Cuthbert Brodrick: The Architect of Victorian Leeds

Work placement student from The University of Huddersfield Haaris Mahmood, talks us through a brief history of the impact the architect Cuthbert Brodrick had on the city of Leeds.

The city of Leeds is rich in architecture and other designs, which is at times taken for granted. As some residents from Leeds have said, ‘the people of Leeds don’t appreciate the impressively well-designed buildings and facilities that are available to us’. Another resident states, ‘if it wasn’t for Roundhay Park, summer would not be as enjoyable for a lot of people, we don’t understand how lucky we are to have something so beautiful open to the public’.

However, it is interesting to note that a lot of these facilities were blessed to us by people from other cities and countries. Roundhay Park. for instance, was designed by the Scottish architect, George Corson who won a competition in 1873 to design the park (a blog about Corson is also available on this website for further detail about his life). Likewise, another key architect that designed much of the glory and wonder that is Leeds today, was not from the city himself. Cuthbert Brodrick, who has been described as ‘changing the face of Leeds’, was originally from Hull and was responsible for buildings such as Leeds Corn Exchange and Leeds Town Hall. His journey towards architecture was a remarkable one and some of his buildings went on to significantly change Leeds and the country for the better.

Born in 1822, Cuthbert Brodrick worked towards a goal of becoming an architect and gained a 7 year apprenticeship in 1837 with Henry Lockwood. After this, he travelled extensively over Europe from 1844-1845, visiting Paris and Rome and formed a love for classical architecture that influenced his later designs. His first success story in Leeds occurred in 1852 when an open competition was organised by the Leeds Corporation and headed by the architect Sir Charles Barry for the creation of a public meeting space in Leeds. At the ripe age of 29 and against his mother’s will, Brodrick entered the competition and won with his design of the Leeds town hall that won him the prize of £200. From 1853 onwards the Town Hall was being built, but the city of Leeds had to wait another 5 years before the building was complete. The final cost of the building reached a total of £122,000 and was opened and visited by Queen Victoria in 1858 and met by a crowd of 400,000 to 600,000. From this point on, Brodrick went on to build Leeds Corn Exchange in 1863, the Cookridge St baths in 1867 and the Mechanics Institute in 1868 before disappearing from the city.[7] Brodrick went on to design buildings for other parts of the country before he passed away in 1905. However, his buildings went on to have a significant impact on people’s lives, not just as beautiful pieces of architecture but also as facilities that changed the city and country for the better. These impacts can be witnessed when examining the use of Leeds Town Hall and Leeds Corn Exchange over the years.

Beginning with Leeds Town Hall, this building proved to be a spectacle for the city of Leeds. From its premiere in 1858, the building was regarded as the tallest building in Leeds for over a century until 1966 and has even been labelled as the ‘first municipal palace in the world’. Essentially built as a meeting place, the building also housed law courts, police headquarters, the council chamber and the Lord Mayors room under the same roof. From 1933, with the addition of the civic hall/crown court, the building was now to be used as a courthouse. For the bulk of its life, the building was used to analyse criminal cases in Leeds and provided Leeds with the facility to administer justice in the city. Furthermore, the building was used to aid the British war effort during WWII by safeguarding its people. During the Second World War, the town hall was used as an Air Raid Precautions Post in the crypt. Ironically, air attacks during the war proved costly for the town hall as it was heavily targeted but refurbished shortly after the damage occurred. From 1993 on-wards the building was no longer used as a courthouse. Today the building is majorly used for concerts, formal civic functions, conferences, weddings, light entertainment, auctions and more. It is clear to see that alongside the sheer brilliance of the architecture, the building played a big role in the administration of the city and aided the country during war.


Queen Victoria’s entourage passing through Clarendon Road. Her Majesty was in Leeds to open the new Town Hall, 7th September 1858, C. Leeds Libraries, Leodis

Likewise, Leeds Corn Exchange has also been used in many different ways that heavily influenced this city and country for the better. From 1863/64, Leeds Corn Exchange was the hub of the once thriving grain trade. This particular building was inspired by the Paris Corn Exchange, with its oval shape and a domed glass roof which was based on the 1811 Bourse de commerce of Paris by François-Joseph Belanger and Francois Brunet. However, from its immediate creation, the building was being used to inspire the country and particularly the feminist movement during the Victorian period. From the birth of Leeds Corn Exchange, the country was undergoing a controversial moment in its history concerning women. As a response to the spread of VD on British troops, the government created the Contagious Diseases Act (CD) in 1864. The CD acts gave the power to the police and doctors to take women they suspected of carrying VD to the magistrate. If proven guilty they could detain the guilty party in hospitals for 3 months and if the women refused they could be arrested. It was initially placed upon 11 garrisons, however, in 1866 the time of detainment was extended to 1 year and in 1869 it was placed upon a further 6 towns. The CD acts were a grave injustice against women civil liberties and displayed the double standards on gender in the Victorian society as the men with VD were not included in this act that hoped to prevent the spread of this disease.

The acts created a significant amount of protest from both men and women, establishing repeal movements and also gave rise to the British feminist movement. One tactic used by these repeal movements to create a stronger support base was to hold public meetings in great halls to inform the public about the CD acts and to try and force the acts to be repealed. One place that was heavily used for these meetings against the acts was Leeds Corn Exchange. In the infancy of this building, it was being used for the fight for women by spreading the word about the atrocities of these acts and creating a support base for women’s rights. Eventually this proved successful as in 1883 the CD acts were finally suspended. In later years Leeds Corn Exchange was used exactly for what it was built for, trade. Even recently (2008) the building was refurbished to be further used for this purpose by a number of retailers. However, its role during the latter half of the 19th century was immense as it offered facilities for the small feminist group during the Victorian age that allowed it to bloom into the influential group it became for Britain in the 20th century.


Corn Exchange interior, 8th February 1915 C. Leeds Libraries, Leodis

Overall, it is clear to see that the great work of Cuthbert Brodrick heavily influenced this city and country and evolved both to what it is today. Brodrick’s work and the work of others demonstrates that the flavour of architecture in Leeds is not exclusive to Leeds architects, but rather a culmination of the best and brightest architects the United Kingdom has to offer. Subsequently, it is clear and important to see that these buildings and facilities have more of a story to them than just their eloquent design and beauty. It goes to show that this city is not only filled with amazing pieces of architecture and other designs, but also filled with people that are willing to use them for the best interest of this city and the United Kingdom.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Jacqueline Howarth says:

    Just a small correction, I think you meant Cookridge Street Baths in your article.

    1. Thanks Jacqueline – we’ve now amended the article.

      The Secret Library Leeds
      Leeds Central Library

  2. Alan Johnson says:

    Didn’t Cuthbert Brodrick design a fourth building in leeds

    1. Thanks Alan – David Thornton’s excellent Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events (2013) lists Brodrick’s designs in Leeds as being: the Town Hall; the Corn Exchange; the Mechanic’s Institute (now the City Museum); Headingley Hill Congregational Church; and the Cookridge Street Baths (since demolished).

      The Secret Library
      Leeds Central Library

      1. alan johnson says:

        Hello Antony, The fourth building i was meaning and seems to have slip off everybodys radar is the little building just down from the 02 Academy.

  3. Hi Alan,

    Yes, you’re quite right – the building in question even has a Blue Plaque, so I should have remembered it! (if we’re talking about the same building – see this link: and this image on Leodis:

    Thanks again,

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