Sweet History landmark (photo)

Corn Street – Exploring the growth of banking and trading in Bristol

Slavery and the rise of the Banking system – Background information

‘From the 1660s the British economy flourished thanks to banking and other financial institutions. Overseas trade and colonial expansion relied on trading houses, insurance companies and banks. The slave trade relied heavily on credit and the risks meant a growth in maritime insurance. Before the 1660s there were no banks in London, and even a century later, banking was under-developed outside the city. The Bank of England was set up in 1694, and underpinned the whole system of commercial credit, and its wealthy City members, from the governor down, often made their money wholly or partly in the slave trade. Provincial banking across England only emerged in the 18th century.

Because slave voyages could take 18 months, and each of the three legs of the journey involved buying and selling, credit was used to underwrite the journeys. In the early days of the slave trade, a group of merchants, or what we would now call venture capitalists, would finance a ship; over time more formal financial organisations including Lloyds and Barings banks were established for this purpose. Enslaved Africans were insured as goods, along with other property’.
English Heritage website

  1. Read the extract above to the pupils and discuss
  2. Get the pupils to explore the Corn Street banking and trading sites on the Sweet History? website and England’s Past for Everyone

Corn Street
Corn Street was the street where many merchants did business during the 1700s. They traded in cloth from India, butter, eggs and chickens from Wales, goods made from iron from the centre of England, and slave produced goods from the Caribbean and North America such as sugar, tobacco, coffee and chocolate.

Natwest Bank

The National Westminster Bank on Corn Street has a plaque on the wall that commemorates the Old Bank, that was originally set up in nearby Broad Street in 1750 (see site 9 of Sweet History? trail). This once was the site of one of the first banks outside London. This was one of the banks that eventually merged into the National Westminster Bank. All but one of the bank’s founders were traders to Africa, including Merchant Venturer Isaac Elton. This shows the connection between Bristol’s slave trade and the development of the banking system.

Coffee Shops
The trails illustrate the links between the city of Bristol and the wider global economy during the time of the Atlantic slave trade. Many merchants in Georgian Bristol still preferred to do their business in Bristol’s coffee houses and of course, coffee was then largely slave-produced. Number 56 Corn Street is still a coffee and sandwich shop and has been a coffee shop for over two hundred years.

Coffee houses began as a meeting place for the well-off, since coffee (and tea and chocolate) were originally expensive luxuries that only the rich could afford. (Coffee and chocolate were grown by slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America.) Men involved in trading would come to the coffee shops to read the newspapers, share business gossip and arrange business deals.

The Corn Exchange

The Exchange was built in 1741–43 by John Wood the Elder. It replaced the less grand facilities that were previously on the site for Bristol’s merchants. When finished in 1743 the Exchange, as planned, had “the outward appearance of one grand structure” and the much-admired exterior remains largely as it was built to this day. Internally, however, it consisted of various spaces. On either side of the front entrance in Corn Street were a coffee house and tavern, each of four storeys. Despite being called the ‘Corn’ exchange, it was intended for merchants of all types (not just corn!) and a number directly involved in the Guinea and West Indian trade used it for business transactions. However, it seems most African and American merchants preferred to do their business deals in the more informal atmosphere of the nearby coffee houses.

The Nails
Four brass tables are located outside the Corn exchange on Corn Street. They are probably modelled after mobile tables which were taken to trade fairs and markets. The brass nails, with flat tops and raised edges which prevent coins from tumbling onto the pavement, were made as convenient tables for merchants to carry out their business.

The Commercial Rooms

The Commercial Rooms were built in 1810 by Charles Busby, just after the abolition of the slave trade in Britain (1807). They replaced a well-known coffee house that was previously on the same site. They were designed as a new centre for Bristol businessmen and originally housed a club for mercantile interests. The weather vane on the roof helped merchants estimate the arrival times of shipping. At the top of the building are three decorative statues which represent Bristol, Commerce and Navigation.

These were once jokingly called ‘the three commercial Graces’ - this was because in Greek myths the three Graces were beautiful goddesses representing splendour, beauty, and cheerfulness. The joker thought that Bristol merchants were far more interested in shipping and money-making than truly graceful living!

3. Ask the pupils to create a poster that maps out the sites of Corn Street that were linked to trading, banking and the sugar and slave trade. The pupils could imagine they are producing the poster as a historic tourism information poster for Bristol City Council, to be displayed in the Corn Exchange. The poster should be informative and could include an illustrated map with drawings and images of the buildings and features such as sculpture/ornamentation and the brass nails.

This activity could support the delivery of local history, art and design and citizenship.