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England’s First Shopping Mall – the Royal Exchange

I was thinking about shopping in England because I’m making a grocery run to Gibraltar tomorrow – it’s nearly 2 hours on two main roads, and I need my passport to get to the giant Morrison’s supermarket, but once there I can easily read the labels since they’re in English, and everyone around me is speaking English.  I kind of hate to admit it, but I really enjoy shopping at Morrison’s in Gibraltar, way more than Aldi, Mercadona, or SuperSol here in Spain.

Anyway, I’m also working on a Renaissance English History Podcast about fashion and sumptuary laws, and I came across a mention of the Royal Exchange, which was England’s premiere 16th century shopping haven, and first early shopping mall.  Its popularity extended into the 17th century as well, when Samuel Pepys wrote about all the fashionable people shopping there in his famous diary.

Here are some Fun Facts about the Royal Exchange: England’s First Shopping Mall:

The Royal Exchange in 2014.  Photo from Wikipedia.

The Royal Exchange in 2014, the third to be built on the site. Photo from Wikipedia.

  1. Thomas Gresham, the builder and founder, was inspired by the financial trading centers in Antwerp.  Before the Royal Exchange there weren’t any buildings or indoor centers dedicated to trading and financial wheeling and dealing.  The Exchange was opened in January 1571 by Queen Elizabeth who gave it a royal title and license to sell alcohol.
  2. Although Gresham’s aim was to build somewhere to house a trading floor, his genius move was adding two more floors on top and moving into the retail business, opening Britain’s very first shopping mall. It had about a hundred kiosks or shops, with each shopkeeper paying annual rent.  
  3. Before it opened, to make sure all the shops were filled, Gresham went around to all the current renters and told them they could have whatever empty space they wanted with no rent due for the first year.  Of course, as time went on and it became so trendy to shop there, the rent went up, but presumably everyone was selling lots of gowns and headdresses and jewelry and whatever else they sold, so they could afford to pay it.
  4. The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.  Another complex on the site opened in 1669 but also burned down in 1838.  The current building tried to adhere to the original layout – a 4 sided structure surrounding a central courtyard where the merchants could do business.  Queen Victoria opened it in 1844.
  5. The third building survived the Blitz of WW2, but trading pretty much ended during the war.  Today the building has offices and some luxury shops.