Victorian London - Buildings, Monuments and Museums - Corn Exchange

The Corn Exchange, Mark Lane, was erected in 1828 from designs by Mr. Smith, at an expense of 90,000l., and is a very fine specimen of time Greek Doric style of architecture. The wholesale corn trade of the city of London is entirely conducted here; and oats, beans, and all other kinds of grain are sold by sample in this market, which is held three times a week - viz. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; but by far the best attendance is on Mondays.
    In addition to those already named are the following :-Spitalfields and the Boroughs Market, for vegetables; the Borough Hop Market. Newport Market, Clare Market, Oxford Market, and Grosvenor Market, all for butcher's meat. It may also be added, that, with some few exceptions, markets are, generally speaking, on the decline; a circumstance sufficiently explained by time occupation in most of the trading streets of butchers, bakers, poulterers, greengrocers, and fishmongers.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844



CORN EXCHANGE, MARK LANE, CITY, projected and opened 1747, enlarged and partly rebuilt in 1827, and reopened June 24th, 1828. The market days are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the hours of business are from 10 to 3; Monday is the principal day. Wheat is paid for in bills at one month, and all other descriptions of corn and grain in bills at two months. The Kentish "hoymen" (distinguished by their sailors' jackets) have stands free of expense, and pay less for rentage and dues than others.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850



THE two syllables, "Mark Lane," are as familiar to the readers of newspapers as any house hold word to be met with in their vocabulary. We cannot take up a journal from any one part of the country without seeing them in capitals in a prominent column; and most people, however little interest they may take in commercial affairs, have at least some indefinite notion that Mark Lane is connected somehow with the price of wheat and flour and corn and bread-stuffs, and perhaps with other matters interesting to millers and maltsters, flour-factors and farmers, to bakers, and to that multitudinous class of society to whom the baker's tariff is a matter of vital importance. We are going this afternoon to pay a visit to the Corn Exchange, which of itself is the "Mark Lane " of the newspapers and perhaps the observations we may be enabled to make may have the effect of condensing the vague notions of some of our readers into the shape of precise, tangible, and useful information.
    Mark Lane stands in the very heart of mercantile London, not far from the river's bank, and is surrounded on all sides by warehouses, crammed with the rich freights borne by every tide up the Thames, and by offices where the business is transacted which is the medium of their distribution for general use and consumption. Whoever would traverse this district on a market-day and at market hours, must not be over-scrupulous on the score of mud or dust, and may reckon on making acquaintance with pendulous bales and packages swinging from cranes fifty feet aloft, with corpulent casks plunging and ducking headlong into cellars, and with plethoric sacks staggering on two legs up-stairs or down-stairs, as the case may be. If he should have to rub shoulders with the dripping iron tires of broad-wheeled wagons, or to dive beneath a nosebag or two to escape that sort of intimacy, he need not be surprised—it is no more than happened to us, and happens to many a man in that quarter, who could buy us up twenty times over with a stroke of the pen. There is too much business, and business of too much importance, going on continually in that district, to admit of the observance of ceremony, for which there was no space allowed when these narrow streets were built.
    The Corn Exchange stands about the centre of Mark Lane, on the eastern side. Its front is far less pretentious than many a modern warehouse, and might be passed without remark, by the stranger. It is entered by a flight of steps and through iron gates, and the visitor, once within, is agreeably surprised by the spectacle of what may well be termed a model market, as regards both convenience and elegance, and simplicity of structure. It consists of an ample Doric colonnade, is far better lighted than are the galleries which surround the quadrangle of the Royal Exchange, and, unlike that quadrangle, is roofed in from the weather, and well sheltered from cold blasts of air. Beyond the colonnade is a modern extension of the original market, built in a corresponding style, and covered in by a large and handsome dome, also pierced in all directions for light. To the left of this, the old and extended market, is a smaller market equally well lighted, which appears to be appropriated principally, if not entirely, to the sale of the seeds of every variety of grain, pulse, etc., productive of food for man or beast. Around the whole area of these markets, and against the inclosing walls, are ranged some hundred or more of stalls and counters, substantially fitted up, and polished by the friction of the grain upon them; all and each of which are covered with samples, in small canvas bags or wooden compartments, of the grain or seed to be sold. Behind these stalls and counters are various neat closets, fitted with desks, stools, and lock-ups for the reception of the samples when the market is over for the day. In addition to the stalls, which line the market all round, are a considerable number of others, appropriated to the same purpose, erected in the central space, principally around the pillars which support the roof.
    It has just struck two on a Monday afternoon, as we mount the steps from the lane, and, elbowing our way through the entrance, begin to look around. The whole market, roomy as it is, is so crowded with dealers, factors, and speculators, that we have no other choice but to go in any direction that chance may leave open, and trust to that for making the circuit in due time. There is a confused unceasing babble of sounds, for five hundred people are talking at once ; but a decent and commendable decorum prevails ; and though jokes and laughter are not wanting, those vulgar demonstrations which are too often their accompaniments in similar places are not observable. The frequenters of the market comprise a variety of classes, among which we notice the unmistakeable face, keen yet stolid, of the city speculator, the bluff country gentleman, the Kent farmer, and a sort of semi-nautical specimen, who, we are informed, is the privileged hoy-man or his descendant, who, by virtue of an ancient prescriptive right, which his ancestors earned by supplying the city of London with food in a time of plague and famine, has certain market-dues remitted to him and his representatives for ever. Then there are the factors who supply the bakers with meal and flour, and there are the bakers themselves, a round number of whom generally find their way to Mark Lane on a Monday, to furnish themselves with the number of sacks of flour it is their fortune and their function to "do " in the course of the week. But these are not all. Ere proceeding far, we are brought up by a group of Greek faces, and the soft musical sounds of their, to us, unintelligible tongue ; an energetic, fiery- eyed, and dark-skinned group it is, yet tamed, it is plain, by the phlegm of our northern example, to the outward suppression of their oriental eagerness and vivacity. Further on, the guttural consonants of the German greet us with their long familiar sound ; and shortly after, a hand is laid upon our shoulder, belonging to none other than our old acquaintance, Monsieur Germani, whose business it is to watch the phases of the market on behalf of a well-known French firm.
    The reader will scarcely need to be informed that of the vast quantities of grain, wheat, and flour which are annually sold at the Corn Exchange, none is delivered on the spot, and that nothing beyond the necessary quantities for samples is ever brought there. Were it otherwise — were the goods brought there in sacks or barrels, and thence delivered to the purchasers, the corn-market had need be thirty or forty acres in extent, instead of being concentred beneath a single roof. The seller sells, and the buyer buys, by sample, and when a bargain is agreed on, the latter receives an order upon a wharfinger or warehouseman for the goods purchased. In this way a factor who has a large agency connexion, may and does sell thousands of sacks which he never sees, leaving t lie responsibility of his transactions to his principals, who, if they do not deliver goods according to sample, must abide the disagreeable consequences. Yet, though there are nothing but samples in the market, there is what appears to our unsophisticated senses an awful and enormous waste. Grain lies scattered about in heaps everywhere, and on every thing ; it literally covers the ground ankle-deep, and we, and the whole ever-moving crowd, are trampling and grinding it under foot every step we take. How that comes to pass we see plainly enough, because every man who puts his fingers into a sample bag and takes out a handful, after rubbing it and examining it in his palm, instead of returning it to the bag throws it on the floor ; and as, look which way we will, we see twenty people doing this at once, the accumulations on the ground are easily accounted for. But wherefore such waste?
    We put the question to a friend—"Why is not the grain returned to the bag, instead of being cast on the ground?"
    "That would never do," he said ; "suppose I want to buy oats : I take a handful, and rub it on my hand to see whether it be dry or damp, and how dry or how damp it is ; the heat of my hand takes off some of the moisture ; if I return it to the bag, the sample is no longer a fair sample to the next comer, who would take up what I have put back ; and therefore I throw it on the ground."
     We admitted at once the sufficiency of the reason. " But is it all wasted?" we inquired. " Not wasted, of course ; it is somebody's perquisite - the market-beadle's, I believe ; at any rate it is swept up after market hours, and in all likelihood is sold for its full value as food for horses or other animals."
    On either side of the market, and forming parts of the establishment, are licensed houses for the refreshment of those who frequent it, and fitted up also for the transaction of business. That to the right is the well-known Jack's Coffee-house, furnished with a handsome subscription-room, which we find almost as much thronged as the market below. Here the members have first-rate accommodation, with lockers for the security of their samples, the daily newspapers and prices current, and attendance at any moment. Here they can dine if they choose ; and here they can make appointments with their customers, settle their bargains, and revise and sum up their accounts undisturbed by the tumult of the market. The subscription-rooms, further, afford facilities for the transaction of business by correspondence, which would be wanting without some such medium.
    The Corn Exchange in Mark Lane is the only market in the metropolis for corn, grain, and seed. As might be expected, it in a manner rules the prices of grain and flour, not only throughout the whole of these islands, but, in a degree decreasing in the ratio of distance, all over the civilized world. There is no column in the newspaper, even in these times of deadly feud, that is half so interesting to the home grower of wheat as the column headed "Mark Lane," by which he may learn on any day in the week the full value, to a fraction, of every rick and stack of wheat, barley, rye, or oats in his homestead. The American and Canadian grower cons it with hardly less interest, and there is no doubt that. the fluctuations it records have their influence in determining him as to what breadth of laud he shall lay down in cereal produce for the coming season. The foreign merchant scans it with no less eagerness, and is often induced to accept or decline the overtures of his correspondents from the confluent which the publication of the London article suggests upon their proposals.
    When the price of bread-stuffs runs high, as at present, the speculators of Mark Lane generally fall into bad odour ; the old complaints against monopoly and over-holding are revived, and they are accused of what may be called "bulling " the market, in order to maintain high prices. With all our dislike to any such practices, we must frankly state that it is not easy to see how any clique or company of merchants, much less any single individual, can operate to bring about any serious or permanent rise in the price of corn. The quantities sold are so vast—the details of the trade are so various and complicated the interests concerned are so numerous and extensive—that any man who should undertake to "rig " the market and create an artificial price, would stand in need of powers little short of miraculous. Practically, we feel assured that the attempt is never made in our time. The thing most like it occurred the other day, and then it was an unintentional blunder on the part of a high official functionary. To meet the wants of the British army at the Crimea during the winter, government advertised for tenders, to the amount, if we recollect right, of twelve thousand quarters. When the tenders were sent in, numbering some half score or more, the authorities, instead of making their selection, as was naturally expected, accepted the whole, thus creating a sudden demand upon the market for an unprecedented quantity of wheat. It was inevitable that a rise in price should follow, and it accordingly took place, but to an extent comparatively trifling, and only to the level which prices would have reached in a natural way at a little later period. It is, we believe, a fact that the freedom and the amount of our trade in corn protect us from an artificial price, which is the only price against which we have any just cause of complaint. When we feel the burden of high prices we should recollect the service they render us. Were bread not to grow dearer as it grows scarcer, there would be nothing, to check consumption and waste in time of dearth, and we should run the risk of eating up all our provisions before we knew the danger we ran : high prices, in compelling us to economise the stock in hand, guard us against this fearful consummation.
    Some details connected with the commerce which has its centre in Mark Lane may not prove uninteresting. The trade in grain is, and ever must be, marked by continual fluctuations in prices. As a consequence, the dealer and speculator must gain during a rising market, and must act with the utmost rapidity and decision to prevent his losing while the market is falling. When prices have been steadily on the rise for some time, speculation is more than ordinarily attractive ; it may happen that the high price prevails only in the home market, and that large cargoes may be bought at the distance of a few thousand miles off, for half the price that wheat is selling at home. If the purchaser can have it at his disposal in the Thames before the market is down again, he may make a fortune ; on the other hand, if the reaction arrive before his foreign wheat, he is likely to lose one. Both these contingencies occur in times of great demand, and are perfectly familiar to the frequenters of the Corn Exchange.
    When the newspapers publish a fall in the price of wheat and flour, the public is apt to be scandalized because they do not . instantly derive the benefit of the fall. This they will never do until they take to baking their own bread, and buy their flour of the factor. The baker is the middle-man in this case, and as he is, nine times out of ten, too poor to speculate, and does not speculate, but buys merely flour enough for his week's consumption, he cannot afford to sell his bread at the reduced price until he has bought his flour at the reduced price. If, on the other hand, he is given to raising the price of his loaves the moment that flour rises at Mark Lane, it is obvious that he prefers to reap alone the advantage of the turn of the market—a species of selfishness of which it is to be feared he is not in all cases innocent.
    The flour for metropolitan consumption is sold, the mass of it in sacks, and the remainder, which is principally American flour, in barrels. Both the sacks and the barrels area source of annoyance and perplexity to the merchants and their agents because neither are paid for by those who purchase the flour, but are held to be returnable to their owners. The sack question has been a subject of much anxiety and irritation for years. Time was when the percentage of them that never found their way back to their owners was enormous. The bakers did not like the trouble of returning them, and suffered them to accumulate on their hands ; and from want of looking after on the one side, and of moral principle on the other, vast numbers of them were lost or stolen, or applied to vile uses, until rendered good for nothing. A race of sack thieves sprung up, who drove a trade in other people's property a trade which was carried at length to such a pitch that it supplied the demand for sacks used in various other branches of commerce, at the expense of the corn merchants, with whose profits it made great havoc. The evil at last wrought its own cure. A Sack Protection Society was organized, the expenses of which are paid by the subscriptions of the members. A strict vigilance is maintained, by means of salaried inspectors, who seize all straw sacks belonging to corn-factors, and call the parties in possession to account ; and collectors are appointed who drive about to the different bakers' shops, the empty sacks and returning them to. their owners, for which office they are empowered to charge at the rate of two shillings the dozen. The value of a sack varies from one shilling to two, according to the quality of its material. As the commission on the sale of a sack of flour is only a shilling, the loss of the sack, if the agent were held responsible, entailed a loss on the transaction. With the barrels the case is somewhat different. As they lumber up the baker's premises, he is but too glad to get rid of them ; but they are of little use to the factor, who has to sell them at about one-third of their cost, as they are never used as receptacles for English flour. When, as is sometimes the case, the barrels are made of green wood, a certain portion of the flour they contain is both flavoured and discolour- ed, and fit only for the making of gingerbread, or for mechanical purposes.
    The corn trade of London is in a variety of hands ; and though it engages an immense amount of capital, it is free and open to all who choose to enter upon it. Merchants and shipowners take it up and lay it down as it suits their convenience. The millers, who, to a great extent, are the merchants of the provinces, transmit immense quantities to their London agents ; and, for a considerable portion of the year, every tide brings its contribution from foreign countries. Within the last twenty years a most abnormal share of the trade in corn has got into the hands of the Greek merchants. They have built up their system of traffic so carefully, and managed it so well, that the attempt to displace them by competition would be hopeless. They may be said to have the corn of the Mediterranean and its coasts and tributary seas and rivers almost entirely in their own grasp. As a rule, they are averse to speculation for large gains, preferring a steady trade with a moderate profit.
    The London Corn Exchange presents a remarkable contrast to all other European markets for grain. It is the fashion on the Continent for the governments to take the burden of feeding their peoples, to a great degree, upon themselves. They build huge granaries for storehouses—they forbid at certain times the exportation of grain and they restrict at others its distribution by rigid enactments. With us there is no government interference at all. Everything is left to private management and the benignant conflict of private interests. The very Corn Exchange itself is private property in the hands of shareholders, and every- thing connected with the trade upon which depends the daily food of twenty-five millions of people, is left to be controlled and regulated by competition, under the natural influences of demand and supply.  

The Leisure Hour, 1856