The City of London

Banking, commerce, insurance—the City has long been the home to many financial institutions that help to drive the economy of London and, indeed, the world. The City, or the Square Mile, that is London’s financial district has a rich (pun intended) history that dates back almost 2,000 years.

London, England’s largest city, occupies more than 600 square miles. By contrast, the City of London occupies approximately one square mile…..Uh, excuse me? Blame the Romans and medieval jurisdictions for a name that has confused more than a few tourists over the years.
The Romans built their port city of Londinium starting in the year 43 A.D. By the year 200, they had built aprotective wall around the settlement.

The area that was once surrounded by the Roman walls was “the City” and formed the core from which this urban center would expand. Centuries went by and neighboring settlements expanded, too. The City bumped into its neighbor, the City of Westminster (yes, another city within a city).

By the medieval period, the boundaries of the City (and other London boroughs of the time) were set. When people refer to “the City,” what they are usually talking about is London’s financial district. Institutions, such as the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange, have been housed here for hundreds of years. These institutions helped to create and finance the British Empire. Today, The City is still one of busiest commercial and financial districts in the world.

The area dates back almost 2,000 years, and some remnants of its Roman roots are still visible. The remains of a 3rd Century temple dedicated to Mithras—near the intersection of Queen Victoria Street and Queen Street—as well as parts of the original Roman wall can be seen (look near the Tower of London and the Museum of London).

Yet many buildings in the City are modern and belie the district’s age. The area was destroyed by fire twice, in 1212 and then again in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The City was also heavily bombed during the Blitz.

Walk anywhere in the City and you are likely to see a church that Christopher Wren had a hand in designing or building. Wren’s grand plan for the rebuilding of London after the 1666 fire was never realized (private property rules and the speed with which reconstruction began doomed his elegant classical design), but England’s greatest architect was involved in the rebuilding of 52 churchs in the City.

Those still standing (often owing to post-WWII renovation) include St. Nicholas Cole, St. James Garlickhythe, St. Stephen Walbrook, St. Mary Abchurch, St. Mary-le-Bow, and Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Mary-le-Bow, which was almost totally destroyed by bombing in 1941, has an important place in London’s story. According to tradition, in 1392 its church bells (Bow bells) called Dick Whittington back to London where he would later be elected Lord Mayor four times. Only a person born within the sound of Bow bells can claim to be a true Cockney.

Not surprisingly, some of the older buildings that house the City’s monetary institutions display a certain historical grandeur. The Royal Exchange dates back to 1565, when Sir Thomas Gresham, a merchant and financier, founded it to be a center of commerce.Three buildings have stood on the site, the current one having been designed by Sir William Tite and opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. The Royal Exchange is now a high-end shopping emporium.

The grasshopper that is part of the building’s weather vane comes from the Gresham Family crest. A golden grasshopper traditional hanging sign can be seen on a stroll down Lombard Street—one of seven streets intersecting in front of the Royal Exchange.

Lombard Street has long been a center of banking in the City. England’s rich wool trade enticed Italian bankers to come to London starting in the 12th Century. The street name honors the Lombardy region of Italy, the homeland of many of these early bankers. Barclays Bank was at number 54 Lombard Street until their move to Canary Wharf in 2005.

The Bank of England stands nearby the Royal Exchange on Threadneedle Street. The Bank of England Museum (housed inside with an entrance on Bartholomew Lane) displays the history and workings of this bank, which was chartered in 1694 to manage the government’s accounts and to raise money for government spending. Admission to the museum is free. The Bank of England is still the central bank of Britain and also issues the country’s paper currency.

Mansion House is the official home of London’s mayor. This mansion, with its Palladian-style front, was designed by George Dance the Elder and completed in 1753. The interior includes Egyptian Hall, a formal room with nothing remotely Egyptian about its style, which was popular in the 18th Century. Note that Mansion House is open by appointment only for organized groups of 15 to 40 people.

A building that survived both the Great Fire and the Blitz is Guildhall, the administrative seat of City government. Its name may come from the Anglo-Saxon word, gild, which means payment, so taxes were probably collected there. Its construction began in 1411; since documents dating back to 1128 mention Guildhall, it is likely that an earlier building was located on or near the site. Its Great Hall is still the scene of banquets for royal and state visitors. Guildhall is open to the public when not in use for events; there is no admission fee.

Two of the City’s younger buildings have designs that set them apart from other office towers. The Lloyd’s of London building, designed by Richard Rogers  (now Lord Rogers) and opened in 1986, is, some might say, a more elegant version of Roger’s Pompidou Center in Paris. The Swiss Re Centre (its formal name is 30 St Mary Axe, while detractors have given it the nickname “The Gherkin”) is a 40-story office building that opened in 2004. Designed to be eco-friendly, the building was constructed using recycled materials and was engineered to reduce energy consumption.

by Katie Calvert