Monthly Archives: September 2022

Cuthbert Brodrick in Leeds 2

Leeds Corn Exchange

Cuthbert Brodrick’s design for the Leeds Corn Exchange (1860-2) responded to a brief to provide facilities for merchants to sell their corn both by sack and by sample, which required considerable floor space and an abundance of natural light.

By his design for Leeds Town Hall (1853-58) he had already proved his ability to provide pomp and circumstance in his public buildings.  In his Corn Exchange design he displayed virtuosity and an outstanding talent for engineering innovation and precision.

The site was awkward, lying between the White Cloth Hall and the Assembly Rooms.  Brodrick’s design is unusual, a heavily-rusticated ellipse with two semi-circular entrance porches and a shallow dome overall, but it’s not original.  It harks back to the circular Parisian Halle aux Blés (1763-67) which was given a dome in 1811, and which to some extent inspired the Prince Regent’s stables in Brighton (1803) and the London Coal Exchange (1846-49).

The elliptical, domed exterior is utterly different from any other building in Leeds, its heavy masonry emphasised by diamond rustication derived from the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara (1493-1503).

Within, the walls provide offices on two levels, with a central space top-lit by an oculus and a balcony at first-floor level.  The additional roof-light on the north-east side was added in 1915.  

The basement was designed to be accessible to carts to facilitate sack deliveries, but at first it was used as the headquarters of the borough fire brigade.

The dome with its complex geometry is an exceptional piece of engineering, necessary to provide an uninterrupted space for trading and indirect sunlight for merchants to judge the quality of grain accurately. The roof-ribs are riveted wrought iron, overlaid with timber and slate, springing from opposite sides of the ellipse.

Because of its excellent connections by waterways and railways, Leeds became an important centre for dealing in grain and flour, and in 1901 the Corn Exchange had 160 regular traders, including thirty from Hull and nine from Liverpool.  The area around the Exchange became crowded with warehouses and flour mills, and across the city there were larger roller mills and manufacturers of milling machinery.

Tuesday was the regular day for corn trading, and a leather market began in 1903.  The building was at various times used for farmers’ markets, and for dog, cat, mouse and bird shows.  In 1969 two hundred traders met weekly to do business on Tuesdays between 10.00am and 2.00pm.

If Colin Buchanan’s 1973 road-building proposals had been fully implemented the Corn Exchange would have been demolished.  In the same year the Leeds Civic Trust proposed converting it to a concert hall, but the tenants objected strongly and the idea was dropped.  Instead, the building was left to deteriorate in increasingly shabby surroundings for the following fifteen years.

Eventually, in 1988, Leeds City Council awarded a 999-year lease to Speciality Shops PLC with permission to convert the Corn Exchange to a high-end shopping centre, respecting the integrity of Cuthbert Brodrick’s design and continuing to accommodate the twenty-five remaining corn-traders.  It reopened to the public in 1990. 

The ground floor trading area was opened up so that the basement became integral to the domed space above, connected by staircases with bannisters that exactly reproduced the original railings.

A small number of corn traders continued to meet, using their original stalls, until around 1994.

The lease was transferred in 2005 to Zurich Assurance, which embarked on a £1.5 million refurbishment which required the eviction of the existing tenants for work to take place.  The Corn Exchange reopened in 2007, as “a boutique shopping centre for independent retailers”, now under the auspices of the property company Rushbond, which acquired the lease in 2017.

Cuthbert Brodrick in Leeds 1

Leeds Town Hall

One of the remarkable features of British architecture in the early Victorian period is the optimism with which sponsors allowed talented young men in their twenties to take on huge projects that have since stood the test of time.

The best-known example is Harvey Lonsdale Elmes (1814-1847), who was awarded the commission for Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, after winning not one but two successive architectural competitions at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-seven.

The Hull-based architect Cuthbert Brodrick (1821-1905) was propelled to fame after he won the competition to design Leeds Town Hall in 1852 when he was barely thirty.

Despite some opposition within the Leeds borough council, the drivers of the Town Hall project aimed to outclass two public halls, both called St George’s Hall, in other major towns:  Bradford’s (1849-53) was simply a concert hall;  Liverpool’s building (1841-54) linked assize courts with a magnificent concert hall.  The Leeds scheme was intended to provide a public hall and courts combined with police headquarters and municipal offices and a mayoral residence – at a cost less than housing these functions in smaller separate buildings.

Indeed, Brodrick was initially kept on a tight leash by a contractual condition that he would not be paid if the cost exceeded £39,000, except in unforeseen circumstances or unless the council required additional facilities – which they almost immediately did.

Once the council was committed to the project there were repeated additions to the specification, including a huge pipe organ and an unforeseen tower.  The eventual cost of the completed Town Hall reached £122,000, and it seems to have been considered money well spent.

Cuthbert Brodrick made no apologies about aiming for quality.  There were furious arguments between him and the contractor, Samuel Atack, who went bankrupt in 1857.  Brodrick was heard on one occasion to urge “never mind if the quantity should exceed the contract”.

When Queen Victoria opened the Town Hall in 1858 she and Prince Albert were greeted on Woodhouse Moor by 26,809 Sunday School pupils with 5,301 of their teachers (controlled by signalmen brandishing boards), four companies of the 22nd Regiment of Foot and the 18th Hussars commanded by the Assistant Adjutant-General and 21,150 members of local Friendly Societies each wearing white gloves and a laurel-leaf buttonhole. 

Mr Trant, a chemist of Park Lane, went so far as to perfume the air outside his shop.

Prince Albert accompanied Brodrick to the top of the partly-completed tower and “entered freely into conversation on the subject of the building”:  “When I first saw the building, Mr Brodrick, I said to the Queen, ‘Magnificent! magnificent! beautiful proportions!’”

Leeds has never looked back.

Neither did Brodrick.  He seems only to have built big and almost entirely within Yorkshire.  He gave Leeds the Corn Exchange (1860-62) and the Leeds Institute of Science, Art & Literature (now the Civic Theatre, 1865-68).  In Scarborough he built the Grand Hotel (1863-67) which dominates the South Bay, and in Ilkley he designed the Wells Hydro (1854-56).

Yet he failed to win competitions or secure commissions for Preston Town Hall, the Queen’s Hotel, Leeds, the Liverpool Exchange, the remodelling of the National Gallery in London, the Manchester Royal Exchange, Manchester Town Hall and Bolton Town Hall. 

Nevertheless, he seems to have made enough to retire in his late forties.  He gave up architectural practice in 1869, and lived in Paris and later Jersey until his death, aged 83, in 1905.

Swanwick Hall

Swanwick Hall, Derbyshire

I had the life-changing good fortune to pass my eleven-plus exam, which was my free ticket to a grammar-school and university education.

I attended Swanwick Hall Grammar School, Derbyshire, from 1959 to 1966 – a pivotal period in the history of the school.

When I arrived it had recently lost its headmaster, Herbert Scarborough, who resigned during a public controversy over the County Council’s plan to turn the school into a comprehensive – a transition that eventually began some years after I left.

I enjoyed history consistently through school (though I read English at university), and in the sixth form my circle of friends took an interest in the history of the building – a brick-built Georgian villa with Victorian extensions – and the family that lived there.

We were actually in search of the Grey Lady who glides – as the big kids always told the little kids (and do to this day) – down the main staircase at dead of night.

In the absence of any kind of digital technology, we pieced together what information we could from local churchyards, books in the local branch library and then visits to the Local History Library in Derby.

In Derby Art Gallery we found Joseph Wright’s portrait The Wood Children (1789), which had hung in the Hall, and eventually found a real live member of the Wood family, who had been a girl when the house was sold to become the School in 1920.  She put us in contact with another family member who had other portraits, none of them attributed to Wright.

Decades later, we discovered from the writings of the Derby historian Maxwell Craven that the Hall was designed by a prolific local architect, Joseph Pickford (c1734-1782), for Hugh Wood (1736-1814).

The family had owned coal-bearing land locally for centuries, and their social status rose gradually from yeomen to gentry.

At the end of the eighteenth century Hugh Wood’s older brother, Rev John Wood, was chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire, which helped Hugh’s eldest son, another Rev John, to two livings, Kingsley in Staffordshire and Pentrich in Derbyshire, a mile or so away from Swanwick.  It can’t be accidental that the Bachelor Duke appointed Rev John Wood to be Vicar of Pentrich in 1818, the year after the abortive Pentrich Rising.

One of the younger Rev John’s sons, Edward, was a lieutenant in the army of the East India Company and was killed at the Battle of Miani in 1843.  His memorial is in the chancel of Pentrich Church.

His youngest brother, William, emigrated to Canada, settling at Nanticoke on the shores of Lake Erie.  Members of subsequent generations of the family went to join their Canadian cousins.

Terry Thacker and I wrote up our researches which the School published as The Story of Swanwick Hall (1972).

We have a possible candidate for the identity of the Grey Lady, but we see no reason to provoke a new generation of Swanwick Hall students to embark on extracurricular ghost hunts – as we did in the late 1960s.