Anyone even slightly familiar with London knows the impressive Royal Exchange building, but have you ever looked further than the massive porticoed front? Oh, you have been inside, have you? Great, but that was not what I meant. Have you, for instance, gone round the whole building on a Sunday morning when it was still shut? No, I did not think you had, but you should, because if you had done so, you would have seen this very elaborate fence closing off the northern entrance.
The present Royal Exhange building is the third on the spot. The first was built at the instigation of Sir Thomas Gresham in 1566-68, but that building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The same fate fell to the second building on the 10th of January, 1838, and the third was subsequently built in the early 1840s. Many plans were submitted for the new building, but the Committee could not decide on a winning design. Several architects were then asked to submit a design, but not many were willing to commit themselves, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing the classical design of Sir William Tite was chosen who characterised his design as a building “of grandeur, simpilicity and usefulness”. The fact that a classical design was chosen is no wonder as the remit was that the design was to be “of the Grecian, Roman or Italian style of architecture, having each front of stone of a hard and durable quality”.(1)
Tenders for the actual building work were received in October 1841 and the firm of Messrs. Webb was chosen to lay the foundation. A second contract for the actual building itself was granted to Thomas Jackson, “of course”, as the Sydney Herald would have it, because he submitted the cheapest estimate.(2) On 17 January, 1842, the foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert. The official opening took place on 28 October, 1844, by Queen Victoria herself.(3)
In the centre of the grillwork at the entrance in Threadneedle Street, a maiden can be seen, the symbol and coat of arms of the Mercers’ Company. Thomas Gresham, a mercer, had bequeathed the first Royal Exchange jointly to the Mercers and the City of London Corporation. You can see the coat of arms of the City on the gates at the southern entrance. The Mercers’ Maiden graces many buildings in London signifying their ownership. According to the Mercers’ website, she first appeared in 1425 on a seal and over the centuries her apparel has changed with the fashions of the day until 1911 when she was officially turned into the coat of arms of the Company.
On the bottom of the gate the name of the ironworks that supplied the gates can be found: H. & M.D. Grissell. Henry and his brother Martin De La Garde Grissell had a partnership between 1841 and 1858 as the Regent’s Canal Ironworks at Eagle Warf Road. Henry was the driving force behind the firm and had worked with John Joseph Bramah before he started his own business. After 1858, Henry continued the business on his own. The firm made ironworks for bridges, lighthouses, dockyards and other waterworks, both in England and abroad. Robert Stephenson and Grissell had the highest regard for each other and they often worked together on Stephenson’s engineering projects, such as on the bridges over the Nile. Other gates and fences that were supplied by the Regent’s Canal Ironworks can be found at Buckingham Palace and the British Museum. After Henry’s death, an obituary appeared in the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers (vol. 73, 1883) in which Henry was given the sobriquet of “Iron Henry” and was said to be almost obsessed by the details of his work. This attention to detail speaks strongly from the gates at the Royal Exchange. Let’s hope that this Royal Exchange does not fall victim to a fire as its predecessors have done and that we can admire Grissell’s gates for a long time to come.
One question remains, however. What do the initials G.T. mean on the gates? The only two explanation I can come up with is Guilliam (Latin variant of William) Tite, the architect, or a combination of the first letters of Tite and Grissell. Any thoughts, anyone? Update: the initials are indeed of Sir Thomas Gresham, so the guess by London Remembers (see comment) turns out to be correct. Thanks go to Michael Moore, Building Manager at the Royal Exchange, for confirmation.
More on Henry Grissell and his activities on the school committee of Holy Trinity, Hoxton, at London Remembers.
(1) Wilson’s Description of the New Royal Exchange (1844), pp. 73-78.
(2) The Penny Mechanic and Chemist: A Magazine of the Arts and Sciences, 11 September 1841, p. 325; and The Sydney Herald, 8 February, 1842.
(3) Wilson, p. 80-81 and 116.