History of the Corn Exchange

The Corn Exchange in 1960s Credit: Leeds Civic Trust

For centuries the farmers and merchants attending Leeds corn market had stood on Tuesdays in an area called Cross Parish near the Market Cross at the top of Briggate. In 1828 the town’s first purpose-built corn exchange was opened on the north side of the Headrow facing down Briggate. During the 1840s and 50s there was a great deal of investment in improving Leeds market facilities but the corn traders felt neglected - there had been no improvements for them since the building of the first corn exchange.

In 1859, after receiving repeated petitions, the Council decided to erect a new Corn Exchange to house both the sack market and the sale of grain by sample. The site - formerly occupied by surgeon George Bulmer’s house and consulting rooms at 3 Crown Street - was purchased. In 1860 an architectural competition was held, and won by Cuthbert Brodrick, the architect of the Town Hall. He took as his model the Halle au Blé in Paris (wheat, corn or grain hall) built in the 1760s and given a dome in the 1780s.

His design for the Leeds Corn Exchange appeared in the Builder magazine in 1861. The elliptical building was to be 190 ft long, 136 ft wide and 86 ft high from the basement storey. It is one of the finest examples of Victorian commercial architecture in the country - even its dramatic shape with the bold diamond-pointed rustication of its masonry hardly prepares the visitor for the scale and majesty of its interior. Around the walls are two tiers of arches in coloured and moulded brickwork, each giving access to a corn factor’s offices, the upper tier being served by a broad gallery with cast-iron railings. Above rises the great elliptical dome, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering. The large glazed panels were designed to provide the optimum quality of natural lighting on to the floor below, so that those trading at the small black desks could accurately judge the quality of the grain. Although the Council rejected the idea of adding a third storey, the exchange was large enough to accommodate 59 corn factors’ offices and an open area with space for 170 corn factors’ stands.

Building work began with the laying of the foundation stone on 7 May 1861, with processions, bands and a celebratory dinner. It was expected to open in 7 months; hence the misleading date on its frieze ’Erected 1862’. It actually opened for business on 28 July 1863, and was completed in February 1864. Because of this delay in completing the building, it appears that there was no formal opening ceremony. The final cost was £30,000 of which £12,000 was for the site.

The Corn Exchange Credit: Leeds Civic Trust

The hope was that this new facility would make Leeds one of the principal corn markets in the North of England. By 1872 161 traders had stands: 40 from Leeds, 15 Wakefield, 7 York, 24 Hull, 3 Liverpool, 2 Kelso, 4 Malton, and many from East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire etc, and 6 London Hop merchants. The business of the Corn Exchange flourished for the rest of the 19th century. The country’s imports of wheat, wheat-meal and flour (¼ of British consumption) jumped from 13m hundredweights in 1850 to 100m in 1900. Huge quantities came in from America and Canada through Liverpool and large amounts from Europe through Hull. Due to this trade and the excellent water and rail connections by 1901 Leeds had 160 traders in the Corn Exchange, including 30 from Hull, 9 from Liverpool, and others from Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle, London and Glasgow. The town had now become a grain trading centre of national importance. Related industries developed - the nearby north bank of the River Aire between Leeds Bridge and Crown Point Bridge became dominated by buildings related to grain - warehouse flour mills and provender mills. When Victorian Leeds truly became the city of a thousand trades, its factories included large roller flour mills, and manufacturers of modern flour milling and processing machinery. Besides its Tuesday use as a corn market, Brodrick’s Corn Exchange was also used for leather markets from 1903.

Inside the Corn Exchange in the 1930s Credit: Leeds Civic Trust

The Corn Exchange continued to trade well into the 1950s, but in the 1960s the number of traders declined dramatically, and by the 1980s few of the traders occupied the offices surrounding the trading floor. The future of the building was uncertain - Leeds Civic Trust produced an imaginative proposal to turn the building into a concert hall.

The Corn Exchange in the 1950s Credit: Leeds Civic Trust
The 1990s Credit: Leeds Civic Trust

This initiative came to nothing but in 1988 inspiration struck. Leeds City Council gave a 999 year lease on the building to the London firm, Speciality Shops, which converted the building into a splendid high quality shopping centre, restoring the building to the highest standards. A large opening was cut in the trading floor and new staircases now enabled shoppers to gain ready access both to the basement level below and to the balcony above where there were a wide variety of shops and restaurants. When it reopened in February 1990 the corn traders were allocated space to continue to trade there on Tuesdays and they did so in small numbers until around 1994 when corn trading ceased after a period of 131 years.

The Corn Exchange now Credit: Leeds Corn Exchange

In 2000 Arcadia made further transformations to provide a contemporary shopping environment in harmony with the buildings architectural beauty. Today the long lease of the Corn Exchange is held by Zurich Assurance Ltd and the building is managed by GBR Phoenix Beard and it trades successfully as a centre for specialist shops and food and drink outlets.

Inside the Corn Exchange Credit: Leeds Corn Exchange