Baptism of fire

Robert Ryan looks back at the devastating destruction - not once, but twice - of one of the City's most celebrated buildings

22 August, 2016

Even now, 350 years after the event, the scale and ferocity of the Great Fire of London still has the power to shock. If you trace its path on foot, from the site of the bakery in Pudding Lane where it began (although historians now think the actual site is in Monument Street, part of the lane having subsequently been renamed), you follow some of the most famous thoroughfares in the City of London.

It started just after 1am on 2 September 1666. Feeding off cheek-by-jowl houses and businesses, their timbers tinder-dry after a long, hot summer, the blaze marched up Gracechurch Street, Lombard Street and to Cornhill. Here, on its way to its tally of 13,000 buildings destroyed, it claimed one of its most famous victims. The Royal Exchange was a four-storeyed structure modelled on the Bourse in Antwerp, and christened by Queen Elizabeth I when she toured it in 1571, in the company of its founder and patron, Sir Thomas Gresham.

One eyewitness account gives an inkling of the savagery with which the splendid building was consumed. “It ran around the galleries, filling them with flames, then descending the stairs, giving forth flaming volleys and filling the courts with sheets of fire… with such noise as was dreadful and astonishing.”

Diarist Samuel Pepys, visiting the smouldering ruins after the fire had burned itself out (which took four days), struck a melancholy note: “A sad sight,” he wrote. “Nothing stands there of all the statues and pillars, but Sir Thomas Gresham’s picture in the corner.”

In order to appreciate the magnitude of the loss to the city, one has to look at the role of The Royal Exchange in its original incarnation, sometimes known as The Pawn. Conceived by Sir Thomas Gresham as a place for commerce and trade, it also functioned as the first department store or shopping mall in Great Britain.

One historian of the institution said of The Royal Exchange: “In the daytime, grave people of business paced those stones. In the evening, the butterflies of fashion would flit to the gaily lighted shops of The Pawn, where the walls were decorated with rich hangings and carpets from the East, and where all they could want from lace, glass and strange curios was laid out to attract them.”

Within 16 days of the calamitous conflagration, a committee was formed to rebuild the much-loved building. The following year, Charles II laid the first stone of the new, porticoed building and it reopened to merchants in 1669. However, it couldn’t match The Pawn’s glory years as a retail hub and became the less colourful home to Royal Exchange Assurance, Lloyd’s, the Lord Mayor’s Court Office and the East India Company. When a second devastating fire broke out in January 1838, the air was thick with not only smoke, but the aroma of pepper, cumin and cinnamon, because the East India Company had used part of the cellars to store its spices.

The current Royal Exchange, with its massive portico of eight Corinthian columns, was opened by Queen Victoria on 28 October 1844 with the words: “It is my royal will and pleasure that this building be hereafter called The Royal Exchange.” Her words echoed those of Queen Elizabeth 300 years earlier and, indeed, things have come full circle, because as a centre for shopping and socialising, dining and drinking, The Royal Exchange Mark III now recalls the heady days of The Pawn, when “shops glittered, with glass and jewellery, silver and gold”.

Robert Ryan writes for The Times and The Sunday Times and is the author of several historical novels, including The Dead Can Wait, a tale about Dr John Watson set during World War I