The Corn Exchange Old Town 1866

With Swindon in 50 Buildings, I had to keep to a firm brief set by the publisher, Amberley. I had to stay central – nothing from the wider borough. And the buildings I wrote about had to be still standing – they couldn’t be ex-buildings. So in this series of Swindon in 50 More Buildings I’m redressing some of that. Ergo, though I haven’t yet, I’ll include at least a couple of buildings from the wider borough and, if only one, an ex-building. Namely, Old Town’s Corn Exchange aka the Locarno. It deserves a mention in my writings somewhere but I couldn’t put it in the Amberley book – so here it is.

While the Corn Exchange in Old Town hasn’t been demolished in the formal sense, I reckon it’s fair to call it an ex-building. Given that there’s bugger all of it left now, bar a facade. It’s a travesty for sure.

In 2019 the Victorian Society put what’s left of it on their top ten of historic buildings at risk. But the rot goes on. A bit more about that here in the Swindon Advertiser.

The image below is an extract from Mark Child’s Swindon Book. It’s taken from his entry in his book about the Mechanics’ Institution. But really – one could change the words ‘Mechanics’ Institution’ to pretty much any heritage asset you care to name and the same would apply – with this heritage asset in particular. As someone on Facebook observed, (I’m paraphrasing) though SBC do not and have not, ever owned the corn exchange, they have still managed to put every conceivable obstruction in the path of those trying to do something with it. Steve Rosier (now recently deceased) for one. And again I refer you to the Swindon Book for more on that – you’ll find it in the library – to either borrow or to buy.

Extract from Mark Child Swindon book talking about the Mechanics' Insitution
Extract from Mark Child Swindon book talking about the Mechanics’ Institution
The Corn Exchange Old Town - aka the Locarno
The Corn Exchange Old Town – aka the Locarno

The Town Hall and Corn Exchange

… to give it its formal title – the Locarno thing came later.

As good a place as any to go for some history of this now sad and sorry state of a building is The Swindon Book by Mark Child.

He tell us that businessmen had long agitated for a corn exchange in Swindon, when, in 1863, a group of local tradesmen formed themselves into a committee. The committee, led by Ambrose Lethbridge Goddard, the Lord of the Manor, set themselves to considering the matter.

It turned out, I daresay of no surprise to anyone, that Goddard had no appetite for giving up any of his property – and land was too expensive to buy. The Swindon Central Market Company had similar problems when they pursued the same matter. Though they succeeded in getting Goddard to agree to eject the occupants of two cottages adjacent to the town hall. Their demolition allowed for the building of a corn exchange where they’d stood.

NB: The new Town Hall in the Market Square in Old Swindon (now Old Town) opened in 1853.

For many years Old Swindon and New Swindon lived side-by-side, not always in harmony, with separate authorities each with its own town hall. Until that was, the 22nd January 1900 when Queen Victoria signed the charter to join the two Swindons as one. The last such charter she signed in her reign.

Built in 1891 by Brightwen Binyon, the town hall on Regent Circus took over all the administrative and civic functions making the old town hall redundant.

The architects and the builders

The market hall and town hall were built in1852-54 by Sampson Sage and E Robertson of Swindon.

Wilson & Wilcox of Bath were the architects of the corn exchange extension with John Philips of Devizes Rd being the builder. During construction Mr Philips fell from the building’s roof into the cellar, suffering some serious injuries.

The corn exchange then, took a triangular site between The Planks and the Market Square.

Of Grecian style architecture, an eighty-foot, four-stage tower surmounted the structure. Mark Child describes it as a tour-de-force for Swindon. An ornate structure with open Venetian windows, Corinthian pilasters at the corners, a cornice, a part open balustrade with corner finials and a square dome with ironwork cresting.

It opened on the 9th April,1866 with George Deacon providing the clock and its four, foot wide faces in 1867. The Swindon Gas company provided its illumination.

One entered through a vestibule below the tower that bore the legend: Blessed be the Lord who daily loadeth us with benefits.’

the legend above the corn exchange vestibule
the legend above the corn exchange vestibule as it looks today – 2022

A grand opening

Mr Child tells us that the grand opening of the corn exchange was a riotous affair – with females admitted to the gallery only. Of course! But they did get some cake while the men quaffed free Champagne from wine merchants Brown and Nephew, who leased the cellars beneath the building as wine stores. So the ladies got the crumbs – literally!

Next stages

Come 1880, dressing rooms and a 1,000 seat auditorium were provided with the large hall licensed for stage plays.

The Corn Exchange hall went through many transformations. One of its first new incarnations was into a 1000-seater theatre. Then it became an ice rink and later in 1919, a Rank cinema with seating for 1,000 people.

Following refurbishment in 1949, it became the Locarno Dance Hall, hosting wrestling events, jazz and pop concerts, featuring amongst others the Kinks, the Applejacks, the Animals, Yardbirds, Ronnie Scott’s orchestra, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

1951 saw the corn exchange given Grade II listing, followed by refurbishment. It then began a life as the much-loved and much-remembered Locarno dance hall. The building also did duty as a venue for wrestling matches, pop concerts and latterly as a bingo hall – that closed in the 1970s.

Thus began a tragic tale of decay and disintegration such as you see below. Mark Child tells much more of all this in his Swindon Book and it’s all over the ether in pieces such as this one: – so no need for me to say more.

Wine merchants

I’ve mentioned above that a wine merchant called Brown & Nephew operated from the cellars beneath the corn exchange. Well, the presence of a wine merchant in that location carried on for many a long year. It’s a long story and one which Royston Cartwright wrote for Swindon Heritage magazine. So suffice it for me to say here that R Royston, in his youth, worked for Brown and Plummers. Though here’s a small extract:

‘Three years later in 1853 we see the opening of the new Town Hall in the Market Square in Swindon. Within weeks William Brown took occupancy of the cellars beneath the hall – some 150ft long and 50ft wide. By the 1861 Census, William Brown now 41 is married to Elizabeth Plummer now 26. They live with his nephew Fredrick John Brown at 7 Bath Road Swindon. Both men are wine merchants, who are agents for Bass’s Burton Ale’s, Guinness’ Stout and Aitchinson & Co Scotch Ales. The beers were bottled on the premises under licence and Bass would have its own people there to keep a check on the quality of their products. ‘

Royston went to work there in 1963 as a mere stripling of 18 years. He’d only passed his driving test the day before he applied for, and got, the job of driver cellar man. Here he is at work in the picture below.

Royston Cartwright in the corn exchange wine cellars
Royston Cartwright in the corn exchange wine cellars

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