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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor looks back at when J D Wetherspoon opened in town’s Corn Exchange

On June 5, 2012, J D Wetherspoon a national chain of over 700 public houses in England alone and noted for providing inexpensive beer and food, opened in the Corn Exchange, Bury St Edmunds.

Founded in 1979 by entrepreneur Tim Martin, he decided to name his innovative pubs after J. D. ‘Boss’ Hogg, a character in the American TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, which first aired in January, 1979.

The iconic now Grade II Corn Exchange was built by local builder, Lot Jackaman, in 1861/2 in the classic style, columns et al.

'The Corn Exchange' Wetherspoons is near completion in Bury St Edmunds
'The Corn Exchange' Wetherspoons is near completion in Bury St Edmunds

After World War Two, the building was used at times as a venue for skating and wrestling of all things. In 1960, with the downturn in grain trading, to much uproar the borough council considered demolishing it, building in its place a large concrete monolithic shopping centre - the shape of things to come for St John’s Street it would seem if the council had its way.

However, the council had severely underestimated the amount of opposition to this ludicrous architectural vandalism. Taking up arms various societies, the Victorian Society, Suffolk Preservation Society and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings amongst them were vehemently opposed and from another quarter surprisingly Councillor Jorisch aka author Norah Lofts.

Eventually a compromise was reached the building was split in half with shops below and a public meeting hall/venue above.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

However with the building of the arc shopping centre on the cattle market site in 2009 and the opening of the Apex multi-million pound entertainment venue a year later, it was decided to get rid of the Corn Exchange as it was a possible competitor. But with its enormous rent and rates who would take it on? Wetherspoons did.

Again to much opposition from local businesses and nearby residents because of the possibility of noise from its late night licence, the financial recession of 2012 meant ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ ruled the roost.

Wetherspoons weathered the storm, spending a reputed £1 million on a refit of the building’s interior, the exterior unaltered.

The first customer's receipt from Wetherspoons in Bury Corn Exchange
The first customer's receipt from Wetherspoons in Bury Corn Exchange

Former Angel Hotel chef John Fulcher was its first customer, buying an Abbot Ale and large breakfast for the princely sum of £6.75p. A close inspection however of his invoice shows Bury St Edmunds is not in Suffolk but Norfolk.

Wetherspoons’ take up of the Corn Exchange was nothing new as many of its pubs are in former public buildings such as cinemas etc. One quirky fact associated with ‘Spoons’ refits is that every one of its pubs has a different patterned carpet.

- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Going Underground: Bury St Edmunds, is widely available.