Bedford Corn Exchange given Grade II listed status by Historic England

Bedford Corn Exchange

Its role during WWII has been cited among the reasons that Bedford Corn Exchange has today (Thursday) been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.

Dating from 1874, Bedford Corn Exchange is described as “an elegant Victorian public building, enriched with classical detailing and architectural features, including an ornate ceiling with three glass domes.”

During the Second World War, the Music and Religious Departments of the BBC secretly decamped to Bedford when it became too dangerous for them to be based in London or at their wartime home, Bristol.

Around 400 musicians, staff and engineers moved to the town, and many buildings – including Bedford Corn Exchange – were used as studios, offices and lodgings.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra used the venue between September 1941 and July 1945 for public concerts, which were broadcast to the nation. The Corn Exchange was also used as an Armed Forces Canteen.

The BBC Proms came to Bedford in 1944, and the Golden Jubilee Concert was held at the Corn Exchange, celebrating 50 years of the Proms.

Perhaps most famously, Captain Glenn Miller and the American Band of the Supreme Allied Command gave their first broadcast in Great Britain from the Corn Exchange in July 1944.

Glenn Miller performing

Glenn Miller played his last concert at the Corn Exchange in August 1944, before he disappeared, later that year, in an aircraft somewhere over the Channel. He is commemorated with a sculptural bust by Patricia Finch, placed on the front elevation of the Corn Exchange in 1994.

As part of the Bedford High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ), delivered by Historic England and Bedford Borough Council, Historic England is reviewing and researching the historic buildings within the HSHAZ area.

More detailed information has also been added to the list entry for the Harpur Suite, built in the mid-19th century as an Assembly Rooms.

Eilíse McGuane, Historic England Listing Adviser said: “These remarkable Victorian public buildings were created as social destinations for people to experience education, leisure and entertainment.

“The impressive architecture and stunning interiors show how important they were to the people of Bedford.”

She explained that through the work of the High Street Heritage Action Zone, Bedfordians will be able to enjoy and appreciate the Corn Exchange and the Harpur Suite with new insight into their past lives and importance to Bedford.

“We’d love for people to add their own photos, memories and information onto the list entries for these beautiful buildings.”

Cllr Henry Vann, portfolio holder for town centres and planning at Bedford Borough Council, said: “The Corn Exchange is a significant and important building that played a central role during wartime history both globally and locally – with musicians from around the world performing here, and the Harpur Suite is a similarly significant architectural landmark at the heart of our Borough.

“It is only right that these buildings are recognised through this listing. These buildings, much like many others located in our High Street Heritage Action Zone, have an incredibly rich history and deserve to have this recognised.

“Thank you to Historic England for the formal recommendation to Government.”

The history of Bedford Corn Exchange

  • Dated 1874, it was built to the designs of John Ladds RIBA (1835-1926) and Henry William Powell FRIBA (1847-1900). It replaced an earlier and smaller Corn Exchange, which stood nearby and was demolished in 1904.
  • The hall of the Corn Exchange was designed to be a spacious assembly room. The elegant interior was illuminated by three domed ceiling lights and large windows on the front and side walls.
  • The basement was designed to house offices, cloakrooms, a kitchen, hall keeper’s room and dining rooms.
  • In 1926, the Corn Exchange was refurbished with a new rock maple dance floor and ornate decoration. The walls and ceiling were painted in light pastel shades contrasting with the dark wood panelling, and the moulding of the ceiling was painted in various colours.
  • The Corn Exchange became popular for dances between the wars.
  • Bedford Corn Exchange is situated on the historic streetscape of St Paul’s Square, which also includes the Church of St Paul (Grade I listed), a statue of John Howard (Grade I listed) and the Town Hall and Shire Hall (both listed at Grade II).

The history of the Harpur Suite (listed at Grade II*; list entry updated)

  • The Harpur Suite was built as Assembly Rooms between 1834 and 1835, to the designs of Thomas Gwyn Elger (1794-1841) an architect and builder, who served as Mayor of Bedford in 1830, 1835, and 1838.
  • He designed a number of notable buildings, including a 55-arch causeway at St Ives, Cambridgeshire (1822, listed at Grade II*), and the Harpur Trust girls’ and infants’ school in Bedford (1840, demolished in 1974).
  • An elegant public building, the Assembly Rooms was created in the Greek Revival style, as befits the home of an early learned society encouraging education in the arts and sciences.
  • The east wall of the Assembly Rooms features a stained-glass window by Thomas Willement (1786-1871), a leading Victorian designer of stained glass.
Harpur Suite in the heart of Bedford

Published in 1866, The Bedford Directory and Almanack said of the Assembly Rooms: “These handsome Rooms, which were erected by a company of shareholders in the year 1835, are generally used for concerts, balls, lectures, and other public entertainments…

“Various societies hold their meetings here; the chief of these is The Bedford Literary and Scientific Institution and General Library…

“The library contains about 10,000 volumes embracing nearly all the most valuable modern works in science, history, fiction, and general literature.

“There is also a handsome reading-room, which is well supplied with the leading newspapers, magazines, and reviews…”

The private subscription library of the Bedford Literary and Scientific Institute was bought by the Town Council in 1936.

The building reopened as a public library in 1937 with a stock of 22,000 books, a lending library, reference library, John Bunyan Library, children’s library, reading room and lecture hall.

In 1969, St. Paul’s Methodist Church and Sunday School, next to the library, were demolished and replaced by a new and purpose-built Bedford Central Library, which opened in 1972. The former public library became known as the Harpur Suite.

An extension added around 1975, linked it to the Corn Exchange on St Paul’s Square, together functioning as an entertainment venue for the town.

The Harpur Suite was listed at Grade II* in 1952, and further detailed information has been added to the List entry this year.

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