professional musicians, and the evening is then somewhat diluted by Society members who offer an eclectic range of talents, ranging from a recital on the bagpipes to – wherever the membership takes it. Then, also biennially, we support the Gresham Nailor Defence Lecture, which commemorates Peter Nailor, Provost of the College at the time of the re-launch in the first half of the 1990s and who had a naval background. High-ranking military figures or specialised academics give a lecture relating to current matters regarding security or the armed forces. We are fortunate (remembering David Vermont’s connections in particular and Wing Commander Mike Dudgeon’s support for the project) that this event is held at Mercers’ Hall.
Members then have the chance to meet up as part of our annual programme of events, which normally take place several times a year. These can cover visits to a wide range of places, everything from the Fortnum & Mason Archive to the Muniments Room at Westminster Abbey. Members pay a small contribution which allows for entry fees plus a donation to the organisation concerned. Other activities are arranged on an ad hoc basis, such as the Exhibition at the Guildhall Library in 2019, which commemorated the quincentenary of the birth of Sir Thomas Gresham himself and which attracted over 5000 visitors.
The Society now has over two hundred members, drawing on the same sources, and with the same two criteria: does the applicant have something to offer to the Society...and would you want to sit next to them at dinner?
New members are asked to pay a one-off entry fee of £50 to help towards expenses, and social events and outings are also chargeable. The Society is now moving towards a more electronic set of communications (though some members still prefer letters through the post). The website is the latest element in this, bonhomie, conviviality and intellectual curiosity as is the regular appearance of The Grasshopper, which began life as a newsletter before developing a style of its own. It appears in a quarterly edition, with news from the College and the members (who also contribute items of interest) plus an eclectic range of topics.
So the Society continues to maintain what is now a tradition of bonhomie, conviviality and intellectual curiosity.
And of course we do not lose sight of the fact that members will normally have the chance to meet up with each other at the Gresham lectures, where they can identify each other by wearing the celebrated Grasshopper badge.