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Our History and Architecture

Since first opening our doors on New Year’s Day 1895, Bishopsgate Institute has been a hub for culture and learning.

The original aims of the Institute were to provide a public library, public hall and meeting rooms for people living and working in the City of London. The Great Hall in particular was ‘erected for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement literature, science and the fine arts'.

Bishopsgate Institute exterior

Bishopsgate Institute was built using funds from charitable endowments made to the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate. These had been collected by the parish for over 500 years, but a scheme agreed by the Charity Commissioners in 1891, enabled these to be drawn together into one endowment. Reverend William Rogers (1819-1896), Rector of St Botolph’s and a notable educational reformer and supporter of free libraries was instrumental in setting up the Institute and ensuring that the original charitable aims were met.

Our architecture

The architect for Bishopsgate Institute was decided by a design competition and Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), whose previous work had mainly consisted of church restoration, was chosen as the winner. Townsend was an inspiring and original architect whose work was individual rather than adhering to any particular style or movement. The Grade II* listed building combines elements of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles, but the influences of Townsend’s interest in Romanesque and Byzantine architecture can be seen in the broad semi-circular arched entrance, twin roof turrets and mosaic interior floors. Townsend’s reputation today is based not only on Bishopsgate Institute but also his other major London public buildings, Whitechapel Art Gallery (1901) and the Horniman Museum (1901). Today all three landmark listed buildings are not only connected stylistically, with broad arched entrances and buff terracotta exteriors with intricate carving reflecting Townsend’s fondness for the ‘Tree of Life’ motif, but all have been beautifully restored and are being used as originally intended.

In past years Bishopsgate Institute has undergone several refurbishment schemes. In 1994 an 18th century house on neighbouring Brushfield Street was incorporated to accommodate an expanding courses programme and in 1997 the colour scheme and light fittings of Townsend’s original designs were replicated in the Library. It is however the recent £7.2 million renewal programme (2009-2011), funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and directed by Charles Sheppard Architects, that has transformed the building and facilities to the highest standards, whilst also being sympathetic to Townsend’s original designs and restoring the historic features of the building.

With its terracotta façade covered with stylised leafy trees and topped by two turrets, its impressive Great Hall, panelled Boardroom and recently-restored Reference Library, our Grade II* listed building is one of the very few in the area to have survived intact through the 20th century.

A great place to host your event
As well as being an architecturally stunning home for ideas and debate, Bishopsgate Institute is a great venue to host conferences, meetings, workshops and a wide range of events.