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Royal Exchange, Manchester
St Ann's Square, Manchester, UK
associated engineer
Not known
date  1869 - 1874
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  SJ837984
The former Royal Exchange in Manchester is now the home of the Royal Exchange Theatre and a major 20th century shopping centre. It was the city’s third exchange, constructed to accommodate the expanding business of commodities trading, particularly cotton and textiles. It occupies a near-square block enclosed by what were the four main streets of central Manchester at the time.
The present building is the third trading exchange built in Manchester. The first opened in 1729, at the intersection of St Mary’s Gate and Market Street. It was funded by the city’s lord of the manor of Manchester, Sir Oswald Moseley (1674-1751, 1st baronet of Rolleston), in Palladian style with Ionic columns and pilasters, an open arcade at ground level and an assembly room above. However, it wasn't popular with merchants. It was out of use by 1750 and demolished in 1792.
A second exchange, designed by Thomas Harrison (c1744-1829), was built at the junction of Market Street and Exchange Street. The foundation stone was laid on 21st July 1806, and the building opened in 1809. Of Runcorn stone and comprising two storeys above a basement, it featured a semicircular front (north) façade with fluted Doric pilasters. This building was extended around 1836-8, and again in 1847-9 by Alexander William Mills (1814-1905). In 1851, the exchange was granted its royal prefix following a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Trade at the Royal Exchange rapidly outgrew the space available, and in 1866 a competition for the design of a replacement attracted 53 entrants. The winner was Mills Murgatroyd & Co, led by Mills and James Murgatroyd (1830-94). Their Italianate scheme was built on the combined site of the second exchange and Newall's Buildings, which were demolished. It was constructed between 1869 and 1874, though part of it opened on 2nd October 1871.
The building is of sandstone with four storeys above a rusticated ground level. The upper storey exterior scheme includes engaged Corinthian columns and Corinthian pilasters, and an indented cornice below the attic storey. The main windows (second floor) are arched. On its completion, the trading hall was claimed to be the largest commercial room anywhere.
One of the building's distinctive features was a Corinthian portico (now gone) with entablature and pediment, at the main entrance on Cross Street. The columns were 10.7m high. The Baroque clock tower (now altered) on the west corner of the building, at the junction of St Mary's Gate and Exchange Street, is 55m high, with a domed lantern at the top.
Cotton trading in Manchester was burgeoning — the city was known as Cottonopolis — and by the early 20th century, the Royal Exchange was considered too small. Between 1914 and 1921, the building was enlarged and modified in Portland stone to the design of Bradshaw Gass & Hope. It was re-opened on 8th October 1921 by King George V accompanied by Queen Mary.
The portico was dismantled to allow further expansion. Apparently Murgatroyd was invited to oversee its demolition. The building’s footprint was extended southwards and out to the pavement line, filling the almost rectangular plot bounded by Market Street, Cross Street, Old Bank Street, St Ann’s Square and Exchange Street.
The trading hall was doubled in size to accommodate some 11,000 members, becoming the largest in England. Its slate roof its supported by brick columns clad in red marble, resting on metal bases. Natural daylighting is provided by three domes of blue glass.
In December 1940, a wartime bomb hit the exchange resulting in serious damage and destroying part of the clock tower. The enormous main hall was reconstructed with a smaller trading area. The top stages of the tower were rebuilt to a simpler design.
By this time, the UK textile industry was declining as it faced competition in the form of cheaper imported goods. On 31st December 1968, trading ceased and the exchange closed. Empty and under the threat of demolition, the building was taken over in 1973 to house a temporary theatre. In October 1974, the Royal Exchange building was Grade II listed.
Work to install a permanent auditorium in the middle of the trading hall was completed in 1976. The Royal Exchange Theatre was the brainchild of Levitt, Bernstein Associates with the structural expertise of Max Fordham & Partners and Ove Arup & Partners. It is Britain’s largest theatre in the round, and won an RIBA award in 1977.
The polygonal auditorium is suspended from four welded tubular steel trusses set in a square formation, each spanning 29.9m. They rest on four massive bases that match the scale of the room's columns bases. Secondary steel trusses make up the structural frame of the auditorium. The style is High Tech, not unlike a lunar module, with exposed mechanical and theatrical services. The auditorium weighs 150 tonnes, presumably when empty. The central section rests on sliding pads at floor level.
Inside, tiered seating ranges round the seven sides of the auditorium, an arrangement that means audience members are not directly facing one another. Every person is seated within 10m of the stage. The dressing rooms, front of house areas and cafe are located elsewhere in the hall.
On 15th June 1996, the IRA detonated a truck bomb on Corporation Street, less than 50m from the exchange, causing much damage but fortunately no loss of life. The central dome moved in the blast, though the main structure was unscathed.
Fabric repairs, and refurbishment works to the theatre, were carried out costing around £32m. On 30th November 1998, Prince Edward re-opened the refitted building. Improvements included the creation of a new entrance with a glass lift up to a glass walkway, the reglazing of the domes, upgrading the theatre facilities, the rebuilding of the auditorium's frame to enable the roof of the pod to be raised, and the installation of a separate 120 seat studio theatre space.
Architect: Mills Murgatroyd & Co
Architect (1914-21): Bradshaw Gass & Hope
Architect (theatre): Levitt, Bernstein Associates
Architect (1998): Holford Associates
Structural engineer (theatre): Max Fordham & Partners
Structural engineer (theatre): Ove Arup & Partners
Structural engineer (1998): The Broadhurst Partnership
Contractor: Parker & Son
Research: ECPK
"Victorian Manchester through Time" by Steven Dickens, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, 2015
"Manchester then and now" by Jonathan Scofield, Batsford, London, 2009
"Manchester" by Clare Hartwell, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Yale University Press, London, 2002
"Manchester. An Architectural History" by John J. Parkinson-Bailey, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000

Royal Exchange, Manchester