Happy birthday Quayside Exchange – Sunderland’s first town hall celebrates its 200th anniversary

Exchange Building,  Sunderland
Exchange Building, Sunderland
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TODAY we raise a glass to Sunderland’s first town hall, which is marking a very special birthday.

THE 200th anniversary of an iconic Wearside building is being celebrated today.

A blue plaque marking the historic importance of the Quayside Exchange – the city’s first purpose-built town hall – is being unveiled by Mayor Robert Heron.

Members of 68th DLI, dressed in period uniform and carrying muskets, will provide a guard of honour during the event and historian Terry Deary is the guest speaker.

“The Exchange is one of Sunderland’s most iconic buildings, with immense historical and architectural importance,” said general manager Andrew Gevorkian.

“It is therefore important to celebrate the anniversary in style and, as part of that, we will be hosting a display of vintage photos showing the Exchange through the years.”

A revamp of civic affairs in the early 19th century helped pave the way for Wearside’s first town hall to open in 1814 – replacing a temporary base at Holy Trinity Church.

Almost £8,000 was raised through a public subscription scheme to cover costs, with shares sold at £50 each.

Among the investors were brewers, rope makers and portrait painters. Land at High Street was purchased from Sir Henry Vane Tempest and Newcastle architect John Stokoe was drafted in to design the grand commercial, cultural and administrative centre. “It was built by Chester-le-Street contractor George Cameron, grandfather of chemist Joseph Swan – who invented an incandescent light bulb in the 1870s,” said Andrew. “The first stone of the Exchange was laid on August 10, 1812, by Sir Henry Vane Tempest, and the building opened to the public two years later, on May 10, 1814.”

A newspaper reading room, kitchens, a post office, market place piazza, a magistrates’ court and offices for local government officials were all included in the new building.

And, as the Exchange took a key role of Sunderland’s civic and commercial life, so it played host to many magnificent banquets and social events of national importance.

“The most notable was held by the Marquis of Londonderry in 1827, to entertain his old Peninsular War commander, the Duke of Wellington,” said Andrew.

“Sir Walter Scott, the playwright and poet, was also a guest. He later commented on the ‘handsome entertainment’ and vast quantity of food and drink consumed.”

Following a cholera epidemic in the 1830s, however, the Grade II-listed Georgian gem entered a period of decline – and was even threatened once with demolition.

But the boom in manufacturing during the industrial revolution ensured its survival and, by 1914, it was home to several companies, as well as a bank and post office.

Sadly, two World Wars and the Great Depression did not have a favourable effect on the Palladian-style building and, by the late 1960s, it was standing empty once again.

Eventually, in 1996, the by-now derelict site was revamped by the North of England Civic Trust, with help from English Heritage and Sunderland City Council. And, in 2002, the Exchange was leased by Keeping Inn Ltd – which invested tens of thousands of pounds in developing the site into a conference and banqueting venue.

Today, the Exchange has been restored to its former glory and is hosting parties once again – with the building now a popular venue for weddings, parties and conferences.

Graham Bell, director of the North England Civic Trust, said: “I am so pleased to see the Exchange recognised for the important part it has played in Sunderland’s civic life as well as its high architectural and historical significance.

“The building has a fascinating and important story to tell and so it is entirely appropriate that Terry Deary has kindly agreed to mark this occasion as we look forward to the next chapter in this elegant building’s history.”

•The display of vintage photos featuring the Exchange will be on public display at the building from May 15.