Corn Street, Bristol, BS1 1JQ
Building started in 1741 and the Exchange opened in 1743
John Wood the Elder of Bath (this is his only work in Bristol)
Bath stone with a leaded roof.
Milled Lead on porticos and domes and the rest of the roof was tiled with Cornish slate.
Exchange building for commerce and trade
Open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm.
First Sunday of the month 11am to 5pm – Corn Street trading open.
Check website for further details.
The Exchange opened in 1743. This grand building told the world that Bristol in the 1740s was a major trading port, bustling with activity. Before it opened, traders struck deals in the open on streets around Corn Street and especially in the slight shelter provided by a nearby arcade (now demolished). The arcade contained four 17th century flat-topped bronze pillars on which deals were closed – the famous ‘Nails’ were traditionally linked with the saying ‘pay on the nail’, although this is apocryphal and it seems there are older precedents for the term. Wood moved these in front of his new building, where they remain.
His exchange was arranged around an open courtyard where 600 merchants could assemble. The Corn Street frontage was based on imposing buildings from the Italian Renaissance and was considered very fine in its day. It features Corinthian capitals with lavish stone carving (carver Thomas Paty worked on the project) in between that showcases goods from Britain and the world. The large clock has two minute hands – one for London and one for ‘Bristol time’, before the whole country kept to the same time. During WWI the Exchange became the distribution point for enormous quantities of margarine. In the 1960s it housed the Chinese R&B Jazz Club. Famous bands who played there included Pink Floyd, The Small Faces and The Birds. The central courtyard was later roofed over and is now a covered market.
Bristol’s traders dealt in international and national goods: Indian cloth; slave-produced goods from the Caribbean and North America such as sugar, tobacco, coffee and chocolate; butter, eggs and chickens from Wales; iron goods from central England. Their new exchange had various different areas. At the centre was the main courtyard. Its outer doorways have plaster decoration by Charles Boni featuring the world’s different continents – symbolizing Bristol’s worldwide trading links. The courtyard was covered over in 1870 and then again with a lower roof in 1949. There is also a columned entrance hall. This originally had a coffee shop (then a traditional place for doing business) on one side and a tavern on the other. These are now council offices.
The building also had side structures with two storeys of shops and offices (for example, insurance dealers for the merchants’ use). One of these became a Corn Exchange in the early 19th century and is now a café. The space at the back of the building towards St Nicholas Street was originally open, with butchers’ stalls. Further market halls and a glass arcade were added here in the 1800s. There were storage cellars beneath the back of the building and strongrooms above and below the main entrance.
The clock (1822) shows that Bristol is actually 10 minutes behind GMT. This made little difference to people until the rapid spread of the railways from the mid-1800s, so the Exchange clock has two minute hands. One shows the time in Bristol and the other the time in London.
Photography: ©Frances Gard