Heart of Bradford's historic wool trade brought to book

Nothing sheepish about this architectural revival

One of Bradford's historic buildings gained a face-lift and a new lease of life to create a startling regeneration success, writes Mark Cantrell

This article that first appeared in the The Yorkshire Journal (2000)

MOST of our heritage, the relics of past lives, is preserved like an Egyptian mummy. Dusty and hollow, its vitality has been gouged out along with its innards.

The Wool Exchange in Bradford is different. It stands as a monument to the past, but it also represents a prosperous future. In a sense, the Wool Exchange is Bradford. Over the generations it has followed the fortunes of its Pennine home.

Once it attracted traders from across the globe to haggle prices on the floor of its cathedral-like hall. As the industry declined, this fine building fell into disuse to stand as a brooding shadow of the past. Unnoticed. A tale of what was.

Cities never stand still if they are to grow and thrive. And Bradford certainly hasn't. In recent years it has pondered a future beyond the wool industry. Legacies of this past have been brought to life as galleries and offices and retail developments.

Our past has been brought to life in a way that transcends the here and now, if only we have the guts to continue along the road.

The Wool Exchange has become a centrepiece for this revival of old monuments. A £2.5 million refurbishment transformed the Grade 1 listed building, that today houses shops, a restaurant, a pub, cafe and commercial offices.

Pride of place went to Waterstones, the booksellers, which took up residence within the old trading hall. The ghost-like statue of free-trade advocate, Richard Cobden, towers over bookbuyers and packed shelves, where once wool-men fiercely haggled prices.

Situated on the granite columns and stone walls, the visitor can find plaques and testimonials to the building's past. The walls speak to us, even as we browse.

The centrepiece of the renovation was the glass facade that now fronts Waterstone's. This replaced a blank, connecting wall. At the time, it caused controversy. But architecturally it works, allowing the once gloomy interior to be illuminated. The heart is on display in all its splendour, whether you stand on the inside or the outside.

The Exchange now stands for what it is, and will be. Much as it did when it was first opened in 1867. In those days it symbolised the importance of Bradford and the wealth that flocked into the hands of its wool Barons.

It was built at a cost of £40,000 in the Venetian Gothic style. The foundation stone was laid by the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston in 1864. It can still be seen today in the basement restaurant.

Unusually, the Exchange was built of different coloured stone, rather than the usual honey-hued Yorkshire gritstone that forms most of the city's Victorian architecture.

In 1877, the statue of Richard Cobden was erected on the main trading floor.

The ground level exterior is decorated with statues and carved heads of the luminaries of free trade and discovery: Cobden, Salt, Stephenson, Watt, Arkwright, Jaquard, Gladstone, Palmerston. On the other side are: Raleigh, Drake, Columbus, Cook and Anson.

These are the men who "discovered" the world, laid the foundations of an industrial society and otherwise opened up the world for global trade, thereby allowing the kind of wealth and international links once enjoyed by the city, in those days nicknamed "Worstedopolis".

And yet it is the building that is noticed and admired. The "Founding Fathers" of world trade, if they are noticed at all, are anonymous. Could that be some kind of poetic justice?

The new frontage may have been a cause of controversy. But the Exchange was born in controversy when the contract for its construction was awarded to the firm of Lockwood & Mawson.

Lockwood was a talented architect. He was also a close friend of the wool magnate Titus Salt. Through his friendship he gained plenty of work, including the contract for Salts Mill at Salt Aire.

Sour grapes were the order of the day once the firm gained the contract, and accusations of favouritism were rife, though none of this acrimony was allowed to interfere with the project, which is seen as one of  Lockwood's best designs.

Admirers of the building point to its high, narrow-hammer-beam roof as a particularly striking aspect of its design. This is best appreciated from the floor overlooking the trading hall, which now makes space for a cafe.

Light from the stained-glass roof windows illuminate the ornate pillars and arches. And looking down from this vantage point at the booksellers below, one can almost erase the shelves from the mind and picture those long-gone wool-men.

By the early '60s the Exchange's list of subscribers tallied over 3,000. That may not seem much but they were a powerful breed. The world's wool trade existed in their collective hands. These players came from all over the world, representing traders and suppliers, but most were Bradfordians born and bred - if such a phrase can truly be applied to people born of itinerant stock.

These men had many languages and were familiar with markets the world over. Between them, they possessed a global network of contacts and specialists who knew about local markets and tastes. This gave them the edge in terms of exploiting a diverse range of markets.

By the late '60s this was all gone. Bradford ceased to be the centre of the wool trade and the Exchange fell into disuse. The floor no longer babbled with voices of the world. Richard Cobden's ghost was left to the lonely gloom.

In 1968 Bradford Council bought the building to save it from demolition. A fate which befell many of "old Bradford's" architectural landmarks, such as the Swan Arcade, that now exists only in fond memory.
Some may have thought demolition preferable to its new fate, for the Wool Exchange became a flea-market. Shabby and gloomy, it was largely ignored by the city outside.

Fortunately for future generations, the building was not destroyed and refurbishment brought it back from the dead. Like many other monuments to the wool days, the Exchange was rightfully recognised as an asset to the city in its bid for regeneration. Some, like Little Germany (the old warehouse district), have been developed to house galleries and exhibitions and office space.

Yet none of these redeveloped icons quite stand out like the Wool Exchange. After it reopened the building became something of a focus for nostalgia as old "wool people" returned to admire their former workplace.

They assailed the staff at Waterstones with their fond memories. Eventually, the store decided to collect them and put them on the record when they published: The Wool Exchange - An Oral History. The proceeds of the book went to charity.

What emerged is that Bradfordians are passionate about the place. Somehow this building has become a symbol of the city's pride. Not just amongst the old, but also those who are too young to remember its former incarnation.

They visit the shops, they eat and drink there, they browse the bookshop, they walk beneath its walls. The Exchange exerts an almost subliminal presence. It's part of the landscape, it's been there always, most know little of its history, yet it is loved and admired for its character.

The Exchange is living heritage.

First published in The Yorkshire Journal, Winter 2000 issue.

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