Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Philanthropy

Sir Thomas Gresham and The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange will forever be associated with Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579). Here he is, portrayed as a confident young man in his mid-twenties:

Portrait – Gresham College.

Apprenticed for seven years in the Mercer trade, he spent much of his time on the continent, learning French and Flemish in the process. His astuteness with finance came to the attention of Thomas Cromwell who started putting royal work his way, and Gresham’s connection with royalty continued under Elizabeth I. As well as managing his family’s trading interests (primarily clothing, guns and ammunition) as a royal agent he was charged with reducing the royal debt held by Antwerp merchants. When he took over this task the debt stood at £250,000 but by 1565, applying a combination of shrewd trading and interest rate speculation, he had reduced it to only £20,000 (earning himself a knighthood). These skills increased his own wealth considerably as well, and this was further enhanced on the death of his father.

By the late 1560s he was reputed to be the richest commoner in the country. Having no heir (his only son died in 1564), in his later years he used some of his vast wealth to produce two lasting legacies – Gresham College and the first Royal Exchange. The College was established at his house in Bishopsgate where lectures were given on a wide range of subjects including astronomy, geography, medicine and music. The College still offers lectures today at its Holborn premises. The Royal Exchange, based on the Antwerp model, was his gift to the City’s merchant negotiators who up to that time ‘had done their business in the wind and weather of the public street’.

Queen Elizabeth formally opened the Exchange on 23 January 1571, giving the building its Royal title along with a licence to sell alcohol. The building was lost in the Great Fire of 1666 and its successor also burned down in 1838. The third building which stands today was opened in 1844 with much ceremony by Queen Victoria herself, Prince Albert having laid the foundation stone two years earlier.

In this blog I will be looking at some of the features of the present building that perpetuate Gresham’s memory and I will deal with other aspects in a later blog.

Let’s start with the main gates that face Bank junction …

Best observed when closed, they incorporate an image of the great man himself. Above his head are the arms of Gresham College with the sword and mace representing the City …

The gates were supplied by the firm of H. and M.D. Grissell whose foundry also produced the railings for Buckingham Palace and the British Museum. Henry Grissell (nicknamed ‘Iron Henry’) was famous not only for the quality of his work but also his attention to detail, evident here in the entrance to the Exchange in Threadneedle Street …

If you look closely you will see that the ironwork incorporates Gresham’s initials:

Along with a Mercer Maiden …

I have written about the Maidens in more detail in an earlier blog and their use as a symbol denoting property owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers of which Gresham was a member. They still own the land on which the Exchange stands.

Look up at the Exchange and you will see several grasshoppers, the symbol of the Gresham family …

Facing Threadneedle Street.

And the weathervane on the roof, which was saved from the fire that destroyed the second Exchange in 1838 …

The story goes that one of Thomas’s ancestors, Roger de Gresham, was abandoned as an infant in the marshlands of Norfolk and would have perished had not a passing woman been attracted to the child by a chirruping grasshopper. Heraldic spoilsports assert that it is more likely a ‘canting heraldic crest’ playing on the sound ‘grassh’ and ‘gresh’.

There is, course, also a statue of Gresham himself on the building but it is so high up you can only view it from practically underneath …

The Ornamental Passions’ website tells us the following about the sculptor William Behnes. He was, apparently …

… a half-English Irish-educated artist whose financial profligacy had reduced him to penury. He was declared bankrupt half way through the commission but he successfully completed it and was paid £550 (roughly £50,000 today).

Incidentally, the Exchange was lucky to survive the wartime bombing especially when, on 11 January 1941, a direct hit on Bank Station killed 111 people. These pictures show the aftermath then and the view today …

 

The view at Bank on a quiet Sunday.

 

Terminus tales – Blackfriars Station

Nowadays, if you want to travel by rail to Continental Europe, you head for St Pancras International and Eurostar. Once upon a time though, your gateway to the Continent was Blackfriars Station in the City.

The station was badly damaged during the Second World War but the wall displaying a selection of the locations you could catch a train to survived and you can see it today in the ticket hall. It was part of the original façade of the 1886  station (originally known as St Paul’s) and features the names of 54 destinations – each painstakingly carved into separate sandstone blocks.

The destinations are gilded in 24 carat gold leaf …

‘Where shall we buy a ticket to today? Crystal Palace or Marseilles? Westgate-on-Sea or St Petersburg? Tough choices!’

The new station gave the London Chatham & Dover Railway an important foothold in the City of London.

If you leave the station and turn left you can walk across Blackfriars Bridge and take in a few more interesting sights.

There are these columns rising out of the river …

In 1862-64 a bridge was built to accommodate four trains at one time. John Wolfe-Barry and H M Brunel built a second bridge to increase the number of trains coming into St Paul’s. The columns are the remains of the original bridge, which was removed in 1985 as it was deemed too weak for modern trains.

On the south side is the beautifully restored coat of arms of the London Chatham & Dover Railway …

Note the white horse rampant, symbol of Kent, and the county motto ‘Invicta’ meaning ‘undefeated’ or ‘unconquered’.

And now features not everyone notices. They are not related to the station but if you have ventured onto the bridge they are worth looking out for.

Peer over the parapet and on either side you will see some birds on the capitals of the bridge supports, beautifully carved in Portland stone by J.B.Philip.

The birds on the west side are fresh water birds and plants to be found on the upper reaches of the river …

And on the east side, sea birds and seaweeds to be found at the mouth of the Thames …

Just after you turn left outside the station you will see one of my favourite water fountains, recently liberated from behind hoardings and nicely restored.

Sculptor Wills Bros.

The pretty lady represents ‘Temperance’ and she originally stood outside the Royal Exchange.

The fountain was inaugurated by Samuel Gurney, MP, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountains Association, on 27 July 1861 and you can read more about him, and the Association, in my earlier blog Philanthropic Fountains.

The City’s little museums

Would you like to see an authentic signature of Henry VIII? A Hogarth painting on a staircase? A bomb made by the suffragettes? All these fascinating things are there for you to visit for free at some of the City’s smaller and lesser known museums.

First up is my favourite, the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum. Walk through the imposing Henry VIII gate on Giltspur Street and the museum entrance is about 30 metres to your left under the North Wing archway. It is packed with exhibits from the hospital’s 900 year history, so this blog only gives you a taste of what you can see – there is also an introductory film.

You will be greeted by a friendly volunteer and this beautifully turned out nurse …

‘This way for the museum …’

Almost immediately you will come across an impressive document on vellum recording an agreement between Henry VIII and the City of London dated 27 December 1546 (just a month before his death). In it he promises to grant to the City the hospital and the church, in return for which the City will provide care for 100 poor men and women.

The document bears Henry VIII’s seal, the king charging into battle on horseback accompanied by a dog …

And it is signed by Henry as well, in the top left hand corner …

The agreement was prompted by the King having considered ‘… the myserable estate of the poore aged sick sore and ympotent people as well men as women lyinge and goying about Beggyng’.

Another cabinet contains a wide selection of artifacts that make you pleased that surgery and medicine have advanced so profoundly in the last few hundred years …

Included are instruments from the 1820s used for breaking up bladder stones, a wooden head for practicing trepanning (drilling holes in the skull), a surgeon’s amputation kit and a leg prosthesis for a child.

You can skip any gruesome exhibits though, and head for the back of the museum where you can look through the door and see this staircase …

In 1733, when William Hogarth heard that the governors of St Bartholomew’s were considering commissioning the Venetian artist, Jocopo Amigoni, to paint a mural in the newly constructed North Wing of the hospital, he offered his own services free. Many of the people portrayed are suffering from conditions that were treated at the hospital, for example the man Jesus is reaching out to at the Pool of Bethesda has a leg ulcer.

As you head towards the exit a friendly nun will offer you a snack …

The London Police Museum in Guildhall is housed at 2 Aldermanbury …

A fine set of moustaches.

The City of London police have been responsible for looking after the Square Mile since 1839 and this exhibition is a collaboration with the Guildhall Library.

Some exhibits make you smile …

Coat hangers from a police station circa 1930s or 40s.

The joke is that the minimum height for a City of London Police officer was 5 feet 9 inches whereas for the Metropolitan Police it was 5 feet 7 inches.

Other exhibits are more serious …

Cleverly disguised bombs made by Suffragettes.

And finally some police enforcement equipment …

The object with the elaborate crest is a tipstaff dated 1839 – it was a sign of rank and unscrewed to provide a place to carry documents. The handcuffs are 19th century, the earlier one was attached to the wrist of the detained person and the officer would hold the other side. The ‘bullseye’ lamp for night patrol is from the 1880s and the truncheon, with the City emblem, from the same period.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog and that it prompts you to visit these places if you haven’t done so already. Later this year I will be writing about two more small museums – the crypt at All Hallows by the Tower and the museum at the Bank of England.

 

 

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