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Ipswich Icons: The farming history behind the town's Corn Exchange

The Market Cross on Ipswich Cornhill. Trading took place under here, with a deal being struck 'on the nail'  a flat-topped cast-iron post over which farmer and merchant shook hands at the agreed price. Picture: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service

The Market Cross on Ipswich Cornhill. Trading took place under here, with a deal being struck 'on the nail'  a flat-topped cast-iron post over which farmer and merchant shook hands at the agreed price. Picture: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service

Corn and complaints. John Norman, from the Ipswich Society, looks at the less than ideal conditions in which the market-makers worked to strike a deal in Ipswich.

What came later:  A busy day's trading at the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, in September, 1963. The foundation stone was laid in October, 1880What came later: A busy day's trading at the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, in September, 1963. The foundation stone was laid in October, 1880

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate that a handful of corn can be so sufficiently different from a sample grown on an adjacent farm that it commands a different price. But this is the basis of the corn exchange, a building that features in most East Anglian towns (although, today, not used for their original purpose).

Farmers would arrive in the town centre on “corn trading” days (usually held once a week, in Ipswich, on a Tuesday) with bags full of corn – representative samples of the farmers’ substantial stock harvested and transferred into a grain store.

The corn would be from one of the many varieties grown in Suffolk, each with a different primary purpose. Thus the farmers would offer their grain to different merchants, trading one off against the other to obtain the best price for their crop. The merchants, similarly, would negotiate with the many different farmers, trying to buy the best of the crop for the lowest price.

Initially, this trading took place under the shelter of the Market Cross (in Ipswich, the open-sided structure stood on the Cornhill) with a deal being struck “on the nail” – the nail being a flat-topped cast-iron post over which farmer and merchant shook hands at the agreed price.

Trading outside in the depths of winter was not always conducive to the best bargaining and in 1793 some merchants moved into the Georgian Rotunda. As the name suggests, the Rotunda was a circular building, designed by George Gooding and modelled on the Halle au Blé in Paris (the central fruit and veg market). The Rotunda was capped with a domed Ogee roof, held together, or so Gooding claimed, without nails.

Unfortunately it was also without ventilation and disliked by all. In 1810 it was condemned as a public nuisance, purchased by the corporation and demolished. It was replaced by a purpose-built Corn Exchange (1812), also designed by Gooding and equally disliked. This time there was too much ventilation.

It appears the new Corn Exchange was not a complete building as we would recognise one. It consisted of walls, each with a canopy on the internal face – thus creating what might be termed cloisters with an open-to-the-sky space in the centre. The windows were simply holes in the external walls, with iron bars for security.

The arrangement of an open court was disliked by the users, even the farmers with their reputation for working outside, so the corporation eventually (1849) conceded and refurbished the building.

It was perhaps more than redecoration, as some reports suggest the walls were taken down and new ones built on the old foundations. Whatever, the new building had a roof and was now useable for concerts, political rallies and other assemblies.

To give you an idea of the extent of the work, the 1812 Corn Exchange had cost £33,000; this 1849 refurbishment just £1,100. The architect was Henry Woolnough, of Great Colman Street. Woolnough had a reputation for designing for clients with a very limited budget. He designed the now-demolished St John’s Church (1856) in Cauldwell Hall Road. It was built on a very tight budget, so much so that the builder went bankrupt.

The improved Corn Exchange lasted 30 years, accommodating an increasing number of merchants and becoming ever more crowded. The building was never ideal and the merchants continued to complain: about the unsuitability of the building, about the overcrowding and about parking. Not cars but horse and trap which farmers left at local hostelries on the edge of the town centre: The Saracens Head, The Mulberry Tree, The Half Moon and Star and the Rose and Crown. All had large open yards for this purpose.

Eventually, the corporation relented and a new Corn Exchange was built behind the town hall.

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