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History of Retail - Royal Exchange

Our flick back through the history books continues as we dip into the past of one of our oldest stores in London’s Royal Exchange.

History of Retail - Royal Exchange

Much like Burlington Arcade, the Royal Exchange occupies a rarefied spot in London’s retail landscape; it’s one of the oldest, most grand and most prestigious shopping hubs in the capital.

Nestled in the heart of the City, flanked by the age-old commercial streets of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street (which was originally filled with tailoring workshops to dress the city’s bankers – hence the name), the Royal Exchange was founded in the 16th century by merchant Sir Thomas Gresham, to act as a centre for commerce for the City of London.

Gresham’s benefactor, Richard Clough, was one of the richest men in England at the time, a merchant with a thriving import business and supplier to Elizabeth I’s royal household, and he purportedly put the idea in Gresham’s head. Between the two of them, they secured the backing of the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers (the 16th century equivalent of a trade body), who still jointly own the site today.

Clough first voiced the idea in 1562, and he imported much of the materials for the construction himself; archival ledgers record his importing several tons of ‘stone, slate, wainscot, and glass’, which he paid for himself prior to obtaining royal approval for the project – a risky strategy at the time. Thankfully, it paid off, and Queen Elizabeth herself opened the Exchange with plenty of pomp and ceremony in 1571.

She also awarded the building its royal title and a licence to sell alcohol and valuable goods. Today, we associate the Royal Exchange with finance and banking, but stockbrokers were banned from doing business there until the 17th century due to their – and we quote here – ‘bad manners’. Instead, financiers would do business in the coffee houses nearby, which explains in part why the Exchange has enjoyed a thriving restaurant scene for almost as long as it’s been a centre of commerce.

Sadly, Gresham’s original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the Exchange’s second iteration didn’t fair much better; that burned down in 1838. Thankfully, a third iteration still stands today, rebuilt (again) by Sir William Tite, who preserved the original layout in his new designs. Just before its reopening in 1844, a statue of the Duke of Wellington was installed at its front, cast from bronze sourced from enemy cannons captured during his campaigns. Sadly, Wellington no longer stands guard, but the Exchange has nevertheless defied three fires and almost 500 years of history to maintain its position today.

This grand sense of tradition appeals to us greatly at Crockett & Jones – and explains in part why we’ve had a shop in the Exchange since 2000. Call us old fashioned, but we like to think of ourselves as a traditional retailer rooted to traditional landmarks. We’re not as old as the Exchange, but if we keep our wits about us, one day, we might be…