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The First Mercers' Hall

From the 14th century onwards the Mercers' Company held its meetings in the Hospital of St Thomas of Acon, a monastery founded about 1220 to commemorate the birthplace of St Thomas Becket. This later resulted in an arrangement whereby the Hospital sold the Company a plot of land adjoining its church. Between 1517 and 1524 the Company built a small chapel of its own on this land, with the first Mercers' Hall above it, fronting Cheapside. After the dissolution of the Hospital by Henry VIII in 1538 the Company was able to buy all the Hospital buildings from the Crown. One of the conditions of this sale was that the Mercers maintained a church on the site, and hence the Company is unique among the livery companies of London in having its own chapel.

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Richard Whittington

Richard Whittington is the most famous member of the Mercers' Company, immortalised as the Dick Whittington of the childhood song "Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London", a highly romanticised 'rags to riches' tale of a boy and his cat going to London to seek his fortune.

The real Whittington was born in the 1350s in Pauntley, Gloucestershire, the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, a local land-owner. He was apprenticed to the Mercers' Company, and became a successful Mercer, dealing in valuable imports such as silks and velvets. The major market for such wares was the Royal Court, and in 1389, for the first time, Whittington sold two cloths of gold to King Richard II for £11. This was followed by great quantities of luxury fabrics for the Royal Wardrobe, including later for the new king Henry IV.

Whittington played a prominent role in the Mercers' Company, and was three times Master of the Company in 1395-6, 1401-2 and 1408-9. He regularly lent sums of money to the Crown, and invested heavily in the lucrative wool export trade. He became a City Alderman in 1393, and was four times Mayor of London, in 1397, 1397-8, 1406-7 and 1419-20. Whittington died in March 1423. He was buried at his local parish church St Michael Paternoster Royal, and left assets estimated at £5,000 (around £5 million in modern terms.) There is a present day Whittington charity, which was the first trust bequeathed to the Company.
Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham was another extremely successful member of the Mercers’ Company – a trading mercer, entrepreneur, skilled financier, and eventually a Royal Agent. He was born c.1518/19 in Milk Lane, London, the second son of Sir Richard Gresham, also a Mercer. He attended Gonville College, Cambridge, and was then apprenticed to his uncle Sir John Gresham, and admitted to the Mercers’ Company in 1543. He eventually became indispensable to Elizabeth I as Royal Agent in the Netherlands, and was knighted in 1559. He died in 1579.

Gresham was responsible for the idea of building an Exchange in the City of London – a focal point for all business dealings. In 1565 he inspired the Corporation of the City of London and the Mercers’ Company to join him in this venture – he would build the Exchange, and if the Corporation and the Mercers’ Company provided the site, they would eventually own the building on the death of Gresham and his wife. The exchange was built and opened by Elizabeth I in 1570.

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The first Exchange was an ambitious and successful enterprise. It could even be argued it was Gresham’s inspired idea that set the City of London on the road to becoming a world trade centre. The first Exchange perished in the Great Fire of 1666, the second was destroyed by fire in 1838, and the present third Royal Exchange, designed by Sir William Tite, was opened in 1844.

The Mercers' School and present Educational Trust Fund

The Company's own grammar school, Mercers' School, was founded in 1542 and closed in 1959. The Company then established an Educational Trust Fund, which makes grants to individual students instead.

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For more information on the history of the Mercers' Company and the Hall, visit their website.

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