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Signs and Symbols: Animal emblems

How The Royal Exchange became a fashionable destination for luxury shopping, and why the original shop signs featured animal symbols in place of trader names

When Sir Thomas Gresham opened his new four-storey Exchange in the middle of the 16thcentury, things did not initially go to plan. The merchants, grateful for the shelter of the covered arcades around the quadrangle, came to trade, but the upper storey shops proved difficult to let. So, in modern parlance, the wily Sir Thomas resorted to celebrity endorsement and a touch of hype.

Firstly, after having wined and dined her at his mansion on Bishopsgate (later Gresham College), Gresham engineered a visit by Queen Elizabeth I to his new project. Immediately before that he had promised a year’s free rent to any shopkeeper who lit up a vacant unit with candles and furnished it to make it look active. The ploy worked. The Queen announced that henceforth the marvellous and busy building be known as The Royal Exchange. Overnight, the shops developed a cachet by association with royalty and there was a clamour for units.

Within three years the rent went from four shillings a year to four pounds. However, the shopkeepers also grew richer as The Royal Exchange became a fashionable destination for its apothecaries, booksellers, printers, grocers, barber/surgeons, leather-sellers, goldsmiths, vintners, glass-sellers and milliners (which in Gresham’s era also sold ‘mousetraps, birdcages, lanthorns [lanterns], trumps [mouth harps] and shoeing-horns,’ according to Walther Thornbury’s Old and New London: Volume 1, published in 1878). Two milliners had the equivalent of a Royal warrant to supply the Queen, adding to the allure of this proto-shopping mall. Soon there were more than 180 units on the Pawn (the upper storeys), mostly just 1.5 metres (5ft) wide by 2.3 meters deep (7.5ft), bringing in a healthy income.

Gresham was considered so wealthy towards the end of his life that the playwright Thomas Heywood satirically suggested in one of his ‘social commentaries’ that Sir Thomas crushed pearls into his wine instead of (as was the fashionable among the very wealthy) sugar to toast the Queen’s health.

"Each shop had a hanging sign, usually featuring an animal, rather than the trader's name"

The reputation of The Royal Exchange as an upmarket emporium continued to grow for many years after Gresham’s death in 1579. In A Survey of London(1598) historian John Snow said the Pawn was ‘Richly furnished with all sorts of the finest wares in the City.’ By this time the rent on the Northside of the quadrangle was set at seven pounds, the Eastside and Westside at eight pounds, while the more favoured Southside commanded a premium 10 pounds.

Each shop had a hanging sign, usually featuring an animal, rather than the trader’s name. This was because at the end of the 16th century, only around one third of the male population could read. It was estimated that for women it was as little as one in 10 (it didn’t reach 40% until 1750). It was, of course, mostly the upper classes and the aristocracy who could afford an education for their (male) children.

Yet we know that women formed a significant proportion of customers for The Royal Exchange, because in the early 1600s pamphleteer Donald Lupton offered this warning: ‘Here are usually more coaches attendant than at church doors. The merchants should keep their wives from visiting the upper rooms too often, lest they tire their purses by attiring themselves.’ Also, shopping or the collection of goods was often delegated to servants, and, whether male or female, the chances were that their reading skills would be poor.

It was because of these low literacy rates that the shops at The Royal Exchange used symbols to denote their identity and profession. Nor was it the case that one sign fitted all, like the red striped pole for a barbers or the brass balls for a pawnbroker. Individual businesses had their own unique and personal animal image. So, if an instruction was given to collect an item from a goldsmith – of which there were six in 1597 – the particular goldsmith shop could be specified by quoting the appropriate symbol. So, on the Eastside, one would find Richard Cranshaw, the premises denoted by the sign of the white boar. Not to be confused with George Gosling on the Westside, who displayed a wolf above his door, or indeed Ralph Conyeus, the Southside goldsmith, who favoured a blue boar.

Other recorded examples include a cat and mouse (John Hill, merchant); brood hen and buck (George Crane, grocer); an owl (Sampson Clarke, then later his widow Hellen, stationer); a black raven and green dragon (William Firing, barber); a lapwing (Thomas Boxe, later his widow Mabel, haberdasher); a turkey hen (Thomas Haden, painter/stainer); a lioness (Anthony Clowes, saddler); a popinjay (Mary Coates, widow, ironmonger); and the curious pairing of a ferret and a nightingale (John Rixmann, cloth worker).

"Individual businesses had their own unique and personal animal image"

The three widows who took over their husband’s business were not the only women shopkeepers. The Royal Exchange’s attraction was undiminished following the Great Fire (1666) and well into the next century, when women’s presence as owners and assistants slowly increased. One of the pioneers was Hester Pinney (1658-1740) who dealt in Devon lace at The Royal Exchange from the 1680s onwards and whose annual income topped £1,000 per annum.

The potential for profit is also shown by the fact that milliner Gertrude Rolles (dates unknown), who traded at the same time as Pinney, was willing to pay a very high rent of £50pa for an oversized (2.5m, 8ft wide) shopfront. She eventually passed the business to her daughters and their contemporaries at the Exchange included Ann Fleetwood, a peruke (wig) maker and milliners Bethiah Pardice, Mary Hawkes, Margaret Horne and John Martin, all of whom had female apprentices. As one writer put it in The Spectator magazine in 1712: ‘It was not the least of my satisfaction in my survey [of a day in London] to go up-stairs at the ‘Change and pass the shops of agreeable females; to observe so many pretty hands busy in the folding of ribbons.’

This Golden Age of retail did not last. By 1739, the Pawn was reported to be a little ‘forlorn’. The shops were done away entirely in 1768 by an Act of Parliament sponsored by the City, which also enabled it to demolish Gresham College. Eventually, The Royal Exchange became a centre for the insurance business. When the second building burned down in 1838 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1844, the third incarnation also had no provision for retail, something that was only reversed fairly recently, in 2001, when the building was remodelled as a luxury shopping and dining destination for the new millennial.

This means that today’s The Royal Exchange, with its exclusive stores showcasing goods of the highest quality and craftsmanship (echoing Stow’s ‘the finest wares in the City’), is the direct descendent of Thomas Gresham’s original concept of 450 years ago, its enticing glamour rightfully restored. Welcome back.

Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Our Signs and Symbols series, by author and journalist Rob Ryan, explores the design secrets in and around The Royal Exchange’s magnificent façade.

This article was produced with thanks to the historians at The Mercer’s Company, who provided in-depth research from their extensive archive of information and artefacts surrounding The Royal Exchange.

Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our 450 Years site, journal and Instagramfor more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year ahead.

We look forward to welcoming you during 2021, for a considered shopping and dining experience in spectacular and historic surroundings. Please visit our boutiques page for regular updates on our retailers’ opening information and hours, as well as details about virtual appointments and click and collect services.