24 February 2015

Elegant Shopping IV: London's Royal Exchange

I visited the Royal Exchange building in the City of London and it reminded me of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney: a large number of classy shops under one roof. But the dates of the two buildings were different and the shapes of the two buildings were very different.

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

Second building's interior courtyard, 1822, 
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.

Third building
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.

Aerial photo

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


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Somehow I missed the Royal Exchange building when I was in London. I suppose that those fancy stores and boutiques are not exactly my style. Still, I will head over there next trip, to have a good look at the building. Incidentally, London is lucky that it can support the Royal Exchange as a fancy shopping center. In Cleveland, the two current options for a building like this are demolition and conversion into condominiums.

Joe said...

The Queen Victoria Building is a delight. But the land it was built on was always used for markets, so a I am assuming the new 1890s building continued to be used as a market. The London building was for a classier mob.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

We cannot even remember when we were last in the Royal Exchange. So, your post has been a welcome reminder that at least some grand buildings in London are thriving under a new regime from their original purpose without being turned into apartments.

The architecture is suitably grand for its new occupants, so we really must visit and see it in its new clothes.

Hels said...


your discomfort with very fancy shopping centres is something I am familiar with. Especially Australians... when we travel around Europe, we all look so daggy and under-dressed.

But because the Royal Exchange was first founded in 1565, a really good inspection will be well worth your while. In the end, I loved the architecture and internal spaces.

Hels said...


VERY classy, from the beginning. Perhaps a bit different from Sydney.

Although Gresham wanted to build the facility to house a trading floor, he added more floors on top and poured considerable energy into the retail business - some 100 shops all paid him a nice rent.

Soon the Royal Exchange sold handsome goods and attracted suitable merchants. In fact it is said that Gresham’s Royal Exchange was KEY to the new wealth of the City!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

At least grand buildings in London are re-purposed when they are old. My fear is that stunning old buildings will be razed to the ground and something ugly built on the free space.

Are developers so tacky they cannot appreciate beautiful and old buildings that made the City special?

London Born said...

Those mercers must have had great deal of money. So it is very cool that the City of London and the Worshipful Company of Mercers still own the freehold.

It would be even cooler if the mercers are still a trade association for textile merchants.

Hels said...

London Born

The huge block of land, near St Paul's Cathedral in the heart of the City, was worth heaps. Plus the cost of building and rebuilding the amazing architecture. The first founder, Sir Thomas Gresham, must have been making a fortune from trade and hoped the new building would make the trade world even more lucrative.

The Worshipful Company of Mercers still exists but not it is original role in trade.