Located in the heart of metropolitan London, dating back to Roman times, the “City of London” (a specific borough within London) has had a major business center and a financial hub. Its role as an international finance center has long historic roots. My London-born-and-bred friend, who loved to share the delights of his home city, took me on his self-designed tour of that history. While a financial-focused tour may sound like a yawn, I can assure you our day was anything but boring. We had a fun and memorable time exploring the history of bankers and brokers in “the City.” Here are sites to visit to create your own fun day of financial history.
1. Temple Bar Memorial
The sculpture of a dragon sits atop a pedestal in front of the Royal Courts of Justice on Strand Street. It marks the boundary between the City of Westminster and the City of London.
In the middle ages, the City of London erected barriers on major entrance routes, including one in the Temple area, to regulate trade. A two-story arched gate, that had been designed in the 17th century by Christopher Wren to replace an older gate, was removed in 1878 and the Temple Memorial dragon statue was erected in 1880.
The statue sits in the middle of the street with traffic moving on either side of it. East of the memorial, Strand Street turns into Fleet Street.
2. Twinings Flagship Store
A few steps away from the Temple Bar Memorial at 216 Strand, you’ll find Twinings Flagship Store, the oldest tea shop in London.
London banking and brokering started in coffee houses. In the 17th and 18th centuries, men met in coffee houses to catch up on the news of the day and to conduct business. Thomas Twinings bought Tom’s Coffee House on the Strand in 1706 and began selling tea as a way to set his business apart from others. As tea became popular, business boomed. Today, Twinings sells over 500 varieties of tea throughout the world.
Inside the shop, you’ll find many of those teas available for purchase and a display case showcasing Twining’s history. A sampling bar gives you the opportunity to taste different flavors and types of tea.
3. Posh Banks
Banks along Strand and Fleet Street reflect the financial importance of the area. Some of these banks are well marked and easily recognizable as banks. Others, however, present a more discreet front. Many are private banks whose customers are high net worth individuals and families. A peek into lobbies reveals posh interiors. Some of the banks are so exclusive you won’t be allowed entry, although the security guard at C. Hoare & Co. at 37 Fleet Street did allow me into the entryway to peek through the window. The wooden teller counters and glass cages harkened to an earlier age. Founded in 1672, C. Hoare & Co. is the U.K.’s oldest private bank.
History and modern-day banking blend in this area. The Barclay’s Goslings Branch at 19 Fleet Street still bears the Three Squirrels hanging sign-board, used to identify the Gosling bank started by a goldsmith-banker in 1650. It merged with Barclay’s in 1896.
Pro Tip: Lloyds Law Courts branch at 222 Strand, which closed in 2017, traces its history back to Thomas Twinings who established the bank in 1824. In 1892, Lloyds took over the bank and moved into its Law Courts premises 3 years later. The interior features intricate Doulton-ceramic tiles painted by J.H. McLennan. JD Wetherspoon plans to convert the Grade II-listed building into a pub. When that is complete, those beautiful tiles will once again be on display to the public.
4. Old Bank Of England Pub
Security guards won’t stop you from entering The Old Bank of England Pub at 194 Fleet Street. Housed in the former Bank of England Law Courts branch, which operated from 1888 to 1975, the pub boasts a stunning interior and high ornate ceilings.
The pub is situated between what was once the barber shop owned by Sweeney Todd and the pie shop run by his mistress — with underground tunnels connecting the two shops. According to legend, Sweeney Todd butchered victims who were then cooked and sold in Mrs. Lovett’s pies during the mid-19th century. The story is generally considered a work of fiction.
5. Temple Church
Temple Church, located between Fleet Street and the River Thames, was built by the Military Order of the Knights of Templar as their English headquarters. The Knights were monks, soldiers, bankers, and brokers for successive kings. They created one of the first banking systems. The Round Church — built to recreate the shape and sanctity of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — was in use by 1163. The chancel was dedicated in 1240. The walls and ceilings of the church were renovated in the Victorian Gothic style in the 1840s.
The interior of the church is well worth a visit. You’ll find Purbeck marble columns and stained-glass windows. Placards in the round part of the church recount the history of the knights and the church. Here, you’ll also find life-sized stone effigies of nine 13th-century knights lying on the floor. There is also a Magna Carta exhibition as the church was the site of vital negotiations for the royal charter.
The church is accessed via Tudor Street.
Pro Tip: South of Temple Church and next to the Victoria Embankment, you’ll find the Inns of Court, professional associations for barristers. Its Inner Temple Gardens are open to the public during midday, weekday hours. The peaceful gardens contain many unusual and special plants for all seasons. Check the time on your watch against the sundial.
6. Bank Of England Museum
The Bank of England, founded in 1694, is the UK’s central bank with a mission to deliver monetary and financial stability for the people of the United Kingdom. The Bank of England Museum on Bartholomew Lane tells the story and history of that bank. Their collection includes archaeological items, banknotes, coins, social history, and artwork. You can learn why people started using paper money, see the role women played in designing Bank of England banknotes, try picking up a gold bar, and view a large collection of artwork and historical photographs.
7. Royal Exchange Building
The history of the Royal Exchange, now a luxury retail center, dates back to the 16th century when merchant Thomas Gresham founded it as a center of commerce for the City of London. The cafe and bar in the courtyard makes a great place to take a refreshment stop.
The current building opened in 1844 after fire destroyed the previous two structures. The Classical-style building features a pediment with sculptures supported by an eight-column Corinthian portico. A grand archway entrance opens into a courtyard covered by glass ceilings. The trapezoidal-shaped building sits between Threadneedle and Cornhill Streets where they intersect.
Both merchants and stockbrokers initially operated out of the exchange. Stockbrokers were banned in the 17th century for being too rude and rowdy.
8. Change Alley
As mentioned above, when the stockbrokers were no longer able to meet in the Royal Exchange, they made coffee shops their base. The most popular of these was Johnathan’s Coffee House, which operated between 1680 and 1778. If you walk down Change Alley south of Cornhill Street across from the Royal Exchange, you’ll find a plaque commemorating its location.
9. Jamaica Wine House
Jamaica Wine House, known locally as “the Jampot,” sits in St. Michael’s Alley amid a labyrinth of medieval lanes off Cornhill Street. It is located on the site of London’s first coffee house, built in 1652 and operated by Pasqua Rosée. That coffee house, referred to in some accounts as “The Turk’s Head,” is identified on a plaque in St. Michael’s Alley as “The Sign of Pasqua Rosée’s Head.” It later became the Jamaica Coffee House. The current red sandstone building was constructed in 1869. Today, the ground level houses a traditional London pub with a wood-paneled bar and high ceilings. Todd’s Wine Bar operates in the snug basement.
10. The Counting House Pub
The Counting House at 50 Cornhill is an opulent and lively pub serving dinner and drinks. Built in 1893 as Prescott’s Bank, the building’s foundations sit partly on the north sleeper wall of a 2,000-year-old Roman basilica. The grandeur of the old banking hall was preserved when the refurbishment of the pub took place in 1998. Although they are not the only choice on the menu, the pub is known for its meat pies.
For more on the plethora of things to do in and around London, check out these articles: