People have been exchanging money for goods for centuries, and London has seen some kind of commerce since the Romans first built the city as we know it. Most companies that we know of today, however, are fairly recent inventions in the grand scheme of things. It wouldn’t be until the 17th or 18th Centuries that most shops and restaurants would even come into being. Some businesses, such as pubs, are even older, though for the purpose of this list, we’ll be limiting how many pubs are included since several of the city’s pubs are even older than other industries in London. What follows is an interesting mix of businesses that have operated since the 16th Century and are still open today.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the 2018 London Annual which is now sold out and out of print.
Ye Olde Mitre – 1546
It’s almost fitting that London’s oldest business should be a drinking establishment. Besides being one of London´s most hidden pubs, Ye Old Mitre is also one of the oldest with its history dating back to 1546. The pub was built for the servants of the Bishops of Ely who worked at nearby Ely Palace, which was featured in the works of Shakespeare. One of its oldest features is a cherry tree that Queen Elizabeth I is said to have danced around with her once-favorite Sir Christopher Hatton. Enter the tavern, and you´ll encounter a pub with lots of wooden panels and no music or screaming tvs at all. The pub doesn’t open on Saturday and Sunday, except during the Great British Beer Festival every year.
London Gazette – 1665
The London Gazette began its history in 1665 as another paper—The Oxford Gazette. At the time, most “newspapers” looked more like gossip magazines (and some would argue that they still are), so the Gazette established itself to be an authoritative information source. The reason for the name difference was that the paper started during another outbreak of the Black Death. King Charles II had moved the court to Oxford, and his courtiers wouldn’t touch a London newspaper for fear of catching the disease. The Gazette was the first official journal of record and newspaper of the Crown. When the fear of the disease dissipated and the Court of St. James returned to London, the Gazette came with it and changed its name to the London Gazette. The Gazette often relied on dispatches from overseas for its news reports, and anyone “mentioned in dispatches” was said to have been “gazetted.”
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – 1667
Another candidate in our list of oldest businesses in London is the pub known as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It was built only a year after the Great Fire, but on its site used to be a pub called the Horn which was built in 1538. A unique feature of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is its cellar which dates to a 13th-century monastery. Of course, there are a few older pubs that managed not to get burned down by the ire, but this is one of the oldest to open afterward that is still in operation today. The pub’s patrons over the years are full of literature’s greatest names, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. Its lack of natural lighting gives it that dingy feel that appeals to tourists and locals alike.
C. Hoare & Co. – 1672
Founded in 1672, C. Hoare & Co. is the oldest bank in the United Kingdom and the fourth oldest in the world. Founder Richard Hoare had begun his career as an apprenticed goldsmith. It was the year he was granted Freedom of the Goldsmiths’ Company that he founded his business and is treated as the founding of the bank. Moving from “The Sign of the Golden Bottle” in Cheapside to Fleet Street in 1690, the banking side of Hoare’s business slowly overtook the goldsmithing until it was Hoare’s main occupation in 1702, the same year he made his son “Good Henry,” and he was knighted by Queen Anne. The bank has enjoyed its independent status since its founding and is now led by the 10th and 11th generations of the Hoare family.
Lock & Co. Hatters – 1676
Founded in 1676, James Lock & Co. is the world’s oldest hat shop. Despite the name, it was actually founded by Robert Davis, whose son Charles took on James Lock as his apprentice in 1747. James also married Robert’s daughter, further cementing his legacy with the business. The businesses passed down from fathers to sons for generations, in the meantime outfitting many famous names from Admiral Horatio Nelson to Oscar Wilde. Even to this day, Lock & Co. uses its famous conformateur to measure a person’s head to create a bespoke hat, and the shop displays many of the famous persons for which it has done work.
Toye & Co. – 1685
Known formally as Toye, Kenning, & Spencer, Toye & Co. is one of the most important jewelry firms in the United Kingdom, holding a Royal Warrant to Queen Elizabeth II. For the Crown, Toye & Co. makes gold and silver laces, insignias, and embroidery as well as supplying Honours badges and ribbons. It is also the sole supplier of the buttonhole Honours emblem. The Toye family were Huguenot refugees when they arrived in London in 1685 and once again took up their trade of weaving, lace-making, embroidery, and gold and silver wire making. Toye & Co. has served the Crown through fifteen monarchs since its founding and has branched out to everything including electioneering buttons, trophies, and even the robes and banners for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. One of the company’s proudest achievements is that many of its craftspeople are families who have been passing their skills on to their children and grandchildren.
Lloyds of London – 1688
Edward Lloyd owned a coffee house on Tower Street that he started in 1686 on Tower Street that catered mainly to sailors, merchants, and ship-owners. Soon after, Lloyd began to offer maritime insurance. By the 1730s, Lloyds had opened an office at 16 Lombard Street and established quite a name for itself in the maritime insurance industry. Wars in the late-18th Century and early 19th Century helped Lloyds prosper even more, and the firm quickly became Britain’s leading insurer of ships and sailors (which regrettably included insuring ships and slaves in the slave trade). Lloyds also shaped much of the insurance industry, publishing the first Lloyds List and instituting a policy of having a “Lead” underwriter who would set the rates for the others. Today the Lloyds Building is one of the most recognizable and intriguing pieces of architecture in the city.
Ede & Ravenscroft – 1689
In the legal profession, one needs to look professional when appearing in court, and Ede & Ravenscroft has been assisting the nation’s judges and barristers since 1689. It was founded in that year by William and Marsha Shudall but didn’t adopt its current name until 1903 when Joseph Ede inherited the business and merged with wig-maker Ravenscroft. The shop makes more than just legal attire, though, and possess a royal warrant for robes for Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales. They also supply robes for graduation ceremonies and make any number of suits and formalwear, including bespoke items. Today the company has three locations across London and is very close to famous fashion district Saville Road.
Berry Bros. & Rudd – 1698
The oldest seller of alcohol in the city, Berry Brothers & Rudd was founded by the Widow Bourne at No. 3 St. James’s Street in 1698. Mrs. Bourne had the fortune of establishing her grocer’s shop across the street from St. James’s Palace, which ended up becoming the principal residence of the monarch, King William III. Despite the popular location, Berry Bros. did not receive a royal warrant until 1903, and Queen Elizabeth II gave her own warrant to the shop in 1995. In that same year, Berry Bros. & Rudd moved itself into the future by being the first wine merchants to open an online wine shop. The shop remains the premier wine and spirits merchant for the city, celebrating over 300 years of business.
Twinings & Co. – 1706
Thomas Twining’s ambitions must have seemed impossible when he purchased a small coffee shop to sell a new beverage that was taking the country by storm. He opened the country’s first team room in the Strand in 1706, transforming it into an empire as Britain’s demand for tea grew. The location was perfect as it straddled the line between Westminster and the City of London, putting him in the perfect place to cater to the gentry. It also helped his business that, while women were discouraged from coffee houses, there was nothing keeping them from entering Twinings’ tea rooms. In a feat of trademarking, Twining’s logo was created in 1787 and remains the oldest logo in continuous use. Queen Victoria made the company an official warrant holder in 1837. Today, it remains the top name in tea all over the globe.