The Royal Exchange is a building steeped in history. From its proud beginnings in 1565 to its glorious rebirth in 2001, this is a site that has always stood for trade. Indeed, archeological evidence indicates that the site has been of importance since Roman times.
Today, flanked by the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, the venerable Bank of England and close to the Lloyd’s building, the Royal Exchange stands at the heart of London’s commercial hub. A monument to its founder’s vision and to the enterprise of its latest rejuvenators, London & Paris Estates.
THE AMBULATORY PAINTINGS.
In 1892 the Gresham Committee proposed to fill the 24 large panels around the Ambulatory with paintings illustrating the history of the Exchange and the City of London. Each painting is approximately 22 feet tall and 11 feet wide, Painted on canvas using a rare spirit fresco technique, which in turn is attached to slate then stuck to the wall. The first, depicting Phoenicians trading with Early Britons on the coast of Cornwall, was executed and presented by Sir Frederic Leighton, President of the Royal Academy in 1895. Today the paintings vividly bring to life the history of the City of London and Royal Exchange.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A ‘BOURSE’.
In the early 16th Century, London was fuelled by commerce. From all over Europe merchants came to trade their wares negotiating in shops, homes, taverns and even in the open street. Meanwhile in the great port of Antwerp, merchants had a base within which to trade – a Bourse.
Here trade was regulated and controlled in a sophisticated way. Credit could be guaranteed and loans raised. Richard Gresham, a London mercer dealing in cloth and who supplied the tapestries for Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, realised this trading centre’s importance and urged the establishment of a similar centre in London. In a letter to the Lord Chamberlain promoting his idea he wrote
'merchants can no more be without exchanges than ships at sea without water'. Yet it was to be his son, Thomas, who would finally realise his father’s vision.
1565. A BOURSE IS BORN.
Thomas Gresham, was a well-travelled merchant who for a while had made his home in Antwerp. His job was to raise loans on behalf of the monarch of England and, in 1559 a year after the accession of Elizabeth I, he was knighted as a reward. No doubt it was inevitable, given his father’s interest, but in 1565 perhaps spurred by the untimely death of his own son, Thomas offered to build the City of London ‘a comely bourse’ at his own expense if they provided the land.
The City welcomed the offer and by 1566 the present site was cleared and the work begun under a Flemish architect. The resulting building, adorned with the Gresham family crest of a grasshopper, was opened by Elizabeth I and was to survive until 1666, when the Great Fire of London swept it away.
1667. OUT OF THE ASHES.
The Great Fire not only destroyed buildings it destroyed morale in London too. It was swiftly decided to rebuild as much as possible of the City better than ever, and particularly the much-loved Royal Exchange. The architect was to be Edward Jerman, City Surveyor and Charles II was so interested in the project that he agreed to lay the foundation stone himself; an event witnessed by Samuel Pepys the celebrated diarist. By 1669 the work was complete and the second Royal Exchange came into being.
The new building resembled the old in many ways – four arcades with upper storeys lined with small shops and a central courtyard for trading. With the building restored, the final addition being a large chiming clock to define the hours of trading, business once more flourished in Royal Exchange. Each nation and each trade or commodity had its own position and a rich assembly of merchants made it, in Joseph Addison’s account at the time ‘an emporium for the whole earth’.
BUSINESS BUILDS AT ROYAL EXCHANGE.
As traditional shops and shopping drifted westward in the late 18th Century, business came in to fill the space left by their absence. Among the first was Royal Exchange Assurance.
In 1774 Lloyd’s also moved to the building, an association that was to last until 1928, and it was Lloyd’s that was to be the unwilling cause of the building’s second destruction by fire. In 1838 a blaze broke out in Lloyd’s rooms and, the weather being so cold that the firemen’s hands froze to their pumps, it failed to be controlled and destroyed the building. The last part to be consumed by the flames was the clock tower whose chimes rang out even as the fire finished its work.
A BIGGER AND BETTER ROYAL EXCHANGE.
Rebuilding began almost immediately, this time using the extra land that Gresham had always wanted but failed to secure. In 1842 Prince Albert laid the foundation stone and in 1844 the young Queen Victoria opened the new building in a great and lavish ceremony that underlined Royal Exchange’s importance to the City. Trading resumed in earnest and in 1892 the Gresham Committee proposed the installation of twenty four large panels of art around the ambulatory depicting the history of the City of London and the Royal Exchange.
THE EXCHANGE CHANGES CHARACTER.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, trading at Royal Exchange virtually ended. However the building had survived the bombing, albeit with some near misses, and in 1953 a theatre company was established in the Courtyard. This theatre company was to go on to become the celebrated Mermaid Theatre.
Then in 1968 the Guardian and Royal Exchange Assurances were amalgamated to form the Guardian Royal Exchange (GRE) and in 1982 the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE) occupied the original trading floor. Dealers in their brightly coloured blazers made the area once again a hectic bustle of buying and selling.
Architects Fitzroy Robinson Partnership were briefed by GRE in the 1980’s to refurbish the building and add additional floors in harmony with the original style.
At this point the LIFFE was still in occupation and together with the enhancements the architects preserved and restored the fine rooms and directorial suite on the first floor whilst adding the modern specification. Twenty new Corinthian capitals were carved by craftsmen and 1300 square metres of working space achieved.
2001. RESTORED, REJUVENATED AND A CENTRE OF TRADING ONCE MORE.
Today this Grade I listed building has come full circle. In 2001 the Royal Exchange was once again extensively and sympathetically remodelled with the result that today it is an appropriate home for many of the world’s finest merchants. London & Paris’s reconstruction of the courtyard has created new boutiques and restaurants to compliment
the existing retailers on the perimeter.
Under one roof all that is beautiful and stylish is freely available to buy. No doubt Sir Thomas Gresham would be delighted that, after so many centuries, his unique vision has once more been fully realised.