Object 21: Hanging sign, 1660s

Hanging sign from Child & Co's London premises, 1660s

Hanging sign from Child & Co's London premises, 1660s

This hanging sign dates from the mid-17th century, although the building it belongs to has been associated with the 'marygold', or marigold, for much longer. It lies at the western end of London's Fleet Street, where RBS constituent Child & Co trades, 'at the sign of the marygold'. 

During the 1670s all of London's earliest banks were identified by such signs, and when new firms such as Coutts and Drummonds were founded they followed the same practice. Their signs made them easy to locate and identify in a city where there were no street maps, most roads lacked signage and buildings themselves were seldom numbered. In fact, illiteracy was so widespread that many people would not have been able to read written signs, even if they did exist.

The oldest trading name in British banking

The business that became Child & Co dates back to the 1580s, making it the oldest still-trading name in British banking, but the marygold sign is even older. It goes back to the mid-1500s, when the building at the end of Fleet Street was home to the draper's shop of Henry Leigh. It is not known why he chose a marigold for his trading sign. Often, the symbols were a reference to the type of business operated inside, or a pun on the owner's name. Perhaps the appeal of the marigold was simply its clear, elegant, recognisable shape. By medieval tradition the marigold was believed to turn its face to worship the sun, as it does in this sign, so it may also have had devotional religious associations.

Whatever the reasons, the sign stuck. By 1661 the premises on Fleet Street had become home to the goldsmith's business of Robert Blanchard, and it is from his time that the surviving sign is thought to date. It probably replaced an earlier one which had been lost or destroyed. Over the next generation, Blanchard's business gradually evolved from a goldsmith's into a bank, eventually becoming known as Child & Co. The bank remained in the same location - as it does to this day - and maintained its association with the marygold symbol.

In more recent times, the idea of an easily recognisable symbol representing a business has made a major comeback, although these days we call these symbols 'logos' and 'brands'. Thanks to its heritage, Child & Co had a head start in this regard, and now uses the marigold as its emblem on cheques, letters and brochures. Meanwhile the 17th century marygold sign is now considered too precious to hang outside the building, and is on display inside Child & Co's banking hall on Fleet Street.