Corn and Grit: Notes from a talk at Bettakultcha VII

London has Christopher Wren, Barcelona Antonio Gaudi, and Leeds, well Leeds has Cuthbert Brodrick, the Victorian architect who left us just a handful of public buildings including the amazing, elipitical Corn Exchange.

So when the organisers of Bettakultcha, the most fun you’ll ever have with Microsoft Office, secured it as the venue for their latest event I didn’t take much persuading. I wanted to give people a little context to the building, why it came to be here, what went on in it, and what might happen there in the future.

Here’s the result, “Corn and Grit”. The video is on the Bettakultcha blog, or in text form below…

Only last month the French Agriculture Minister warned that rising food prices risked sparking riots in cities around the world. But it is hard for us to understand just how important corn, or wheat, was to people in the industrial cities of the 19th Century. At Peterloo in Manchester in 1819, troops massacred a crowd protesting against trade restrictions, the Corn Laws, which kept prices artificially high. When those Corn Laws were finally repealed they split the Tory Party and pushed half of them into coalition with the Liberals.

Leeds sits at the boundary between Yorkshire’s industrial west and agricultural east. In the old corn exchange at the top of Briggate the farmers and corn traders (or “factors”) would bargain and make deals. The outcome of these deals governed whether the poor of the town, crammed into yards just a short walk from the corn exchange, could feed themselves and their families.

By the start of the 1860s Leeds needed a bigger space for these deals to be done. For the design, like the corn, the city fathers looked east, to the Hull-born architect Cuthbert Brodrick. Brodrick was already well-known to Leeds. At the age of 29, he designed the Town Hall, the acme of municipal magnificance. He also left us the Mechanics’ Institute, now the City Museum, and the Oriental Baths, now sadly demolished.

The critic Jonathan Meades describes Brodrick as:

“the greatest French architect to be born and to work in the Département of Yorkshire.”

For the Leeds Corn Exchange, he certainly took his inspiration from Paris. Here’s the Halle au Blé in 1838.

Even today the Corn Exchange looks like an alien arrival, this Parisian form in the middle of Leeds, an agricultural incursion in an industrial city.

But it’s not wholly alien, because Brodrick was working in local stone, the millstone grit quarried from West Leeds. And millstone grit, like Brodrick, does not do subtle. Every external surface is decorated, including many agricultural motifs in keeping with the building’s purpose.

Now look up!

The inside is plainer but all the more striking for it. The space makes me want to fill it with jelly and lift off the lid.

And it’s an egalitarian space. The offices around the upper floor are carefully arranged so that all their doors have the same status. In an oval building, no one gets a corner office.

After its opening in 1864, the journal ‘The Architect’ found:

“No roof that it has ever been our fortune to see has impressed us more then this one, as a work of original genius and thorough practical utility, and the degree of dignity and spaciousness which it confers upon a very simple interior is hardly to be believed without being seen.”

The farmers and corn factors were less complimentary. Despite the amazing roof light they complained that it was too dark:

“We are assured, and we regret to have to state it, that the unanimous opinion of those present was, that, in order to judge of samples, those who frequent the market will find it necessary to go outside the building.”

The traders made their peace with the Corn Exchange. More glass was added to the roof. On this board we can see the names of the companies that frequented the Corn Exchange, East and North Yorkshire firms prominent among them.

And here they are at work on market day. Samples would be places on the tables for inspection, prices haggled over, and deals done.

In preparing this talk, Louise, the Corn Exchange manager, dug out a list of Bye-laws for me. I love a ruleset like this because we can learn so much about what went on here from all the things that were not allowed.

Inside, only authorised persons could engage in shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Outside we might find others hawking, loitering, smoking and with dogs.

But rules are there to be bent. Here’s a dog show inside the Corn Exchange, because the building was always used for a multitude of things. I talked to several people who grew up in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s who remember coming here for model railway shows and the like.

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” – Jane Jacobs

Which brings us to the Corn Exchange today. It’s still a place for shewing, exhibiting, soliciting and touting. Tonight, Bettakultcha turns it into a place for exchanging stories.

Some more reading:

3 thoughts on “Corn and Grit: Notes from a talk at Bettakultcha VII

  1. Thanks, Matt, for collating such a wealth of info, and compressing it so brilliantly. I’m currently researching a musical project to be staged at the Corn Exchange this summer. Finding your blog has been a huge help!

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