Category Archives: Manchester’s Heritage

Climbing heaven

Former St Benedict’s Church, Ardwick, Manchester – now Manchester Climbing Centre

The parish church of St Benedict, Ardwick, Manchester, was the result of the wealth and religious inclinations of one man, John Marsland Bennett (1817-1889).  An Alderman and two-term Lord Mayor of Manchester, he prospered as a timber and stone merchant owning an extensive site at the junction of two main-line railways to Crewe and Sheffield.

When the Secretary of the Manchester Diocesan Church Building Society asked Mr Bennett for a plot of land to build a church in 1876 he offered to build the church on land he would provide. 

St Benedict’s Church was consecrated on March 20th 1880.

The architect was Joseph Stretch Crowther (1820-1893) and St Benedict’s is unlike any of his other church designs. 

It is entirely in brick, in header bond on the exterior and English bond within, with stone and terracotta dressings, rectangular without porches.  The body of the church is narrow and high, with a magnificent double hammer-beam roof. 

This magnificence came without a congregation.  Much of the surrounding land had yet to be developed and some of the speculative houses already built had yet to be occupied.  There were only 26 communicants on Easter Day 1880.

This did not seem to trouble the Bennett family, staunch Anglo-Catholics who used it to worship as they pleased in a predominantly Evangelical diocese.

They omitted to provide an endowment.  Their financial support dwindled after the death of J M Bennett’s eldest son, Armitage Bennett, aged 48, in 1897 and ended completely by the time the family business closed in the 1930s.  After the Second World War Keble College, Oxford took over patronage of the living.

When almost all the housing in the parish was cleared in the late 1960s the parish developed as a “shrine church” for Anglican Papalism, the branch of Anglo-Catholicism that looks towards reconciliation between the Church of England and Rome, and rejects any development that might prove an obstacle to that goal.

St Benedict’s came to serve a congregation that did not live locally, and although its centenary was celebrated by the sandblasting and chemical cleaning of the entire building in 1980, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the congregation and the structure.

The final celebration of Mass at St Benedict’s took place on February 11th 2002.

Closure inevitably threatened the future of this Grade II* building until the climber John Dunne took it on as a base for the Manchester Climbing Centre, which was opened on March 15th 2005, and continues to thrive as a popular venue for indoor climbing and bouldering.

The climbing paraphernalia crowds Crowther’s spacious interior – https://manchesterclimbingcentre.com/the-centre/4 – which is a small price to pay to preserve the building for years to come. 

Without the Manchester Climbing Centre, St Benedict’s might well have been flattened before now.

The climbing equipment is demountable, so that the listed interior is preserved.  The ornate iron screens around the sanctuary remain intact, and the mutilated original reredos apparently still exists, though hidden, at the east end.  All of the stained glass remains, but the 1907 pulpit and the organ have been removed.

Around the east end of the church are brass panels commemorating deceased members of the parish. 

One of them is in memory of Professor John Mills, who died in a climbing accident in Snowdonia on December 3rd 1977, aged 63.  A lifelong climber, he would have been astonished to know that his parish church became a climbing centre.

Read about another very different historic building that has been brought back into use as a climbing centre here.

The Gaskells at home

Elizabeth Gaskell House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester

The journalist Brian Redhead, editor of the Manchester Guardian before he became a stalwart of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, after walking down Cross Street and meeting, in quick succession, the cricketer Cyril Washbrook, the artist L S Lowry and the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, remarked, “Manchester’s like that.  It’s big enough for things to happen and small enough for you to get there and be part of them.”

It was ever so.

If in the 1850s you’d been invited to tea or dinner with Rev William Gaskell (1805-1884) and his wife Elizabeth (1810-1865) at their out-of-town villa at 42 Plymouth Grove (now renumbered 84), you might have shared hospitality with some of the greatest figures of Victorian society, alongside local residents who knew each other and became known to posterity.

William Gaskell’s Unitarian congregation at the Cross Street Chapel included such figures as –

  • Sir William Fairbairn Bt (1789-1874), civil engineer
  • Sir Benjamin Heywood (1793-1865), first president of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute
  • Robert Hyde Greg (1795-1875), MP for Manchester (1839-1841)
  • Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877), co-founder of the Manchester Statistical Society
  • Thomas Worthington (1826-1909), architect

The Gaskells’ status – he a great preacher and philanthropist, she a celebrated novelist who unlike the Brontës and Mary Ann Evans made no secret of her gender – attracted visitors from outside Manchester, including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin.

By the time the Gaskells bought their elegant Greek Revival villa in 1850, William had been minister at Cross Street since 1828, and Elizabeth had published her first novel, Mary Barton:  a tale of Manchester Life (1848).

The pianist and conductor Charles Hallé (1819-1895) gave piano lessons to the Gaskells’ daughters at Plymouth Grove after he settled in Manchester in 1853.

Elizabeth wrote her later novels at the house, including Cranford (1853) and North and South (1855), and longed to have a peaceful home outside Manchester.

After her death in 1865, William continued to live at Plymouth Grove until his own death in 1884.

His two surviving unmarried daughters, Meta and Julia, kept the house on.  Julia died in 1908, and after Meta’s death in 1913 the family gave it up.

International appeals for it to become a museum commemorating Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing were rejected by Manchester City Council.  Manchester University owned it from 1969 to 2000

Listed Grade II*, it was purchased in 2004 by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which opened it as a museum ten years later.

It’s a delightful place.  The ground floor rooms are restored as closely as possible to their appearance in the Gaskell’s time.  The upstairs rooms contain exhibitions and administrative offices.

In the basement is a coffee shop with exceptional cake.

It’s well worth a bus-ride out of town to visit:  http://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk.

A visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

The first industrial estate

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Rochdale Canal, Ancoats, Manchester

Ancoats was a rural village outside Manchester until the late eighteenth century when landowners, realising the imminent arrival of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, parcelled up their property and sold it for development, both for mills and factories.

Some of the mills were huge by contemporary standards, steam-powered and served by canal wharfs which also provided the condensing water necessary for the engines.  Adam and George Murray’s Old Mill (1798) may have been the first eight-storey factory in the world.

The Murray brothers, along with their rivals James McConnel and John Kennedy, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, and used their expertise in building textile machinery to produce bigger and better equipment with which to spin cotton.

Ancoats’ population boomed from 11,039 in 1801 to 53,737 in 1861.  In 1821 one-fifth of the total population of Manchester lived in Ancoats.

Though some respectable housing was built among the industries and slums, there was no attempt to provide for a bourgeois population.  It was, by Jacqueline Roberts’ definition, “the first residential district of the modern world intended for occupation by one social class, the new urban working class”.

Title-deeds for such properties typically contained no restrictions on uses that would cause nuisance, and very few were provided with privies.   Bathrooms and running hot water were, of course, unknown.

Foreign writers were appalled.

Léon Faucher (1803-1854) who visited England in 1843, published Études sur l’Angleterre (1845), in which he wrote of “the breathing of vast machines, sending forth fire and smoke through their tall chimneys, and offering up to the heavens, as it were in token of homage, the sighs of that Labour which God has imposed upon man”.

It can’t have been fun to live in Ancoats, despite the well-meaning efforts of philanthropists, who provided the Ardwick & Ancoats Dispensary (1828), later Ancoats Hospital, ragged schools and night shelters.

The life-expectancy of a Manchester labourer in 1842 was seventeen years.

In 1889 Dr John Thresh reported a death rate of over 80 per thousand, and commented, “3,000 to 4,000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes”.

This prompted the Manchester Labourers’ Dwellings Scheme of 1890, which led to the building of Victoria Square (Henry Spalding & Alfred W S Cross 1897), a five-storey block of one- and two-room walk-up flats with penny-in-the-slot gas meters, communal sinks and water-closets shared between two apartments and, in the turrets, laundries and drying rooms, Anita Street, originally Sanitary Street until the name was truncated to suit 1960s sensibilities, two-storey terraces of one-, two- and three-room flats, and George Leigh Street, which provided three-bedroom houses, intended for families with children of both sexes.

Only the better-off labourers could afford the rents.

Owners of back-to-back terraces were offered £15 per house to convert their premises to through houses, and by 1914 almost all of the city’s back-to-back houses had gone.

However, this was only a partial solution.  A 1928 social-study group inspection report remarked, “the reconditioned house of the eighties is not to be tolerated today”.  There were houses so dark that the gas-light had to be kept on all day, and such dampness that plaster would not hold wallpaper in place.

In the end, the only practical solution was to clear the housing wholesale.  Victoria Square, Anita Street and George Leigh Street have been adapted to modern standards and look attractive.  Some architecturally interesting buildings remain, and the canal-side locations are at last being developed for 21st-century work and living.

Gentrification is often derided, but it’s better than living in a slum.

The Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour includes a walking-tour of Ancoats.  For further details, please click here.

Layers of Manchester’s history

Hanging Bridge, Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre

Hanging Bridge, Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre

Deep beneath the streets around Manchester Cathedral the tiny River Irk flows towards the River Irwell.

Some of the nearby buildings date only from the rebuilding after the 1996 IRA bomb attack.  Others were part of the post-war redevelopment that followed the Blitz.  Very little of the central Manchester streetscape dates back before the Victorians.

The Cathedral, itself heavily restored after the Blitz, is largely a Victorian building, enlarged after the diocese was established in 1847 and repeatedly embellished between the 1860s and 1933-34.

As the parish church it had been refounded in 1421 by Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor, as the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, a thank-offering for the victory at Agincourt in 1415.

Its predecessor dates back to 1215 and stood next to a fortified manor house that probably occupied the site of the present-day Chetham’s School of Music.

These archaeological layers of history are vividly apparent if you eat and drink at the Manchester Cathedral Visitor Centre, where the arches of the Hanging Ditch Bridge over the River Irk have been uncovered (though current building work makes them temporarily inaccessible):  http://www.manchestercathedralvisitorcentre.org/the-hanging-ditch-bridge.

Though the Roman Castlefield is more apparent as a modern tourist attraction, this is the heart of modern Manchester, dating back to the time in the late tenth century, when the more prosperous settlement was on the opposite bank of the Irwell and Manchester was a subsidiary manor within the hundred of Salford.

A visit to Manchester Cathedral and lunch at the Visitor Centre are included in the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Manchester’s first free library

Chetham's Library, Manchester

Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Twenty-first century concerns about social inclusion and lamentations about the decline of local-authority amenities such as schools and libraries are nothing new.

Chetham’s School and Library was a seventeenth-century attempt to educate the underprivileged and give access to learning to members of the public.

Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), a prosperous bachelor cotton-merchant and banker, made provision in his will to benefit the sons “of honest, industrious parents and not of wandering or idle beggars or roagues nor that any of the said boyes shal bee bastards nor such as are lame, infirme or diseased at the time of their ellection” by founding the school that still bears his name.

(In comparison, the older Manchester Grammar School, – which stood nearby until it moved out to Fallowfield in 1931 – was founded in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter, “for boys who, having pregnant wit, have been for the most part brought up rudely and idly.”)

His trustees bought the decayed college buildings that had been built by Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor, when he refounded and rebuilt the parish church, now the Cathedral, in 1421.

They spent £400 on buildings and £1,000 on the books which were to be available to the general public free of charge.

Naturally, the books stayed firmly chained to the shelves, and readers had to move to the location of the book they wanted, using oak stools with S-shaped hand holds that remain in the library.

Stepping into the Library, which is accessible to tourists or readers alike, is a journey back in time.

Though the catalogue is now digitised, the books are still arranged in presses, secured by wooden gates instead of chains, and are brought to readers by library staff.

The table where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels researched and wrote in 1845 is still beside the stained-glass window which, Engels later remarked, “ensures that the weather is always fine there”.

Nowadays the school is a specialised music school, open to boys and girls, and some of the medieval buildings are off-limits to the public for much of the time.

Visitors are made very welcome, and guided tours are available.  There’s no charge but donations are appreciated.  It’s advisable to make an appointment simply to be sure of a place:  http://library.chethams.com/about/visiting.

A visit to Chetham’s Library forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Great Northern Goods Warehouse, Manchester

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Peter Street, Manchester

Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse, Peter Street, Manchester

One of the weird complications of the geography of Victorian railway development is illustrated by the short length of Great Northern railway track that used to exist in the centre of Manchester, fifty-odd miles away from any other Great Northern route.

The Great Northern Railway, a primary component of what became the East Coast Main Line from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, gained access to Manchester and Liverpool by its membership of the Cheshire Lines Committee, in conjunction with the Midland Railway and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire (later Great Central) Railway.  The Cheshire Lines’ passenger terminus was Manchester Central station, now the conference centre.

From the approaches to Manchester Central the Great Northern ran an independent short spur (yellow in the Railway Clearing House map of 1910:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_Central_railway_station#/media/File:Manchester_RJD_47.JPG) into their Great Northern Goods Warehouse on Deansgate, which advertised the company’s presence grandly with tiled friezes on all four sides, “GREAT NORTHERN COMPANY’S GOODS WAREHOUSE”.

Goods trains entered the warehouse at viaduct level, and carts gained access by means of a carriage ramp.

Not only did the five-story fireproof brick warehouse provide interchange with Manchester’s roads, but it also picked up traffic from the truncated Manchester & Salford Junction Canal, built in 1839 to link the Rochdale Canal with the River Irwell, through two lift-shafts dropped twenty-five feet to the canal tunnel beneath the streets.

The canal connection closed in 1936, and the spaces below the warehouse were adapted as air-raid shelters during World War II:  http://www.subbrit.org.uk/sb-sites/sites/m/manchester_salford_junction/index.shtml.

The warehouse itself closed in 1954 or 1963 (sources differ), and was converted into a cavernous car-park, until in 1996 planning permission was given for conversion to a leisure and retail development which controversially permitted demolition of the listed carriage ramp, much of the train deck and associated buildings on Peter Street.

The distinctive frontage of railway buildings on Deansgate survives, and at the southern end of the site stands the huge Beetham Tower.

Two sections of the canal tunnel remain:  that under the Great Northern Goods Warehouse may become accessible to the public;  the other section under the former Granada TV studios is intact but inaccessible.

Humming tower

Beetham Tower, from Castlefield, Manchester

Beetham Tower, from Castlefield, Manchester

When I was little, going on holiday to Blackpool involved hanging out of the train window from Preston onwards seeking the first glimpse of the Tower.

Nowadays, approaching Manchester feels the same, particularly when I drive over the Woodhead Pass, where you can see the Beetham Tower from as far away as Tintwistle.

The Beetham Tower at 554 feet won’t be Manchester’s tallest building for much longer, when Tower 1 (659 feet), the tallest of the cluster of four towers at Owen Street, is topped out in 2018.

For the moment, though, it’s the tenth tallest building in the UK, and the tallest outside London.

It was designed by Ian Simpson of SimpsonHaugh & Partners whose other Manchester work includes the Shudehill Interchange and the Central Library and Town Hall Extension restoration.

It sits on a narrow site on Deansgate, and its profile, with a distinctive overhang at the 23rd floor, makes it unmistakable.  The first twenty-two floors are occupied by the Hilton Manchester Deansgate [http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/united-kingdom/hilton-manchester-deansgate-MANDGHI/index.html] and the floor with the overhang is the Cloud 23 bar [https://www.cloud23bar.com], where you’re asked to “dress to impress”.

Above that, floors 24-47 are apartments.  The architect, Ian Simpson, moved into the top-floor penthouse, a two-storey residence containing trees imported from Italy and craned through the roof before topping out.

Other notable residents have included the Manchester-born singer, Shayne Ward, and the footballers Phil Neville and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Living in or near the Beetham Tower is sometimes disturbed in windy weather by a hum from the ten-metre glass blade which extends the height of the south façade.  This persistent howling noise, featured in the rock-band Paramore’s track ‘Idle Worship’ (2017), has on occasion interrupted filming of Coronation Street.

Not everyone approves of the way the Beetham Tower dominates the cityscape, but I like it.

Manchester Central

Manchester Central

Manchester Central

Like most Victorian cities, Manchester had more railway termini than it really needed – Victoria and Exchange, which connected end-on, London Road, latterly known as Piccadilly, and Central.

The last built was the shortest lived.

Manchester Central station was opened in July 1880, serving the Cheshire Lines services of the Midland, the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire and the Great Northern railways, which had operated into a temporary terminus, known as Manchester Free Trade Hall Station, since 1877.

Sir John Fowler’s train-shed at Manchester Central, with ironwork by Andrew Handyside of Derby, has a span of 210 feet, only thirty feet narrower than St Pancras.  Unlike St Pancras, the arch is not tied beneath the platforms because of the structure of the huge brick undercroft, which bridged and connected with the Manchester & Salford Junction Canal.

The original intention to fill the station frontage with either a hotel or an office-building never came to anything, and until the station closed on May 5th 1969 its façade was no more than a temporary wooden structure.

Charles Trubshaw’s Midland Hotel (1898-1904), a bombastic but loveable essay in terracotta – “probably the most beautiful building in the whole city”, according to the initial publicity material, “a vast and varied affair” in Pevsner’s description – was built on a two-acre site across the road looking over St Peter’s Square, linked to the station by a covered way.

After rail-services were diverted away from Central Station in 1969 it stood neglected, used only as a car-park for some years, until in 1980 the Greater Manchester Council, in conjunction with a private developer, transformed it into an exhibition hall, G-MEX, the Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre.

The architects for the G-Mex conversion were Essex, Goodman & Suggitt.

Its use as a concert venue declined after the opening of the Manchester Arena in 1995, and G-MEX was rebranded under its original name, Manchester Central, in 2007-8:  https://www.manchestercentral.co.uk.

Old Shambles

Old Shambles, Manchester (2008)

Old Shambles, Manchester (2008)

The Old Wellington Inn and Sinclair’s Oyster Bar are landmarks of old Manchester, a surviving group of sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century timber-framed buildings surrounded by successively more incongruous and out-of-scale developments on all sides.

Similar buildings elsewhere in the centre were obliterated from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The cutting through of Victoria Street in 1837 transformed the area, and by the 1870s this little block in the Market Place was dwarfed by imposing four-storey Victorian brick buildings faced with stone.  The Wellington Inn was for years made even more distinctive by the huge spectacle signs of Bowen’s Practical Optician and Mathematical Instrument Maker (Established 1809).

In fact only the Wellington Inn is genuinely late-medieval:  the fabric of Sinclair’s is actually brick, dating from c1800, and the link-building between the two dates from 1925.

The Blitz of December 22nd-24th 1940 flattened many of the surrounding buildings, leaving this ramshackle group intact.

In 1971 the Old Shambles buildings were underpinned on a reinforced concrete raft and raised 4ft 9in to accommodate an underground access road.  Here they stood, completely divorced from their historic foundations and surroundings.

The IRA bomb which devastated the surrounding area in 1996, though it did not seriously damage the Old Shambles, provided the opportunity to redevelop the area around the unlovely Arndale Centre.

This scheme included a new road, New Cathedral Street, and an enlarged Marks & Spencer store and involved moving the Old Shambles to another, empty site nearer to the Cathedral at a cost of £1.5 million.

In the process the block has been turned from a terrace to an L-plan, introducing further new material including a glass-fronted staircase and a complete new rear elevation to fill the space formerly hidden by the old Marks & Spencer premises.

The Old Shambles is indeed a link with medieval Manchester, but it’s a tenuous link.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre

Arndale Centre, Manchester

Arndale Centre, Manchester

It’s unusual to find archaeological interest in the urban redevelopment of the 1960s and early 1970s.  Indeed, the redevelopment of town- and city-centres in that period more often obliterated archaeology than created it.

And it’s even more surprising to read of an archaeological find associated with Manchester’s unloved Arndale Centre (Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley 1972-9).

Two Manchester academics, Martin Dodge and Richard Brook, have identified an otherwise inexplicable void beneath the Centre that appears to be the basis for a station – possibly to be named ‘Royal Exchange’ – for the aborted 1970s Picc-Vic rail-link that would have been Manchester’s equivalent of Liverpool’s Merseyrail loop.

Their discovery was reported in the Architects’ Journal, March 13th 2012:  http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/astragal/manchester-unearths-forgotten-1970s-tube-line/8627773.article.

The same article mentions the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange, “Manchester’s best-kept secret”:  for the low-down on that, see http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/s/1193083_manchesters_tunnel_vision.

For the equivalent “Birmingham’s best-kept secret”, the Anchor Telephone Exchange, see http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/b/birmingham_anchor_exchange/index.html.

Peter Laurie, in his seminal Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), was right when he pointed out how easily British governments have excavated thousands of tons of spoil, pumped in vast quantities of concrete and established secret bunkers and command-bases, literally under the noses of the public.