History of the Hop Exchange

The most eye-catching building along Southwark Street is a glorious sweep of white and blue columns, the Hop Exchange.

History of the Hop Exchange | Look Up London

Dating from 1866, its details and story give a fascinating insight into the history of the area and how it has changed over the centuries.

The Hop Trade in Borough

The area south of London Bridge has been dominated by brewing since the early 17th century.

This was also around the time that hops became an integral ingredient in English beer. Hops are the flower of the plant common hop (with the delightful Latin name Humulus Lupulus) and they affect the flavour and bitterness of the beer as well as acting as a preservative.

Thanks to London Bridge being the only way to cross the River Thames into the City until the 18th century, Borough High Street flourished as a main artery connecting the City with the south coast and particularly Kent where hops were grown.

Hops were dried in oast houses then put into pockets (large sacks) and loaded up on carts to be brought to Southwark for storage in hop warehouses.

The warehouses were run by hop factors, the middlemen who charged the growers commission then sold the produce to merchants who then sold it to breweries and there’s plenty of evidence of this history still today.

Along Borough High Street today, look up and you can admire the former hop factor business of William Henry and Herbert Le May who had various premises in the Borough.

There’s also a war memorial dedicated to the 33 men from the London Hop Trade who died in the First World War.

Hop Trade War Memorial, Borough High Street | Look Up London

In the 1799 R. Horwood map you can see the vast area of land taken up by the Barclay Perkins Brewery in the top left hand corner.

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org R Horwood Map 1799

By the 19th century the growing trade and industrialisation of the area can be seen in the arrival of Southwark Street, laid out in 1867.

In the 1890s OS Map below you can see the number of hops warehouses clustered around the new Southwark Street as well as the new Hop Exchange (circled in yellow).

Image Credit: www.layersoflondon.org OS Map 1890s

History of the Hop Exchange

The Hop Exchange was an attempt to organise, streamline and regulate local traders.

It was intended as a central hub for buying and selling hops and was built 1866-67 as the Hop and Malt Exchange, designed by RH Moore.

Galleries overlook an open, central space under a glass roof that allows the natural light to cascade down. There are around 100 surrounding offices from which sellers would exhibit their hops to potential buyers.

So was it a success?

Not really. As all those dealing in hops had their own premises and didn’t like dealing on the open market it wasn’t really used for its intended purpose. Even at the height of its use only around half of the offices were leased out.

It was soon subdivided into general office space.

By 1920 it was unloved and underused (only five offices were occupied) and there was a fire which subsequently led to the demolition of the upper floors.

That’s another thing, can you believe it was even larger than it stands today? This image shows the building before the 1920 fire:

Image Credit: public domain, late 19th century illustration

and here’s a similar view today:

In 1983 it was wonderfully restored by Peer Group UK who also replaced the interior floor with a replica of the original.

Details on the Hop Exchange 

From the outside there’s a lovely pediment topped with a black eagle. I’ve often wondered if this was a nod to the Truman Brewery and their logo but perhaps it’s just a coincidence?

Underneath are details from the hop trade, dark grey men and women pick hops while a small child loads them into a basket. The idea of the whole family getting involved wasn’t just a sentimental scene, the seasonal work of hop picking attracted many poor London families to head to Kent as a sort of working holiday.

To the left hand side men load the pockets from the oast house onto a wagon.

Although it’s a private building, it’s fairly easy to look inside today and you enter under a very grand vestibule.

Inside the balconies are decorated with intwined wrought iron hop flowers and each gallery has the white horse, the symbol of Kent.

In the corner are the initials of the architects, RH Moore.

Today it’s a mixed use office space but the huge cellars under the pavement level are used by two pubs, continuing that brewing legacy.


Related Blog Post

London’s other famous exchange is the Royal Exchange in the City of London and I’ve written all about its history here.

Royal Exchange | Look Up London

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