From counting-house to office: the evolution of London's central financial district, 1690-1870

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During this period London emerged as the world centre for financial, insurance, and commodity markets. The project is concerned with the impact of this development on that central area of the city where financial and insurance services were housed. The traditional pattern, in which shop, counting-house, warehouse, and residence were intermixed was replaced by one in which new types of large-scale building, including exchanges and office blocks, were dominant. The city centre ceased to be a place where people dwelled. The project traces for the first time the emergence of this characteristic feature of the modern metropolis.

The evolution of the central financial district of the City of London between the 1690s and 1871 is traced primarily by constructing a series of 'snapshots' of the area, using local taxation records, census enumerators' books, and commercial directories, when they exist, for the years 1693, 1785, 1817, 1851 and 1871. Each takes the form of a computerized database in which it is possible to relate landlords, property values, residential occupants (by age, sex, and occupation), and businesses to every house, building or site in the area. The databases concern all properties in the 26 administrative precincts which cover approximately the triangle now bounded by King William Street/Princess Street in the West, Throgmorton Street in the North and Gracechurch Street in the East.

The early influence of the Bank of England in stimulating the reshaping of an existing financial district is apparent, as is the continuing influence of both the Bank and the Royal Exchange as focal points of business. After 1800, but not significantly before, many of the more substantial families of the area took up residence elsewhere, leaving their houses, often recently-built, to be converted into offices. The resident population was increasingly composed of messengers, caretakers, and small-scale householding tradesmen. Members of the last group were able to profit by letting out rooms for commercial use above their shops. Land values were driven up mainly by the demands of large institutions such as banks for headquarters buildings, especially after 1850. Their demand for imposing, street-frontage sites contributed to driving out the tradesmen, and caused speculative office blocks generally to be built on off-frontage land, where they replaced houses previously converted to commercial use or the crowded courts of poor dwellings which had persisted in some parts of the area. These secondary locations were characterized by dense, interdependent networks comprising the small-scale businesses of the brokers, agents, merchants and other specialists who composed the crucial financial and commercial service sector of the City. In this final stage, up to 1871, the modern financial district emerged.


Derek Keene, 'The financial district of the city of London: continuity and change, 1300-1871', in H.A. Diederiks and D. Reeder (eds), Cities of Finance (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1996), 279-302; Derek Keene, 'The setting of the Royal Exchange: continuity and change in the financial district of the city of London, 1300-1871', in A. Saunders (ed.), The Royal Exchange (London Topographical Society, 1997), 253-71


CMH Annual Reports 1988-9, 1989-90; End of Award Report

Other link: The Bubble Project - An interdisciplinary and collaborative research initiative on the Financial Crisis of 1719-20 at the Department of English, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 3J5.

Project details

Associate Supervisor: Prof. Martin Daunton, B.A., Ph.D.
Researcher: Jon M. Lawrence, M.A., Ph.D.
Funded by: ESRC (Ref: R000231022) (1 October 1988-31 March 1990)
Amount Awarded: £30,394