Steelyard Passage, EC4
What is now known as Steelyard Passage is a covered passageway running underneath Cannon Street station, linking Cousin Lane to the west with All Hallows Lane to the east. Handy as it is for getting from A to B in one’s rush to get to one of the many eateries in the area, what I hadn’t appreciated was that it was an area steeped in history. The Steelyard, derived from the Middle Low German word, stalhof, was the centre of the Hanseatic League’s trading operations in London.
What made the area particularly attractive to the German merchants was that it was situated on the northern bank of the Thames by the outflow of the Walbrook river. So ensconced were the Hanseatics there that they were able to build their own walled community which contained warehouses by the river, weighing and counting houses, residential blocks and chapel. They even had their own laws and, naturally, conversed in their native tongue. Traces of the trading house which was the largest trading complex in mediaeval London were uncovered in 1988 when maintenance work was being carried out on the station.
Records suggest the presence of a German trading post on the banks of the Thames as far back as 1282. In 1303 Edward I regularised the position of the Hanseatics by issuing a Carta Mercatoria which gave them tax and customs concessions. The heyday for the trading post was probably in the 15th century when the site was extended and the German merchants made a play for the English cloth making trade. This often led to friction between the two sets of merchants, often ending in violence. This culminated in the destruction of the Steelyard in 1469. Edward IV allowed the merchants from Cologne to stay in the city, which in turn caused dissension with the other members of the league, resulting in Cologne’s expulsion.
England and the Hanseatic League then went to war but following the peace treaty of Utrecht, the Hanseatic League bought outright their land on the banks of the Thames. Part of their obligations was to maintain one of the city’s great gates, Bishopsgate. The community’s fortunes flourished in the 16th century and a number of the members – they were stationed in London for a few years and then returned home – sat for portraits by the likes of Hans Holbein the Younger and Cornelis Ketel. John Stow in 1598 described their imposing edifices facing on to Thames Street; “large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the others and is seldom opened; the other two bemured up; the same is now called the old hall.”
Impressively built as the trading area was by contemporary standards, it could not escape the flames of the Great Fire of 1666. Samuel Pepys who had once been drawn to visit the Steelyard, attracted by its fashionable “Rhenish winehouse”, sat in a barge on the Thames watching the flames of the fire licking the Steelyard’s walls. The warehouses were rebuilt and they concentrated on trading in steel but from that point the fortunes of the Hanseatics in London waned. With typical tenacity they soldiered on but in 1852 the remaining members of the League, Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg, sold their London outpost to the South eastern Railway. The site was demolished and Cannon Street railway station was built, opening to the public in 1866.
Sadly, nothing remains of the Steelyard but the Banker pub occupies the spot where the weigh house once stood with what is left of the once mighty Walbrook trickling down a pipe affixed to one of its walls.