St Albans Corn Exchange – form and materials

Fig. 1. Corn Exchange, c.1895  St Albans Museums (ref PX5786)
St Albans Museum
Fig. 2. Corn Exchange, 2016  St Albans Museums

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 freed up the market for corn trading, and led to a boom in the building of corn exchanges, many of which were a symbol of civic pride. St Alban’s corn exchange was built following an architectural competition in 1854.

I have always been interested in the form and materials of the Corn Exchange and particularly its unusual creamy-yellow ‘white’ bricks; a heavy building material to transport before the railway arrived – much easier to use our thriving local brick industry.  Local papers of the time and an excellent article in Herts Countryside (December 1979) by the late Dr Eileen Roberts tell us that this new Corn Exchange was built on the site of an earlier market building, demolished as part of the works and took the form shown in the 1890s photo (Fig. 1).  These sources chronicle the history of the building, its considerable alteration around 1924 when the ‘fine western facade was largely cut away below the cornice level’ and other alterations.  A later, modern, remodelling brought the building back to an echo of the original as shown in the modern photo (Fig. 2)

What intrigued me was the origin of the bricks, how far did they come and where were they made?  A report in the Hertfordshire Mercury of 5 July, 1856, mentions that tenders had been received for building ‘either in Huntingdon White Bricks with plinths, friezes, arches, &c., of Corsham Down Bath Stone; or the whole of stone.’  This is a clue to the bricks’ origin.

Huntingdon white bricks

The British Brick Society could not specifically identify ‘Huntingdon White Bricks’, but they did mention the important brick works in Godmanchester, near Huntingdon, where, from the 1830s, white hand-made ‘gault’ bricks were manufactured using the white/cream lime-rich gault clays of the region.  In 1845, Robert Beart began a more efficient steam-powered extrusion process to make these bricks more quickly and in greater numbers, particularly for the huge London market – his works were conveniently situated close to the railway.  This would have lowered the cost of these ‘Beart’ bricks and they were often specified for London buildings, which would have made them seem rather fashionable.

Style and colour sympathetic to nearby town hall

Why was this architectural form and its materials chosen?  Roberts points out that this style and colour went well with that of George Smith’s early 1830s courthouse and town hall building (now the new museum) just to the north, with its painted rendered bricks and stone dressings. Perhaps use of a fashionable London brick in the Corn Exchange also played a part. These bricks are not common in St Albans, though they do appear in some house frontages.

In the 5 July 1856 report, Mr Biggs was chosen, unanimously, to erect the building for an agreed sum of £1,380 12s to include £28 for Portland stone and £8 for an oak floor.  This suggests that Portland stone did in fact replace Bath stone in the specification.  However, our SAHAAS library has a number of documents (Borough Records/14) relating to the Corn Exchange, including the Town Clerk, Thomas Ward Blagg’s, note book, where he still mentions Bath stone and white bricks.

The Godmanchester brick works were still standing in 1938. Though now demolished and the land developed as a residential housing estate, there is still a small lane called ‘Brick Kilns’ which presumably remembers the place where these bricks were made, possibly carried by railway to Hatfield and thence by horse and cart to us to be built into our Corn Exchange.

Editor’s note: The Corn Exchange was preceded by an open-sided Market Hall. It can be seen in part in an early photo of the Clock Tower taken in mid-1855, just before the Market Hall was demolished.