Lost London – The Steelyard…
May 23, 2014
The Thames-side property known as the Steelyard – the phrase comes from the Dutch-German word Stahlhof and relates either to a steel beam used for weighing goods or a courtyard where the goods were sold – was the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London from the 13th century onward.
Located near where Walbrook flows out of the Thames on the north bank (the site is now at least partly covered by Cannon Street Station), the walled compound – which at some point housed as many as 400 people – was in some senses a mini city within a city complete with a hall, warehouses, a weighing house and counting houses as well as residences and a chapel.
While the community – which represented an alliance of towns and cities in northern Europe – was mentioned as far back as the late 1200s, it wasn’t until 1303 that King Edward I formerly confirmed the tax and customs concessions of the merchants (at some point, in return for privileges they were given, the group was charged with keeping up the maintenance of Bishopsgate).
The power of the trading post had grown substantially by the 15th century and the concessions the group had been granted meant there was inevitably considerable friction with English merchants. There was also some official friction and one example of it was when the Steelyard was closed temporarily in the 15th century when the Hanse cities were at war with England.
In 1598 Queen Elizabeth I took away the Steelyard’s trading privileges (after which the compound was apparently looted). It was subsequently allowed to reopen by King James I but never regained the prominence it had previously had.
Much of the compound was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but nonetheless, the Steelyard was rebuilt and continued to provide links between German cities and the English until the mid 1800s when the land was sold off and, in 1866, Cannon Street Station built on the site.
A couple of surviving objects from the Steelyard include a series of at least eight portraits of Hanse merchants painted by Hans Holbein the Younger and a stone model of the Hanseatic Arms which were placed over the gate into the compound can be seen at the Museum of London.