Ipswich Icons: The history of the Corn Exchange

The Corn Exchange in the 1960s. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

The Corn Exchange in the 1960s. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

In his second article on the Corn Exchange, The Ipswich Society’s John Norman, takes a look at a series of new dawns, and sunsets, for the town and its traders.

A banner (fields of corn) surrounded the Corn Exchange during work in 2008. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

A banner (fields of corn) surrounded the Corn Exchange during work in 2008. Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Archant

For centuries, trading in corn had been carried out on the Cornhill, in the open and under the shelter provided by the Market Cross.

Various buildings were built, demolished and rebuilt, but none met the exacting requirements of the corn merchants.

• The farming history behind the town’s Corn Exchange.

By the late 1870s the complaints were loud and clear, and to ensure the corn merchants didn’t leave town to use better facilities in Bury St Edmunds, Colchester or Sudbury, the council relented and held a competition to design a new building. It attracted 15 entries and was won by local architect Brightwen Binyon.

Brightwen was born in Manchester in 1846, the son of a Quaker sugar refiner and tea dealer. (His mother’s maiden name was Brightwen.)

He married Rachael in 1879 and they had four children, one of whom was the mother of (Sir) Bernard Feilden, who with David Mawson created the Norwich-based practice of Feilden & Mawson. F&M were architects for the conversion of a warehouse into Contship on Ipswich Waterfront. (Oh! and they worked on the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.)

Ipswich Corporation had built the new town hall (1868) and decided the new Corn Exchange would best be accommodated immediately adjacent.

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They purchased property opposite the Swan pub in Little King Street, buildings which incorporated both the Sickle public house on the corner and the King’s Head, opposite Barclays Bank.

The proposed new Corn Exchange was to be a separate building, detached from but very close to the town hall ? a gap that has given difficulty of access from one to the other ever since.

The foundations of the new Corn Exchange were dug in 1880 and the building opened on July 26, 1882.

The corn merchants were there for business every Tuesday and the building was used on a couple of other days of the week as the provisions market.

There are two key features of the building not seen today. The trading floor was on the same level as the floor in Waitrose, with a vast space above, up into the rafters ? the roof of the current Corn Exchange. Second, natural light flooded down from above: there were large skylights in the roof that have since been replaced with solid roof coverings.

In 1970 attempts were made to move the provisions market out of the Corn Exchange, with the proposed new location a failing shopping complex well away from the town centre.

Greyfriars had been built in 1965 to cater for an expected influx of population (London overspill). Before they arrived, Government policy changed.

Greyfriars never took off as a shopping centre and moving the market was a last-ditch attempt to breathe life into raw concrete.

Obviously, the market traders didn’t want to go. The public didn’t want to lose their market, but the corn merchants had gone: trading in corn was now done by telephone, by reps driving around the farms and by dealers with offices closer to the growing corn.

When the retail market stallholders were locked out of the Corn Exchange following their notice to quit, they occupied the Cornhill, setting up trestle tables to sell fruit and veg and winning the hearts of an already-sympathetic public.

Council workmen removed the produce, cleared away the tables and left the stallholders with no option but to shift.

It is interesting to note that not many did ? most moving elsewhere (other markets) or simply giving up altogether.

The market within the Greyfriars complex was never as successful as it had been in the Corn Exchange.

The conversion of the Corn Exchange to an entertainment complex happened following the removal of the retailers.

A floor was added mid-height, creating the low-ceilinged Robert Cross Hall (now Waitrose) and the Grand Hall in the still lofty space above. Removing the skylights enabled the building to be blacked out and artificial light used to highlight the new stage.

A balcony was added and the total capacity, when the Corn Exchange reopened in November, 1975, was almost 1,000 seated theatre-goers.

In 2011 Waitrose took occupation of the former Robert Cross Hall and opened a Little Waitrose supermarket, a welcomed facility in the town centre.

The film theatre operates in the basement and the Grand Hall is a music and dance venue.

Footnote: Brightwen Binyon was the architect of a number of late 19th century buildings in Ipswich, including Burlington Road Baptist Chapel (1875) and the Garrett Memorial Hall, Bolton Lane (1895). He was an unsuccessful entrant in design competitions for the Art School in High Street and the Post Office on the Cornhill.

Edwin Thomas Johns was an articled pupil who went on to partner William Eade (Eade & Johns), Martin Slater (Johns and Slater) then Johns, Slater & Haward (JS&H). This last-mentioned firm were the architects for the remodelling of the Corn Exchange (into an entertainment complex) in 1973/74. Brightwell Binyon died in 1905.