Why Is There A Giant Grasshopper On The Royal Exchange?

By M@ Last edited 88 months ago
Why Is There A Giant Grasshopper On The Royal Exchange?

They say it pays to look up in London, for you never know what unusual sights will greet you from the rooftops. This is particularly true around the Royal Exchange, a grand trading bourse turned into a posh shopping centre above Bank station. Look up here and you may notice a spindly-legged form perched high above the streets. Here's a closeup.

This is the Royal Exchange's gilded grasshopper weather vane. This ancient insect has lorded over successive versions of the building since the mid-16th century. What could the clicky creature have to do with trade and finance?

The grasshopper was the personal emblem of Tudor financier Sir Thomas Gresham (c1519-1579).

Gresham's statue on Holborn Viaduct.

Sir Thomas was a hugely influential figure in 16th century London. He founded the first Royal Exchange in 1565, which helped turn London into a global centre of finance. A bequest in his will set up Gresham College, which still puts on regular (and popular) public lectures to this day. And you may well have wandered down Gresham Street by the Guildhall, named in his honour.

But why did this sober man of finance choose a golden grasshopper as his personal emblem?

Legend has it that Thomas's ancestor Roger de Gresham was abandoned as an infant in the marshlands of Norfolk. The rejected orphan was finally discovered after a woman was attracted by the sound of a chirruping grasshopper. The Gresham family later made good as merchants, and eventually incorporated the insect into their coat of arms, shown below as part of Gresham College's logo.

That's what the legend says. More likely, though, it's probably some ancient pun of Gresh and grass.

The Royal Exchange weather vane is not the only prominent grasshopper in the area. You'll see the orthopteran mark all over the place when you start looking. Duck down nearby Change Alley (named after the Stock Exchange) and you might spot this stone carving that marks the spot of Garraway's Coffee House.

Then out on Lombard Street, famous for its hanging signs, can be found this pendant grasshopper.

This sign is really, really old. Pre-fire, in fact. It carries a date of 1563 along with Thomas Gresham's initials. It marks a former goldsmith's owned by Gresham, which was later taken on by Martins Bank.

There are many other examples dotted around the City, and at other sites connected with Gresham. We noticed this glazed hopper inside an office block on Basinghall Street, for example.

But the best way to celebrate Thomas Gresham's vast legacy is to pop along to a Gresham College lecture. These free talks, on every topic from economics to astronautics, are held regularly at Barnard's Inn in Holborn or the Museum of London. Check out the programme here.

Last Updated 22 December 2016