Wednesday, 13 June 2012

“History is wasted on the young.”

“History is wasted on the young.”  It was one of those glib throwaway comments meant to impress undergraduates.  I forget which lecturer on which history course at the College of Commerce* said it and I don’t think it struck much of a chord with any of us.

At ten past nine on a Tuesday morning those of us not nursing a hangover, were wondering whether we should just not have bothered turning in and chosen Bert’s cafe instead.  It was on that short stretch of Whitworth Street just before what became Placemate and opposite the old Police station.  It did as I recall make the most wonderful sausage sandwiches.

And years later as I watched the 1960 film Hell is a City there was Stanley Baker coming out of the same police station on to Whitworth Street.  It was just a decade earlier and sort of brings me back to the point about history being wasted on the young.

I had no idea back then of the film or that wonderful building which sits forlorn and empty.  It was opened in 1906, designed by Woodhouse, Willoughby and Langham in red brick and terracotta it cost £142, 000 to build.

In addition to the police station there was a fire station, an ambulance station, a bank, a Coroner's Court, and a gas-meter testing station. The fire station operated for 80 years, housing the firemen, their families, and the horse drawn appliances that were replaced by motorised vehicles a few years after its opening.   It remained the headquarters of the Manchester Fire Brigade until the brigade was replaced by the Greater Manchester Fire Service in 1974 and it closed in 1986.  None of which I knew as I sat eating my sandwich or listening to a lecture on the role of government late 19th century Britain.

And there it was.  In the absence of much from central government it was local politicians who were making their towns and cities better places to live.  As Sidney Webb said the “municipalities have done most to socialize our industrial life.”  And a resident of Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow could benefit from  municipal supplies of water, gas and electricity, travel on municipally owned trams and buses, walk  through a municipally maintained park while knowing his children were being educated in municipally run schools.

“Glasgow builds and maintains seven public ‘common lodging houses’; Liverpool provides science lectures; Manchester builds and stocks an art gallery; Birmingham runs schools of design; Leeds creates extensive cattle markets; and Bradford supplies water below cost price. There are nearly one hundred free libraries and reading rooms. The minor services now performed by public bodies are innumerable.”**

During the previous half century Manchester and all the great northern towns and cities had grown by leaps and bounds but the vital infrastructure which was necessary for a healthy and civilised life had lagged behind.  So there had been few planning or building regulations to prevent the worst excesses of slum housing, little in the way of clean drinking water and a total absence in some quarters of the city of adequate sanitation.

All of which became more apparent when we were offered one of the only six flats then on offer from Manchester Polytechnic.  Forget those gleaming halls of residence, in leafy Fallowfield and Didsbury.  We settled in what had once been the fireman’s flats in the complex that also housed the fire station, ambulance station and police station on Mill Street, off Grey Mare Lane hard by the old colliery.

We walked out on to Butterworth Street and the open air market which like the complex was run by the council and passed close by the newly erected deck access properties built by the Corporation. So without even thinking about it I had touched a rich bed of history of which I was almost totally ignorant.

Now it’s funny how stories turn out as you write them, because I had thought this would be about the Ormond Building on the corner of Cavendish and Ormond Street facing Grosvenor Square at All Saints.  It was opened in 1881 as Offices of the Chorlton Union and contained the Registry Office which might have led me nicely into a story on the Chorlton Union which was the Poor Law authority covering all of south Manchester from 1834 and the tale of how we students occupied it sometime in 1971-72 over cuts to the Poly’s libraries.  Instead I have wandered over some of the buildings whose history I knew little and whose purpose and impact even less.

Sadly our Mill Street complex has gone and all that is left is a small expanse of grass and trees bordering Alan Turning Way, while the grand London Road Fire and Police Station lingers on under the threat of redevelopment which never quite seems to happen.

But sometimes something of that municipal history survives, even if it isn’t much.  Years ago I fell across another police station this time on Bridgewater Street off Deansgate. The building dates from the 1890s and the badge of the Corporation can still be made out above the upstairs window.  Along with the police office it included a horse ambulance station and mortuary, all of which were visible well into the beginning of this century despite its closure as a police station.  I had fears that it would vanish but like so many of our old buildings became residential property.

And that just leaves me to ponder on whether it’s time to start recording all the old police stations and fire stations across the city which given that I am now fully retired and old is perhaps a fitting riposte to that opening remark about history being wasted on the young.

* It became part of Manchester Polytechnic in 1970 and is now the MMU

** Webb, Sidney, from Historic, Fabian Essays in Socialism 1889
Pictures; of London Road Fire station and Bridgewater Police Station, 2001-2010 from the collection of Andrew Simpson, the Fireman’s flats in the Mill Street complex, 1986 m15551, Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council

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