The School started in 1542 with Thomas Freeman as first schoolmaster possibly as a continuation of that in the parish of St Mary Colechurch under the patronage of the Hospital of St Thomas Acon in the late fifteenth century. The main subjects taught were Latin and Greek, as education at this time was aimed at entry into the Church. The School was held in the small chapel of the previous hospice. At the end of the 16th century it was accepted that the schoolmaster should have fifteen private fee paying pupils in addition to twenty five free places. The Mercers' Company in 1607 increased the number of fee paying pupils to 35. A review stated that the 25 free scholars should he children of mercers especially where the parents were poor but no mercer could have more than two free places and places were to be agreed by the Company. The review laid down the duties of the Master and usher: the curriculum which was extended to include writing and arithmetic, free periods and holidays. Accommodation was granted to the School in the north aisle of the Church of St Thomas.
In 1636 and 1641 the City suffered outbreaks of plague and the 1665 Great Plague closed the School from Summer 1665 to Spring 1666. 1666 also saw the outbreak of the Great Fire which destroyed Mercers' Hall and the School. In 1672, a building was opened for the School on the site of St Mary Colechurch. A small endowment came from Thomas Rich, a former pupil, who left property to provide education for two poor boys at the School followed by fees for Oxford or Cambridge. His bequest also provided an augmentation to the salary of the Master of Mercers' Chapel School. By 1721 the School's fortunes were waning, pupil numbers had reduced to 4. By 1743 these numbers had risen to 23 free scholars but twenty years later this number had decreased to 16 with 11 fee payers. In 1778 writing and accounts were added to the teaching programme to suit the class of children attending.
In 1784 the School moved to Budge Row and subsequently to a house in Watling Street until 1804 when the School moved to Red Lion Court. The Company set up a committee to examine the state of the School which recommended that the Company should become the governing body of the School with school having a broader curriculum to include subjects more useful to boys going into trade and commerce. Matters improved rapidly and by the end of 1805 there were 25 foundation scholars. A further move to College Hill improved amenities for both pupils and staff with an expansion of pupil numbers to 70 and the addition of an assistant classics master and assistant writing master.
At Christmas 1839 the Headmaster, the Rev Isaac Wright, retired after 35 years. During his tenure a wider curriculum had developed, the subjects covered being geography, Roman history, English, Greek and Latin grammar, classical antiquities. Ecclesiastical and civil history, writing, arithmetic and merchants' accounting. The School was becoming a close community and annual dinners were held by old scholars between 1826 and 1840. From 1840 to 1861 the Headmaster was the Rev John Smith who further modernised the curriculum as most boys were destined for professional or commercial life.
The 1870's saw changes to hours, as boys were living further away from the School. The curriculum placed more emphasis on mathematics, English and French and less than half the school hours were devoted to the classics. Greek was dropped altogether in 1878 and teaching of German was introduced in the following year.
By 1880 under the Headmastership of Dr Scott, numbers had increased to l50 scholars with six staff and this growth eventually necessitated yet another move to a new relatively spacious site at Barnard's inn, High Holborn just inside the extended City boundaries. The foundation stone was laid by the Master of Mercers' Company in July 1893 and in September 1894 the Earl of Selborne, the current Master and past pupil of the School, formally opened the new School buildings. Expansion followed and a full complement of 300 boys was reached in January 1897 with a staff of fifteen assistant masters.
In 1905 the London County Council asked if Mercers’ School would accept holders of junior scholarships, but only a few were admitted experimentally. However, pupil numbers were falling and it was found that other City schools were not suffering in this way largely because they were accepting large numbers of LCC scholarship boys.
1914 brought the outbreak of war together with the untimely death of Dr Scott who had seen many changes during his 35 years as Headmaster. Many staff went into the Forces, vacancies being filled by retired teachers called back into service. Mr C H Bickell succeeded Dr Scott who introduced a cadet corps to the school. The School uniform was amended by the abolition of the untraditional ‘pork-pie’ hat which was replaced by an ordinary peaked cap.
Post war the Company embarked upon a period of heavy expenditure on the School. In 1930 a playing field was purchased at Grove Park, which could be shared by the Old Mercers’ Club. The school library was refurbished and a new chemistry block was constructed. The old hall of Barnard’s Inn was repaired and reopened in 1932 and the school was admitted into the Headmasters’ Conference in 1935.
In September 1939 the start of the Second World War threatened air raids and the School moved to Horsham to share premises with Collyer's but raids did not materialise and the greater part of the School returned to Holborn in January 1940, leaving 86 boys and nine masters at Horsham. As raids commenced in late summer the start of the Autumn term was deferred to mid October when the School reopened with 75 boys attending and 25 continuing correspondence tuition. The School buildings suffered little damage and those evacuated returned for the Autumn term of 1942 albeit with restricted teaching staff.
In 1946 Mr Haden became Headmaster and faced the post war revival. The 1944 Education Act divided secondary schools into grammar, technical and modern and there was a greater demand for university and college places. The new Head realised that the School needed to develop a strong Sixth Form and recommended closing the junior school and admitting boys from 11 or 13 thus changing the school into the 'grammar' category envisaged in the Act.
This brought a re-examination of the objectives of the School which since 1894 had reflected Lord Selborne's aim that it would be "at the head hereafter of the great commercial schools of England." In 1953 the Company examined new ideas. A building programme was put forward by the Headmaster in response to alterations, required by Her Majesty’s Inspectors. The inspectors were complimentary regarding the Company's endeavours and the first-class results being achieved by the School. However, the buildings were still deemed inadequate.
For three years a committee considered the problems, in consultation with the Headmaster and the Ministry. Even after some proposed extensions there would be no further space for further expansion on the Barnard's Inn site. School costs were rising for the Company and it was agreed that no benefit would arise from increases in fees. Direct Grant status should be aimed for but inadequate buildings would rule against the School being placed on the Government's aided list. Additions to the Direct Grant list were rare and could not be considered until the School was running satisfactorily in a new situation, possibly with a move to the suburbs. The Company would need to finance the School until new premises were ready with no guarantee that there would be a Direct Grant. There was much deliberation as to the correct course of action. In 1958 the Minister rejected the application for a Direct Grant and informal soundings suggested that an application to the Inner London Education Authority for aided status would be rejected. Closure was inevitable and took place at the end of the Summer Term 1959 to the regret of' the Company, the Headmaster and staff, Old Mercers and existing scholars. For over 400 years the School had witnessed social and personal changes with varying levels of success. It was now closing because of hard economic factors but was also at a point when its reputation was high.
"A History of Mercers' School” by W E F Ward
The Editor is very grateful to The Guild of Mercers’ Scholars for their permission to use this extract from “The First Fifty Years” by Past Guild Master R G Edwards