Vic Keegan: The coffee house that came before the Gherkin

Vic Keegan: The coffee house that came before the Gherkin

In The Morning Post of 24 May 24, 1744 the following item appeared:

“This is to give notice that the House late in Threadneedle Street, near the Royal Exchange, is now open’d by the Name of the Virginia and Baltick Coffee-House, where all Foreign and Domestick News are taken in; and all Letters or Parcels, directed to Merchants or Captains in the Virginia or Baltick Trade will be carefully deliver’d according as directed.” 

This is one of the earliest records of what had previously been called the Virginia and Maryland coffee house, one of what eventually became nearly 3,000 coffee houses in London. It was wise to change its name to the Virginia and Baltick. Trade with the vast Baltic area, especially Russia, was booming while in America Britain’s colonial inheritance, Maryland included, would later be shattered by the looming War of Independence, which broke out in 1775.

Coffee houses were of immense importance. One sometimes wonders where the City of London would be today if they had not been invented. They were where financial deals were transacted, where businessmen (rarely, if ever, women) caught up with the news. Clerks in Parliament working for the coffee houses would race each other in hansom cabs to convey outcomes of vital parliamentary votes to their clients ahead of rivals. Money was at stake.

In 1810 the coffee house company moved to larger premises at the Antwerp Tavern, also in Threadneedle Street, and in 1903 to a new and lavishly decorated Exchange at St Mary Axe – the Baltic Exchange (main picture), which provided its members with a daily guide to what was going on in global shipping markets, from freight market prices to shipping costs or the settling of freight futures contracts. It was the last of the City institutions to abandon its trading floor to do business by telephone or on screens.

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Disaster struck in 1992 when it was badly damaged by an IRA bomb, which killed three people and injured many more. At first, key parts of the structure were put into storage in the hope of constructing a new building around what remained of the hall and the façade, but in 1995 English Heritage dropped its insistence on a restoration when the damage turned out to be much greater than previously thought.

So, what to do with unwanted remains and a prime building site? Enter Sir Norman Foster with plans for a Millennium Tower, a 92- storey building that would have been the tallest in Europe. That soon bit the dust amid fears that it was simply too big for the skyline and, according to Heathrow, a danger to incoming aircraft. Just when the site at was starting to look jinxed a happy ending came along. The Foster partnership submitted a different plan for a smaller skyscraper. Nicknamed The Gherkin, it became an unmistakable modern classic at 30 St Mary Axe almost as soon as it was finished.

Meanwhile, the marvellous stained glass (below), which had survived the blast, was re-installed in the National Maritime Museum in keeping with the maritime history of the Baltic Exchange.

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And the rest of the salvaged material? Much of it – including stairs, marble columns, panelling, even telephone boxes – was purchased from an online platform for £800,000 by two Estonian entrepreneurs, Heiti Hääl and Eerik-Niiles Kross. They shipped it to Estonia in dozens of containers. Parts of it were showcased in an exhibition in 2016 and they hope to eventually incorporate it into a new office block in their homeland.

There is something rather wonderful about the heart of London’s historic Baltic Exchange being found a new home in…the Baltic.

This is the fourth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London, kindly supported by the EC BID, which serves that area. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series


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