The building pictured above was the headquarters of the biggest company the world had ever known. At its peak it even had its own huge army, estimated at anything up to 260,000 men – twice the size of the entire British army at the time, and three times what it is today. Such was the power of the East India Company, an astonishing relic of Britain’s imperial history, which once accounted for nearly half of all world trade.
It started as a joint stock company in the reign of James I and, until it was in effect “nationalised” in 1858, was privately owned – think Facebook with its own military capability. But its vast home in Leadenhall Street has long since been demolished, leaving no trace. The building was 200 feet long and built of stone. Its portico had six large Ionic columns on a raised basement. It gave an air of much magnificence, according to London writer Walter Thornbury, yet “the closeness of the street made it somewhat gloomy”.
The site now houses the hi-tech building of Lloyd’s of London, whose forebears doubtless insured some of the activities of the East India Company. Roger Williams, in his fascinating book England’s Lost Global Giant, points out that if the East India HQ had lasted another hundred years it would almost certainly have been listed.
Although it started in 1600 as an attempt to break into the lucrative spice trade in Asia, the East India Company gradually became more and more political, and by the 18th century it was, in effect, running a privatised British Empire, extending its influence from India into China. One of its employees was the author Charles Lamb, who ruefully observed: “My printed works were my recreation; my real works may be found on the shelves in Leadenhall Street filling some hundred folios”.
The company’s demise followed the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when the its Bengal Army mutinied, triggering a national uprising. A two-year internecine war persuaded parliament it was time for a change of governance. The company was stripped of its powers and replaced by the British Raj, managed from Whitehall.
The balance sheet of the company remains controversial. It was very successful – thanks to having been granted a monopoly in bringing spices, cottons and silks to Britain – and it revolutionised our drinking habits by introducing tea from China. But it also became riddled with corruption from the top downwards. It ruthlessly subdued and pauperised much of the population, and turned huge numbers of Chinese into opium addicts.
Read all of Vic Keegan’s Lost London pieces here.