Change Alley, EC3
Change Alley, a contraction of its original name, Exchange Alley, is to be found intersecting Cornhill and Lombard Street in the heart of what we term the Square Mile. It has a curious shape with five legs – one leading on to Birchin Lane – and at the centre is what might be termed a crossroads which bears testament to its once thriving past and the provision of what has fuelled the financial sector for centuries – stimulating drinks and places to trade.
One of the walls at the crossroads bears a blue plaque denoting the location of the King’s Arms Tavern, alas no more, but still the home of the Marine Society which was founded in 1756. Turn towards the south and you will see a plaque in the shape of a grasshopper, the symbol of Thomas Gresham who founded the Royal Exchange, which marks the spot of Garraway’s Coffee House. As well as wine you could buy and drink tea there – the eponymous Thomas Garraway is credited with being the first to retail tea in England. Following the success of Pasqua Rosee’s nearby coffee house, Garraway added the fashionable drink to the menu. It also became an auction house.
Change Alley was also the home of Jonathan’s coffee house which was famous for its connection with stock-jobbing, providing a place of trade for the rougher end of the trading community who had been expelled from the Royal Exchange on account of their rude manners. In 1698 John Castaing began publishing the prices of stocks and commodities in Jonathan’s, evidence of a move to a more formalised trading platform. In the mid 18th century a case came up before the magistrates at the Guildhall involving the then master of Jonathan’s, a Mr Ferres, who was accused of pushing Isaac Renoux out of his house. He was fined one shilling, it being noted that “the house had been a market, time out of mind, for buying and selling government securities”.
Inevitably, Change Alley was at the heart of financial scandals, none more so than the South Sea bubble from 1711 to 1720. Edward Matthew Ward’s painting of 1720, to be found at Tate Britain, entitled Change Alley in the South Sea Bubble lampoons the opportunism of the jobbers and the gullibility of the investors. But following the crash by 1723 the basic structure of finance had been established – a complementary set of private commercial and merchant banks all enjoying continuous access to an active, liquid secondary market for financial assets, particularly government debt.
Shirts weren’t the only things lost in Change Alley. A fire in 1748 at a wig maker’s in the Alley spread, destroying upwards of 100 properties including Garraway’s and Jonathan’s and some nearby pubs including the George and Vulture, the Swan, the Fleece and the Three Tuns and many lost their lives. The Aurelian Society lost a rare collection of butterflies – rarer still – to the flames. The current shape of the Alley differs from that in John Rocque’s map of 1746, suggesting that the devastation of the fire was the catalyst to rebuilding and remodelling the area.
In 1761 150 jobbers and brokers formed a club to facilitate the trading of shares. It thrived and in 1773 they were able to build their own premises on nearby Sweeting’s Alley or Sweeting’s Rents, which was known as the New Jonathan’s and eventually became the Stock Exchange.
What is now an unprepossessing set of alleys had a prominent role in making London a pre-eminent financial centre.