Trading, theatre and Tudor merchants | The story of The Royal Exchange
The current Royal Exchange is the third iteration to stand on the site at Bank.
Today, an exchange building is generally utilised for telecommunications or foreign currency. However, as a commercial building, exchanges date back to at least the 13th century. In London, many of the capital’s former exchanges are long gone, and if they do still exist, conduct business using different methods. However, one of the London’s oldest exchanges still exists, albeit not the original building.
Standing at the Bank junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street is The Royal Exchange, which dates back to the 16th century. It was founded by Tudor merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), who had been trading in Bourse of Antwerp, the world’s first commodities exchange. He obtained land and permission from the City of London’s Court of Alderman to establish a centre of commerce. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) opened the first exchange in January 1571 and gave the building a royal title, along with a license to sell alcohol and valuable goods. Gresham later added two additional floors above the trading floor, with units leased out for retail. This savvy move essentially created Britain’s first shopping mall. Originally, stockbrokers weren’t allowed into the Royal Exchange because of their reputation for being rude, so conducted their trading in the nearby coffee shops.
Gresham’s original Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Its replacement was designed by architect Edward Jarman (1605-1668) and opened in 1669. It was a stone, Baroque building with piazzas, arched entrances to the inner court and a 178ft high tower with clock and bells. The second Royal Exchange was full of merchants and brokers. In 1713, Lloyd’s of London acquired two rooms in the building. However, the building followed the fate of its predecessor and burned down in January 1838. It is believed the blaze may have been caused by an overheated stove in Lloyd’s Coffee House in nearby Lombard Street.
A competition was soon launched to design the third – and current – Royal Exchange, with architect Sir William Tite (1798-1873) being chosen. His design was inspired by the original layout, comprising a four-sided structure surrounding a courtyard in the centre and cost over £150,000 to build. The exterior was built in a neo-classical style in Portland stone. The west-facing main entrance features a portico on eight Corinthian columns, holding a pediment. The latter features a tympanum containing sculptures by Richard Westmacott (the younger) [1799-1872]. The central figure represents Commerce, holding a rudder in one hand, and a charter of exchange in the other. Below is a Biblical quote chosen by Prince Albert (1819-1861), from Psalm 24.1: “The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereoff.” Remaining sculptures on the pediment include City officials, a British merchant, a Turkish merchant, an Armenian banker, and more figures from Greece, India and China. Meanwhile, there are three further, smaller entrances on the southern, northern and eastern elevations. Underneath, the frieze features a Latin inscription stating the Exchange was founded in the 13th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and restored in the 8th year of Queen Victoria‘s. The eastern end of the building is dominated by a 177ft clock tower. At the time of building, the courtyard was open to the air, but a roof was later added and it remains covered today. The courtyard was where the merchants and traders would meet to talk and do business. On the Royal Exchange’s weathervane is a gilded, copper grasshopper, which commemorates the building’s founder Sir Thomas Gresham, who has the insect on the family crest.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) opened the new Royal Exchange on 28 October 1844, although it didn’t start trading until New Year a few months later. Over five decades later, Victoria’s son King Edward VII’s (1841-1910) proclamation took place at the building on 23 January 1901, days after his mother’s death.
In 1941, trading was suspended following World War II. The Royal Exchange sustained some damage when a bomb hit nearby Bank tube station’s ticket hall in January 1941, killing 56 people. The traders moved out following the war, before the building was Grade I listed in 1950. Rather surprisingly, The Mermaid Theatre set up stage in the courtyard from 1953, before moving to a purpose-built theatre in Blackfriars in 1959. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the building was barely used, until the traders returned for a brief sojourn. The London International Financial Features Exchange (Liffe) moved in in 1982, when two floors of offices were added and the Victorian roof replaced. The traders stayed nine years before relocating to Cannon Street.
The 21st century saw The Royal Exchange reborn as a retail and dining space by architects Aukett Fitzroy Robinson. The Gresham grasshopper weathervane was restored and regilded by Dorothea Restorations, now perched proudly on the roof for those who know to look up. Inside is a mix of offices, luxury shops and restaurants, usually full of office workers on weekdays (pre Covid-19 of course). So these days, the only trading going on is exchange money for goods, food or drink.
- The Royal Exchange, Cornhill, City of London, EC3V 3LR. Nearest station: Bank. For more information, visit The Royal Exchange’s website.
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