The Royal Exchange, EC3V
Until such hideous monstrosities such as the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheese grater and the Walkie Talkie started to blot the London landscape, the building which undoubtedly epitomised the City of London and the epicentre of commercial trading was the Royal Exchange. It is still to be found, flanked by Cornhill and Threadneedle Street as they converge at Bank junction, but it is a pale shadow of its former glory, hosting expensive emporia devoted to frippery aimed at people with more money than sense and over-priced eateries.
Today’s incarnation is the third exchange to occupy the site. Rather appropriately a church dedicated to St Bartholomew, dedicated to a saint who was flayed alive just as many a trader lost their shirt, stood adjacent to where the Exchange now is. It predated the Exchange by some three and a half centuries, originally being called St Bartholomew the Less, to distinguish it from the nearby priory, and once the Exchange had been built it became St Bartholomew by the Exchange.
The first Royal Exchange was opened by good queen Bess on 23rd January 1571 who as well as bestowing upon it the royal title gave it a licence to sell alcohol. Founded by Thomas Gresham and based on the design of a bourse in Antwerp, the only form of commerce allowed on the premises initially was the exchange of goods, hence its name. Stockbrokers and other forms of dealer were considered ill-bred, uncouth and rude and they had to practise their trade in adjacent establishments until the ban was lifted in the 17th century. Given its position it was inevitable that both the Exchange and St Bartholomew’s would perish in the great conflagration of 1666.
A second Exchange, designed by Edward Jarman, was built pretty quickly and reopened for trade in 1669. It was not until 1674 that a decision was made to pull down St Bartholomew’s damaged steeple and a new one was erected, completed in 1683 at a cost of £5,077. The second Exchange housed the Lloyd’s insurance market until the building burned down again, in 1838, when the insurers decamped to South Sea House. I wonder if they insured the Exchange? The third Exchange building, the façade of which stands today, was designed by William Tite and adhered to the original lay-out of a four-sided structure surrounding a central courtyard where the merchants and traders could do their business.
The interior made use of a new-fangled material called concrete, one of the first buildings to do so. The front features some wonderful carvings, by Richard Westmacott, and cast iron work by Grissell’s Regent’s Canal Ironworks. Opened by Queen Victoria on 28th November 1844 it commenced trading until the start of the following year. Outside the Exchange a statue of the Duke of Wellington was unveiled as part of the redevelopment.
Alas, though, St Bartholomew’s fared less well. In order to improve access to the Exchange by widening Threadneedle Street the Corporation of London for permission, duly received, to demolish the church. And so it came down in 1840. Trading at the Exchange had virtually ended by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 2001 the Exchange was extensively remodelled and the building was re-opened as the retail experience it now is in 2003.