My journey to work in the City of London takes me along Lombard Street, that ancient lane curving east from Bank tube station and linking two of the City’s finest churches: Nicholas Hawksmoor’s splendidly compact St Mary Woolnoth and Robert Hooke’s Dutch-inspired St Edmund, King & Martyr, both built in the period after the Great Fire.
St Mary Woolnoth
St Edmund King & Martyr
No matter how many times I make the journey, my attention is always grabbed by the astonishing 1.5m golden grasshopper sign hanging high above my head outside number 68.
The Lombard Street Grasshopper
Further up the street there are other old-looking signs, including a Cat and Fiddle and what appears, based on a resemblance to King Charles II, to be The King’s Head & Sun.
Where did these street signs come from, and why? I’ve always imagined them to relate to the banks and other institutions that line the street, and I knew vaguely that the grasshopper had some connection to Sir Thomas Gresham, a Tudor financier and founder of the Royal Exchange who is buried in the nearby church of St Helen, Bishopsgate. But I didn’t know the facts: not only are the signs themselves peculiar, but there appears nothing obvious to explain their linkage to the residents of their respective premises.
I was therefore delighted recently to acquire a fascinating book, The Signs of Old Lombard Street, published in 1902. This treasure reveals not only the story of the Lombard Street signs – and the important part that its author, Frederick Hilton Price, played in their Edwardian restoration – but also the wider history of British banking including the explanation of how these ancient street signs came to give Barclays and Lloyd’s, two of London’s best known banks, their trademark logos.
Born in 1842, Hilton Price was himself a Lombard Street banker: after joining his father’s firm of Child & Co as a clerk, he worked his way up to become senior partner. With his mutton-chop whiskers, wing collar and cravat (see image below) he looks the epitome of the Victorian City gentleman. In the best Victorian tradition he was also an enthusiastic amateur historian, archaeologist and collector; a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the London Topographical Society and President of the Egypt Exploration Fund. In all these fields he researched and published widely. He researched the Lombard Street signs for a paper he presented to the Institute of Bankers in 1887 and published it in book form in 1902.
Frederick Hilton Price (1842-1909)
According to Hilton Price, Lombard Street was the site chosen by London goldsmiths for their craft ever since the Norman conquest. The first goldsmiths were Jewish, but after they were expelled from England by Edward I they were replaced by Lombards or Longobards from Italy, the first of whom were the Corsini family. John Stow’s Survey explains that in the reign of Edward II a building was set aside for them between Lombard Street and Cornhill, which became known as the King’s (later the Royal) Exchange. Goldsmiths and banking trades brought wealth and finery to Lombard Street and by the mid 16th century it was considered the finest street in London, a view supported by Pepys after the Great Fire.
London’s business premises adopted street signs to advertise their whereabouts from the earliest times. Given that the vast majority of the population were unable to read or write, the use of visual images to distinguish one shop from another was a useful device. It seems likely that many of these began as inn signs but were then adopted by subsequent tenants of the same premises. As early as 1375, one Simon Leggi, son of a Lord Mayor of London, was trading at The Raven Tavern. By 1560 Thomas Muschamp, a goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth, was trading at the sign of The Ring and Ruby. Around the same time, The Grasshopper made its first appearance outside number 68, being the representation of the family crest of the occupier Sir Thomas Gresham.
Sir Thomas Gresham (c.1519-1579)
Hilton Price’s study of the records reveals that most of the Lombard Street premises had similar signs, with a remarkable 168 separate signs recorded over the years. He paints a beguiling image of the Tudor street, with the signs…‘swinging over the doors or shop fronts: many projecting far into the roadway in order to attract more attention, and many were fixed to posts in front of the houses.’
This tendency grew, until by the time of King Charles II the signs presented such a nuisance and danger to the public (in several cases the weight of the signs caused the entire front of the premises to collapse into the street) that a law was passed preventing the signs from overhanging the street. After the Great Fire it became the fashion to create the signs out of stone; this led to them becoming almost as great a nuisance as before, until by the mid-18th century they had almost all died away altogether.
This situation appears to have persisted for 150 years or so until Hilton Price’s day. He remarks that it ‘has of late become fashionable…to replace the old sign of the house’ on the cheques issued by London banks. In 1902 this interest in the old signs gave Hilton Price and his associates the idea of resurrecting as many of them as possible to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII.
In the end, 23 such signs were erected. They made a rather splendid sight:
Lombard Street in 1902 with signs restored
Hilton Price’s full list of the restored signs is as follows:
A century later, many of these institutions remain household names; others, such as Guinness Mahon and Guardian Assurance, have only recently been swallowed up during one or other wave of city consolidation. Of the signs themselves, only the golden Grasshopper, still resplendent outside number 68, appears to have survived unchanged. Having been inherited after Sir Thomas Gresham’s departure by successive occupants of the site, the sign was taken over by one Edmund Backwell in 1662, beginning an unbroken chain of ownership by the firm which ultimately became Martins Bank. Martins remained at 68 Lombard Street and used the grasshopper as its sign until its own acquisition by Barclays in 1969 – it is thought that this represents the longest continuous use of a business premises by any bank in the world.
Of the few other remaining signs, the Cat-a-Fiddling seems to have crossed the road and the “Head” of the Queen’s Head & Sun has metamorphosed into that of a King.
Several of the other 1902 signs have only recently disappeared. The grasshopper’s former neighbour, the Anchor belonging to Glyn, Mills & Co, at the time of writing had temporarily surrendered to the developers [now resurrected!]. But two of the other, now missing, signs have perhaps the greatest resonance: the Barclays Black Spread Eagle at number 56 and the Lloyd’s Black Horse at number 73. The histories of the Barclays and Lloyd’s signs are as follows:
Number 56 Lombard Street was known as The Black Spread Eagle as early as 1672. By 1702 the premises were occupied by Messrs Freame & Gould; in 1728 Mr Freame was joined in partnership by James Barclay and the firm evolved into the Barclays Bank we know today. The Spread Eagle has remained the Barclays logo ever since, albeit with some small alterations including a change of colour to blue in the 1960s (in 2008 when Barclays attempted to acquire the Dutch bank ABN Amro it reportedly considered dropping the Eagle logo due to sensitivities in the Netherlands over its similarity to the Nazi eagle sign). The 1902 sign remained in place in Lombard Street until 2005 when it was removed on Barclays’ departure to Canary Wharf. It was last seen advertised by an architectural salvage house, so presumably is now in private hands:
The former Barclays sign from Lombard Street
The Black Horse sign was first recorded at 53 Lombard Street in about 1677 when it was adopted by the goldsmith Humphrey Stokes, a friend of Samuel Pepys. Around 1728 the then owner, John Bland, took the sign with him when he moved up the street to number 62. The business became known as Bland & Barnett until 1884 when it was taken over by Lloyd’s Bank, who adopted the sign as the company’s logo. When Lloyd’s themselves moved premises to number 73 they again retained the sign, which remained in place until 2003 when Lloyd’s too moved its head office away from Lombard Street.
To conclude, thanks to the assiduous researches of Frederick Hilton Price, we can explain the origins of the logos still used by two of Britain’s best-known companies: both signs date back almost to the Great Fire and must therefore be among the oldest corporate logos still in use in the world today. And thanks to Hilton Price’s enthusiastic desire to please his new Sovereign, we can all still enjoy at least a few remnants of Lombard Street’s ancient signs, hopefully for many more years to come.
1. Frederick G Hilton Price, The Signs of Old Lombard Street (1902):
2. RBS archives: Frederick Hilton Price
3. Martin’s Bank archive
4. Barclays archive: The Spread Eagle
5. Lloyd’s Banking Group: The Black Horse