Category Archives: Manchester’s Heritage

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: 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:

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 [] and the floor with the overhang is the Cloud 23 bar [], 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:

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:

The same article mentions the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange, “Manchester’s best-kept secret”:  for the low-down on that, see

For the equivalent “Birmingham’s best-kept secret”, the Anchor Telephone Exchange, see

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.


Watts Warehouse

Former Watts Warehouse, now Britannia Hotel, Manchester

Former Watts Warehouse, now Britannia Hotel, Manchester

In the Manchester cotton trade, a warehouse was not so much a back-end storage facility as a front-end sales facility.

The Manchester merchants displayed their wares in extensive, prestigious premises, with floor after floor of merchandise available to view.

Orders were dispatched and packed through the basement and delivered by road cart, rail and canal.

One of the most endearing surviving examples is the great palazzo of Samuel & James Watts on Portland Street on Portland Street.

James Watts was the socially ambitious owner of Abney Hall, Cheshire, where he hosted Prince Albert for the opening of the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition.  His firm’s prosperity was founded on wholesale drapery, and it was said that at one time the Warehouse had £10,000-worth of ribbons in one room.

Designed by the architectural partnership of Travis & Magnall from 1851 and eventually opened on March 16th 1858, its successive storeys are in Egyptian, Italian Renaissance, sixteenth-century Dutch, Elizabethan, French Renaissance, Flemish and Gothic styles.

Construction dates are uncertain, but it is likely that work started early in 1855 and was largely complete by the end of 1856.  It was said to have cost £100,000.

Modern visitors take some convincing that this was in fact a warehouse.

After ten years under threat of demolition, the Grade II*-listed Watts Warehouse became the opulently decorated Britannia Hotel, opened in 1982 [].  Many of its internal spaces are divided and its ceilings lowered, but the building is intact and in use.

If you pass it, take a look at the magnificent staircase, original to the building and intended to impress the clients who came to do business.

For background information on Watts and other Manchester warehouses, see

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.


Shrine of books and manuscripts

John Rylands Library, Manchester

John Rylands Library, Manchester

Leave the traffic and bustle of Manchester’s Deansgate, and step into the studious quiet of the John Rylands Library, and you’re transported to a different world – of peace, calm and more books and manuscripts to study and admire than you could absorb in a lifetime.

It’s no longer usual to enter through the street doors into the gloom of the original entrance lobby, which in some ways is a pity.  Instead you enter through a light, white modern wing that brings you to the original Gothic library by a gradual route.

This brown stone Gothic Revival temple of learning is a monument to one of Manchester’s greatest cotton merchants and philanthropists, John Rylands (1801-1888), conceived and paid for by his third wife and widow, the Cuban-born Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908).

She had a very strong idea of what she wanted – a free public scholarly library in the heart of the city of Manchester, for which she purchased as core collections the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer and, later, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana from the Earl of Crawford.

Initially, she intended the library to specialise in theology, and specified a Gothic building that would suggest ecclesiastical and university architecture, so she engaged Basil Champneys (1842-1935) on the strength of his work at Mansfield College, Oxford (1887-90) [see,_Oxford].

Enriqueta Rylands was so anxious to begin work on the Deansgate site that, though Champneys produced the initial design within a week of gaining the commission, she demanded to see building work begin before the detailed work had even started.

To satisfy her, he contrived a 4ft 6in concrete platform on which later rose his spatially complex, technological advanced repository of some of the most valuable books in Manchester – its interior insulated from the smoke and noise of the city by lobbies and ventilated by the best air-conditioning that was practical at the time.

The reading-room is on the first floor, to catch the limited available light, approached by a capacious, picturesque sequence of staircases, galleries and vaults that Nikolaus Pevsner described as “a cavalier throwing-away of whole large parts of the building to spatial extravagance pure and simple”.

The atmosphere of monastic calm, within yards of the busy city-centre street, is dramatic, and reflects the religious emphasis of the original book-collection, though Mrs Rylands insisted on toning down some ecclesiastical features such as the intended traceried screens to the reading-bays.

Despite the romanticism of its aesthetic appeal the building was designed to be fireproof, with a six-inch ferro-concrete lining to the masonry vaults, and was from the beginning lit by electricity, generated in the huge basement.

Cost was not a restriction:  when it opened in 1900 the bill came to £230,000, and by 1913 Champneys was required to extend the building.  Further extensions were added in the 1960s and in 2004-7.

Since 1972 the building has been the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, though members of the public are free to join:

The building itself is open to the public [], and the entrance wing contains the excellent Café Rylands [] and a quality bookshop.

It’s worth seeking out.

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.


Footprints on the phantom dance-floor

Former Lewis's department store, Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester (2009)

Former Lewis’s department store, Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester (2009)

It amuses me when highly respectable historical and amenity societies report the activities of urban explorers.

Those risk-taking, law-bending, under-the-wire investigators of derelict and inaccessible structures are distinguished by their principles – “take nothing but photographs;  leave nothing but footprints” – and the quality of their photography.

They must be a great annoyance to property-owners who would prefer their empty and neglected spaces to remain unvisited and to become forgotten.

For conservationists and architectural historians, however, it’s very useful to have assiduous and athletic enthusiasts reporting on the web the current condition of endangered sites of heritage importance.

I repeatedly visit Manchester, and yet hadn’t given a second glance to the Primark store in Piccadilly.  It was originally Lewis’s, described by Clare Hartwell in the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Manchester, as “a huge untidy Baroque pile” built by J W Beaumont & Sons in 1915 and extended by the same architects in 1929.

Clare Hartwell says it was the biggest department store in the provinces when it was built.  Lewis’s stores aspired to bring the splendour of London department stores to the major provincial cities [see Losing a Liverpool legend:  Lewis’s department store].

The Primark chain only uses the lower floors of the Manchester building, and above the snowline lies a sleeping treasure – Lewis’s ballroom:


Water palace

Victoria Baths, Chorlton-cum-Medlock, Manchester

Victoria Baths, Chorlton-cum-Medlock, Manchester

Building projects overrun their budgets more often than not, and sometimes the reasons are heinous.  Sometimes, though, whether through blameworthy incompetence or honest accident, the results are priceless.

When the Victoria Baths at Chorlton-cum-Medlock on the south side of Manchester opened in 1906, the Lord Mayor, Mr J Herbert Thewlis, called it “a water palace of which every citizen of Manchester is proud”.

The building was designed by the Manchester City Architect, Henry Price, in exuberant red brick and yellow faience, contained three swimming pools, Turkish and Russian baths in the grandest surroundings municipal enterprise could contrive.  It’s a festival of tiles, mosaic and church-quality stained glass.

However, the Manchester Guardian, while lauding the splendour of “…probably the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country…” added, “…But the cost has been heavy…”  The amount was reported to be £54,144 – double the average cost of such facilities at the time.

To the accusations of municipal extravagance the Chairman of the Baths Committee, Alderman Rothwell, retorted –

He would recommend the Baths Committee to do nothing that he would not do on his own account and he had gone so far as to say, in answer to these criticisms, that if Manchester City Council should happen to be dissatisfied with that institution and should pass a resolution to the effect that it was on sale, the City Council had a purchaser tomorrow who would pay them every penny it had cost.

It’s no accident that the Victoria Baths stood on the border between an increasingly densely populated working-class district and the more well-to-do but declining suburbs beyond.

It was actually three separate baths – the First Class Male Bath was designed with raked gallery seating for spectators, separate slipper baths, and a direct link to the Turkish Baths, the more functional Second Class Male Bath and, lastly, the Female Bath.

Fresh water was piped to the First Class Male Bath, from which it was filtered and transferred to the Second Class Male Bath, then passed finally to the Female Bath.  Oral testimony recalls that these changes of water took place on Thursdays and Sundays, and that local users tended to avoid swimming on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Victoria Baths operated with few alterations until 1993:  its closure caused an immediate outcry and the formation of the Friends of the Victoria Baths and the Victoria Baths Trust.  Ten years later the Baths won the BBC Restoration competition, and since then £5 million has been spent making the place weatherproof and fit for further use.

There’s still some way to go before the Baths is fully operational again.  Details of the project and of opening-days and events can be found at

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.


Gorton renaissance

Monastery of St Francis, Gorton, Manchester (2009)

Monastery of St Francis, Gorton, Manchester (2009)

In November 1861 four Franciscan friars arrived in Manchester to set up the Monastery of St Francis, Gorton, serving the working-class community that grew up round the nearby railway works.

Their buildings were designed by Edward Welby Pugin (1834-75), who possessed much of the vigour and little of the subtlety of his father, A W N Pugin, and were constructed largely by the physical labour of the brothers and their parishioners.

The first stone was laid on May 24th 1862, and the three wings of the original monastery were complete by 1867.  To raise funds for the Infant School in 1867 Father Francis hired the Free Trade Hall for a bazaar which raised £1,000.

E W Pugin’s magnificent church, 184ft long, 98ft wide and 100ft high, dominates the streets of Gorton and is clearly visible from central Manchester.

By 1900 the Catholic population of Gorton had increased from 300 to over 6,000.  The fathers saw the parish change from a poor village community, initially dependent on cotton (and badly hit by the effects of the American Civil War), into an industrial inner-city suburb.

For almost a century they provided spiritual and pastoral support to the people of Gorton, and – because many of those people were drawn from Wexford, Waterford and Cork – Gaelic classes, lantern lectures on Irish history and St Patrick’s Day celebrations.  They also exported missionaries to China, Peru and elsewhere.

The surrounding nineteenth-century housing was cleared in the early 1970s, and the Monastery became unsustainable.  Eventually, the Franciscans sold the site for £75,000 to a developer who planned to divide the church into a seven-storey apartment-block but instead went bankrupt.

The abandoned buildings were quickly and badly vandalised.  Lead and slates were removed, and there were repeated arson attacks.  Virtually all the decorative features of interest or value were removed or smashed.

In 1997 the Monastery of St Francis and Gorton Trust bought the Monastery for £1 and began the formidable task of bringing the place back into use.  Cornering funds was not the least of their labours:  the Architectural Heritage Fund, English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, New East Manchester (NEM) and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) between them chipped in millions.

Fixtures that had disappeared in the dark days of dereliction have returned.  A complete set of twelve statues, stolen from the lofty nave arcades, famously appeared as garden ornaments at Sotheby’s:  Manchester City Council bought them for £25,000 and stored them until September 2011 when they returned to the site for restoration.

The art-dealer Patricia Wengraft [] secured the return of the huge crucifix:  The chains to support it had been handed in mysteriously some time before.

I remember the first public opening in September 2005:  people queued down the street, showing immediately how much St Francis’ Monastery meant to local people who’d grown up, been baptised or married here, and had been uprooted.

The Monastery reopened fully as a community, conference and events centre in 2007.  It’s open to the public most Sundays:  see what’s on offer at

I would have liked to see something similar happen to St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield.

Just because a place of worship is no longer needed for worship doesn’t prevent it having enormous value to people.

But making the transition requires enormous energy, imagination, devotion, acumen – and the creative support of people in power.

Shiregreen waits…

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.