Chinese take over Royal Mint for new UK embassy facing Tower of London
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The Chinese are to open their biggest embassy at the old Royal Mint site on Tower Hill to rival their Washington DC complex.
The People’s Republic is moving its UK operation out of the West End to the prestigious site opposite the ancient Tower of London.
The complex has been purchased by the Chinese government to undergo extensive refurbishment before the diplomatic mission moves in with hundreds of staff in the next 18 months or two years.
“An embassy is the face of a country,” the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming said at Friday’s handing over ceremony.
“Our current premises in Portland Place has gone through many renovations to meet the growing needs of our diplomatic mission.
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“But the new era is calling for a new premises consistent with China’s current role and influence in the world.”
The new embassy, said to be China’s largest overseas diplomatic site in the world, has historic neighbours, the Tower of London going back 1,000 years to William the Conqueror and the iconic Tower Bridge built 124 years ago.
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“I am confident it will become a new landmark in London,” the ambassador added. “The River Thames not far from here has quietly flowed for centuries, giving birth to the British civilisation and adding splendour to the ‘crown jewels’ of world civilisations.
“The Thames today is bearing witness to the historic moment of the transfer of the new diplomatic premises of the Chinese Embassy in the UK. It is a new face of China in the new era, to write a new chapter for a China-UK golden era.”
The site which has been a royal mint since the Napoleonic Wars has been in the wars itself when homeless demonstrators at Christmas occupied the main Georgian front building in December 2015 after it had remained empty for years.
The minting operation had moved out to South Wales in stages between 1968 and 1975, during Britain’s switch to decimal currency in 1971, leaving the main Georgian building unused for decades.
Friday’s handover ceremony was attended by Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs and his chief executive Will Tuckley representing the local authority which had helped in the planning of the embassy move. It had also passed the original plans to refurbish the site in 2016.
The mayor said: “The Chinese embassy choosing to make their new home in the historic Royal Mint is a vote of confidence in Tower Hamlets. This shows we are an open and dynamic place to live and work.”
Tower Hill has a steep tradition of minting coins stretching back 1,132 years, to the Saxon reign of Alfred the Great in 886.
First historic landmark was four centuries later when the Mint was moved inside the safety of The Tower by Edward I in 1279, where it remained for the next 500 years, achieving a monopoly on making coins of the Realm by the 16th century.
First gold coins were minted in 1348. An instalment of French king John II’s ransom arrived in 1360 to be melted down and made into English coins.
Royal Mint Master William Hastings was killed in 1483 by Richard III in a row about the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
Henry VIII ordered debasement of his coins in 1544, reducing the purity to fund foreign wars and his extravagant lifestyle—but his daughter Elizabeth I ordered a re-coinage in 1560 back to their purity.
Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces took control of The Tower and the Royal Mint in the Civil War in 1642, but Charles I’s portrait continued being used. The Crown Jewels were melted down at the Mint during the Puritan republic in 1649 and made into coins.
All coins by 1663 were now made by machinery with screw-presses, making them more regular than the old hammered coins and harder to tamper with.
Spanish treasure captured at the Battle of Vigo Bay was brought to the Mint in 1703 and melted into coins.
The union of England and Scotland in 1707 closed the Edinburgh Mint and the Royal Mint now made all the coins in Britain.
The Mint began stamping George III’s portrait on foreign coins to make them legal tender to averted financial melt-down in 1797 when the Bank of England’s gold stocks ran perilously low.
A decision was made in 1804 that The Tower was too small for a modern Mint with increased military activity while we were at war with Napoleon. A new Mint was to be built at Tower Hill.
Production began moving to Tower Hill in 1810, completed by 1812. The Mint was rebuilt in the 1880s with new machinery which increased production.
The Royal Mint was damaged in several German air raids during the Second World War and was out of commission during the Blitz for three weeks. Little of the original Royal Mint remained after post-War rebuilding, apart from the 1809 centrepiece and the gatehouse.
The Tower Hill site finally reached capacity ahead of Britain’s decimalisation, with the need to strike hundreds of millions of new decimal coins as well as keeping pace with overseas customers. Production switched to South Wales.
The last gold sovereign was struck at Tower Hill in 1975. The site has remained empty since then, until the People’s Republic signed a deal with Britain in May, 2018, for the old Royal Mint to be its prestigious new embassy and a new UK-China ‘golden era’ to begin.