Detail of The County Arcade, Leeds

Trade and commerce, as much as manufacturing, were central to the prosperity of Victorian Britain. The development of the Empire encouraged this: a vast range of raw materials could easily be located, imported and exchanged from the colonies; finished goods could be exported to protected markets abroad, as well as respond to the demand at home.

Vast profits were accumulated by many, their wealth displayed in the buildings of new commercial centres across the country. Banks, trading exchanges, warehouses, shops, department stores and arcades sprang up throughout Britain. These were often the most prominent buildings in the locality, surpassing churches and town halls in scale and decoration: true temples of commerce.

Not everyone was impressed. Some, like Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris were highly critical of this love of money: according to them, Mammon ruled. But if he did, architects, and architecture profited, as the following images suggest, for Britain was graced with some truly entertaining buildings that remain impressive even today.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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