But the real money was made when London merchants looked further afield from the 1600s to seek out the riches of the East, with the English trading in the likes of cotton, silk, tea and opium. Right at the heart of this trade was the East India Company. From chartering ships in the 1600s to bring back the goods demanded by consumers it grew to an organisation so powerful that it ruled much of India.
But what of its London headquarters and its influence on the capital? That’s what I wanted to know as I joined City guide Tim Kidd for a talk and walk on the East India Company, part of Celebrate the City events this weekend.
It was, as Tim described it, like the NHS of its day. At its peak everyone living in London would have known someone who worked or had dealings with the Company, and employed a total of a third of the British workforce. That brought it enormous power – kings and queens (and Cromwell) were so dependent of the taxes and loans it provided to them that they were reluctant to take away the monopoly it enjoyed.
As part of the walk this weekend we visited the East India Arms in Fenchurch Sreets. The pub stands alone today but it was once connected to a vast array of warehouses housing goods imported by the East India Company.
The Company had started in 1600 when Queen Elizabeth I granted it a Charter allowing for a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. This was of course renewed many times over. London based investors bought shares in the profits of specific voyages which were at first focused on spices. By the third voyage, the return was in the region of 300%.
Within about 40 years, the set up of the Company had changed – investors bought shares in the organisation as a whole, rather than just single voyages. It followed a model that was already proving successful for the Dutch. But competition with Holland meant it moved from focusing on spices in what is now Indonesia to tea and other items from the Indian subcontinent.
Shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse in Change Alley in the City, the birth place of the London Stock Exchange, now a private members club. And the East India Company was the one of the first major institutions that made this institution an initial success.
All around the City the company made its mark. Deals were signed in coffee shops and taverns for chartering ships and the like. We saw on the walk where Lloyd’s of London, the ship insurance underwriters, started out – it’s now a Sainsbury’s store but then it was a coffeehouse run by Edward Lloyd.
It didn’t initially require many staff to administer the Company. The first governor, Mr Smith had his house in Philpot Lane and was only supported by a small number of people to keep the records up to date.
But over time the workforce was greatly expanded. Thousands would have worked at East India Dock in Poplar, unloading goods by hand as they came in, alone. The headquarters, now the site of Lloyds of London, would have dominated the City.
In India they pretty much ran the country, with a private police force. So the East India Company had turned from being traders to rulers, leaving a lasting impact in frosty diplomatic relations with the rest of the world (the Chinese still remember the Opium Wars).
Such was the power that the Company held that when judges launched enquiries into their monopolistic powers, they would simply pay them off.
Eventually, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 the British government nationalised the Company. It was the end of an era of an organisation, a major institution, which had had a remarkable impact on London, Britain and the rest of the world. It was one of the great institutions that paved the way for the British to rule large swathes of the world in the 19th century.
The East India Company’s name does however live on. In 2010 an Indian businessman bought the rights to the name from the British government after an 135 year absence. He opened a luxury shop in Mayfair London selling goods inspired by the Indian subcontinent – including teas, coffee, chocolates and mustards.