Last week saw St Paul’s Church in town host a service for
the 450th Anniversary of the Harpur Trust. You should know a bit about Sir William
Harpur because, rather amazingly, it is largely because of this one man that we
are here at all today. On Friday, Murray Stewart, the Chairman of the Harpur
Trust told the story of his life, which went something like this.
William Harpur was born near Bedford in 1496, a few years
after the young prince who would become Henry VIII (and who will come up again in
this story). He went to school in what is now Mill Lane (just down the
High Street on the left), a school which was funded by the church and run by
monks from Newnham Priory. After that he went to London and had an
immensely successful business career.
He joined a company called the Merchant Taylors (still a
charity today and one of a number of livery companies that runs distinguished
schools). He went on to become in turn Master of the Merchant Taylors,
Sheriff of London and then, in 1561, Lord Mayor of London. He was
knighted by Elizabeth I the next year. He lived a long life, dying in
1574 and is buried in Bedford in St Paul’s Church, where last week’s service
was held and wreaths laid.
But it was Henry VIII who possibly had the greatest impact,
by pure chance, on William’s life. Tudor history, and particularly the
story of Henry and his wives and the Reformation is well known by you all.
What you may not have appreciated, however, was that when the wealth of
the old church was taken from it in the dissolution of the monasteries, the
church’s ability to fund schools was cut back. William’s old school in
Bedford was one of the casualties and perhaps he felt that loss.
At some time in the 1540s, we don’t quite know when, William
was approached about helping to fund a new school in Bedford. Bedford was a small town then, so the school,
where the Harpur Centre now stands, was built for 30 boys, who would get a free
education. There was one school master, and an usher, who did everything
else. You may or may not know that the term Usher still exists four and a
half centuries later in Mr Baker’s full title, Vice Master and Usher.
Sir William and his wife Dame Alice obviously liked their
school project, and as they got older looked to a time beyond their own deaths.
They had no children of their own, so perhaps looked to help other young
people. The school had been running successfully since 1552, so in 1566
William and Alice conveyed to Bedford a gift in the form of 13 acres of farmland,
then outside London, to provide a rental income that would pay for the school.
By enormous luck, by the end of the 18th century,
this farmland had been subsumed by the expansion of London and houses were
built upon it. It now represents 13
acres of land in Holborn, one of the smartest parts of North London, which clearly
provided a vastly greater income, and allowed the Harpur Trust to expand its
work in schools, almshouses and charitable giving. Last year, the four schools
provided over £2.5 million in bursaries to over 270 pupils, and over £1.5
million in charitable grants – and the Harpur Trust’s central endowment stood
at about £70m.
Earlier in the service last Friday, Aidan Swain read from a
passage of a book called Wonder by R.J.Palacio.
In it, a Head Master makes an address at the start of the year to his
staff, parents and pupils. The Head
Master defines success like this: “the best way to measure how much you’ve
grown isn’t in inches or the number of laps you can run around the track, or
even your grades; it’s what you’ve done with your time, how you chosen to spend
your days and whom you have touched this year”. He then goes on to make a new rule of life:
“always try to be a little kinder than is necessary”.
Sir William Harpur would never have been able to foresee that
his farmland would become Holborn in London, or turn into such a vast fund that
it underpinned not one but four schools and a large amount of local charitable
giving in his home town. However, there
is no doubt that his gift of 13 acres of land to fund a school was “kinder than
necessary”. If he was there in spirit
last week, one can’t help but think that he would have been proud; but also
that he would leave us with a challenge: “I have helped do this for you;
how might you in turn help others?”