Westminster City Council Green Plaque unveiled at founding site of Royal Society of Arts

Wed, 06/04/2016

The site where William Shipley founded the Royal Society of Arts – 25 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden – was marked on 6 April 2016 as a major landmark in British cultural heritage with the unveiling of a Westminster City Council Green Plaque by Cllr Peter Freeman (Deputy Cabinet Member for Built Environment).

The plaque unveiling by Westminster City Council builds of the fact that 2015 marked the tercentenary of the birth of William Shipley, founder of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (1754) which grew to become the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) as we know it today. Shipley, a drawing master, devised the plan for the Society of Arts whilst a resident in Northampton, where he had seen the practical benefits of philanthropy by supporting the provision of cheap fuel for the poor.

Consequently, Shipley came to London in March 1754 to canvas support for his scheme, and on 22 March 1754, he called a meeting at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. Although only ten individuals besides Shipley attended this meeting, they confidently announced the foundation of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Two original features of Shipley’s Scheme for this society were that women as well as men could become members, and that medals would be given for especially useful inventions and improvements. By 1760 over 1,000 names were listed as members, and today this number stands at 27,000 worldwide. 

William Shipley’s efforts in setting up the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce encouraged the rise in the UK’s commercial aspirations, supported the fledgling Industrial Revolution, helped develop classic English artists (Hogarth, Turner) and was vital in building the British philanthropic movement.

The plaque at Henrietta Street was unveiled by Cllr Peter Freeman, and the guest of Honour was Dr. Nicholas Cambridge. Dr. Cambridge is Honorary Chairman of the William Shipley Group for RSA History and a Fellow of the RSA. His association with the RSA started when he was conducting research in the RSA archives for his MD in medical history. He is Honorary Vice President of the Johnson Society of London, Chairman of the Erasmus Darwin Foundation, Vice Chairman of the Medical Society of London (founded in 1773) and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Dr Nicholas Cambridge (Honorary Chairman of the William Shipley Group for RSA History, and a Fellow of the RSA) said, “The RSA are proud to sponsor a lasting memorial to William Shipley and his work in founding the Royal Society for Arts. The values and mission that William Shipley first put forward when founding the society in 1754 ‘to embolden enterprise, to enlarge science, to refine art, to improve our manufactures and extend our commerce’ continue to inform the RSA. Today this is carried forward by sharing powerful ideas and carrying out cutting-edge research to build networks and opportunities for people to collaborate, create fulfilling lives, and develop a flourishing society.”

Cllr Peter Freeman (Deputy Cabinet Member for the Built Environment at Westminster City Council) said, “The Royal Society of Arts, as founded by William Shipley, aims to enrich society through ideas and action, and that mission is something that we at Westminster wholeheartedly support. Consequently it was a straight forward decision for Westminster City Council to award this green plaque, and commemorate the work of William Shipley and the RSA.”

Launched in 1991, Westminster City Council’s Green Plaque Scheme draws attention to particular buildings in the London Borough of Westminster associated with people of renown who have made lasting contributions to society. Other luminaries marked by the scheme include Oscar Wilde, Siegfried Sassoon, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Voltaire, as well as sites of historical significance including the Queen’s Hall, The Turks Head Tavern and the Theatre Royal Marylebone.

The William Shipley Group was founded in 2004 to raise awareness of the RSA's rich history, and is an independent body, and not a part of RSA. 

For further press information on the unveiling, or on Westminster City Council’s Green Plaque Scheme more generally, please contact greenplaques@westminster.gov.uk.

Last updated: 25 April 2016
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