I am in no doubt that if he were alive today Sir Thomas Gresham would be Governor of the Bank of England, smoozing the European Union into accepting the Pound Sterling as the new base currency of the Eurozone. This man could sell sand to the Saharan Nomads!
The son of English merchant, Lord mayor of London and member of Parliament, Sir Richard Gresham, Sir Thomas was born in London in 1519. A well connected man from birth, he was educated at the University of Cambridge and later trained as a lawyer. He was admitted to the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the premier Livery Company of City of London (just don’t mention the Freemasons) and found himself relocated in the financial ‘Bourse’ of Europe in Antwerp, by the age of 24.
Under the guise of mercantile businessman, Gresham acted as an agent for King Henry VIII, engaging in espionage, smuggling war armaments and bullion while negotiating a favourable rates of interest for national loans and repayment of English debt.
After running rings around European financiers he came back to England and proceeded to charm his way into Queen Elizabeth’s favour with the words… ‘bad money drives out good Your Majesty’. It worked and between 1566-68 Gresham built the Royal Exchange. Located betwixt the converging streets of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street in the City of London, Gresham’s exchange meant that merchants no longer had to “be content to stand and walk in the rain, more like pedlars than merchants”, to do their business.
The Royal Exchange consisted of 11 houses and 135 shops built around an open courtyard. The shops on the ground floor and first floor sold high quality and luxury wares. It was a place where the wealthy went shopping for luxury goods, and where merchants conducted commerce.
A tall tower stood high over the entire structure, tall and narrow, with two prominent balconies. On top of the tower was a small cupola and on top of that sat a huge golden grasshopper, like the one pictured, which was Gresham’s family emblem.
Gresham’s original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A second exchange was built on the site, designed by Edward Jarman, which opened in 1669, and was also destroyed by fire on 10 January 1838. The third Royal Exchange building, which still stands today, was designed by Sir William Tite and adheres to the original layout, consisting of a four-sided structure surrounding a central courtyard where merchants and tradesmen could do business.