The Royal Exchange of Sydney can trace its origins back to the 1820’s where several attempts were made to form an exchange to facilitate business and commerce in New South Wales. However, it was not until 1851 that The Royal Exchange Company was finally formed with the aim of providing a place of meeting for the commercial community.
A grant of land was obtained in Gresham Street, opposite Macquarie Place, and in 1853 plans were commenced for the construction of a permanent building.
The design of J F Hilly, a well-known Sydney architect, was selected and the foundation stone was laid by the Governor-General, Sir Charles Fitzroy, on the 25th August 1853. By 1857 the building was completed and was officially opened by the then Governor-General, Sir William Denison, on the 30th October 1857.
A Grand Ball followed the opening ceremony and 600 ladies and gentlemen celebrated until the early hours of the following morning. The Royal Exchange met with enthusiastic support and the membership roll included many of the leading citizens of Sydney such as Thomas Holt Jnr, John Fairfax, David Jones, T S Mort, Robert Tooth and W C Wentworth.
Over the ensuing years the Royal Exchange was associated with some of the most interesting organisations and events in New South Wales. The first telegraphic message in New South Wales was sent from the Exchange to Liverpool on the day of the official opening in 1857 and within a week a telegraphic line was installed linking the Exchange with the South Head Signal Station.
The Exchange was also associated with early attempts to form the Chamber of Commerce; in 1871 the Sydney sharebrokers formed an association and made the Royal Exchange their meeting place; there was a long association with the shipping companies and the formation of the Royal Humane Society of NSW in 1877 which provided relief for shipwrecked sailors and their families; the Fire Underwriters’ Association was formed at the Exchange in 1875.
The first telephone system in New South Wales was established by the Royal Exchange in 1880 with the connection of the Darling Harbour Woolsheds with the Exchange. Within weeks a number of wharves were connected and many businesses became interested in the new system culminating in 300 subscribers by 1882.
Another milestone for the Exchange was the first public demonstration of electric lighting in the dining room on the 6th December 1882.
Perhaps the most prominent activity that people associate with the Royal Exchange is wool auctioning. For 100 years, from 1864 to 1964, wool sales were held at the Royal Exchange. At first sales were irregular, and in small quantities, but in time it became the world’s greatest wool selling centre.
The Exchange continued as a leading participant in the commercial life of Sydney until in 1960 a firm of developers purchased the shares of the Sydney Exchange Company in order to obtain the building and the land.
In 1964 the developers managed to obtain from the Government a new Act which changed the terms of the original grant of land. However, the Act contained a covenant that 2400 square feet of floor space was to be provided by the owner of the building for the operation of an Exchange. With the unfortunate demolition of the Royal Exchange building, a significant historical Sydney landmark was lost.
The Royal Exchange today occupies the same location in Gresham Street and continues to provide a meeting place for business people, with a deserved reputation as one of the premier luncheon venues in Sydney combining old world ambience with a modern approach to dining.