William Rogers and our Origins

Bishopsgate Institute was established thanks to the visionary work of one man. Our Interpretation Manager and history tutor Dr Michelle Johansen tells the little-known story of Reverend Rogers of St Botolph’s Church on Bishopsgate.

This newspaper illustration of our opening ceremony in November 1894 indicates William Rogers’ vital role in proceedings: he is the only guest on view given a name.

Credit: Daily Graphic press cutting, Bishopsgate Institute and Archive, 1894

Rich and poor in mid-Victorian London

Reverend William Rogers (1819-1896) was the son of a London magistrate who attended Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, before entering the church in the 1840s. As a young curate in mid-nineteenth century London, Rogers gained insight into some of the hardships faced by the urban poor.

He discovered that many families occupied overcrowded dwellings in filthy courts and alleys. Because unskilled labour tended to be casual or seasonal, most people suffered regular periods of unemployment. When a household’s main breadwinner was in work, their income only covered basic costs. The poor weren’t in a position to set money aside “for a rainy day”. This really mattered at a time when there was little financial support available to those unable to earn a living, whether through sickness or old age.

William Rogers was deeply troubled by these forms of social injustice. Not content simply to pray for the poor, he became involved in practical measures aimed at improving the lives of London’s labouring classes.

He enabled families to get access to clean drinking water by fund-raising for new drinking fountains in local streets. He was involved in the construction of bath and wash-houses, and he campaigned to establish play areas, schools, and picture galleries in his community.

A polytechnic of the people

In 1863, Rogers was appointed rector of St Botolph’s Church on Bishopsgate. Located on the margins of the wealthy City and the impoverished East End, this living brought new opportunities to implement positive social change. In particular, it promised the financial support our unusual churchman needed to realise a cherished ambition.

For some time, he had been plotting the establishment of an educational scheme for adults. This scheme would take the form of a network of universities or polytechnics of the people, public spaces built to a high specification with libraries, classrooms, and lecture halls. Here, Rogers hoped, men and women from all backgrounds would enjoy the cultural advantages he took for granted as a privileged member of the Victorian middle classes.

On arriving at St Botolph’s, Rogers discovered that a pot of charitable donations had been accumulating in the City for over five hundred years. These donations were often death bed bequests, with the donor hoping to secure his or her place in heaven by making a gift of money to the poor.

In Rogers’ view, these funds were no longer being fairly distributed. Rather than going towards "jollies" for the local great and the good (one purpose to which he suggested they were being used by the nineteenth century) he believed the bequests should be redirected towards his proposed polytechnics of the people scheme.

More than 200 guests attended our opening ceremony, which was presided over by the British Prime Minister, the Earl of Rosebery (a long-time friend and supporter of William Rogers).

Credit: Item from Bishopsgate Institute Archive

This photograph of our exterior on the opening day indicates the high levels of excitement surrounding Rogers’ initiative. A police presence was required on the day to manage the crowds of people eager to access the building for the first time.

Credit: Bishopsgate Institute Archive, 1895

The Bishopsgate Institute

William Rogers began exploiting personal connections established at school and university to petition his friends in high places to introduce a change in the law that would make it possible to divert the City’s charitable income towards educational initiatives. He was successful in this.

The terms of the City of London Parochial Charities Act (1883) allowed Rogers to work with like-minded educationalists to draw up a visionary plan of action. According to this plan, three new learning institutions would be built in the City: the Cripplegate Institute, the St Bride Institute, and our own Bishopsgate Institute.

Founding a new centre for informal adult learning in his parish was Rogers’ crowning achievement as a socially-responsible churchman. His pivotal role in the venture was acknowledged by friends and colleagues, who picked his 75th birthday as the date for the official opening ceremony (see event invitation, above). The ceremony was followed by a dance, held in Rogers’ honour, in a neighbouring school hall. A few weeks later, Bishopsgate Institute threw its doors open to a wider public.

On New Year’s Day 1895, almost 8,000 visitors crowded into the building. Local men and women were keen to seize their first opportunity to use the well-equipped libraries and newsroom. And perhaps take a peep through the doors of the Great Hall to view what would soon become the popular setting for lectures, exhibitions, concerts and dances.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and Bishopsgate Institute remains a vibrant cultural centre for leisure and learning. Few people realise that we owe our existence almost entirely to the vision and idealism of one man. William Rogers’ name may not ring many bells today but, in his lifetime, the rector of St Botolph’s Church was famous for his energetic efforts to improve the lives of others through better access to clean water, wash houses, and education.

Find out what happened next in the Institute’s development by reading the story of our chief librarian Charles Goss.

Discover more about the building and design of Bishopsgate Institute by getting to know our architect Charles Harrison Townsend.