Exploring London’s financial history in the heart of the city
(Updated November 2021)
A dragon statue on Strand Street marks the boundary between the City of Westminster and the City of London. The City of London, generally referred to simply as the City, is a city and county in the central area of metropolitan London, England. The City dates back to Roman times and is now a hub of financial services. A London-born and bred friend, who once worked in central London, took my husband and I on his own designed tour of the City’s financial history and current life.
London banking and brokering started in coffee houses. In the 17th and 18th century, men met in coffee houses. There they caught up on the news of the day and conducted business.
In 1706 Thomas Twinings bought Tom’s Coffee House on the Strand. With many coffee houses competing for business, owners looked for ways to set themselves apart. Thomas Twinings began selling tea. As tea became popular, his business boomed. Today, Twinings sells tea around the world and the little shop of the Strand is still open. At the back of the narrow shop, we had a unique tea tasting experience at their Sampling Bar.
The Twinings family decided to diversify into banking. Their first office offered services primarily to family and friends with cheques sometimes cashed into a combination of money and tea or coffee. In 1824, the bank was established as a separate entity. The bank was taken over by Lloyds in 1892. Three years later the branch moved into its Law Court premises.
The building housing the Law Courts branch of Lloyds Bank was built as the Palsgrove Resaurant. The interior is known for its Doulton ceramic tiles painted by J.H. McLennan. The entry vestibule contains a tiled fountain. (Update: The branch closed in 2018. There were plans in the early 2020s to turn the space into a Wetherspoon pub, but as of June 2022 that has not yet happened.)
We walked through the vestibule into the main lobby area of the bank and spent a few minutes admiring the tile work present everywhere we looked.
We were not able to enter Hoare’s bank, but the security guard in the vestibule allowed us to peek through the glass window of the door leading to the main banking area. C. Hoare & Co. is the oldest bank in the U.K., founded in 1672 at the sign of the Golden Bottle in Cheapside. Cheap is not a word I’d associate with this bank today. Its customers are high-net worth individuals and families (usually defined as someone with more than US $1 million of investable assets), who have generally been recommended by other customers. The scene as we peeked through the window was straight from a Dickens novel. A large room with bank employees behind a long wooden counter and glass cages. In front of the counter, at a round table, a man sat reading a newspaper. I could not see all the details at the teller counters, but I would not have been surprised to see paper ledger books and inkwells.
Coutts Bank is a private bank and wealth manager. Established in 1692 by John Campbell of Lundie, Scotland, it is the seventh oldest bank in the world. Campbell set up business in an old goldsmith shop on the Strand under the sign of three crowns. Signs like that were customary before the use of street numbers. Today the logo still contains the three crowns. Coutts is the Queen’s bank. My friend told us that Coutts has an impressive lobby. However we were not able to pop in and see it because it was tarped off due to ongoing renovations. A security guard stopped us from entering further into the building.
No security guards stopped us from entering The Old Bank of England Pub. In the 16th and 17th century two taverns existed on this site. They were demolished in 1888 to make way for the Law Courts’ branch of the Bank of England. The tunnels beneath the building were allegedly used by Sweeney Todd. They ran between Todd’s barber shop and the pie shop of his mistress, Mrs. Lovett. The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in Victorian times. According to the story, Sweeney Todd butchered victims who were then cooked and sold in Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Although you can find a few articles online claiming Sweeney Todd actually existed, the story is generally considered a work of fiction.
The Inns of the Court are a group of four London institutions which have historically been responsible for legal education. Their respective governing bodies, the benches, exercise the exclusive right of admitting persons to practise law by a formal call to the bar. Two of the Inns, Inner Temple and Middle Temple, are in an area of the City known as Temple area.
(By the way, if you want to see a lot of Bentleys and other expensive cars, you might want to walk through the parking lots at the Inns of the Court.)
We walked through the Temple Area so we could go past Temple Church, a church built by the Military Order of the Knights of Templar. Our friend said that although this had nothing to do with the banking theme of our tour, the church was worth seeing. On the grounds we met a retired Lord Justice who told us we really needed to go inside the church, not just walk by. Inside the church we met a history buff who told us the Knights of the Templar created one of the first banking systems. There was a banking connection after all.
The Knights of the Templar were monks, soldiers, bankers, and diplomatic brokers to successive kings. They built the round church, built to recreate the shape and sanctity of the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, was consecrated in 1185. The chancel was added in the thirteenth century. In 1608, King James granted all of the Templars’ former lands from Fleet Street to the river to Inns of the Courts. In return, the Inns agreed to maintain the church in perpetuity for the celebration of divine services. The church was refurbished in Classical style in the 1680s, in Gothic style in the 1840s, and in its present form after World War II. Readers of popular fiction may remember the church from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
The Strand, just north of Temple Church, turns into Fleet Street as you continue eastward. Fleet Street was home of British national newspapers until the 1980s. Pubs in this area used to stay open all night for the convenience of those working through the night on the presses.
I was a bit surprised when our friend led us into the lobby of a skyscraper. He said we were going to an upstairs bar. Tower 42 was built between 1971 and 1980 as the National Westminster Tower to house National Westminster Bank’s international division. It was the first skyscraper in the City and remained the City’s tallest building until 2009. Today it is the third-tallest building in the city and the eighth-tallest in greater London. Seen from above, its shape resembles the NatWest logo, three chevrons in a hexagonal arrangement.
We entered the large and somewhat intimidating lobby of Tower 42. Our friend approached one of the persons behind a long security desk and identified himself. We were given building access cards. We passed through the security turnstiles under the watchful eye of a security card. Two elevators and one flight of stairs later, we were on the 42nd floor and entered Vertigo42, a champagne bar with almost 360 degree views of London. I was still taking in the wonders of the view when glasses of champagne and a tray of tea sandwiches and pastries arrived. We were having afternoon tea high over London!
This experience could easily have been the icing at the end of the tour, but we weren’t finished yet. We still had the broker history to explore.
(Note November 2021: It appears that Vertigo42 is currently closed. I could not ascertain if this is temporarily or permanent.)
The current Royal Exchange building opened in 1844, replacing two older structures destroyed by fires. In 1565, Thomas Gresham, a well-travelled merchant, offered to build the City of London a stock exchange at his own expense in exchange for a land grant. Work began in 1566 and the resulting building was adorned with the Gresham family crest of a grasshopper. In 1666, the building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London. The Royal Exchange was rebuilt. In the late 18th century business drifted westward before filling the space again. Another fire occurred in 1838. Rebuilding began almost immediately. Trading at the Exchange virtually ended with the outbreak of World War II.
In 2001 the building was extensively renovated to become home to some of the finest merchants. There are also restaurants. We stopped for refreshments at the café and bar in the mail floor open court area.
The Royal Exchange housed not only brokers, but also merchants and merchandise. In 1698 stock dealers were expelled because of rowdiness. They started to operate in nearby streets and coffee houses, particularly Jonathan’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley, aka Change Alley. Change Alley had been the open-air meeting place of London’s mercantile community before the Royal Exchange was built.
In 1773, the brokers erected their own building, which was briefly known as New Jonathan’s before the name was changed to The Stock Exchange. In 1801 a formal membership subscription was established and the modern Stock Exchange was born. In 1802, it moved to a new building in Capel Court. That building was rebuilt in 1854. In 1972, the Queen opened the Exchange’s new 26-storey office block with a 23,000 square foot trading floor. In 2004, the Stock Exchange moved to a new headquarters in Paternoster Square.
We passed many other interesting buildings on our walking tour. A couple are highlighted below.
As the day stretched past five pm the streets filled with workers rushing to get home. Strides were purposeful and faces grim. Not so in the several busy pubs in the area. There, faces were animated and conversation lively as patrons visited, conducted more business, or passed time until the height of the rush hour had passed.
We joined many of those workers at The Counting House for a bit of refreshment before ending our day. The Counting House, now a lively Fuller’s pie pub, was once the banking hall of Prescott’s Bank, built in 1893.
Who would have thought a day tour featuring finance could be so much fun? We ran out of time to visit the Bank of England Museum, the Lamb Tavern and One New Change roof terrace. The Bank of England Museum contains items associated with the Bank of England, the central bank of the United Kingdom and the regulatory authority for its monetary policy. The Lamb Tavern is a historic pub on three floors in Leadenhall Market. It is one of the few remaining pubs with “snob screens” preventing the well-to-do drinker having to see the common man drinking in the bar and vice versa. One New Change’s roof terrace bar offers views of nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. It always good to leave something for the next visit, right?
We visited the sites I’ve listed above following a mostly geographical path through the City. For those of you interested in taking your version of the tour, the maps below will give you a rough idea of locations.
- Coutts, 440 Strand
- Twinings Tea, 216 Strand
- Lloyd’s Law Courts Branch, 22 Strand
- Old Bank of England Pub, 194 Fleet Street
- Hoare’s Bank, 37 Fleet Street
- Temple Church
- London Stock Exchange, 10 Paternoster Square
- One New Change
- Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane
- Royal Exchange, 2 Royal Exchange Steps
- Change Alley
- Jamaica Wine House, St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill
- The Counting House, 50 Cornhill
- Old London Stock Exchange, 125 Old Broad Street
- Vertigo 42 in Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street
- Lamb Tavern, Leadenhall Market
- Lloyd’s of London current office building, 1 Lime Street
I’ll end with the quote my friend included on the bottom of the itinerary he printed for us.
I have seen the West End, the parks, the fine squares, but I love the City far better. The City seems to have much more in earnest – its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights and sounds. The City is getting its living – the West End but enjoying its pleasure. At the West End you may be amused, but in the City, you are deeply excited. ∼Charlotte Bronte, 1853
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