Southwark Street – SE1
One of the unanticipated benefits of being forced by the recent tube strikes to forsake my normally troglodytic mode of transport for a tramp across the mean streets of London is having the opportunity to (re)acquaint myself with some of the landmarks of our metropolis which, otherwise, would pass me by. What particularly caught my attention was a splendid edifice on Southwark Street called the Hop Exchange, now a venue for corporate entertainment.
Hops are a staple ingredient of English ale, giving it its distinctive bitter taste and acting as a preservative and antibiotic. Kent was the principal area for growing hops and the only land route into the metropolis until as late as 1750 was via Borough High Street and over the old London Bridge. Inevitably, Southwark, handily placed on the south side of the Thames, became the epicentre of the hop trade and until the early 1970s there were many hop factors and merchants operating there. Even in the railway age trains conveying hops would terminate at nearby London Bridge station.
The hop factors used their showrooms to display their wares, usually in the months of February and March, and the hops would be bought by hop merchants who made their purchases on behalf of their brewer clients. April was the month for the settlement of accounts.
Warehouses were substantial and following the development of Southwark Street in 1864 the largest hop merchants, Wigan’s, commissioned a local architect, R.P Pope, to build a warehouse at no 61 capable of holding 10,000 sacks or pockets of hops and space for four wagons to be unloaded simultaneously under cover. Even that wasn’t enough and when the Hop Planters’ Joint Stock Company went bust in 1868 they took over their premises at no 15 and extended it towards the Charing Cross railway viaduct. To give you a sense of the trade, annual crops regularly reached between half and even three-quarters of a million hundredweights.
The Hop Exchange, which is at no 64, opened in 1868 provided hop dealers with a single and central trading forum. The enormous glass roof was designed to enable trade to be conducted with the considerable benefit of natural light. According to near-contemporary reports, “the hall is approached by a short flight of steps and a vestibule with large iron gates. The business of the Exchange is transacted on the ground floor, while all round and in the three galleries are the offices of merchants and others”.
Unfortunately, on 20th October 1920 fire broke out at the Exchange, destroying the roof and upper two storeys which were never replaced. The building then sustained significant damage during the Blitz and whilst the restoration is sensitive and the building impressive, retaining the sweeping curve that made the original vaguely reminiscent of the Coliseum in Rome, it has lost the majesty and grandeur of the original. Above the main entrance is a statue of an eagle but more germane to the building’s history are the three carvings on the tympanum of the picking and transportation of hops.
Judging from the publicity shots of the interior the galleries and the central open space where the trading was transacted are extant, making the building a fascinating reminder of a vibrant trade that was conducted there.