Living monuments to learning

St Paul’s is the City of London’s magnificent cathedral, built after the previous Gothic structure burnt down in 1666. Like every place of worship in the UK, it is witness to “hatch, match and dispatch”; Cost Centre #1 was baptised there in April 1990, in the crypt, where you will find the tombs of Wellington and Nelson. Exactly 23 years later, St Paul’s was the venue for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

If we could roll the clock back by more than 300 years, we would have been around for the debate about the designs for St Paul’s, for which its architect, Sir Christopher Wren, produced several sets of proposals. Someone who would have had a view is Sir William Turner, Lord Mayor of London 1668-69 and a successful and wealthy merchant. He hung out with Pepys, and took a great interest in the rebuilding of St Paul’s, which started in 1675. Sadly, unlike Wren, he did not live to see it completed: the last stone was laid on October 26 1708. Sir William died in 1693. But in his own way, Sir William started something as lasting, and as important to our nation, as St Paul’s Cathedral.

The education and aspiration of the UK’s children is something I feel passionately about, and he did too. Turner was a philanthropist both during his lifetime and beyond. The money he left to support education is still doing so, more than 300 years later.

I followed in his footsteps when I visited two colleges in North Yorkshire last week: one based in Guisborough, the town of Turner’s birth, and one in Redcar, which had its origins in a school founded with one of his bequests. I was visiting in my capacity as chair of the educational charity Career Academies UK. Prior Pursglove Sixth Form College, based in Guisborough, is descended from a school that predates Turner, as it was given its charter by Queen Elizabeth I. (I saw the charter, written on animal skin with the seal of the virgin queen attached, and thought how quaint everything was in the days before you could load all the documents for starting a school on to a memory stick or send them via Dropbox.)

Next I went on to Redcar & Cleveland College, a thriving further and higher education college where many of the young people I met talked of going on to an apprenticeship. I found that rather apt, as William Turner was himself the posterboy of apprenticeships. The third son of a successful landowner, and therefore with no hope of inheriting anything, he was packed off to London to be apprenticed to a wool merchant and never looked back, ending up being worth the equivalent of several million pounds. It was a £5,000 bequest in his will which led to the establishment of what is now the college, and the Sir William Turner Foundation continues to support students there to this day.

And what happened to Sir William? He was elected an MP in 1690 at the age of 75, which is a pretty advanced age to start a new career. In contrast, Iain Wright, the MP for Hartlepool and shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise, with whom I toured Redcar & Cleveland College, was elected in 2004 at the age of 32.

Wright is married, with no fewer than four children; Sir William Turner never married; and Sir Christopher Wren was married twice, in total for nine of his 90 years. When Wren died, he too was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s, his tomb carrying the inscription, “Lector si monumentum requiris circumspice” – Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed in St Paul’s Cathedral by the English Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of the 21st Century, in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal on May 23 (tickets from £10 at Ticketmaster). I shall be there, looking around me and reflecting that although Sir William Turner never lived to see that wonderful building finished, his legacy, like the cathedral, endures.

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