The stunning Royal Exchange building in the heart of Manchester city centre has a long and winding history which dates back to the 18th century.

Originally a hub for the trading of raw cotton throughout the old county of Lancashire, the building has undergone many different guises through the eras.

Today the ornate, gothic arches of The Royal Exchange encompass a number of outlet stores, including high end shops and retail units.

It's hard to believe this grand old Georgian building once operated as a bustling airport terminal during the 1950s.

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From 1951, the Cross Street entrance to the building served as the Manchester Air Terminal, where customers would check-in for their flights before boarding a bus bound for Manchester Airport.

The Manchester Air Terminal had previously been at St Peter's Square, but was forced to move across town when that contract came to an end.

Cars parked outside the Royal Exchange in St Ann's Square circa 1975
Cars parked outside the Royal Exchange in St Ann's Square circa 1975

The likes of Air France used to advertise in the Manchester Evening News for customers to come to their St Peter's Square terminus.

Several city centre spaces were touted as possible alternatives for the new Manchester terminus, one of the suggestions was the old Athenaeum Club in Princess Street.

The Manchester Athenaeum building was first completed in 1837, housing the Manchester Athenaeum Club for the Advancement and Diffusion of Knowledge.

Within a year the club had more than 1,000 paying members, it was famous enough to receive talks from Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli during the 1840s.

Manchester Corporation acquired the building in 1938, when the society ceased operations.

The Manchester Art Galleries Corporation rented the building out to Food Ministry staff in 1945 who continued to occupy the building in 1952.

A Manchester Evening News article in May of that year reported that the Manchester Art Galleries Corporation would be making a decision as to whether the air terminal would move there.

They obviously decided against it because the building became an extension of Manchester Art Gallery, a function it still serves today.

Manchester Airport had opened in 1938 as Ringway, preceded by Barton and Wythenshawe aerodromes. But within months of opening, World War II broke out, and so mass passenger transport wouldn't return until 1946. At a time when cars were relatively rare and with the airport still in development, having a terminal at a central location like St Peter's Square made sense.

By November 1951, the idea of moving the city centre terminal to The Royal Exchange, replacing a unit that had previously encompassed the old Manchester Limited Restaurant on Cross Street, had taken shape.

The new air terminal opened out of The Royal Exchange in 1952
The new air terminal opened out of The Royal Exchange in 1952

Eight foreign and British major airlines including British European Airways, Air France, Trans-Canada Airlines, and Swiss Air, met to discuss the requirements for the new terminus that same month, holding talks with architects as to how the unit could be suitably converted.

It was reported that the rent would cost around £8,500 a year, akin to more than £270,000 in today's money.

The deal was struck that December when it was agreed that the new air terminal would operate out of the Cross Street unit, running from the street to St Ann's Square.

The Royal Exchange terminal would include nine lines, making it the biggest outside London at the time.

A £50,000 conversion of the unit was kick-started in December, 1951, with plans to implement a bar, restaurant, and waiting room at the new terminal, with the aim of having it all complete by the summer of 1952.

Passengers were able to check in for their flights at desks here before boarding two tone blue shuttle buses which would set out from St Ann’s Square for the ten mile journey to Ringway.

The air terminal in The Manchester Royal Exchange, circa 1952
The air terminal in The Manchester Royal Exchange, circa 1952

The design of these Leyland Royal Tiger buses allowed for a large luggage compartment under the rear seat.

They had no stops - and, excitingly, bore the names of passengers' final destinations, meaning that alongside buses going to local suburbs, were vehicles 'heading' for international destinations like Dublin, Madrid, New York and Zurich.

Passengers board a bus for a Zurich flight at Cross Street in the fifties

In 1954 the terminal was expanded with a fresh new restaurant, commissioned by BEA.

This was a sign of the terminal's bustling traffic, as more and more travellers used the Manchester Airport.

The air terminal at Royal Exchange was retired some time around 1962 when Terminal One at Manchester Airport was opened by His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The fleet of buses running from the city centre to the airport remained for some time afterwards however, the forerunner to the city centre shuttle service which was finally replaced by rail in 1993.

Today, with the Grade II listed Royal Exchange building packed with artisan shops, it is hard to believe that it was once one of the country's biggest, and busiest, airport terminals.

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Did you ever go to the Manchester Air Terminal at The Royal Exchange? Let us know your memories of your 1950s flight and holidays from central Manchester