London’s Royal Exchange was first founded in 1565 by the merchant-financier Sir Thomas Gresham (d1579), to act as a centre of commerce for the city. The site was provided by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers, a livery company in London that had received its royal charter some 170 years earlier. The Exchange's aim was to act as a trade association for general merchants; they exported the material that was the pride and joy of Britain (wool) and they imported the luxurious fabrics that were not available in Britain (like silk).
The first building was triangular in shape, formed by the convergence of Cornhill and Threadneedle Streets. According to Thomas Gresham, the design was inspired by a bourse that he had seen on a visit to Antwerp. The Royal Exchange was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I who awarded the building its royal title, in Jan 1571. Sadly Gresham's original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Second building's interior courtyard, 1788,
by Francesco Bartolozzi
Published & sold by Mr Chapman
by Richard Holmes Laurie
photo credit: George Glazer Gallery
A second Royal Exchange was built on the site, designed by Edward Jerman, which opened in 1669. An engraving from 1788, by Francesco Bartolozzi, shows how the newer, larger, second building was laid out. Mr Chapman noted that the Royal Exchange in its heyday was at the heart of what the City of London did best: commerce. I would add that the engraving also shows business men having a very pleasant public life.
And we can see a 1822 view of the interior courtyard by Richard Holmes Laurie, a well known map and print maker. Groups of men in top hats and long coats, and other people, were standing around the centre, presumably doing business. This view was published in the year after the new tower in the centre had been erected. Sadly the second version of the Royal Exchange was also destroyed by fire, this time in January 1838.
In the era of the second Royal Exchange, stockbrokers were apparently considered vulgar creatures and so were not allowed inside. If they wanted to do business, they had to operate from other local establishments, like coffee-houses that specialised in the world of finance.
Glass covered courtyard inside the Royal Exchange
The third Royal Exchange building still stands on the site and is faithful to the original layout as best as the architects understood. From the aerial photo, you can still see the four-sided structure surrounding a glass covered central courtyard where merchants and tradesmen could do business. The interior Corinthian columns and the bright inner courtyard look similar to the 18th century engraving.
There were various shops with entrances along the side streets: book shops, opticians, tobacco shops etc. Above were the business offices of merchants, insurance companies and of The Society of Lloyd's, which had two suites of flats. In the square inner courtyard, there was a statue of King Charles II – is it still there? This third building was opened by Queen Victoria in Oct 1844 and trading started straight after the Christmas break.
Louis Grimshaw's 1903 depiction of the Royal Exchange illustrated the enthusiastic coronation celebrations for Edward VII, just at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Alfred Drury was the sculptor of a large war memorial in front of the Exchange, created at the end of WW1.
The Royal Exchange ceased to act as a centre of commerce in 1939, although for a few years it did house the London International Financial Futures Exchange. It is now a luxurious shopping centre, selling particularly high end goods like Tiffany’s, Chanel jewellery and Louis Vuitton.
Luxury shopping today