ONE of the most iconic buildings in Basingstoke is the Haymarket.

Standing as a window into Basingstoke’s past, it was originally built as a corn exchange.

Opened on March 1, 1865, at a cost of £4,000, it was purpose built for the time when the town was a livestock and agricultural market town.

It was not an unusual sight to see cattle driven through the streets on the way to or from the outlying fields.

Reflecting this Cross Street used to be called Cow Cross Street, now a pedestrian area running from Church Street through to New Road.

In the 16th century Wote Street was previously known as Ote Street and later Oat Street, the word 'wote' being the obsolete word for 'oat', but it certainly was not a pleasant road to traverse as it was rutted and muddy and not easily travelled by horse and cart.

Great celebrations followed the grand opening of the Corn Exchange with a procession through the streets of 400 people followed by two dinners and a ball - the latter continued until 4am.

The Corn Exchange was sparsely furnished with only stalls for trading oats, barley, wheat and corn. Vegetables and soup were traded in the winter to the poorer classes from the Lesser Market next door in the form of an alleyway from Wote Street to Church street, still in existence today.

Occasionally the building was used for public gatherings, as in 1880 when General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, held a rally and addressed his followers there.

Gradually as Basingstoke became more industrial, the demand for use of the corn exchange grew less, and in 1910 the building’s upper floor was converted into a roller-skating rink and below housed the fire engine.

Following a further change in 1913, the building became The Grand Exchange Cinema showing silent movies (at which Ruth Ellis’s father played his cello, who we met in a previous column about the last woman to be hanged in the UK) and later sound movies.

In 1925 a fire almost destroyed the building after which it was rebuilt as a theatre and renamed The Grand, with a capacity of nearly 600 people. With a further refurbishment in 1940 the theatre was taken over and run by Hammer Theatres Ltd, well known for Hammer Films.

In 1951 the cinema was renamed the Haymarket, reflecting it’s roots, by a local doctor Radford Potter.

Run by a volunteer group called the Haymakers, it was used mainly by amateur groups such as the Basingstoke Amateur Theatrical Society which still appear regularly today.

In the early 1970s the theatre started to attract professional directors such as Guy Slater and leading performers such as Peter Cushing, Timothy West, Prunella Scales and a young Michael Ball.

Further renovations took place in 1983 and 1992 which produced the building you see today, creating a modern theatre whilst retaining the historic feel of the original building.

The Haymarket is still a centre of entertainment in the town complimenting The Anvil, a more modern theatre which seats 1,400, and will undoubtedly continue to be so for years to come.