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The Baltic Exchange & The Russia Company 



The Baltic Exchange - this is a link to the Baltic Exchange’s own site and in particular its version of its history - it is the most comprehensive version online.  Wikipedia, for once, is a real disappointment.

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John Mollett
Richard Smith Jnr.
Christian Sundius
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The Baltic Exchange

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In the seventeenth century a huge number of coffee houses sprang up in London.  They quickly became more than just somewhere to meet your friends for a cup of coffee.  They became the places where groups with a specific interest, whether literary, intellectual, scientific, political or commercial, met.  Dr Johnson and the originators of The Spectator, were amongst the most famous of these.  


The commercial coffee houses centred around the money district of London - Threadneedle Street and the surrounds (the area shown on the map above).  In Threadneedle Street was housed the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange and Lloyds Coffee House, which later became Lloyds of London.  Both Adams Court and Austin Friars Passage where our ancestors, John Mollett, Christian Sundius and the two Richard Smiths worked, were in this area, as was the Baltic Coffee House.  


The Baltic Coffee House, became the primary meeting place for all of those interested in trade with the Baltic regions.  It had begun as The Virginia and Maryland Coffee House, (which seems odd, considering that Virginia and Maryland are on the opposite side of the Atlantic).

A Punch cartoon featuring the Baltic Exchange, though quite what it is saying I don’t know.  Doesn’t look good though with a devil flying overhead.

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A typical eighteenth century London coffee house

“In 1744 the owners of a coffee house in Threadneedle Street in London changed its name from the Virginia and Maryland to Virginia and Baltick to reflect the trade of the regulars who met there to make arrangements and draw up agreements for the transportation of goods by sailing ship ... [Traders with goods to  send  to the Baltic  met captains looking for cargoes for the return journey]  The coffee house of 1744 was an open house with no members, but the common interest was in the trade of tallows, oils, flax, hemp and seeds from the Baltic states.  As Europe’s population grew rapidly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and London became the commercial heart of the expanding British Empire, so began the growth of the shipping industry centred around the Virginia and Baltick.


[By 1810 the  coffee house  had become too crowded and the dealers moved to the nearby Antwerp Tavern (also known as the Baltic Coffee House).]  The informal arrangements of the original coffee house were not robust enough to deal with the wild speculations in commodities so prevalent at the time and in 1823 a committee was formed with the power to formulate rules and regulations for the admission of members. 23 merchants, tallow chandlers, soap makers and brokers closed ranks.  The committee decided that one room - the Subscription Room - would be open only to those willing to pay for the privilege and the number of subscribers limited to three hundred. The framework had been laid for what would one day become the Baltic Exchange, the most important market for shipping in the world.


The Subscription Room opened on 1 May 1823 and within the first few weeks subscribers had introduced visitors from Paris, Stockholm, St Petersburg, Marseilles, Amsterdam, the Canaries, Sydney, Antwerp, Gibraltar, Madrid, Hamburg, Madeira and Jamaica. The Baltic was off to a good international start.”

The rules and regulations that were drawn up in 1823 are as follows: (taken from the Exchange’s own website)

“Rules and regulations of the Baltic house agreed to at a General Meeting of the Subscribers held on Tuesday 22 April 1823, AH Thompson, Esqr., in the Chair.

First  - That the name of the establishment to be the Baltic Coffee House

Second - That the number of subscribers do not exceed three hundred (reckoning firms as single subscribers) without the consent of a general meeting and further that the number of subscriptions from the Stock Exchange do not exceed six.

Third - That new subscribers are to be admitted only on the recommendation of six subscribers, which recommendation is to be approved by the Committee.

Fourth - That the subscription be as follows, viz.: Four guineas per annum for an individual, six guineas for firms consisting of two persons, eight guineas for firms consisting of more than two persons (partners not resident in London or the neighbourhood not to be counted as belonging to firms), and that the allowance for the waiter shall be one guinea per annum for individuals and in the same proportion for firms, viz., one guinea and a half per annum for firms of two persons, two guineas per annum for firms of more than two persons, and that no additional renumeration be given to the waiters in the room, and that there be at least four waiters provided.

Fifth - That the room be opened on the first day of May, 1823, and that the subscriptions be paid for one year in advance - within one month of that time.

Sixth - That a dining and a sale room be provided for the accommodation of the subscribers and the public, and that wine, tea, coffee, chocolate and sandwiches be furnished in the coffee room.

Seventh - That gentlemen out of business, and resident more than 20 miles from London, or in business and resident more than 50 miles from London, be admitted on introduction by a member of the Committee who shall write the name of the visitor and his place of abode in a book to be kept for that purpose and who must re-insert the name every week.

Eighth - That there be only one door for admission.

Ninth - That the Committee shall call a general meeting of the subscribers on a requisition being presented to them stating the object for which the meeting is to be called, and signed by at least 50 subscribers, but the Committee to have at all times the power of calling general meetings.

Tenth - That a meeting of the Committee be held on the first and third Tuesday in every month at two o’clock precisely, and that five members of the Committee form a quorum.

Eleventh - That a book is to be kept by the Secretary in which is to be entered the rules and regulations of the establishment - together with the names of the Committee and subscribers.”


Interesting that one of the regulations should be that there be only one door to the premises - very definitely a closed shop situation.  I also liked that the the coffee room should provide “wine, tea, coffee, chocolate and sandwiches” to its members and that some of the money from subscriptions went to 'waiters'.  


Anyway thus began the Baltic Exchange, and no doubt an enormous amount of wheeling and dealing went on, some of it, no doubt, flying a bit close to the wind as all brokerage seems to do.  But it was extremely successful and still flourishes today as a premier participant in the international shipping trade - in the words of one internet site:  “the international trade of matching merchant cargoes with available space on freight ships.”

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In 1857 it moved to South Sea House, once home to the South Sea Company,  at the end of  Threadneedle Street, at a time when John Mollett was Chairman of the Exchange and in 1903, grand premises were constructed in St. Mary Axe the frontage of which is shown at the top of the page.  It featured a magnificent dome and some stained glass windows (shown below), but the building was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1992.  The Exchange was unable to finance restoring it on the same site (now the site of the iconic Gherkin building), and has moved into new premises in the same street.  The stained glass windows, shown below and at right, were fairly intact and have been restored and are now on display in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.  The government of Estonia bought the bits of the building, planning to rebuild it in Tallinin, but their recent financial troubles have meant that this project is now on hold.


The Russia Company - Wikipedia’s version

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The Russia (or Muscovy) Company

The Tsar's Treasury

I’m not sure of the connections between the Baltic Exchange and the Russia Company, but they must have been connected in some way.  I did read somewhere that in the 19th century there were only about 30 Russia Merchants in London, so I would have thought that they would have been connected with both organisations in some way.  I think it was an organisation like the East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company, both of which welded immense power over the trade between their home countries and the East.


The Russia Company is a much older organisation than the Baltic Exchange, and unlike the Baltic Exchange does not exist today in the same form.  It still operates in Russia, but is apparently mostly a charitable institution nowadays.  It began in 1553 as an inadvertent result of an expedition to discover the elusive North East Passage.  The passage, of course, was not discovered and two of the three ships were lost, but the third made land in Russia and crew was taken to Moscow where the Tsar agreed to trade directly with England.


“The Russia Company was formally incorporated by royal charter on 26th February 1555 as the ‘marchants adventurers of England, for the discovery of lands, territories, iles, dominions, and seigniories unknowen, and not before that late adventure or enterprise by sea or navigation, commonly frequented’. The Company quickly became known as the Russia Company, or Muscovy Company, or Company of Merchants Trading with Russia. The charter gave the Company a legal and corporate basis for its activities, and a monopoly. Ivan IV also granted privileges to the Company before the end of 1555, although their precise nature is disputed. However in practice the Company’s monopoly of English trade with Russia included the rights to trade without paying customs duties or tolls, and to trade in the interior. The Company’s principal imports from Russia were furs, tallow, wax, timber, flax, tar and hemp. Its principal export to Russia was English cloth.”


Agents or ‘factors’ were appointed in London and based in Russia - initially in Moscow, then Archangel followed by St. Petersburg.  Although it lost its trading monopoly in 1698 the Company was at its height in the nineteenth century when there were agents in many different cities.  

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The Russia Company seal

A Russia Company share certificate

John Mollett
Richard Smith Snr.
Christian Sundius
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