The Streets Of London – Part Forty Four

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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”.

The South Sea Bubble, a Scene in 'Change Alley in 1720 1847, exhibited 1847 Edward Matthew Ward 1816-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00432
 

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.

The Streets Of London – Part Thirty One

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St Michael’s Alley, EC3V

Midway down Cornhill on the right hand side as you walk from the Royal Exchange is to be found St Michael’s Alley which runs alongside St Michael’s church, more of which anon. The area between Cornhill and Lombard Street is a warren of little passageways and alleys and gives the sense of what London might have been like, without, of course, the stench, dirt and foul air.

One of my favourite watering holes, the Jamaica Wine House, or as the habitues of the financial district call it, the Jampot, is to be found here, charming workers and tourists alike with its wooden interiors, high ceilings and rather abrupt service. It gets its name, alas, from its association with the slave trade in the Caribbean and the current building is newer than you would think, only dating back to 1869.

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Of principal interest is a blue plaque on the exterior of the wall of the pub – so keen was I to get my hands on its foaming Kentish brews that it escaped my notice until recently – proclaiming “Here stood the first London Coffee House at the sign of the Pasqua Rosee’s Head 1652”.

Pasqua Rosee was a servant of an importer of goods, including coffee, one Daniel Edwards. There are two versions of how the coffee house was established. One was that Rosee fell out with Edwards and set up his own business. The other, more likely I would have thought, was that Edwards used to entertain guests to his house with the exotic caffeine based brew and realised the commercial possibilities that existed in selling it. So Edwards helped Rosee set up what was in reality a wooden shack, adjacent to the church, a landmark that was visible across all of what was the then city.

The sign gracing the establishment showed Rosee in profile, resplendent in turban and with a twirly moustache and so memorable was this image that it became the default sign for other coffee houses. There is some confusion over the name of Rosee’s gaff with some records calling it the Turk’s Head and others, a version adopted by the manufacturers of the blue plaque, The Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head.

Rosee issued printed advertisements extolling the virtues of the coffee drink and claiming that he was the first to make and sell the drink in England. This claim was erroneous, the honour of establishing the first coffee house actually fell to a Jewish chap called Jacob who opened the Angel in Oxford a year earlier, in 1651.

Notwithstanding that, Rosee’s coffee house became extraordinarily popular as a meeting place and a venue for conversation and business and spawned many rival establishments. Presumably buoyed by his success – shortly after opening he was selling around 600 coffees a day – Rosee planned to move his business to a more permanent establishment on Cornhill adjacent to Newman’s Court. Whether he succeeded in doing this or not is unclear and Rosee disappears from the records around 1658. His own ability to profit from the coffee craze that he had created was tragically short-lived. By 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in London and by 1675 around 1,000, selling what detractors called “a liquid resembling syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”.

Ironically, Rosee’s intended second venue is now a Starbuck’s; the chain also runs a coffee shop at the house he used to live in with Edwards at 38, Walbrook.