The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange, a trapezoid-shaped structure, was opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. Cornhill and Threadneedle Streets flank the exchange. The original building was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666. It was rebuilt in 1669 and again destroyed by fire in 1838. The first building was a gift from Sir Thomas Gresham. It was rebuilt by Edward Jerman, a contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren. Jerman’s design rose from the ashes of the Great Fire and were built upon Elizabethan foundations. Statues of the kings of England from Edward I to Charles II graced the interior courtyard. Eventually, those of William and Mary, Anne, George I, George II, George III, and George IV followed.

Info Britain tells us a bit of the background for the original Royal Exchange, “London has always been a trading centre, lying as it does on a river estuary opposite the mouth of the Rhine, which places it ideally for trade with Europe. London also occupies what was once the lowest fordable point of the Thames, which made it a natural place for internal trade. When the Romans arrived after their invasion in 43AD, they found a regular market being held roughly on the site of what is now Southwark Market. This was an obvious place to build a town. By the sixteenth century Richard Gresham, supplier of tapestries to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court decided that London should have a purpose built centre for trade, using the Bourse in Antwerp as a model. Richard was unable to make his vision a reality, but his son Thomas followed his father into the world of trade. Thomas made his home in Antwerp, and gained royal favour by arranging loans for English monarchs. In 1559, one year after the succession of Elizabeth I, Thomas was knighted for his services. Then in 1565, remembering his father’s vision, Thomas offered to build the City of London its own bourse at his own expense if the City would provide suitable land. Work started in 1566 on an arcaded building housing small shops, surrounding a central courtyard used for trading. Thomas Gresham used the rental income from these shops to fund a programme of free public lectures given at what would become known as Gresham College, based at his house in Bishopsgate.”

British History Online provides us a detailed description of the costs for and the look of Gresham’s project. (Old and New London: Volume 1. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878, pages 494-513.) “Lombard Street had long become too small for the business of London. Men of business were exposed there to all weathers, and had to crowd into small shops, or jostle under the pent-houses. As early as 1534 or 1535 the citizens had deliberated in common council on the necessity of a new place of resort, and Leadenhall Street had been proposed. In the year 1565 certain houses in Cornhill, in the ward of Broad Street, and three alleys—Swan Alley, Cornhill; New Alley, Cornhill, near St. Bartholomew’s Lane; and St. Christopher’s Alley, comprising in all fourscore householders—were purchased for £3,737 6s. 6d., and the materials sold for £478. The amount was subscribed for in small sums by about 750 citizens, the Ironmongers’ Company giving £75. The first brick was laid by Sir Thomas, June 7, 1566. A Flemish architect superintended the sawing of the timber, at Gresham’s estate at Ringshall, near Ipswich, and on Battisford Tye (common) traces of the old sawpits can still be seen. The slates were bought at Dort, the wainscoting and glass at Amsterdam, and other materials in Flanders. The building, pushed on too fast for final solidity, was slated in by November, 1567, and shortly after finished. The Bourse, when erected, was thought to resemble that of Antwerp, but there is also reason to believe that Gresham’s architect closely followed the Bourse of Venice.


“The new Bourse, Flemish in character, was a long four-storeyed building, with a high double balcony. A bell-tower, crowned by a huge grasshopper, stood on one side of the chief entrance. The bell in this tower summoned merchants to the spot at twelve o’clock at noon and six o’clock in the evening. A lofty Corinthian column, crested with a grasshopper, apparently stood outside the north entrance, overlooking the quadrangle. The brick building was afterwards stuccoed over, to imitate stone. Each corner of the building, and the peak of every dormer window, was crowned by a grasshopper. Within Gresham’s Bourse were piazzas for wet weather, and the covered walks were adorned with statues of English kings. A statue of Gresham stood near the north end of the western piazza. At the Great Fire of 1666 this statue alone remained there uninjured, as Pepys and Evelyn particularly record. The piazzas were supported by marble pillars, and above were 100 small shops. The vaults dug below, for merchandise, proved dark and damp, and were comparatively valueless. Hentzner, a German traveller who visited England in the year 1598, particularly mentions the stateliness of the building, the assemblage of different nations, and the quantities of merchandise.

“Many of the shops in the Bourse remained unlet till Queen Elizabeth’s visit, in 1570, which gave them a lustre that tended to make the new building fashionable. Gresham, anxious to have the Bourse worthy of such a visitor, went round twice in one day to all the shopkeepers in “the upper pawn,” and offered them all the shops they would furnish and light up with wax rent free for a whole year. The result of this liberality was that in two years Gresham was able to raise the rent from 40s. a year to four marks, and a short time after to £4 10s. The milliners’ shops at the Bourse, in Gresham’s time, sold mousetraps, birdcages, shoeing-horns, lanthorns, and Jews’ trumps. There were also sellers of armour, apothecaries, booksellers, goldsmiths, and glass-sellers; but the shops soon grew richer and more fashionable, so that in 1631 the editor of Stow says, ‘Unto which place, on January 23, 1570, Queen Elizabeth came from Somerset House throught Fleet Street past the north side of the Bourse to Sir Thomas Gresham’s house in Bishopsgate Street, and there dined. After the banquet she entered the Bourse on the south side, viewed every part; especially she caused the building, by herald’s trumpet, to be proclaimed ‘the Royal Exchange,’ so to be called from henceforth, and not otherwise.’”

The west side of the building saw extensive repairs at the hands of William Robinson, the surveyor of the Gresham Trustees, in 1767.

Lloyd's Coffee House - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Royal Exchange quickly became London’s door to international business. In the 17th Century, London’s importance as a trade centre led to an increasing demand for ship and cargo insurance. Edward Lloyd’s coffee house became recognized as the place for obtaining marine insurance, and this became the Lloyd’s of London that we know today. “Lloyd’s Coffee House” moved to the first floor of the Royal Exchange in 1774. The RE was forced to move to South Sea House after the 1838 fire. 

George Smith, architect to the Mercers’ Company, replied Jerman’s wooden tower with a stone one between 1820-1826.

A tower to replace the one designed with the Gresham grasshopper symbol was rebuilt in 1842 under the direction of Sir William Tite in the centre of the facade towards Throgmorton Avenue. “The third Royal Exchange building, which still stands today, was designed by William Tite and adheres to the original layout–consisting of a four-sided structure surrounding a central courtyard where merchants and tradesmen could do business. The internal works, designed by Edward I’Anson in 1837, made use of concrete—an early example of this modern construction method. It features pediment sculptures by Richard Westmacott (the younger), and ornamental cast ironwork by Henry Grissell’s Regent’s Canal Ironworks. It was opened by Queen Victoria on 28 October 1844 though trading did not commence until 1 January 1845.In June 1844, just before the reopening of the Royal Exchange, a statue of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was unveiled outside the building. The bronze used to cast it was sourced from enemy cannons captured during Wellington’s continental campaigns.” (The Royal Exchange)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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