In the mid 1600s two Frenchmen, the grandly named Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers (1618-1696) and his brother-in-law Pierre Ésprit Radisson (c. 1640-1710), were exploring the vast interior of what is now northern Canada. Working their way inland via the many rivers that flow into Hudson Bay, they came across a wealth of fur, in particular on a rodent with a large paddle-shaped tail and prominent teeth. “Ideal for coats,” they reported, and went to find a backer. Their fellow countrymen in Québec and France showed little interest but the English settlers were far more receptive. 

The two intrepid trappers travelled to England and managed to gain an audience with the king, Charles II.  He agreed to finance an expedition into the area north of Lake Superior to search for the famed fur.  Chouart’s and Radisson’s trip proved a complete success: they returned with a large quantity of beaver pelts with the promise of more, along with information on potential trading routes. On May 2nd 1670 Charles II signed a Royal Charter which granted exclusive trading rights of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.”  Thus the oldest trading company in North America was born.

Given the land they were had rights to was fifteen times the size of Great Britain, the Company established a series of forts along the Hudson Bay coastline. Some developed into important cities such as Winnipeg and Calgary. With those in place they could begin dealing with the local Cree, but if they assumed this would be straightforward they would be disappointed.

It took time to develop a protocol with First Nations people. Business began with the passing around of the ceremonial pipe. If the Cree left the pipe at the fort that indicated they would return the following year. Once the usual exchange of gifts was over they could begin bargaining. Firearms were what the locals wanted and not any old musket. "The guns are bad," one Cree trading captain complained. "Let us trade light guns, small in the hand, and well shaped, with locks that will not freeze in the winter.” To ensure the Cree got what they wanted arms manufacturers in Sheffield began to make weaponry to the Cree’s specifications. Later the Cree took a liking to the Hudson’s Bay Company blanket.  

Originally made in Oxfordshire, this distinctive four-stripe textile features points, or small black bars on the side, which were used during the fur trade as an indication of size - a measure that continues to this day. The four primary colours, green, red, yellow and indigo were introduced at the end of the eighteenth century and chosen because they were popular and easily produced using good colourfast dyes.  It continues to be one of the Company’s best sellers. 

In return the traders received seven prime beaver pelts for a blanket or fourteen pelts for a gun. The under wool of the beaver was particularly sought after. Its soft, dense fur, closest to the animal’s skin, was perfect for making the hats which so fashionable in Europe - much to the puzzlement of the native Americans, who used every part of the rodent to make weaponry and cutlery. We know that Samuel Pepys was aware of the fur’s qualities. He wrote in his diary on 27th June 1662: ‘Mr Holden sent me a bever (sic), which cost me £4 5s.’, while on 17th August 1663 an entry reads, ‘This day at Mrs. Holden’s I found my new low crowned beaver [fur hat] according to the present fashion made, and will be sent home to-morrow.’  

 

The Company, however, had much more of a presence in London than must-have millinery.  The first address mentioned is in the minutes of 30th December 1682, which cites the leased premises of Scriveners’ Hall, which once stood at the corner of Noble Street and Oat Lane.

Over the next couple of centuries the company used other locations, including 3-4 Fenchurch Street and 1 Lime Street, both of which were near the East India Company’s headquarters. Peter C. Newman writes about the Company premises on Fenchurch Street in Company of Adventurers, detailing how it was “across the road from the Elephant Inn, where the painter William Hogarth in his apprentice years paid his rent with four murals in the tap room - one of his subjects being The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Porters Going to Dinner.” 

In the 1920s the Company moved to 60-64 Bishopsgate, to a new building designed by Mewes and Davis. Though gutted and rebuilt Hudson’s Bay House’s 1926 façade remains, with reliefs of North American imagery, including snow shoes, quivers and moose antlers. More noticeable is the weather vane in the shape of a gold beaver on top of its cupola, which can be clearly seen as you walk along Bishopsgate towards Leathersellers’ Hall. 

In that decade the Company sought further expansion, so set up offices in Great Trinity Lane, off Garlick Hill. Nearby was Skinners’ Hall, so its location was ideal, and today the Pelt Trader pub in Dowgate is testament to the area’s heritage. The area around Skinners’ Lane and Miniver Place (miniver is a type of fur from the winter coat of the red squirrel) was well known for the fur trade, with pelts and skins being offloaded at Queenhithe - you can see these depicted in the Queenhithe Mosaic.

 

The Company sold Hudson's Bay House after the Second World War and continued to use Beaver House as its main headquarters. Then in 1970, to coincide with its 300th anniversary, The Queen granted the Company a new charter. That year they quit London and moved the head office to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Today the Company has much changed. It’s now one of Canada’s largest businesses, employing over 40,000 workers and based in Brampton, Ontario. Its main focus is retail, with a string of department stores across Canada and the U.S., which include  Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord + Taylor and its flagship Hudson’s Bay.  You’ll be relieved to know the online shop no longer sells beaver pelts but there are plenty of woollen blankets and other memorabilia to choose from. 

Little did Choart and Radisson imagine that their venture 350 years ago would develop into such a substantial operation that’s still going strong well into the 21st century - or indeed that the latter would give his name to a swish hotel chain.

Subscribe to Updates

Subscribe to:

Have something to say? Leave a comment below.

Leave a comment   Like   Back to Top   Seen 0 times   Liked 0 times

Subscribe to Updates

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to free email updates ?

Subscribe to Blog updates

Enter your email address to be notified of new posts:

Subscribe to:

Alternatively, you can subscribe via RSS RSS

‹ Return to Blog

We never share or sell your email address to anyone.

I've already subscribed / don't show me this again

Recent Posts

At Sixes and Sevens

| 30th March 2021 | Blogging

At Sixes and Sevens

If you walk along Cloak Lane, just off Dowgate in the City of London, look up and you’ll see some interesting plaques on the wall. They show the numbers 6 and 7. What are they doing there? Cloak Lane - nothing to do with outer garments but a corruption of the latin word for drain, cloaca - includes buildings owned by the Worshipful Company of Skinners. This ancient livery company, whose history dates back to the 14th century, is sometimes listed as 6th in the Great Twelve of the City livery companies - but sometimes 7th. They share this interchangeable position with the Merchant Taylors. In the fifteenth century there was great competition between the City’s ancient trade guilds, the livery companies. It even led to bloody - and fatal - fights! Rivalry between the Skinners and Merchant Taylors was so fierce that in 1484 the Lord Mayor Robert Billesden (a haberdasher) decreed that the two companies should share the position, so one year the Skinners are 6th, the Merchant Taylors 7th; the following year the Skinners go down to 7th and the Merchant Taylors rise up to 6th.  In 1515 an Order of Precedence was laid out, putting the livery companies in order, with the Mercers’ Company 1st, the Grocers; Company 2nd, and so on. Their positions were based on the number of Lord Mayors each company had elected, and on their wealth. The Great Twelve, the first dozen companies, were particularly important because up until the 1700s only a member of those companies could become Lord Mayor. These days relations between the companies are far more amicable, and every March, around the United Guilds Service held at St Paul’s Cathedral, positions swap between the Skinners and Merchant Taylors. However they still disagree over one thing: the spelling of Robert Billesden’s name. The Skinners spell it ‘Billesdon’, the Merchant Taylors ‘Billesden’! If you want to learn more about this area of the City, you can come on my virtual tour of Three Wards - Vintry, Dowgate and Queenhithe. ...

A Palace of Riches

| 16th December 2020 | History

A Palace of Riches

Richmond-upon-Thames is one of the best places to live in London. Its riverside walks, fine views, handsome houses and hidden lanes make it an attractive place to live - it’s why some of our best-loved actors choose to call it home. 500 years ago King Henry VII thought so too, and had Richmond Palace built for himself and his young family. It had been a favourite home of royals before that, when it was originally known as Sheen Palace. In fact Edward III died there on 21 June 1377. When Anne of Bohemia, the much-loved wife of Edward’s grandson Richard II died of the plague, Richard had it pulled down. It was later rebuilt by Henry V, then completely rebuilt in 1499 after a disastrous fire. Henry VII renamed it after his earldom in Yorkshire and a settlement was soon emerged around it. Henry too died there on 21 Apr 1509. Henry’s palace was a showpiece of the kingdom. The royal apartments faced the river, and made a handy halfway stop between Westminster and Windsor. The rooftops were dotted with pepper pot chimneys, which not only looked eye-catching but ensured Henry and his courtiers lived in comfortable accommodation. Its layout resembled Hampton Court Palace, with a series of courtyards, with the largest courtyard accessed by the Middle Gate, which was adorned with figures of trumpeters.  Around its perimeter lay a series of brick buildings, which housed court officials. To the east was the privy garden, which had a gallery running alongside it. This was a real novelty and proved a popular place to promenade along during inclement weather.After Henry’s death his son Henry VIII used it infrequently. After all, he did have over 60 palaces to choose from. He gave it to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves as part of her generous divorce settlement. She used furnishings from Thomas Cromwell’s estate to fill it with - ironic, given his downfall was caused by the failure of the marriage.  Later, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I lived here. It was her favourite palace and where she died on 24 March 1603.  One reason for her liking of Richmond Palace may have been down to the work of her godson Sir John Harrington: he installed one of the first flushing lavatories. It was known as the Ajax - a pun on the word ‘jakes’, which was slang for the loo. Following Elizabeth’s death James I’s son Prince Henry of Wales and his brother Charles I both lived here for a time but Richmond’s heyday was over.  After the Civil Wars this royal residence was sold and later demolished. All that remains are the gatehouse and wardrobe, with its foundations now under the manicured lawns in front of Trumpeters’ House. ...

A Bridge over Hammersmith

| 04th April 2020 | History

A Bridge over Hammersmith

Currently closed for 3 years, Hammersmith Bridge is one of London’s most attractive crossings. There’s been a bridge connecting Hammersmith and Barnes for nearly 200 years, and ever since the first one was opened in 1827 there have been complaints about its strength. With Hammersmith becoming an important agricultural and industrial part of west London there had been an increasing need to add more river crossings. With this in mind the authorities turned to local engineer William Tierney Clark, who’s best known for the Széchenyi Chain Bridge that spans the Danube in Budapest. Even at the start of the work, when the Duke of Sussex blessed the bridge, there were concerns about the bridge’s capacity to take weight. This came to a climax in 1870 when some 10,000 people gathered on the bridge to witness the annual University Boat Race. Newspapers reported ‘the shameful overcrowding’ as the bridge swayed. There was only one solution: build a stronger, safer structure. This time they turned to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the go-to engineer most famous for designing London’s sewer system. Work began on the new bridge in 1884 and was completed in 1887, with the Prince of Wales officially opening the bridge on 11 June of that year.  While Bazalgette’s new bridge was being constructed, a temporary bridge was erected alongside it to allow traffic to continue crossing the river between Hammersmith and Barnes. A group of people living in Barnes, concerned about the difficulties they would face to reach Hammersmith while the suspension bridge  was being redeveloped, campaigned for the temporary bridge to be provided, but a letter from a Barnes resident printed in the London Evening Standard on 3 December 1885 gives us an insight into locals’ experiences with this temporary bridge: “Sir, May I inquire, through your journal, how much longer the public is expected to tolerate the miserable and disgraceful condition of the Bridge erected over the Thames at Hammersmith for use during the closing of the old Suspension Bridge.” Since its construction Hammersmith Bridge has had an eventful history.  Near midnight on 27 December 1919, a Lieutenant Charles Campbell  Wood from Bloemfontein in South Africa, dived into the Thames from the upstream footway of Hammersmith Bridge to rescue a drowning woman. They both survived the ordeal, but Campbell Wood died of tetanus contracted from his injuries, and died two weeks later. His bravery is commemorated with a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge. It’s also been the target of the IRA no less than 3 times. In 1939 a bomb was spotted by Maurice Childs, a hairdresser from Chiswick. Walking home at one in the morning, Childs spotted a smoking suitcase lying on the bridge's walkway. He quickly threw the bag in the river: the resulting explosion sent up a 18m column of water. Moments later, a second device exploded causing girders on the west side of the bridge to collapse. Childs was later awarded an MBE for his quick-thinking.  Naturally so photogenic a bridge has been a popular location for film makers, including Sliding Doors, Theatre of Blood, Night and the City, Repulsion, and Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. Let’s hope we can enjoy the bridge for many years to come.  ...

A Bit of Bishopsgate

| 05th March 2020 | Design

A Bit of Bishopsgate

Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and, among its many treasures, you’ll find a rare survival of pre-Great Fire architecture from the City of London. Peter Pindar’s house originally stood on Bishopsgate, about where Liverpool Street Station now stands. When the station was developed the Chairman and Directors of the Great Eastern Railway Company gave it to the museum.  It’s made of oak and dates from around 1600, when merchant Paul Pindar had it built - more of him later. The impressive full-height windows would have originally been glazed, either with imported glass or local greenish glass. The semi-circular window shape was a type used in grand houses since the 1530s. The storeys project over the one beneath, a feature known as ‘jettying’, a design common in English timber houses from the 1300s. ‘Grotesque’ brackets would have been added to  support the jettying. The panels used to decorate the house were a new concept in design and probably could have been chosen from pattern books. They’re quite thick, 7.5cm deep, and again, made from solid oak, carved and nailed onto the oak framework. You can see the arms of the City of London in the centre; also look for the thistle - in reference to the new king, James I. Pindar would have used the standard London practice of using a pre-assembled timber frame, as it was quicker and cheaper than brick or stone. The timbers would have been measured and cut in the carpenter’s yard, then assembled on the spot, using mortice and tenon joints, and fastened using pegs. You can see some of the carpenter’s marks on the timber. What is extraordinary is that modern buildings in the City are still constructed in a similar way! As the streets are still so narrow, it’s easier to pre-fabricate much of the building off-site, ship it in and build upwards. In medieval times you would have visited  Wood Street, off Cheapside, to get your Ikea-style house. Evidence suggests that the exterior was painted in glossy red-brown and contrasting pale stone paint but this was removed in the 1890s.  Very much a feature on houses after the Great Fire of 1666, which burnt some 80% of the City of London (but not this area of London) are insurance marks. One belonged to the Hand-in-Hand Insurance Society and was issued on the 31st July 1738: "Policy No. 65010. HON.able MARY GRIMSTONE of St. Geo: Hanover Square. Widow on a House valued £100 Brick and £250 Timber on ye West Side of Bishopsgate Street and on ye South Side of Half Moon Alley in ye parish of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, being a Corner House and known by ye Sign of ye Paul Pindars Head Ale House in poss.en of HENRY HIXON. [total] £350’. Paul Pindar himself was a wealthy merchant and diplomat who was born about 1565. He spent much of his early life abroad but as he approached old age he retired to London and made use of his considerable wealth by contributing to the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Civil War ruined Pindar and he died in debt around 1650. In 1597 he bought a considerable plot in Bishopsgate Without - that is to say, outside the City walls, just beyond the church of St Botolph, Bishopsgate. 400 years ago this was a major road out of the City, paved no less.  In estate agent terms it was close to all modern conveniences: just a 20-minute walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, the shops on Cheapside and the new Royal Exchange on Cornhill. The 3-storey house also had an attractive garden which overlooked the open land of Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. In those days Pindar’s house would have stood out as one of the finest houses in London. Indeed, it was used by the Venetian ambassador in 1617-18, whose chaplain described it as ‘a very commodious mansion’. By 1660 it had already been divided up and soon given over to the London workhouse. By the time it was demolished the house had become the Paul Pindar’s Head pub and stood between a coffeehou...