On 20 July 1969, lunar landing module Eagle opened up onto the surface of the Moon. A few years later, on 15 September 1976, a different, rather larger module opened up on Manchester's St Ann's Square. The latter represented not quite so giant a leap, perhaps, but it was certainly a huge achievement and it's come to have its own special cultural significance.

Needless to say, the Royal Exchange Theatre Company takes its name from the building that houses it. The present Exchange building isn’t the first, though. In fact, it’s the third. The original was built in 1729 in what was then known as ‘Market Place’, roughly the site of Manchester’s large Marks & Spencer store. At that time St Ann’s Square, round the corner, had only recently been developed beyond being a cornfield.

The intended purpose of the Exchange was to provide a place for assorted business folk, merchants and manufacturers to meet, talk and strike deals. However, it seems that industry in the town hadn’t necessarily reached the levels that required a dedicated Exchange, and over the years parts of the building started to be used for different purposes. Indeed, the oldest existing records suggest that the first public staging of a play in Manchester, namely a performance of Farquhar’s comedy THE RECRUITING OFFICER, took place on the site in 1748. Over time, the Exchange fell into a state of disrepair and some disrepute before being demolished in 1792. Ironically. It was around this time that Manchester’s involvement in the cotton trade really began to gather momentum and the need for a dedicated business meeting place made itself clear. So it was that a second Exchange was built, opening in 1809. Situated on the current site (or at least part of it), the new building was a hugely lavish, finely-appointed affair, funded by subscription and accessible only to members, complete with a well-stocked newsroom, a bar and a dining hall which could house an orchestra and double as a ballroom. Overall, this was a grand space fit to act as the hub of the textile trade for the movers and shakers of ‘Cottonopolis’.

It must be acknowledged though that, by the very nature of the 19th Century cotton trade, Manchester was also implicated in the slave trade. Along different parts of one route, ships that carried raw cotton as saleable cargo would also transport humans, for the same reason. The links from this to those who walked the floor of the Exchange weren’t often direct, but there were certainly local industrialists involved in the slave trade, however obliquely or covertly. Bankers and insurers, for instance, may well have been responsible for underwriting slave ships, and there are scattered examples of wealthy business families who actively embraced, and indeed enthusiastically supported, the slave trade.

The working people of Manchester tended to have their own feelings on these matters. Famously, the city was instrumental in the 1807 Act of Parliament that abolished the trading of enslaved people and it’s said that one in five Mancunians had signed a petition for abolition. Nevertheless, for a time loopholes were found to circumvent the Act, and as trade boomed, Lancashire textile workers were largely processing cotton picked in the American South by enslaved people from Africa or the West Indies. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but to a degree the riches that poured into Manchester were tainted. For all that, though, cotton was far from the only business trade to be conducted at the Exchange. Indeed, the first Exchange had been built before the cotton trade had been fully established, and ultimately the building would outlast it.

Nor was the Exchange of old free of unrest. In April 1812, with the actions of the Luddite movement approaching their peak and the tragedy of Peterloo on the near horizon, a meeting was scheduled in the upper room of the building to draft a congratulatory letter to the Prince Regent. The subject was his support for Spencer Perceval’s Tory government, public contempt for which was so strong that, when news of the meeting spread, it was swiftly cancelled, only for an angry mob to break into the Exchange and wreck the newsroom before being dispelled by the military. (Much later, this scene was played out as part of the theatre’s 2019 staging of THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT, co-produced with Kandinsky.)

Nevertheless, as a whole the Exchange was thriving and membership was escalating swiftly, as a result of which the existing building was extended to twice its size in 1849. When Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and assorted other members of the Royal Family made an official visit to Manchester in October 1850, the expanded Exchange building was deemed suitable to host the large-scale civil reception. The following month, official word arrived that Victoria had given the building her seal of approval, from which point it became known as the Royal Exchange. (This even predated Manchester receiving official city status, which didn’t happen until April 1853.)

As Manchester continued to flourish at the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution, it was decided to expand the Exchange building yet again. Though various possibilities were mooted, including relocation, eventually the existing building was pulled down and another, larger Royal Exchange built on the same site. Completed and opened in 1874, the new Exchange’s Great Hall was 206ft by 96ft, with a glass dome 120ft above its centre. It was ten times the size of the original Exchange built on the same site, and indeed the Great Hall was often referred to as ‘the biggest room in the world’. This seems to have been more of an honorary title than an empirical fact, though it could lay claim to being the largest commercial room in existence.