Above: Looking along Cornhill from the western end. The huge ‘Cheesegrater’ building is seen in the distance – standing in Leadenhall Street.
Cornhill has always been one of the principal streets in the City of London. In medieval times, the name applied to this street and also appears to have been used for part of the eastern continuation which is today called Leadenhall Street. While nobody knows the actual reason for this, it may be because the name ‘Cornhill’ not only applies to the name of the street but also to the name of one of two small hills in the City. In fact, the crossroads formed by Cornhill, Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate and Bishopsgate (Street) is one of the highest points in the City. The hill only rises to about 60 feet (18 m) but it is sufficient to notice when there were no large buildings – as when the Romans first arrived. Today, the most noticeable indication of the hill is the approach from Fish Street Hill and Gracechurch Street – which is a gentle slope upwards all the way from the southern end. There are two hills in the City – Cornhill and Ludgate Hill – with Ludgate Hill being very slightly lower than the other. The church of St Peter stands on Cornhill and the cathedral of St Paul’s stands on Ludgate Hill. Much has been made in the history books of the names of the two saints – Peter and Paul – being associated with the two hills in the City of London.
It is believed that Cornhill derived its name from a corn market being held in the street. Some sources claim that, in very early times, there were fields of corn beside the street but we shall never know for certain.
The western end of Cornhill is one of the most unusual street junctions in the City and also within Inner London. In medieval times, three streets met at the busy junction – Poultry, Threadneedle Street and Cornhill. In the 17th century, Princes Street became the fourth street. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria Street and King William Street were added, making a total of six streets meeting at one point.
It was in the time of Elizabeth I that the Royal Exchange was built, acting as a venue where those with money – the bankers – could meet and exchange in conversation with those having something to sell – the ships’ captains who were bringing valuable cargoes to England from distant parts of the globe. As time went by, people saw the need for their ships and goods to be insured which led to the formation of Lloyd’s Insurance and all other forms of insurance. It also led to the Stock Exchange, dealing in stocks and shares. The Royal Exchange has, therefore, been the catalyst for many forms of commercial trading. Because of its position – next to the Royal Exchange – Cornhill has been an important address of many financial companies.
Throughout Victorian times and up to the 1950s and 1960s, Cornhill was at the centre of ‘Discount Houses’. During those times, if a private individual or a business needed to borrow money they often paid a visit to their local bank and asked the bank manager for a loan. Very often the bank did not have sufficient funds to lend money to all those who needed it. It was then necessary for local bank managers to borrow from Discount Houses which acted like ‘Super Banks’, lending to other banks. If the Discount Houses ever needed additional funds, which happened quite frequently, the manager had to visit the Governor of the Bank of England, asking for a short-term loan on a very large scale. Due to changes in the way finance was structured in the second half of the 20th century, Discount Houses became a ‘thing of the past’. Many of the Discount Houses had their plush offices in Cornhill. The offices are still there but are used for other purposes today.
Standing beside the street are two ancient parish churches – St Peter, at the eastern end. and St Michael. Although the street today is lined with offices, some of the architecture is still Victorian which lends some character to the area. On the southern side of Cornhill are a ‘maze’ of tiny alleyways remaining from a bygone age. Sadly, few of the City’s alleyways remain across other parts of the City. One feature, which is a sign of the times, is that several buildings that were once banks have now become bars and coffee shops. Even the City of London is seeing a reduction of physical bank premises as more and more people carry out banking transactions online.