If you’ve ever seen them, you might think they’re just old decoration, but many buildings in London are adorned with the bust of an anonymous woman. They appear on old buildings, and very modern ones, they are all over London, but cluster in a few places. They can be found on homes, offices, warehouses.
These are the Mercers’ Maidens and they are an often overlooked “hidden in plain sight” aspect of the City of London’s history.
Quite who the Mercer Maiden is, is however unknown, but she has been a symbol for one of the City of London’s livery companies since at least 1425, and her bust appears on buildings owned by the livery company.
The Mercers’ Company is one of the oldest and richest of the City Livery companies, and managed the affairs of merchants in the City, especially for exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other luxurious fabrics (mercers).
Today, the Company exists primarily as a charitable institution handing out some £7 million a year earned mostly from its property portfolio.
The origin of the Mercers’ Maiden, the heraldic emblem of the Company, is not known. Unlike most of the City livery companies, the Mercers had no early grant of arms but the 1425 charter granted a common seal, of which a few early examples survive.
The fifteenth-century Wardens’ Accounts reveal that, even then, the Company required the device of the Maid’s Head to be displayed on its property.
There are clusters of ownership, such as a large chunk of Covent Garden, lots of land around Guildhall in the City of London, housing in East London and Greenwich, and most exalted of all, they jointly-own the Royal Exchange next to the Bank of England.
As of 2013, the property assets were valued at £570 million.
Today as you wander the streets of London, look up, and you might still spy a Mercers’ Maiden staring back at you.
The Covent Garden portfolio comprises six blocks of property on the north side of Long Acre. The most significant part of the Company’s holdings was left to the Company in the 16th Century by Lady Joan Bradbury.
As the Maiden isn’t explicitly designed, she varies in appearance, but the core aspects are always the same – a lady wearing a crown, often rather buxom and wearing the fashions of the era that the bust is carved. The majority are of stone and painted white, but that seems to be more due to a lot of buildings going up at around the same time, rather than any attempt to fix the design forever.
There’s a map of the Maidens on the Mercers’ website.