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Originally made in Oxfordshire, this distinctive four-stripe textile features points, or small black bars on the side, which were used during the fur trade as an indication of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.