St Paul’s School was founded by John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Colet’s father was Sir Henry Colet, twice Lord Mayor of London. As his sole surviving child, John Colet inherited substantial wealth in 1505 to bolster his own independent means. Colet used his whole fortune to endow St Paul’s School, making it the largest school in England.
In the 16th century, it was usual for school governance to be entrusted to the Church, but Colet believed that “he yet found the least corruption” in married laymen. He therefore chose “the most honest and faithfull felowshipp of the mercers of London”, the premier guild of the City of London – of which his father had been a leading member – as “patrones and defenders governours and Rulers” of his new school.
Colet intended his school to provide a Christian and humanist education. He was helped and advised in his planning by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most famous scholar of the day, who wrote textbooks for the school’s use and assisted in the recruiting of staff. Under Colet’s statutes, there were to be 153 scholars (a reference to the miraculous draught of fishes, St John XXI, 11) “of all countres and nacions indifferently”.
The first building, sited by St Paul’s Cathedral, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The school subsequently moved four times, due to growing demand, before finally settling at the present 45 acre, riverside site in 1968.
The school has survived the Plague, the Great Fire of London and the Civil War, and in 1870 was one of only two day schools included by the Clarendon Commission as one of the ‘nine great public schools’ of England.
The preparatory school was founded in West Kensington in 1881. Originally known as Bewsher’s and then Colet Court, the school relocated across the river along with St Paul’s School to the current site in Barnes in 1968.