Canada in London

If you look up when you walk around the City of London, you will notice a lot of weathervanes. This one is quite surprising, with a gold beaver on it. It is on one of London’s busiest streets, near Liverpool Street station. The office block which it decorates was built in 1926 for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The coat of arms of the Company is on the ceiling of the entrance porch. In the centre is the cross of St George with a beaver in each quarter. The animals supporting the shield are moose and sitting on the top is a fox. The motto Pro Pelle Cutem translates as “a pelt for a skin”.

1670 the Company was given a charter and a monopoly on all goods from the drainage basin of Hudson’s Bay, about 1/3 the size of present-day Canada. Their main trade was fur and trading forts were built around the bay where trappers could bring the pelts.  

Europeans and Native Canadian trappers went to trade at the forts. The latter had no use for money and traded furs for manufactured goods, especially metal cooking pots, tools and point blankets.* To establish a uniform pricing mechanism that would be meaningful to the Native Canadians the Hudson’s Bay Company invented a benchmark called a Made Beaver or MB. An MB was a good sized prime beaver pelt ready for use.  One Made Beaver could be exchanged for more manufactured goods than, for example, a fox pelt.

Beavers spend long hours in water. They have two layers of fur, a course outer layer and a soft undercoat that water cannot penetrate. Made Beaver is a pelt of the undercoat. The commonest way of producing it was to wear the pelt for a year, furry side inwards, and gradually the coarser fur would be worn away. The Made Beaver was then shipped to London to be auctioned. It was used for hat making.

*The word point probably comes from France where it means a stitch. The blankets had lines of black wool stitching at one corner to indicate the size. The more lines or points, the larger and therefore more valuable the blanket.

Witney, Oxfordshire had a long history of weaving. It was a cottage industry using labour from many villages around the town. In 1670’s a way of fixing dyes was discovered in Witney which meant that coloured stripes in the blankets would stay bright. These colours were prized by the Native Canadians. It was the reliability of the colour that meant Witney and not one of the many other weaving towns in England, became the first port of call for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Some were ordered as early as 1681 but the trade really got going from 1730s onwards. Native Canadians used them for making coats and cloaks.

1940s the Hudson’s Bay Company HQ moved from this building to the riverside near St Pauls cathedral where it had warehouses. Instead of trading posts now it owns shopping malls, department stores, finance companies and much more.

About the author: Gail Jones