Inspired by vivid memories of his father trading at Bury St Edmunds’ Corn Exchange, a historian has penned a new book about the ‘extraordinary’ building.
‘A Handsome and Substantial Building...’ by John Orbell is the first ever book about Bury’s two surviving Corn Exchange buildings and explores a fascinating chapter in the town’s history.
It looks at how the buildings boosted the economy, the controversies they generated and how they were nearly demolished by the then council.
For Mr Orbell, 67, of Ixworth, the exchange not only dominates a part of the town centre but its shadow extends to his childhood and family tree.
“My dad (Jack, a corn merchant) worked there,” he remembers. “I used to go to see him trading on a Wednesday afternoon and it was an extraordinary place; full of men in dark coats and hats, masses of tobacco smoke everywhere and some real Suffolk accents.”
His grandfather and two great-grandfathers also sold grain and corn there and one of them served on a Bury St Edmunds Corporation (the then town council) committee which ran the exchange.
Mr Orbell, a former archivist, was looking for a history writing project about Bury and discovered nothing had been written about the Exchange before. The first Corn Exchange, which now houses Laura Ashley, Hatters and Halifax, was built in the 1830s.
Due to overcrowding, a new Corn Exchange, now the site of JD Wetherspoon, was built in the 1860s.
Asked if there were any surprises uncovered during his research at Suffolk Record Office for the book, Mr Orbell said: “The Bury Corporation in the early 1840s to all intents and purposes went bust because it embarked on some very extravagant expenditure in the 1830s and that included the building of the Corn Exchange.”
The book also looks at controversial plans in the 1960s to demolish both buildings to create a parade of shops.
The plans were abandoned following fierce opposition from residents.
“I would have been an 11/12 year-old boy and I remember people talking about the proposed demolition and they were in shock,” Mr Orbell said.
The book is available from Waterstones, in Butter Market, Moyse’s Hall, the record office, in Raingate Street, JD Wetherspoon, the Cathedral Book Shop and The Apex.