Royal Exchange, Manchester

The Royal Exchange is a grade II listed[1] building in Manchester, England. It is located in the city centre on the land bounded by St Ann's Square, Exchange Street, Market Street, Cross Street and Old Bank Street. The complex includes the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Royal Exchange Shopping Centre.

Royal Exchange
Exterior of the Royal Exchange
General information
Architectural styleClassical style. Baroque turret at north-west corner.
Town or cityManchester
Construction started1867
Completed1921 (1921)
Design and construction
Architect(s)Bradshaw, Gass and Hope

The Royal Exchange was heavily damaged in the Manchester Blitz and in the 1996 Manchester bombing. The current building is the last of several buildings on the site used for commodities exchange, primarily but not exclusively of cotton and textiles.

History, 1729 to 1973

The cotton industry in Lancashire was served by the cotton importers and brokers based in Liverpool who supplied Manchester and surrounding towns with the raw material needed to spin yarns and produce finished textiles. The Liverpool Cotton Exchange traded in imported raw cotton. In the 18th century, the trade was part of the slave trade in which African slaves were transported to America where the cotton was grown and then exported to Liverpool where the raw cotton was sold.[2] The raw cotton was processed in Manchester and the surrounding the cotton towns and Manchester Royal Exchange traded in spun yarn and finished goods throughout the world including Africa. Manchester's first exchange opened in 1729 but closed by the end of the century. As the cotton industry boomed, the need for a new exchange was recognised.

The Manchester Exchange in 1835
The Royal Exchange in 1891

Thomas Harrison designed the new exchange of 1809 at the junction of Market Street and Exchange Street.[2] Harrison designed the exchange in the Classical style. It had two storeys above a basement and was constructed in Runcorn stone. The cost, £20,000, was paid for in advance by 400 members who bought £50 shares and paid £30 each to buy the site. The semi-circular north façade had fluted Doric columns. The exchange room where business was conducted covered 812 square yards. The ground floor also contained the members' library with more than 15,000 books. The basement housed a newsroom lit by a dome and plate-glass windows, its ceiling was supported by a circle of Ionic pillars spaced 15 feet from the walls. The first-floor dining-room was accessed by a geometrical staircase. The exchange opened to celebrate of the birthday of George III in 1809. It also contained other anterooms and offices.[3]

As the cotton trade continued to expand, larger premises were required and its extension was completed in 1849. The Exchange was run by a committee of notable Manchester industrialists. From 1855 to 1860 the committee was chaired by Edmund Buckley.[4]

The second exchange was replaced by a third designed by Mills & Murgatroyd, constructed between 1867 and 1874.[5] It was extended and modified by Bradshaw Gass & Hope between 1914 and 1931 to form the largest trading hall in England.[5][6] The trading hall had three domes and was double the size of the current hall.[1] The colonnade parallel to Cross Street marked its centre. On trading days merchants and brokers struck deals which supported the jobs of tens of thousands of textile workers in Manchester and the surrounding towns.[2] Manchester's cotton dealers and manufacturers trading from the Royal Exchange earned the city the name, Cottonopolis.[7]

The exchange was seriously damaged during World War II when it took a direct hit from a bomb during a German air raid in the Manchester Blitz at Christmas in 1940. Its interior was rebuilt with a smaller trading area.[5][8] The top stages of the clock tower, which had been destroyed, were replaced in a simpler form. Trading ceased in 1968, and the building was threatened with demolition.[5][9]


View towards the arches and theatre in the Great Central Hall

The exchange has four storeys and two attic storeys built on a rectangular plan in Portland stone. It was designed in the Classical style. Its slate roof has three glazed domes and on the ground floor an arcade orientated east to west. It has a central atrium at first-floor level. The ground floor facade has channelled rusticated piers and the first, second and third floors have Corinthian columns with entablature and a modillioned cornice. The first attic storey has a balustraded parapet while the second attic storey has a mansard roof. At the north-west corner is a Baroque turret and there are domes over other corners. The west side has a massive round-headed entrance arch with wide steps up and the first and second floor windows have round-headed arches. The third floor and first attic storey have mullioned windows.[1]


The building remained empty until 1973, when it was used to house a theatre company (69 Theatre Company); the company performed in a temporary theatre but there were plans for a permanent theatre whose cost was then estimated at £400,000.[10] The Royal Exchange Theatre was founded in 1976 by five artistic directors: Michael Elliott, Caspar Wrede, Richard Negri, James Maxwell and Braham Murray. The theatre was opened by Laurence Olivier on 15 September 1976.[11] In 1979, the artistic directorship was augmented by the appointment of Gregory Hersov.

The Royal Exchange Arcade is a public route which passes under the building and contains retail units.

The building was damaged on 15 June 1996 when an IRA bomb exploded in Corporation Street less than 50 yards away. The blast caused the dome to move, although the main structure was undamaged.[12] That the adjacent St Ann's Church survived almost unscathed is probably due to the sheltering effect of the stone-built exchange. Repairs, which were undertaken by Birse Group,[13] took over two years and cost £32 million, a sum provided by the National Lottery.[14] While the exchange was rebuilt, the theatre company performed in Castlefield. The theatre was repaired and provided with a second performance space, the Studio, a bookshop, craft shop, restaurant, bars and rooms for corporate hospitality. The theatre's workshops, costume department and rehearsal rooms were moved to Swan Street. The refurbished theatre re-opened on 30 November 1998 by Prince Edward. The opening production, Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes was the play that should have opened the day the bomb was exploded.[15]

In 1999, the Royal Exchange was awarded "Theatre of the Year" in the Barclays Theatre Awards, in recognition of its refurbishment and ambitious re-opening season.[16]

In 2014 Sarah Frankcom was appointed the sole artistic director.

In January 2016 the Royal Exchange was awarded Regional Theatre of the Year by The Stage. In announcing the award, The Stage said: "This was the year that artistic director Sarah Frankcom really hit her stride at the Royal Exchange. The Manchester theatre in the round's output during 2015 delivered its best year in quite some time."[17]

In January 2018, the Royal Exchange Young Company won the "School of the Year" award at The Stage Awards 2018.[18]

On 28 March 2019, the Royal Exchange announced that Sarah Frankcom was stepping down as Artistic Director of the Theatre to take up a new post as Director of the prestigious drama school LAMDA. On 8 July 2019, the theatre announced the appointment of Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise as Joint Artistic Directors.[19]


The exterior of the circular theatre pod in the Great Central Hall

The theatre features a seven-sided steel and glass module that squats within the building's Great Hall. It is a pure theatre in the round in which the stage area is surrounded on all sides, and above, by seating.[5] Its unique design conceived by Richard Negri of the Wimbledon School of Art is intended to create a vivid and immediate relationship between actors and audiences. As the floor of the exchange was unable to take the weight of the theatre and its audience, the module is suspended from the four columns carrying the hall's central dome. Only the stage area and ground-level seating rest on the floor. The 150-ton theatre structure opened in 1976 at a cost of £1 million amid some scepticism from Mancunians.[20]

The theatre can seat an audience of up to 800 on three levels, making it the largest theatre in the round in The World. There are 400 seats at ground level in a raked configuration, above which are two galleries, each with 150 seats set in two rows.[21]

The Studio is a 90-seat studio theatre with no fixed stage area and moveable seats, allowing for a variety of production styles (in the round, thrust etc.) Prior to 2020, the studio acted as host to a programme of visiting touring theatre companies, stand-up comedians and performances for young people.[22]

Theatre programme

The Royal Exchange gives an average of 350 performances a year of nine professional theatre productions. Performances by the theatre company are occasionally given in London or from a 400-seat mobile theatre. The company performs a varied programme including classic theatre and revivals, contemporary drama and new writing. Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov have been the mainstay of its repertoire but the theatre has staged classics from other areas of the canon including the British premieres of La Ronde and The Prince of Homburg and revivals of The Lower Depths, Don Carlos and The Dybbuk. American work has also been important – Tennessee Williams, O'Neill, Miller, August Wilson – as has new writing, with the world premieres of The Dresser, Amongst Barbarians, A Wholly Healthy Glasgow and Port to its name.

The Royal Exchange also presents visiting theatre companies in the Studio; folk, jazz and rock concerts; and discussions, readings and literary events. It engages children of all ages in drama activities and groups and has performances including these children and teens. Performances include "The Freedom Bird" and "The Boy Who Ran from the Sea".

Key productions

The company has produced a very wide range of plays from 31 Shakespeare revivals to over 100 premieres; from neglected European classics to adaptations of famous novels. The many critically acclaimed and award-winning productions include:[23][24][25]

The Bruntwood Prize

In 2005, the Royal Exchange Theatre launched the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition to encourage a new generation of playwrights from the UK and Ireland. The competition had its roots in two regional competitions called WRITE which attracted over 400 entries. The first two competitions resulted in three festivals of new writing which showcased eight new writers, one of whom, Nick Leather, became writer in residence. The theatre produced his script, All the Ordinary Angels, in October 2005.

In 2006, 1,800 scripts were submitted for consideration. The winning entry was Ben Musgrave's Pretend You Have Big Buildings for which he received a prize of £15,000 and his play was performed as part of the Manchester International Festival 2007. In 2008 the Exchange and Bruntwood ran a second competition. Judges included Brenda Blethyn, Michael Sheen, Roger Michell and actor/director Richard Wilson. The £40,000 prize fund was split equally between Vivienne Franzmann for Mogadishu (main house and Lyric Hammersmith 2011), Fiona Peek for Salt (The Studio 2010), Andrew Sheridan for Winterlong (The Studio, 2011) and Naylah Ahmed for Butcher Boys.


The company has been run by a group of artistic directors since its inception. According to Braham Murray: -"Although the names have changed we have remained a team of like-minded individuals sharing a common vision of the purpose and potency of theatre."[28] These individuals include[23][24]

  • Michael Elliott (1976–1984)
  • James Maxwell (1976–1995)
  • Braham Murray (1976–2012)
  • Richard Negri (1976–1986)
  • Caspar Wrede (1976–1990)
  • Greg Hersov (1987– 2014)
  • Marianne Elliott (1998–2002)
  • Matthew Lloyd (1998–2001)
  • Sarah Frankcom (2008–2019)
  • Bryony Shanahan (2019– )[19]
  • Roy Alexander Weise (2019– )[19]

In 2014 Sarah Frankcom became the sole artistic director.

Associate Artistic Directors include:-

Nicholas Hytner (1985–1989), Ian McDiarmid (1986–1988) and Phyllida Lloyd (1990–1991).

Many other directors have worked at the Royal Exchange amongst them Lucy Bailey, Michael Buffong, Robert Delamere, Jacob Murray, Adrian Noble, Steven Pimlott and Richard Wilson.

The company is renowned for its innovative designers, composers and choreographers which include Lez Brotherston, Johanna Bryant, Chris Monks, Alan Price, Jeremy Sams, Rae Smith and Mark Thomas.


Throughout its history the theatre has attracted great actors and a number of them have taken on many roles over the years. Actors who have been particularly associated with the Exchange and have appeared in several different productions include : -[23][24] Lorraine Ashbourne, Brenda Blethyn, Tom Courtenay, Amanda Donohoe, Gabrielle Drake, Lindsay Duncan, Ray Fearon, Michael Feast, Robert Glenister, Derek Griffiths, Dilys Hamlett, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Claire Higgins, Paterson Joseph, Cush Jumbo, Ben Keaton, Robert Lindsay, Ian McDiarmid, Tim McInnerny, Janet McTeer, Patrick O'Kane, Daragh O'Malley Trevor Peacock, Maxine Peake, Pete Postlethwaite, Linus Roache, David Schofield, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, Andrew Sheridan, David Threlfall and Don Warrington.

Other notable actors have appeared at the theatre and these include Brian Cox, Albert Finney, Alex Jennings, Ben Kingsley, Leo McKern, Helen Mirren, David Morrissey, Gary Oldman, Vanessa Redgrave, Imogen Stubbs, John Thaw, Harriet Walter, Julie Walters and Sam West.

The company has always had a reputation for spotting young actors before they became famous. Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Michael Sheen, Andrew Garfield and most recently Gabriel Clark all appeared at the Royal Exchange long before starring in film and television.

See also

  • Listed buildings in Manchester-M2


  1. Historic England, "Former Royal Exchange (1200826)", National Heritage List for England, retrieved 31 October 2012
  2. "Why was cotton so important in north west England?". Revealing Histories. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
  3. Lewis, Samuel (1848). "Manchester". A Topographical Dictionary of England. British History Online. pp. 580–583. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  4. Stancliffe, F. S. (1938). John Shaw's 1738–1938. Sherratt & Hughes.
  5. Hartwell, p. 155.
  6. Parkinson-Bailey, p. 142.
  7. Ashmore, p. 24.
  8. Parkinson-Bailey, p. 169.
  9. Parkinson-Bailey, p. 206.
  10. "Time and the Conways" at the Royal Exchange; December 1973 (programme).
  11. Programme for Happy Birthday, Sir Larry, 31 May 1987.
  12. Parkinson-Bailey, p. 257.
  13. "Birse board shake-up as founder retires". Manchester Evening News. 17 February 2007. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  14. "Royal Exchange Manchester – Theatre History". Royal Exchange, Manchester. Archived from the original on 3 October 2014. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  15. "Review of Hindle Wakes/So Special". Retrieved 20 May 2012.
  16. "Rejected Gray Wins TMA's Best New Play -". Retrieved 20 May 2012.
  17. "The Stage Awards 2016". The Stage. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
  18. "The Stage Awards 2018". The Stage. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  19. "Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise Announced As New Royal Exchange Artistic Directors". Royal Exchange Theatre. 8 July 2019. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  20. Geddes, Diana (17 September 1976). "Is Manchester's new theatre a white elephant or a rose?". The Times Newspaper. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
  21. "Building Specifications – The Theatre". Royal Exchange Theatre. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
  22. "Building Specifications – The Studio". Royal Exchange Theatre. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
  23. The Royal Exchange Theatre Company Words & Pictures 1976–1998.
  24. Braham Murray.
  25. The Royal Exchange
  26. MEN Awards, , City Life, 10 February 2011.
  27. Theatre Awards.
  28. The Royal Exchange Theatre Company Words & Pictures 1976–1998, p. 62.


  • Ashmore, Owen (1969). Industrial Archaeology of Lancashire. David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-4339-4.
  • Hartwell, Clare (2001). Pevsner Architectural Guides: Manchester. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-071131-7.
  • Murray, Braham (2007). The Worst It Can Be Is a Disaster. London: Methuen Drama. ISBN 978-0-7136-8490-2.
  • Parkinson-Bailey, John J (2000). Manchester: an Architectural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-5606-3.
  • Scott, RDH (1976). The Biggest Room in the World: A Short History of the Royal Exchange. Royal Exchange Theatre Trust. ISBN 978-0-85972-033-5.
  • The Royal Exchange Theatre Company Words & Pictures 1976–1998. The Royal Exchange Theatre Company Limited. 1998. ISBN 0-9512017-1-9.

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