The magnificent former Manchester headquarters of the Refuge Assurance Company is a fitting symbol of the city’s nineteenth-century prestige and prosperity, an extravagant temple to the virtues of thrift and frugality.
The Refuge Friend in Deed Life Assurance & Sick Fund Friendly Society was founded in 1858 by James Proctor and George Robins of Dukinfield, near Stalybridge, east of Manchester. By the late nineteenth century their society based on saving for the future had expanded to the extent that it needed a prominent headquarters in Manchester city centre.
For commercial buildings the architect, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), favoured the use of moulded glazed or unglazed brick to create rich decorative effects at less expense than ashlar and carved stonework. Some of his best public buildings in Manchester were built in stone – the Assize Courts (1859-64, demolished) and the Town Hall (1868-77) – though Strangeways Prison (1868) is brick with stone dressings.
Elsewhere, his attachment to terracotta, and its tin-glazed derivative, faience, gained prominence after he designed the Natural History Museum, South Kensington (1873-80) and became widely recognised by his work for the Prudential Assurance Company at their London headquarters at Holborn Bars (1895-1901) and at instantly recognisable branch offices across the nation.
These terracotta buildings were satirised as “slaughterhouse Gothic”, which is unfair, partly because most of them are in other styles than Gothic, but furthermore because, though the outside elevations were deep red, the interiors were invariably varied and colourful, and could be kept bright because they were practically washable.
Alfred Waterhouse’s original building for the Refuge Assurance Company in central Manchester, on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, was started in 1891 and completed in 1895.
The architect’s son, Paul Waterhouse, continued the Oxford Street elevation, including the 217-foot clock tower, in 1910-12. Both designs are an eclectic mix of French Renaissance style with baroque features, liberally embellished with emblems such as the bee, symbolising Manchester’s industry, and the initial ‘R’ for ‘Refuge’.
The company owned the land further along Whitworth Street, where India House (1906), Lancaster House (1905-10) and Asia House, Princess Street (1906-9) were built, leaving room on Whitworth Street for a further extension of the Refuge headquarters, designed in harmony with the existing building by Stanley Birkett (1884-1959) in 1932.
The Refuge Assurance Company left Manchester in 1987 for a purpose-built site at Fulshaw Hall, Cheshire. The Manchester building was considered as a replacement home for the Hallé Orchestra but instead the orchestra moved directly from the Free Trade Hall to the Bridgewater Hall in 1996.
Instead, the Refuge building was converted into a 271-room hotel which also opened in 1996. It was named the Palace after the theatre on the opposite corner of Whitworth Street. The hotel was reconfigured, with conference facilities separated in the 1932 Excalibur Building, and rebranded the Principal in 2016.
The main features of the Waterhouse buildings of 1891-95 and 1910-12 are the porte-cochère, originally open until the dome was inserted in 1996, the open-plan office space and the clock tower, its faces embellished with the Manchester bee.
The tower, for obvious reasons inaccessible to the general public, has a dizzy succession of staircases to the top of the cupola: https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/refuge-assurance-building-manchester-2011.60357. Ascending to the top is fraught with risks: https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/man-plunged-his-death-manchester-canal-after-photo-escapade-hotels-roof-1659284.
Within, the private directors’ staircase, decorated with Cararra marble and a bronze balustrade and embellished with stained-glass coats of arms of the cities and boroughs where the company did business, leads to the director’s boardroom.
The Stanley Birkett building respects its older neighbour, but the interior colour-palette is toned down to white, and the decorative features tend towards moderne in style.
The Refuge building featured in the climax of the 1960 Hammer film, Hell is a City, written and directed by Val Guest. An analysis of the locations used is at https://www.reelstreets.com/films/hell-is-a-city.
Tours of the Principal Hotel are provided by Jonathan Schofield, a professional tour-guide and author who knows Manchester like the back of his hand, tells good stories well, and has a voice that cuts through the city’s traffic noise like a bandsaw: https://www.jonathanschofieldtours.com/exclusive-the-principal-hotel.html.