Posted by: mike on Apr 13, 2013

Category:Manchester's Heritage

Manchester Arndale Centre (2009)

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.

Posted by: mike on Mar 20, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's Heritage

Manchester Watts' Warehouse

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.

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.

Posted by: mike on Sep 14, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manchester John Rylands Library

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.

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.

Posted by: mike on Jun 9, 2012

Category:Manchester's HeritageFun Palaces

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (2009)

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (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:

Posted by: mike on Apr 26, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's Heritage

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.

Posted by: mike on Jan 3, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesManchester's Heritage

Monastery of St Francis, Gorton

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’d like to see something similar happen to St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield, which I’ve written about in Losing a landmark and Church going.

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.

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.

Posted by: mike on Apr 24, 2011

Category:Manchester's Heritage

Manchester Town Hall Extension

Manchester Town Hall Extension, with the Central Library in the background

The city of Manchester now boasts only one public convenience for its population of nearly half a million.

Visitors must follow Queen Mary's precept, never to miss an opportunity to take the weight from one's feet or to relieve oneself.

In the basement of a branch of the food-chain Eat, at the corner of Cross Street and King Street, I visited one of the most peculiar gents' lavatories I've ever encountered – one of those hand-driers that burst into action as soon as you walk through the door, mirrors on all four walls (very distracting for a gentleman), no sign of the stairs you came down when you come out, and instead another staircase that disappears into the ceiling.  It's worth visiting for the sheer drama:

Later, I found the one loo that will remain open, located at the back of the Town Hall Extension, the deft 1938 design of Vincent Harris, the architect who was commissioned to create a building that could stand between Alfred Waterhouse's great Town Hall of 1877 and his own Central Library of 1934.

The Town Hall is one of the great Gothic buildings of the Victorian period, built in Yorkshire sandstone on an odd trapezoid-shaped site;  Harris' circular Central Library is grand-slam classical, built in white Portland limestone.  Two more different public buildings could hardly be imagined, and it's ironic that Vincent Harris landed the job of uniting them with an office building on the site between.

This he did with consummate skill – devising a tall, steeply-gabled building which echoes the Town Hall, but with plain surfaces and regular lines, aligned to the Town Hall and embracing the circumference of the Central Library.  Though not universally accepted when first completed, time has shown that Harris' group forms a far more inspired and respectful piece of civic planning than most twentieth-century public architecture.

Who would have thought in 1938 that this monument to twentieth-century civic pride would become the only official place in Manchester to "spend a penny" – a landmark of the poverty of local government in the twenty-first century?

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.

Posted by: mike on Feb 14, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's Heritage

Manchester London Road Fire Station

It was heartening to read, in the 'Casework news' section of the Victorian Society's magazine The Victorian (November 2010), that a practical proposal has at last been determined to find a new use for London Road Fire Station, Manchester (1901-6).

This was in fact much more than a fire station.  It was originally conceived as a combined fire station, ambulance station, police station, gas-meter testing station, public library and gymnasium, though the last two were omitted to make room for a coroner's court and a bank.  The Wikipedia entry on the building has a very clear block-diagram showing how these facilities were arranged:,_Manchester.

Living accommodation was provided for 32 firemen with families and six single firemen;  other facilities included a laundry, billiard-room, gymnasium and a play area for the resident children.  For speedy response, poles were provided and the street doors were electrically powered.  The stables were fitted with rapid harnessing equipment, and there was a forced ventilation-system to prevent the smell of the horses reaching the living quarters.

All this practicality was housed in an elaborately decorated building built in Accrington brick embellished with beige and brown terracotta.  Like its exact contemporary, the Victoria Baths, Chorlton-cum-Medlock (1906), the use of terracotta provided the opportunity for an elaborate celebration of municipal pride, specially cast by Burmantofts of Leeds, with moulded reliefs depicting fire and water and allegorical figures of Courage, Vigilance, Justice and Truth.

The architects were Woodhouse, Willoughby & Potts, though the design shows the influence of the then newly-appointed City Architect, Henry Price, who designed the Victoria Baths, and it's no surprise to discover that the adjudicator of the architectural competition was Alfred Waterhouse, the leading proponent of terracotta as a building material for grimy industrial cities and also the architect of Manchester Town Hall.

The ambulance service relocated in 1948 and the police left in 1979.  It remained an operational fire station until 1989.  Finally the coroner's court left the building in 1998.

Since then it has been an increasingly neglected eyesore and planning problem, included in the English Heritage Buildings at Risk list since 2002. Successive proposals to turn it into a hotel have come and gone and its owners, Britannia Hotels (who restored the superb Watts' Warehouse on Portland Street nearby as long ago as 1982) have used it for storage.  Manchester City Council has, understandably, become increasingly impatient that rail travellers' first view of the city as they leave Piccadilly Station is a huge derelict building with greenery sprouting from its roofline.

At last, according to the Victorian Society, a scheme to convert it to a four-star hotel is within reach of approval.  Not before time.

For a quick look inside, go to

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.

Posted by: mike on Oct 8, 2010

Category:Manchester's HeritageFun Palaces

Odeon Cinema, Manchester

Former Paramount Cinema, Oxford Street, Manchester (1996)

The New Victoria Cinema (latterly the Odeon), Bradford [see Hug the Odeon] stands mouldering because its owners have pointedly neglected it for ten years and English Heritage has seen insufficient evidence to list it and secure its survival.

The Paramount Cinema, Oxford Street, Manchester, which finally closed in 2004, is in an even worse state.

Like the New Victoria, Bradford, it was opened in 1930 – in this case the very first Paramount cinema in the British provinces.  Designed by the Paramount house-architects, Frank T Verity and his son-in-law Sam Beverly, it seated 2,920 in an elaborate baroque auditorium with a Wurlitzer organ which survives in Stockport Town Hall [].  Certainly it's been knocked about a bit:  it was repeatedly subdivided in 1973, 1979 and 1992, and photographs show that the removal of the organ did no favours to the organ case.

The developers, Manchester & Metropolitan, carried out what they described as "limited and entirely lawful exposure works in anticipation of the forthcoming redevelopment".  This involved ripping out easily accessible decorative features and discouraged English Heritage from listing.

In fact, thanks to YouTube, it's clear that a substantial amount of the original auditorium decoration remains:  go to and fast-forward to 2:45.

Websites discussing the potential future of the Paramount include, and – a more matter-of-fact view –

The parallels with Bradford are instructive.  A hopelessly large auditorium is subdivided in the 1960s to maintain its commercial viability;  by the end of the twentieth century the game is up and redevelopment is seen as the answer.  Finding a creative solution to preserve such a building is understandably off the developer's script while its true architectural and historical significance is hidden.

Yet both these erstwhile Odeons stand within a potentially lucrative cultural quarter.  The Bradford building is next to the Alhambra Theatre and is within sight of the National Media Museum.  The Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin (September/October 2010) suggests that the Manchester Odeon may have a future use as a supplementary conference venue alongside Manchester Central, the former G-Mex.

Alternatively, the building next door is a J D Wetherspoon's pub – called, suggestively, the Paramount...

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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