History detectives piece together the remarkable story of The Exchange

The story of the early years of Blackburn’s most iconic building has been brought to life by two volunteers with a passion for local heritage. The Exchange: The Foundation Years has been written by Howard Foy and Chris Walton and is being produced with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Howard Foy is Blackburn-born and bred, and after living and working in Manchester for more than 30 years, he returned to the area in 2015 following retirement as a production journalist on national newspapers. He heard that The Exchange was looking for volunteers to help produce a history book as part of their exciting plan to bring the building back to life, and he knew at once that he wanted to be involved in the project.

Howard said:

“I have been passionately interested in local history since I was a young schoolboy and my association with the Exchange dates back to that time as well. My first visits to the building were at the age of six of seven, when my father took me and my younger brother to the “Majestic” for haircuts at the barbers in the basement in King William Street.’

“I can also remember several visits to the Essoldo cinema, as it was called in the 1950s and 1960s. I cannot now recall any particular films from the early days, but I recently found an old diary which I kept as a teenager and I note that at the age of 17 in February 1968 – and therefore “under aged” – I sneaked into the Essoldo to see the X-rated film, Bonnie and Clyde.

“It is not the building’s days as a cinema that particularly interested me, however. The fact that it was commissioned by the mill-owners and textile merchants of Blackburn as the Cotton Exchange, a place where these eminent businessmen could congregate for commerce and relaxation, has always seemed fascinating – and it was both frustrating and surprising that very little existed in written form about its story.

“When it opened in 1865, the Cotton Exchange highlighted my home town’s proud position as one of the leading cotton weaving centres in Britain – if not the world – in the mid-Victorian era, and I wanted to help in finding out as much as I could about its genesis and history, both as a place of commerce and later as Blackburn’s premier concert and assesmbly hall in the latter years of the 19th Century.”

“As things turned out, the bulk of the research for this book was carried out by my indefatigable colleague Chris Walton, who has spent many hours delving into archives both locally and nationally to diligently piece together the full story of the Exchange from the 1840s through to its sale and conversion to a cinema in 1920. But I have been pleased and honoured to be able to turn all his hard work into what I trust is a readable and entertaining narrative, encompassing not only the early history of the building itself but also touching on the development of Blackburn’s major public edifices, including the Town Hall and Public Halls at Blakey Moor.”

Chris Walton from Darwen said:

“I’ve many memories of visits to the Apollo 5 Cinema, watching classics like Toy Story and Jurassic Park, as well as the birthday parties downstairs at Tiggis Restaurant, complete with the birthday cake and music. In recent years, when Re:Source took over the building, I was curious about their plans to restore the Exchange and bring it back into use. When they called for volunteers, I signed up, keen to contribute in any way possible.Initially, when I offered to research the history of the Exchange, I thought it would be a simple task of browsing through a few old books and newspapers. However, it turned out to be a much deeper dive. Over the past year, I’ve delved into archives, sifted through newspapers, and even had the opportunity to handle artefacts at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. My journey has taken me from Preston to London in search of centuries-old forgotten documents.

“Exploring the Exchange’s past has been like solving a puzzle, with each discovery leading to another intriguing piece of the puzzle. It’s been a fascinating journey that has deepened my appreciation for the history of our town and the role of the Exchange. Special thanks also go to Mary Painter from Blackburn Central Library, Kevin Penberthy, and others who provided valuable resources and guidance, and to Howard Foy for writing up our research into this book.

“Together, we’ve brought the Exchange out of obscurity, uncovering its rich history as a gathering place for traders, a venue for notable events, and a cherished part of our community. It’s been an honour to be part of the effort to preserve and share its story.”

The cover of the book features the work of Clitheroe Artist, Gosha Gibek who painted The Exchange during the lockdown of 2020. She has been commissioned to design and illustrate the book with her signature technique employing a freehand style using dripping household paint.

Gosha said:

“By using this technique, the lines are so fluid, it reminds me of cotton thread, which translates really well into the story. I’m ever so excited to illustrate and design this book.”

Re:Source Chair, JJ McGregor said:

“Whether as a cathedral to cotton, at the beating heart of industry, or in the golden age of cinema going and cinematography, The Exchange is a place where the community gathers, and stories are told.Thanks to Howard and Chris, and their labour of love, this amazing building now has the first chapters of its own story to share. This is no ordinary history book for this is an extraordinary building.”

The Exchange: the foundation years by Howard Foy and Chris Walton will be published in June 2024 and limited editions, priced at £10 will be available to buy from The Exchange or online. To pre-order a copy please email Lisa Clarke:  info@exchangeblackburn.co.uk.

Photo: Chris Walton, Gosha Gibek and Howard Foy