Streetwise: Exchange Street

Name Plate

The name “Exchange Street” is a puzzle to the modern Dundonian, as there is not now any Exchange in existence to justify the title of a street running between Castle Street and Commercial Street.

The evolution of the Royal Exchange, now in Albert Square, has a shade of historical romance about it. In the seventeenth century (say 1650) the only place where the Dundee merchants could meet to transact business was in the Green Market, now absorbed in the site of the Caird Hall.

The space occupied was known as “The Merchant’s Walk”. After the opening of the Trades Hall at the east end of the High Street in 1778, the principal apartment was rented by the merchants; and here they established what was called “The Dundee Exchange Coffee-room and Reading-room”. As the room was often occupied for theatrical performances, lectures etc., the merchants determined in 1805 to erect a building for themselves, and subscriptions were taken for that purpose.

Two years afterwards they established the new Exchange on the south side of a rude footpath that led from Castle Street to the Burnhead. In 1809 a Library was added to the Exchange Coffee-room and a glowing poem upon this new feature of Dundee life appeared in the “Dundee Advertiser” of 30th November, 1810, of which this is the first verse of the “Ode to the Exchange Coffee-Room, Dundee”:

The Nine the Scottish Lily Shades,
The Nine Incorporated Trades
I dare in Minstrel Lay presume
To sing the Dundee Coffee-Room.

In 1828 it was decided to extend the modest building, and Mr. George Smith, architect, Edinburgh, prepared plans which were approved. It was designed to have shops in the under portion, and the principal hall measured 73 feet by 36 feet. On 5th August, 1830, the new Exchange Coffee-Room was to be opened by a Ball, attended by the principal burghers of the time, but this was altered to a Dinner and Ball, which took place successfully in the following month.

In the year 1838 the Subscribers to the Exchange Coffee-Room were in a position to dispose of a surplus fund of 80 guineas – £50 to the Royal Infirmary, and £34 to the Orphan Institution. Ten years before this date (February, 1828) the Town Council arranged to form a street, 40 feet wide, from the Burnhead to the foot of the Castle Street, and that was the origin of Exchange Street. In 1859 the present Royal Exchange was built from designs by David Bryce, R.S.A., on the north side of the meadows, now Albert Square, and gives the name to “Royal Exchange Court”. The lower portion of Commercial Street was laid out and partially completed in 1834 by the Town Council, chiefly to give an easy access to Exchange Street.

Source: ‘Glimpses of Old and New Dundee’ – A.H. Millar, January 1925