Press Article - How Sudbury came close to losing one of its finest buildings | by Anne Grimshaw

Happy 180th Birthday, Corn Exchange!

Anne Grimshaw

You all know that the library on Market Hill was the town’s corn exchange, don’t you? It says so on the pediment on the roof.  And, being observant people and regular library users, you all know the year the building was erected, don’t you? Don’t you? There is a plaque inside the library high above the front door that tells you – it was 1841 making this year, 2021, its 180th birthday!  And you all know who the architect was, don’t you? The plaque tells you! It was Henry Edward Kendall, a highly respected architect of the period.

But what exactly was a corn exchange?  It was a building where farmers and merchants traded cereal grains. Each merchant rented a desk with his name board at which to do business with farmers who brought in samples of their grain. As Sudbury was in an agricultural area specialising in cereals a corn exchange was deemed necessary. But how to go about building one?

A company was formed called the Sudbury Market House Company, consisting of shareholders who authorised solicitor Edmund Stedman to purchase a site at the bottom of Market Hill and bought shares at £25 per share to enable him to do this.

Then the process of tendering began. One tender was from Thomas Ginn, builder of Town Hall in 1828 giving itemised costings amounting to £2,050/15/- but this time he was not successful. Eventually, the building contract was awarded to Stephen Webb of Long Melford and his costing of £1,620.

But, in August 1841 work had scarcely begun on the new corn exchange when the Reverend Henry Watts Wilkinson, Curate of St Peter’s and St Gregory’s in Sudbury, who lived at the next-door premises complained that his property had been damaged and demanded compensation from the Market House Company. Reluctantly, they paid him £40.00.

The crowning glory of the corn exchange are the sculptures on the roof: wheatsheaves and resting reapers.  The reapers are sitting on a swing plough cut in half vertically so the far handle is not visible. (A real one like this can be seen at Ashley Cooper’s farm museum at Gestingthorpe.)

To go back to the time just after the reapers and the wheatsheaves had been put on the roof, the year the corn exchange opened for business – 1842 – indicated a build time of just fourteen months! Its opening was celebrated by a dinner at the Rose and Crown as the account books show… “…for two copies of an advertisement costing 3/6d for a forthcoming dinner – and …for the town crier to announce the event – 1/- .”

The new corn exchange was an object of civic pride and the dinner was reported in The Essex Standard 21 October 1842.  And, of course, the architect, H.E. Kendall submitted various bills including his travelling expenses by stagecoach to and from his office in London, to Sudbury – cost £1 6s 6d (£1.32p) each way.

As well as architects’ designs for the building that had been submitted, there were also designs for the ‘stands’ inside the building that corn merchants hired through a formal agreement. Each merchant had his name on the front of the stand on a painted wooden plaque. Several of these can still be seen in the Library’s meeting room – if you haven’t seen them go and have a look.

With the building complete and the stands in place, the interior of the corn exchange was ready for business. In 1858 the corn exchange also opened its doors to a poultry, fruit and vegetable market. It was also was used for other purposes such as a concert organised by the Stour Boat Club in 1887. 

Exactly 100 years after the corn exchange opened and, having been pronounced quite sound, it had another role: its basement acted as a public air raid shelter during the Second World War.  However, 20 years on, in the mid 1960s, the corn exchange looked decidedly worse for wear. Due to changes in the trading of grains and cereals, corn exchanges had largely lost their raison d’etre and after 122 years the building’s days as a corn exchange were numbered.

The owners of the Sudbury Corn Exchange Company Ltd mainly local farmers, decided to sell it, and Tesco was the first in line as a potential buyer. Tesco insisted on total demolition. In March 1964 consent for demolition was given but subject to preservation of the façade. The owners appealed, hence a Public Enquiry was held at Sudbury Borough Council Offices at Belle Vue House. No one was prepared to buy the building and preserve the façade which was very dilapidated. The owners had a strong case.

What was to become of it? Would it meet the same fate as so many others in Britain – demolition? Not if certain citizens of Sudbury had their way and in 1964 the Battle for the Corn Exchange began.

In the 1960s it was fashionable to denigrate Victorian art and architecture. It was a time when Victorian and Edwardian buildings were destroyed in a frenzy of official vandalism. In place of these monuments to Victorian civic pride and self-confidence were erected buildings that were inferior both in design and materials, banal, mediocre and meritless. This was happening all over Britain, not just Sudbury.  Items in the local newspapers admirably demonstrated the then current thinking of those who wished to sweep away vestiges of the town’s Victorian past.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. Amongst them were Andrew Phillips (now Lord Phillips), Betty Bone and Edith Freeman (both deceased) whose frequent letters and articles in the local newspapers throughout 1964 rallied the citizens of Sudbury to the defence of the corn exchange.  So what to do? The newly formed Corn Exchange Preservation Association held its inaugural meeting in September 1964.

560 people signed a petition against the corn exchange’s demolition.

42 people agreed to give evidence at the Public Enquiry

23 architects and artists wrote letters of support to the Inspector.

Architect Marshall Sisson told the Enquiry: “The Exchange is the one utterly irreplaceable building on the Hill ... it is an individual and original design … clever and imaginative … its lively baroque composition and bold scale … establish its status as a public building… and its loss would be irreparable. A good, robust, jolly building.” …and it is, isn’t it?  Another architect, Raymond Erith said: “It is the best corn exchange I know. It is Kendall’s masterpiece.”

The Victorian Society also leapt to its defence as did poet and passionate defender of Victorian architecture, John Betjeman, who, although unable to attend the Enquiry, wrote a heartfelt letter emphasising the importance of the corn exchange for Market Hill as a whole, putting it on a par with St Peter’s church in placement and focus.  It was newly qualified solicitor, Andrew Phillips, who had raised the flag of resistance and led the defenders of the corn exchange at the Public Enquiry at Belle Vue House.

Belle Vue House was packed; the mood intense. It was standing room only. At one point the Inspector enquired whether there were any more witnesses in favour of retaining the building.  “Thirty, sir,” said Andrew Phillips.  The inspector was visibly pained, “I think I have got the message,” he said.

But to what use could the building be put? Shopping mall? Multi-use community space? Hotel? Indoor market? Aviary? Public swimming baths?  The best suggestion of all was a library, a suggestion strongly endorsed by James Gorst, the then County Planner of West Suffolk County Council which purchased the building. And, under the auspices of the County Architect, Jack Digby, the conversion from Corn Exchange to library began. This included work on the roof, in particular, the sculpture of wheatsheaves and reapers.

The former corn exchange opened its doors to the public as the town’s library on 24 September 1968.  The conversion from corn exchange to library was a shining example of a fine old building being put to new use. It was written about in architectural journals and the like and even illustrated the cover of a government publication.  It received a national Civic Trust Award in 1971 and the plaque can be seen above the entrance.   The conversion imaginatively retained the interior with the staircases and new galleries – a ‘floating’ mezzanine – carefully inserted. The work was carried out by George Grimwood & Sons Ltd of Sudbury. The contractors received a Craftsmanship Award from the Suffolk Association of Architects in recognition of their high standard of workmanship in this building.

In 2010 the library was beautifully refurbished using a two-tone colour scheme suggested by architect Peter Bryant rather than simply plain white as had been used in the past.

To celebrate Civic Week in 2011, the Sudbury Society organised the presentation of its Alan Phillips Award to Suffolk County Council (Client), Corporate Property, Suffolk County Council (Design Team) and SEH French Ltd of Ipswich (Contractor) who did the work.

The Alan Phillips Award, named after Andrew Phillips’ father, was instigated by the Sudbury Society in 2003 to encourage and reward high standards of architecture and design which make a distinctive contribution to the town.  Which brings us full circle. That we have the old corn exchange here today is thanks to those who could see that in destroying the corn exchange a significant part of the town’s economic and social history would have been lost. They fought so that future generations and new citizens of Sudbury can see for themselves centuries of the town’s history embodied in one sweep across Market Hill: medieval timbered buildings, those of the turbulent seventeenth century, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian, each settled comfortably amongst its neighbours.

A tide in the affairs of the town had been turned. From out of all this the Sudbury Society was born… and a new system of protecting buildings of architectural or special interest was subsequently introduced and most of the town’s historic buildings were listed in 1971, the corn exchange being listed Grade II.

It is clear that, had the owners of Sudbury’s corn exchange been given consent in 1964 for its demolition, Market Hill would look very different today. Imagine a blue and red neon sign where the reapers on the roof are and supermarket trolleys inevitably scattered over Market Hill.

I will leave you with that dreadful prospect in your mind’s eye and concurrence with one of the tenets of the Sudbury Society that no building of significant or historical interest in Sudbury is ever again considered for demolition.

Many happy returns, Corn Exchange!

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