July 14, 2006 3:00 am
East India Company and its City traces
Nick Robins yesterday took Mudlark on a stroll around the East India Company's City of London, a circuit notable both for what has survived and for what has disappeared without trace.
Robins is head of socially responsible investment at Henderson Global Investors.
In his spare time over the past four years, he has written The Corporation that Changed the World, a history of the East India Company that will be published by Pluto Press in September. His book, unlike others, focuses more on corporate affairs rather than on the company's imperial role, a point illustrated by his letter about Clive of India published in yesterday's FT.
Mudlark's knowledge of John Company relies overmuch on Poppy, Peter Nichols' Opium Wars panto musical of the 1980s, so he looks forward to the book.
Robins' tour started in Leadenhall Street, the site of East India House, from which the company was run from 1648 to 1858, when it was stripped of its licence to operate in India after the Mutiny. In a City without sentiment, the building - where Charles Lamb and John Stuart Mill had worked - was pulled down only three years later.
The site, now occupied by Lloyd's, bears no mark of its EIC history.
On its foundation in 1600, the company was based not far away, in the mansion of its first governor, Sir Thomas Smythe. The exact address in Philpot Lane isn't known but Robins says he hopefully imagines it as where the Spice Trader restaurant now stands.
In Fenchurch Street, the East India Arms pub stands at the end of what once were blocks of company warehouses. To the north, in Cutlers Gardens, lies the EIC's Bengal Warehouse.
These buildings bear plaques inspired by a poem - "nutmegs and nutmeg husks, ostrich feathers and elephant tusks, hundreds of tons of costly tea, packed in wool by the Cingalee" - written by John Masefield after he visited the warehouses in the early 20th century, by which time they were operated by the Port of London Authority.
Robins takes the long view: "The 18th century City was a place of physical exchange and the warehouse was its archetypal building. The same warehouses have now been reborn as offices, storing the commodities of the modern City, notably financial data." What ghosts of other great companies haunt the City's streets?
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