Friday 8 December 2023

Going to the Art Gallery in Piccadilly Gardens in 1929 ........ the one we never got

Now what do you do with a big hole in the ground in the centre of Manchester?

Today of course it would be sold for development and pretty soon a tall less than elegant tower would fill the spot “offering a mix of commercial and residential opportunities for our times.”

But not so in the early decades of the last century when the Corporation decided to do something bold and innovative with the hole that was the Manchester Infirmary and is now Piccadilly Gardens.

There were plenty of suggestions including plans for an art gallery these never happened.

I must admit I never followed up on the art gallery project so I was pleased when my friend Neil Simpson sent me a picture of the proposed new gallery along with a description from How Manchester is Managed which were issued yearly by the City Council and described what they did.

The books are a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the history of the City.   I plundered them back in the early 1970s but had since pretty much forgotten about them.

So Neil’s discovery reunited me with an old set of friends and in the 1935 edition was this article on the new proposed art gallery.

The Corporation was well aware that “the space available in the Central Gallery had become overcrowded and great difficulty was experienced in finding accommodation for displaying the treasures to advantage,”*

And so having purchased the old Infirmary site in 1918 the “City Council concurred in the views expressed by the Art Gallery Committee that the site was the best place for the New Gallery.”

In 1925 after an open competition had been launched the design by Mr. E. Berry Webber was selected.  He was “29 years old, has designed a building which in all essentials admirably fulfil its functions as a Gallery and Museum of Applied Art and will at the same time , be a building in which the public can see what is to be seen easily and methodically. “

It was to be a building “in which clarity of design is essential [and one which] with its simple and dignified elevation and its freedom from irrelevant ornament will look what it is namely a, a place for the exhibition and study of Art.”

But it never happened.

The financial crash in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression meant that on grounds of economy the City Council took the decision in 1931 to defer its construction for five years.

Picture; the proposed new Art Gallery, 1935 from How Manchester is Managed, Manchester City Council, 1935, page 73

*How Manchester is Managed, Manchester City Council, 1935, pages 72-73

Losing your history ……. and finding some stories

If you were born in the first half of the last century the chances are that you carried a little bit of our collective history around with you.

Queen Victoria penny, 1865
It would be there in your pocket, your purse or held for a rainy day in one those small containers which resembled a pillar box or any one of a heap of animals pretending to be a savings bank.

But in 1971 when the country adopted a currency based on decimal units almost all of the existing coinage was junked.  

Out went the old-fashioned penny, the threepenny bit as well as the ha’penny and while some silver coinage lingered on, kidnapped and made to perform a new role as decimal coins they too pretty quickly vanished as the bight new shinny stuff rolled out of the Mint.

And of course, all the new coins bore the head of the reigning monarch, which is how it has been ever since, ensuring that the oldest real decimal coin dated from 1971.

All of which for my generation wiped out the history lesson whereby you might have coins in your pocket stretching back into the mid-19th century, and meant you rubbed hands with effigies of Queen Victoria, Edward V11, King George V and V1 as well as the young Elizabeth.

Reverse of Queen Victoria, penny, 1865
The older the coin the more warn and thin it might have been but it still passed for legal tender, even though there was as ever the temptation to save the older ones for their historic connection.

So while early and mid-Victorian pennies were rare they did turn up, hence this 1865 one, and those of Edward and the two Georges were to pinch the phrase “two a penny”.

At which point I am not making out any great claims that this was much of a history lesson, but it did mean you were vaguely aware of the past stretching out in front of you.

And in another way, it points to the historical continuity which was a currency based on pounds shillings and pennies, where 240 pennies made a pound, 12 pennies made a shilling and twenty shillings made a pound, and along the way introduced to the guinea.

Half penny, 1951

At the time of decimalization great claims were made of how complicated was a currency based on different units, but I doubt many of us were, after all we grew up with it and it was just part of the backdrop of normal life, like steam locomotives, black and white television and bus conductors.

And in Junior school it was just one of the many ways you learnt to add up and subtract along with those more challenging problem solving exercises involving  four men, three women seven apples and the amount of money Eric Braithwaite might make from selling the apples to the people at 2d an apple.

All of which makes me wonder whether Roman school children had to endure the same brain numbing lessons or for that matter the slave sent out into the local market to get the best deals on olive oil and black pepper.

This is no flight of fancy but a very unsubtle way of introducing this Roman coin which along with three others I bought in a small shop behind the British Museum sometime around 1974.

Roman coin, Claudius, 43 -54 AD

At the time I was looking for the odd little teacher resource to make the teaching of Roman history a bit more interesting.

Already I had bought a replica Roman lamp and very shamefully presented an old leather sandal bought in the Eighth Day on Oxford Road as a genuine 1st century piece of Roman footwear similar to those found at Vindolanda along the Wall.

Reverse of the Claudian coin,
The older me shudders at such a breach of historical accuracy while the younger me enjoyed the hushed silence of 30 first year students in room 11 on Portway in Wythensawe.

Now as we are in confessional mood I can’t say this one is part of the four I bought for what amounted £2 new money, and it is possible that it came from a collection of replicas I bought later.

Either way I still find it something to look at, and put with the very real Viking oyster shell I bought in York at the Jorwick archaeological dig in the later 1970s for the price of 10 new pence, there being so many found during the excavation.

The shell I can date to the Viking settlements of York and I think the coin is the Emperor Claudius and the rest as they is another story.

Viking oyster shell, Jorvick
Location; our collection

Pictures; Queen Victoria penny 1865, half penny, 1951, a Roman coin from the era of the Emperor Claudius, [I think] and a Viking oyster shell from Jorvick

Skating on the meadows in 1914

Well here we are skating on the meadows in 1914.

It was judging by the pictures and folk memory a popular activity and one that I have known about since I first washed up in Chorlton nearly 40 years ago.

But with all the arrogance of someone who had never seen it I always only half accepted that it was such a common activity.

It wasn’t that I doubted what people told me of what they remembered but more that the fields we now know as the meadows were part of a carefully managed stretch of land which did not benefit from being covered by ice.

These were the water meadows and were farmed to produce early grass which could be fed to cattle.

This involved carefully flooding and draining the land at regular intervals and always being mindful that if the water froze it would do the young grass no favours.

So farmers like Mr Higginbotham whose family had been here on the green from the early 1840s would never have been caught out by a sudden frost.

But the stories persisted that old Higginbotham at the turn of the last century did flood one of his fields to create a skating area.

Now until recently all I had to go on was one photograph and a handful of accounts all of which may have been drawn from that picture or from just one source.

But more photographs have turned up and I am inclined to fall on the side that this was a more common event than I had thought.

Mr Higginbotham may have just been caught out by events having miscalculated the weather or perhaps the field in question was no longer used as a water meadow for bringing on early grass.

Certainly within a few decades the meadows would no longer be used for this traditional way of farming, and now there is little evidence left of the drainage ditches which ran across the area.

All of which is a nice lesson in not becoming too arrogant about what you think you know, and instead as a good historian pay a lot more heed to popular folk memories.

Looking closely at the pictures it is just possible to make out a blur of a building in the background which might just be the old parish church, which in turn will fasten the image on that bit of land just beyond and to west of the modern car park

That said I do draw a line at the notion that the township is crisscrossed by hidden tunnels linking the old parish church to a pub and another running from one of our halls to another.

But that is for another time.

I shall just finish by wondering if Mr Higginbotham charged for the use of his frozen field.  I have on evidence he did but I doubt that he would have passed up such an opportunity.

Pictures; from Manchester Courier, 1914 courtesy of Sally Dervan

That food factory ……. the River ……. and a conversation

Just when I spent my dinner times gazing out over the River talking about music, the chance of over time and pretty much everything is lost.

I think it will be the summer of 1970 and the location was Glenville’s the food factory down by the Blackwall Tunnel.

It could have been the year before or the year after.

Glenville’s made a variety of things from custard powder, and sachets of flavoured water you left in the freezer, to their specialty which was turning powdered milk into granules.

Of all the jobs this was the most unpleasant given that I was tasked with filling large bags of the milk granules as they shot out of a pipe.

It didn’t help that the regulating tap didn’t work very well so you used your hand to stem the flow just long enough to get a bag underneath, and that it came out very hot from being blown through a set of stainless-steel tubes.

Added to which the sweet-smelling stuff stuck to your overalls and worse still your face which on very hot days was prone to mix with your perspiration to form rivulets of milky sweat.

Nor was that all because while we were paid a basic wage there was a bonus for the amount that was produced, and there was the flaw, because on wet and damp days the granulated milk clogged the tubes and production ceased.

At other times I worked in the dispatch area on the ground floor at the end of a long conveyor belt which disappeared into the roof and on to another few floors.

Loading the boxes of assorted “stuff” was never the problem only that they came down at a ferocious pace, and if not unloaded quickly enough would cause a long jam, which the pressure of more from on high meant that sometimes the boxes burst open showering us in clouds of custard or blancmange powder.

All of which meant that breaks and dinner times took on a special place in the day.

And it will have been on one of those that I met up with a South African.

He was the first South African I had met, and I was fascinated by him.  He was a few years older than me, and he had already traveled thousands of miles across two continents, while I had just got the bus from Eltham.

Over half a century later I can’t remember what we talked about other than that song America by Simon and Garfunkel, which chronicles the journey across the US by two young lovers.

We shared the magic of their journey and each of us in our different ways conjured the trip from Saginaw, in Michigan via Pittsburgh to New Jersey.

And now all those years later I have no idea what he looked like or our other companions, and our dinner time conversations are lost.

But listening to America brings back my time in Glenville’s from the smell of the various products being made, along with that of the River to that carefree and optimistic take on life which at 20 I shared with Kathy and her lover.

I still have that optimistic take but long ago lost Glenville's, and despite frequent visits to the area its exact location remains elusive.

So I await a photo, an address or a memory from someone who like me passed a batch of his early 20s at the food factory by the River.

Location; Glenville’s, Greenwich

Pictures; by the River, 1970s, from the collection of Andrew Simpson

The perfect gift for the discerning fan of Chorlton Park .... out today

 Every place deserves a park, and every park deserves its story, so today I can announce the publication of the “big bumper history book about Chorlton Park”. 

It’s got the lot from what was there before the park including the racecourse, observatory, and posh 18th century house.

And by degree moves on to why Chorlton residents wanted a place to play, its opening in 1928 and lots more from the open-air swimming pool, the paddling pool, open air theatre and that pets corner, along with two bowling greens, heaps of tennis courts, some football pitches, and the lost air raid shelter.

nothing to do in chorlton …… Chorlton Park – Stolen By Withington And then Returned will be published in December, and is available from us  Chorlton Book Shop and cost £5.

It is the fifth in our very popular nothing to do in chorlton.

It is small enough to fit in a pocket, be carried in a bag and with a tilt at those winter festivals will be perfect as a stocking filler, as well as a surprise gift for Hanukkah.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Lowell's Wharf, a ton of milk powder and the Cutty Sark

I don’t usually do memories, but this picture by Barry Lilburn of Lowell’’s Wharf from 1981 brought a shed load of memories back.

Lowell's Wharf, 1981
A full decade and a bit earlier I had regularly walked that walk, after the shift at Glenville’s the food factory by Tunnel Avenue.

I worked for the firm on and off from 1969 through to 1972, working in the dispatch area of the new factory, but more frequently in the milk plant, where we turned powdered milk into granules, which the adverts proclaimed was better in instant tea and coffee.

It was hot and heavy work and we worked the shifts, 2 till 10 and 6 till 2.
Now anyone who has done those shifts will know, both pretty much wreck your social life.

Getting to work for 6 in the morning didn’t preclude nights out in the pub but waking up in the morning after the night before could be challenging.

Walking the River, 1979
Likewise leaving work at 10 pm, limited the opportunities to meet up with friends in a pub and wiped out going to the cinema or the theatre.

All of that said, there were plenty of times when we walked the short distance in the afternoon to catch the last hour in the Cutty Sark.

I first started going to the pub in the late 1960s, usually in the summer months, when we would sit on the low concrete wall and watch as the sun set, and night fell across the river.

There was something quite magical about it, made all the more memorable watching the odd pleasure boat pass, and listen as the wash pushed the barges together making that distinctive clunking side, which accompanied the low buzz of conversation.

All a bit different form the afternoon sessions, when smart young things inhabited the place.  Some of whom I suspect had crossed from that other place to see what we did in South East London.

Looking towards Glenville's, 1979
And here I must confess to my shame we took delight in playing a very childish game of standing as close as we could to these smart young things in our milk caked overalls.

Never underestimate just how much milk powder can cling to your overalls in the course of an eight hour shift, even more so on a very hot day, when most of the time you were in front of a tap filling the milk granules into 56 lb. bags, before then emptying them into hoppers.

I suppose compared to much of the work done along this side of the river, ours might well be judged light and easy.

But it was not a job I liked, and finally there came a time when I moved on.  More recently I went back looking for the factory, but the passage of more than 40 years has wiped out much of what I knew.

And with that comes that other challenge to my memory which is, were we able to walk all the way along the River from Glenville’s to the Cutty Sark?

I think we did, but it was a long time ago.

Either way I have Barry to thank for bringing the milk plant out of my memory, for a short stroll on an indifferent day in Manchester.

Location; Lowell’s Wharf

Picture; Lowell’s Wharf, 1981, courtesy of Barry Lilburn and in 1979 from the collection of Andrew Simpson

Mrs Jane Redford, Manchester's second woman councillor

I have been staring at this picture for some time.

It was taken on October 7th 1911 at the opening of Chorltonville, and somewhere amongst the worthies is Mrs Jane Redford.

She had been born in 1849 so we are looking for a woman aged 62 which narrows the search a little.

She is there because she was one of our elected city councillors having been elected the year before and in the way that these things work she was about to contest the seat again in the November.

So perhaps this was not so much civic duty as another one of the many public engagements that fall to a politician about to fight an election.

But this is perhaps to do Mrs Jane Redford a disservice. She had been active for over 30 years serving on various public bodies including the Board of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum and as a Poor Law Guardian for the Chorlton Union where she had campaigned for the provision of trained nurses for workhouse hospitals. All too often the workhouse authorities had relied on old and illiterate inmates to tend the sick.

Important as these contributions were it is her role as a city councillor which is more significant because her election in 1910 made her just the second woman to be elected to the council.

What is in some ways more remarkable is that she was not a member of the main political parties and seems to have had little in the way of an organisation behind her.

She described herself as a Progressive Candidate which had less to do with radical politics and more to do with all fashioned rate payer concerns.

Her predecessor Harry Kemp had campaigned as a progressive on the platform of advancing “good government” which involved “exercising a rigorous protest against extravagance” and “preserving as far as possible the residential character” of Chorlton.

But, and here is the interesting thing it came with a progressive take on the need for “adequate Schools, Libraries, Open Spaces, Public Baths and everything which counts for the better health and morality of the people”

And Mrs Redford echoed this in her own election address of 1911 which highlighted her record on the Education, Libraries and Sanitary Committees along with a degree of success in checking “the building of houses on the Chorlton side [of Longford Park] in order that Chorlton people may have easy access to this new park.”

It is also there in her concerns over the Carnegie grant to build a new library which she felt should have been delivered “through the ordinary means of municipal enterprise.”

Now the normal rate payer position and certainly that of her fellow Chorlton councillors along with Alderman Fletcher Moss was “for acceptance of the gift,” which perhaps marks her out as more than just a guardian of careful council spending.

And in turn points back to her wider concerns for the welfare of people.

She argued strongly that the Education Committee should experiment with vocational training and in particular training girls for domestic service which “was of all the occupations for girls that which was not overcrowded and so [they would be able to] enter service at once and claim a proper wage, instead of commencing work and gaining a precarious livelihood by cleaning steps.”

Of course it is easy to be cynical about the role of vocational education and I for one spent years arguing the need for a well balanced curriculum for young people which didn’t just push them into manual work without offering them the opportunity of a broad and challenging set of subjects.

And this seems to have been what motivated her, because while advocating the pilot scheme to train young girls she was keen that the Education Committee work with the Post Office to widen the career prospects of telegraph boys, who “were only engaged for a certain number of years as messenger carriers and when they had to find work other than that of a purely causal character the task was not a very easy one” 

The plan was provide “two or three hours instruction each day, so that when their career as telegraph boys ceased they might be better equipped to secure other and perhaps more lucrative appointments.”

Now I think it might be fair to argue that she did not embrace a clear political position which might mark off from say the vision of the new Labour Party but likewise this was no conventional rate payer politician. She had expressed her growing concern at the lack of school provision both here in Chorlton and across the city and was very active in the movement for women’s health.

There is more to find out about Mrs Redford and also stories to tell of other women who campaigned in their trade unions and local Labour Party branches for the vote, improved social conditions and a better deal for ordinary people but they are for later.

Location; Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchetser

Pictures; The opening ceremony of Chorltonville, from the Lloyd collection, picture of Mrs Jane Redford from her election address by kind permission of Lawrence Beadle

References; Manchester Guardian, Harry Kemp and Jane Redford's election addresses.