How a City Went Silent

On March 12 at 9 a.m., Sue Langley walked a mile across the City of London. 

The U.K. nonexecutive chair of global insurer Gallagher had come for a breakfast meeting near Smithfield, a thousand-year-old marketplace where poultry and meat trading begins early each morning. After the meeting, Langley strode to the Walbrook Building, opposite Cannon Street station, where Gallagher rents 70,000 square feet of office space on the first and seventh floors of the bubble-shaped building’s nine floors. The walk took her past Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange, and down Cheapside, a shop-lined street that takes its name from the Old English for “marketplace,” to the Bank of England interchange, where six roads meet at a junction in the shadow of the gray stone columns of the U.K.’s central bank. 

It was here, ducking down the alley that leads to her office, that she felt a chill.

The streets had emptied. Two-thirds of City workers were already gone.

“It dawned on me that this was real,” she says from her skylit office in the leafy suburban town of Berkhamsted, where she now works surrounded by five iPads, one for each of her five portfolio jobs. “You knew it theoretically, but physically — it just felt real.”

Langley is one of more than 500,000 people who commute to work in the City of London, with law firms roughly clustered in the west and insurance firms in the east. While big firms of more than 250 people employ 50 percent of the area’s working population, 99 percent of the 23,890 firms based in the district are small and medium enterprises, drawn to the area’s rich networks of financial services, lawyers, accountants, and prime office space, as well as its peculiar culture of shopping malls and fancy bars, ancient churches, and open space.

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