WE Forster, Bradford’s MP for many years, and the pioneer of the Education Act 1870, stated with justified pride that Bradford’s Wool Exchange is “an architectural masterpiece symbolising our prosperity as a great textile town”.

In the mid-19th century Bradford, fast becoming 'Worstedopolis' - the wool centre of the world - needed a building where international trading could take place.

With that purpose in mind, in 1862 the Bradford Exchange Company obtained a lease for a triangular piece of land adjoining Hustlergate, Market Street and Bank Street, for a term of 999 years at an annual ground rent of £680.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Traders in the Wool Exchange Traders in the Wool Exchange

A competition was held for a suitable design which was won by celebrated local architects Lockwood and Mawson, designers of many other local buildings including the Town Hall, St George’s Hall and Titus Salt’s Mills and model village of Saltaire.

On August 9, 1864, the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minster Lord Palmerston and, three years later, the Wool Exchange, costing £27,000, was completed.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Wool Exchange in around 1870The Wool Exchange in around 1870

Designed in Venetian Gothic with Flemish touches, the Wool Exchange, a Grade l-listed building, stands resplendent with roof parapets, pinnacles and corbelled turrets.

The main hall, 80ft long and 56ft wide, has a lofty hammerbeam roof with wrought iron work decoration. The roof is supported by polished red granite columns with spiked collars.

At either end of the hall are windows embellished with tracery, the main motif being the six-pointed Star of David. Although rarely recognised the Jewish community made a tremendous contribution to the commercial development of Bradford.

By the staircase on the western wall stands a statue of Richard Cobden, the 'apostle of free trade', one of the main figures behind the Anti-Corn Law League.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The statue of Richard CobdenThe statue of Richard Cobden

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The St Blaise statueThe St Blaise statue

Made from Carrara marble and weighing 20 tons, this statue was unveiled in 1877 by John Bright Cobden’s ally in promoting free trade.

At the base of the statue is engraved the phrase 'Free trade, Peace, Goodwill among Nations' with ears of corn symbolising Cobden’s many years of struggle for cheaper bread.

At the east end of the exchange is the main entrance, surmounted by a clock tower and 150ft-high spire.

Two statues stand on either side of this entrance. One is of St Blaise, the patron saint of wool combers. The other is a king, probably Edward IV who granted a charter to Bradford entitling the town to hold a market each Thursday and two annual fairs.

On the exterior walls, on Market Street and Bank Street, there are 13 medallion portraits, They include five adventurers: Drake, Raleigh, Anson, Cook and Columbus; three inventors Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt; three politicians Gladstone, Palmerston, and Cobden and industrial giants Jacquard and Titus Salt.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The grand entrance to the buildingThe grand entrance to the building

In its heyday, the Wool Exchange was the 'court of the textile barons' where wool brokers, top makers, spinners, cloth manufacturers and anyone who had an interest in the wool trade haggled for business.

Many important deals were made within those walls, sealed by a nod or a handshake, for, as it was said 'an Exchange member’s word was as good as his bond'.

Formal dress was compulsory. Businessmen - women were excluded from attending - wore suits and hats: bowlers, trilbies or even top hats.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Wool Exchange in the 1940sThe Wool Exchange in the 1940s

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Traders in the Wool Exchange, around 1954Traders in the Wool Exchange, around 1954

Up to the 1940s, the Wool Exchange was open all week, but especially busy on market days, Mondays and Thursdays.

Bradford was the nation’s textile capital. Up to the 1960s there were often more Rolls Royce cars parked outside the Wool Exchange than could be seen in the city of London.

However, with the decline of the textile trade and with businesses doing trade by telephone, fax and computer, there was little need to attend the Wool Exchange. By 1988, the number of companies represented fell from hundreds to 18.

Bradford District Council bought the building in 1965 for £375,000 to prevent it falling into the hands of developers who cared little for preserving its architectural splendour.

For almost 30 years after this, the Exchange building was used for numerous small concerns such as a flea-market, exhibition space and fashion shows.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The Hustlergate and Bank Street side of the Wool ExchangeThe Hustlergate and Bank Street side of the Wool Exchange

On one occasion Hollywood used the building for the filming of Life at the Top (1965) starring Laurence Harvey, Jean Simmons and Honor Blackman. One scene in the film shows business in the hall and Blackman giving a brief description of life in the Wool Exchange stating: “It’s surprising how few people are familiar with this gem of Victorian architecture...it is a nerve centre; a trading temple, a Victorian bastion of free enterprise”.

In the late 1980s, there were plans to turn the Wool Exchange into an up-market shopping centre with, not only designer shops like Laura Ashley and Body Shop, but also a restaurant and an exhibition floor. But, due to rocketing costs, these plans were scrapped.

Another scheme in the 1990s proposed leasing the hall to Waterstones booksellers and other parts allocated to a J. B. Priestley Museum along with offices, a café and a pub.

The Waterstones proposal was approved but the plans were controversial. The wall on Hustlergate, itself an addition of 1895, was replaced with a glass facade providing light and openness.

The refurbishment of Bradford’s  'old lady of Market Street' was completed in 1997 and cost £2.5 million. Waterstones was officially opened by the cricketer Fred Trueman.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The atmospheric interior, now home to WaterstonesThe atmospheric interior, now home to Waterstones

"It is a pleasure working in probably the most beautiful bookshop in the country”, says Abigail Guessis, manager at Waterstones. People need to go in and, not only peruse the books, but also admire the architecture."

With Bradford as the City of Culture in 2025 the Wool Exchange illustrates the tremendous amount of architectural splendour we have in our city.