The Origins of London’s Financial District

The Bank of England and Royal Exchange

The Origins of London's Financial District

Following on from my article about the City of London Corporation, it’s not difficult to see how London became an important trading and financial centre.

As British explorers opened up new trade routes, then most of the important trading and commerce ended up on the streets of London, the hub of which was centred around what is now called Bank Junction.

The junction is where nine streets converge and includes three of The City of London’s most influential buildings –  the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, and the Bank of England.

The Bank of England was founded in 1694 and ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ was opened in 1735, but the story goes back much further than that.

The Royal Exchange
Inside the Royal Exchange today

The Livery Companies were highly influential in the early trading days, and Sir Richard Gresham (c1485-1549) was not only a liveryman for the Worshipful Company of Mercers, he was also one of the few people close to King Henry VIII who didn’t get his head chopped off – in fact, he was even knighted by the king for services rendered.

His business acumen must have been in the genes because his son, Thomas, followed in his father’s footsteps, acting on behalf of Henry VIII’s offspring – Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Elizabeth I, and it was Thomas who his accredited with founding the Royal Exchange in 1565 as a centre for London’s merchants. His name is remembered in Gresham St and the Gresham Grasshopper (a symbol of the family coat of arms) on top of the Royal Exchange.

The Gresham Grasshopper in Lombard St
The Gresham Grasshopper in Lombard St

Alongside the Royal Exchange is Lombard St, the most important street in London’s financial district for many years, and sometimes compared to New York’s Wall Street.

Originally a major Roman road, it was included in some land granted by King Edward I to goldsmiths from Lombardy (in the northern part of today’s Italy).

These goldsmiths, who acted as moneylenders, were the first to hang a sign from their building identifying the business. This was in the days before numbering was introduced, and others quickly followed suit. Eventually, there were so many large, heavy signs hanging over the street that buildings started to collapse, and it required none other than King Charles II to bring in a law to curtail the practice. These days there are still some hanging around including another Gresham Grasshopper at number 68.

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During the 17th century, coffee houses became popular with those discussing business and finance, partly because stockbrokers weren’t allowed in the Royal Exchange due to their rowdy behaviour, and partly because to meet up in the local hostelries might not have been such a good idea either.

London’s first coffee house opened in 1652 just off of Cornhill in St Michael’s Alley, and Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley became the Stock Exchange, but probably the most well known is Lloyd’s which moved to Lombard St from Tower St in 1691. Today it’s a Sainsbury’s supermarket!

Until the 1980’s most UK banks had their head offices in Lombard St, but by then The City was modernising and moving into new premises, both in the Square Mile and at Canary Wharf. Things were moving so fast, that some institutions, such as Barclays, built new offices in the City, and then newer offices again at Canary Wharf.

Things are changing again, and companies are having to decide whether to move once more – this time to places like Frankfurt or Paris, but London has a long history in finance and commerce, and I can’t see it relinquishing its status as one of the world’s major finance centres very easily somehow, but as always, only time will tell.

Lombard St looking towards the Walkie Talkie
Lombard St looking towards the Walkie Talkie
Former Barclays Bank Headquarters at 54 Lombard St
Former Barclays Bank Headquarters at 54 Lombard St
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