Banks, Offices and Commercial Premises

There has always been buildings devoted to large-scale commerce such as the Bank of England and Custom House, but they were mainly in London. Smaller businesses often occupied rooms in a house. However in the early 19th century commercial buildings began to emerge with a distinct and separate existence. Insurance and banking went through a rapid process of transformation, partly as a result of the financial legislation in the 1840s that helped to shape the security of investment. Much bank and commercial architecture began to reflect this increased confidence.

The other types of commercial premises that began to emerge were the so called “Office Chambers”. By the end of the 19th century the process of separating offices from living quarters was virtually complete. Due to the need to maximize land use there was a demand for greater height and as artificial light was not yet feasible, larger windows. To give an impression of stability many were built in the Classical style, but this caused problems, as the style was not always compatible with tall many-windowed facades. Wolverhampton has many fine “Chambers”; perhaps the most notable is the Quadrant Building in Princess Square built in the 1890s. Although the ground floor has been altered to accommodate shops, the upper part of the building still retains its fine façade. Another fine set of offices is Gresham Chambers, opposite the Art Gallery.

Queen Square has some excellent buildings and part of the attraction is the three fine banks that face it. Of these the finest must be that housing Barclays Bank, built in 1876. The original design was by T.H. Fleeming, but it was added to on subsequent occasions. It is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture containing a bewildering variety of features. It is of three storeys with slightly projecting gables with arches either side. There are turrets, and facing Lichfield Street, to the left of the door leading to the chambers, a loggia.

Lloyds TSB bank in Queen Square. The Italianate facade of the building works very well. The extension to the building, on the site of the old Queen's Ballroom has been very sensitively carried out.
Although Barclays is a masterpiece, Lloyds is probably a more architecturally correct building and a great deal more restrained in the Italianate style. Although the façade is as Pevsner says, “sparing in motifs”, there are some interesting relief panels showing industrial scenes placed somewhat incongruously on the front. The left hand panel shows a scene in a coalmine complete with cage, winding gear and coal truck. The middle panel shows an agricultural scene with heavy carts full of produce. The right hand scene shows heavy industry with drop forgers at work; in the background there is a rolling mill in operation. The panels are a deliberate attempt to show scenes of plenty and the fruits of labour; they also indicate, whether intentionally or not, the twin sources of much of the town’s wealth. As the Art gallery and Bank share the same architect and were built at the same time, the panels are by Boulton of Cheltenham, as are those on the former building.

The National Westminster Bank on the north side of the square is in marked contrast to the other two, caused partly by its white stone. Corinthian pilasters separate pedimented windows. 

It is of three storeys with a balustrade disguising the roof. Over the doorway are two figures representing Industry (with a hammer) and Agriculture (with a cornucopia).

A commercial premises occupies one of the most massive pieces of Victorian architecture in Wolverhampton, that of the Royal London Mutual Insurance, built at the end of the period, 1900 to 1902.

The exquisite carved panels on Lloyds Bank, showing left to right, coal mining, agriculture and industry.
We have said before that the Victorians built in a wide variety of architectural styles. The Baroque style of this building was a late development of the 19th century, a reaction against the “Free Style” which had developed combining Classical with Gothic motifs, well illustrated by the library. Of particular interest on this building is the use of glazed terracotta over the entrance. There is a mass of carving on the building carried out by the firm of Carter and Co. of Pool.

The fruits of agriculture and industry are personified by the two figures above the door of the NatWest Bank.

In an early chapter, it was pointed out that Wolverhampton was very much a market town and many of the commercial buildings erected had an agricultural purpose; sadly these have now entirely gone.

The Exchange public house is a reminder that near to this site stood the Exchange building, erected between 1850 and 1853 to a design by G.T. Robinson. The building was originally intended as a corn exchange for farmers and millers. Shares raised the money for its building, £15,000.

The main room was 120 feet by 50 feet and had a gallery, a permanent platform and an orchestra pit capable of containing over one hundred players. Despite this the acoustics were apparently dreadful. The Exchange was also used for ironmasters and other public meetings. There were newsrooms attached to the building, which were well supplied with national and provincial papers.

From the start the building proved to be unsatisfactory and there was an acrimonious public debate as to where blame should lie. The Secretary of the Exchange Company tried to blame the architect as the building was poorly lit, badly ventilated and the sound was poor. Good lighting was essential to the corn merchants who needed to see the quality of the corn.

One feature of the original building was a large cupola which had to be removed almost immediately as it began to subside into the building. The architect who advised removal was Ewan Christian who was called in for advice. It was said at the time that it was the only building ever built with the foundations at the top. The Exchange did not have a very long life, being demolished in 1898.

A fairly recently demolished commercial building was the retail market. This had been opened in March 1853 at a cost of £30,000 and built to a design by Lloyd of Bristol. Photographs of the building show an impressive Italianate classical façade with entrances in North Street and Cheapside. The Market, which came into the hands of the Corporation yielded between £3,000 and £4,000 per annum in 1896. 

The Wholesale market. “A pretty building”

It was reported in the same year that this was gradually increasing. Its main interesting features were the hollow, cast-iron columns, which not only acted as a support, but carried away rainwater also.

We have confined ourselves rather strictly to those buildings which qualify as Victorian, but one exception is the Wholesale market, which was built in 1903-4. “A pretty building”, according to Pevsner, it was demolished in the 1970s.

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