Restoration & 18th-Century Studies in English at Western
UC Western Tower


London ca. 1676

The Royal Exchange and the New Exchange

London in the Restoration and eighteenth-century was a boom town, and, for those seeking luxury items, featured a number of attractive and fashionable venues for shopping. The most important of these were the two Exchanges, which functioned rather like 19th-century shopping arcades, or the modern high-end shopping mall. Another central shopping centre was located at Westminster Hall, in close proximity to the nation's principal law courts.



There were, in addition, numerous other shopping districts throughout the City and Town, most often with a specialized selection of goods for sale. Shopping, then as now, fulfilled an important social function; the Exchanges, for example, were fashionable locales in their own right, where people went to see and be seen, while many individual shops seem to have served as casual social clubs.


The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange had been built in 1567 by Thomas Gresham, who was impressed by the prosperous bourse at Antwerp, and wished to provide for London a business centre that would rival that of the Dutch. Gresham proposed building it at his own expense, and the City corporation donated the land, demolishing eighty houses on the site to clear sufficient space. The first Exchange was colonnaded, with shops on the first floor, surrounding an open courtyard; it became known as the Royal Exchange when it was officially opened for business by Queen Elizabeth. Gresham's ambitions for the building were finally realized in the seventeenth-century, for the Royal Exchange was to become an immensely important centre for business and retail, and helped fuel London's rise as a commercial centre.

Gresham's Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire, and rebuilt according to a design, owing much to the original layout, by Edward Jerman in the mid-1670s. It remained a highly fashionable retail and social venue for the duration of the eighteenth-century, and was burned down in 1838.


New Exchange

Built in 1609 by the Earl of Salisbury, the New Exchange was designed by the ubiquitous Inigo Jones in imitation of, and as competition for, the Royal Exchange in the City. In early recognition of the way in which much of the wealth of London was, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shifting towards the west end of the conurbation, it was decided to locate this new venue on The Strand, beyond the City walls, and within the growing Town. It was, like its City counterpart, galleried, and two-storied, with rows of shops; these last were about 100 in number.

The New Exchange was not at first terribly successful, and, in an effort to recoup expenses, its bottom floors were rented out as residences. However, with the development of Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn Fields, and with the loss of shops and the Royal Exchange in the Great Fire, it became a very fashionable place to shop, and to socialize: references to it in Restoration comedy are almost obligatory. It included some excellent book shops. Its appearance during the Restoration was described by the visiting Grand Duke Cosmo of Tuscany:

The building has a facade of stone, built after the Gothic style, which has lost its colour from age and become blackish. It contains two long and double galleries, one above the other, in which are distributed in several rows great numbers of very rich shops of drapers and mercers filled with goods of every kind, and with manufactures of the most beautiful description. These are for the most part under the care of well-dressed women, who are busily employed in work, although many are served by young men called apprentices.

The New Exchange was divided into four sections, with an "Outer Walk" and "Inner Walk" on each of the two floors ("Above" or "Below Stairs"). The lower floor had a reputation as a place for romantic assignations.

The vogue for shopping in the New Exchange was, however, relatively short-lived, and the place lost much of its lustre in the reign of Queen Anne; it was taken down in 1737.


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Last updated: April 25, 2002