Cotton—The Cloth That Cut Manchester, City Walk, 8th November 2015


Reporter: Tom Russell

See or post photographs from the walk on the Yahoo! site.

Steve Bourne was our guide as Ed Glinart who was scheduled to guide this tour (as he has for the last 2 or 3 years), is apparently seriously ill in London, so we hope he recovers soon. This report is based on my notes and those of Phil Hayward supplemented by input from Wikipedia where my note taking is unclear. Many thanks Phil.

The tour started at the main entrance to Piccadilly Station, which was originally called Manchester London Road Station but was renamed following reconstruction in 1960.

Manchester was a small market town until the late 18th century, when the start of the Industrial Revolution, plus a damp climate and water (and later steam) to power factories, began to fuel its growth as a producer of cotton cloth. A population of less than 300,000 in the 1790s grew to well over 2 million at the industry's peak a century later. Other local towns (e.g. Preston) were hampered by guilds and unions, but Manchester had no such restrictions to progress.

Robert Owen, who started the co-operative movement in Rochdale, was an apprentice in one of the mills in 1792.

Steve led us first to Ducie Street to point out a brick built warehouse next to the Rochdale canal which was used to store goods transported via railway and canal before being forwarded to their destinations. The building has corners reinforced with iron frames to make it strong, and it still looks in good condition. Its present incarnation is as “The Place” hotel.

Moving on to Dale Street we crossed the Rochdale canal, the first to cross the Pennines. It was supported by Lord Byron (poet and businessman), who later used James Brindley to complete links with other existing local canals. Carvers warehouse had a wharf with a spur to the Rochdale canal to facilitate loading and unloading of barges without clogging up the main canal. Steve claimed that the word wharf is an acronym of “Ware House Adjacent to River Front”.

Down Paton Street and back on to London Road we paused opposite the grade II listed Joshua Hoyle building, the facade of which shows 4 ship's prows (seen just below the name) to indicate that it traded on 4 continents. Hoyle produced a heavy cotton cloth known as Fustian, used by the police and fire service, but as fine grain raw cotton became available from the US production moved to high grade cotton cloth as it was more profitable. Cheshire salt was used to make dyes for the cloth.

In more recent times it was a doll’s hospital but now houses the Malmaison Hotel.

This building, as with many of Manchester warehouses, has an impressive facade but the rest is utilitarian. Business men who came to buy cotton wares would enter and exit via the front entrance directly from and to their carriages and so would never see the other sides of the building. Crossing London Road we walked down Chatham Street and on to Aytoun Street past the warehouse of Alexander Collie, another entrepreneur once described as “a leading blockade runner” who shipped raw cotton from confederate sources. With its typical grand facade still intact, it was converted into the Grand Hotel in 1880 and again in 1988 into apartments.

Next onto Minshull Street where Steve indicated an old bank building which has a slightly buttressed facade to give an impression of strength and solidity. Round the corner in Portland Street we went into the Britannia hotel, originally the S & J Watts textile warehouse. Unusually for its time, the warehouse had a lift to impress customers. However, it was not considered suitable for ladies as it was too small to accommodate their huge skirts, and they had to climb the stairs. Queen Victoria, who didn't like Manchester, came once to the building and was allowed to use the lift. At that time in mourning for Albert, she liked what she was shown and from then on bought all her black clothes from Manchester. This helped put Manchester on the map and many other society ladies began to buy their clothes there. The warehouse was effectively the first department store in the country, and one section carried 40,000 different types of ribbon.

During the second world war the building suffered bomb damage. As there were other, more important buildings on fire at the same time, it wasn't considered important enough to receive help from the overstretched fire service, but it was saved by its staff who managed to beat out the flames.

Watts ceased trading in 1960’s after which the building was converted into the Britannia hotel. The hotel inherited a very ornate foyer with an imposing staircase lit by a large chandelier, and there is a plaque in the hotel entrance commemorating the staff that died or were injured during the wars. In the 1840s and 1850s Manchester was trading 75% of the world's cotton, but after the second world war cotton declined in Manchester as other countries developed their own industries which didn't require raw cotton to be transported so far.

Continuing down New York Street we paused at the junction with Mosley Street to look at Rothschild's house on the opposite corner. Originally this had his warehouse at rear, but the house is now a Toni & Guy salon and offices.

We next walked along York Street and Spring Gardens then down King Street and Chapel Walks. Steve pointed out the ball at the top of Manchester town hall which represents a cotton boll, such was its importance to the city.

On, and into the grade II listed Royal Exchange building in St Ann's Square. Built in 1809 as a place to meet and trade, it replaced an older, smaller building. There were 11,000 members—all men. Created as a royal exchange, it held a very important place in Europe. Apparently, trading including trading employees (NOT slaves, Manchester was against slavery even though it depended on them to pick cotton). The central hall is large and, at busy times it was difficult to find people for a meeting, so the marble pillars around the edge are numbered to aid as meeting places, as in “I'll meet you by pillar 15”.

Used for 160 years, trading finished in 1968 and above the exit to St Ann’s Square remain the display boards showing details of the last trading day. The building was threatened with demolition, but remained empty until 1973 when it was used to house a theatre company, and the present theatre was opened in 1976 by Lawrence Olivier.

As well as being partially destroyed by bombs in WWII, the Royal Exchange was badly damaged by the PIRA bomb in 1996. The dome was blown in and shifted by the blast, and took two and a half years and £32 million (from the National Lottery) to repair, but the damage is hard to spot today.

The theatre is, of course, constructed within the central hall of the exchange, and is a reasonably small, intimate example of theatre in the round. It's also reputed to be the most haunted place in Manchester. Steve told us that a previous director of the theatre, now deceased, watches all their productions, and a seat is left available for him in the top circle. We didn't spot him though.

Steve also claimed that the theatre's costumes can be tried on by members of the public, but we couldn't persuade anybody to give it a try.

Outside the main entrance is a blue plaque commemorating the reconstruction after the IRA bomb. Further along St Ann's Square (originally called Acres Field), in the second half of the eighteenth century Elizabeth Raffald ran an employment agency for servants. In 1772 she produced the first directory of Manchester and Salford traders, and she included details of how to reach the businesses, to help potential employees find their prospective employers. This effectively became the first A to Z guide.

At the far end of the square, the church of Saint Ann has a cartographer’s mark, which serves as the centre of Manchester, carved into a cornerstone by the main entrance. All distances on maps and milestones are measured to this mark.

As a further demonstration of the importance of cotton, Steve described one of its uses in a cholera epidemic. Some victims were thought to be dead but were in fact in a coma and were buried alive. In an attempt to prevent this awful death, a cotton thread was tied to a body's finger so if they recovered consciousness they could pull it and ring a bell on the surface. Children were employed to sit in graveyards to listen for these bells, which gave rise to expressions such as “saved by the bell”, “dead ringer” etc.

Next down St Ann’s street to emerge on Deansgate opposite House of Fraser. John Watts opened a small drapery shop on Deansgate in 1796 and sold it to three of his employees in 1835. Thomas Kendal, a draper, James Milne and Adam Faulkner, both textile apprentices, changed the name to Kendal Milne & Faulkner in 1836. In 1919 it became part of Harrods until, in 1959 it was sold to House of Fraser.

A quick trot along the back alleys took us through Lincoln square with its Statue of Abraham Lincoln, which previous city walks have already visited. Lincoln's statue was isolated, surrounded by unoccupied Christmas market sheds.

Then along Lloyd Street and Southmill Street to Central Street where we gathered in front of the Quaker's meeting house. Many Manchester traders were Quakers and they built the Friends' Meeting House. Bradshaw, of the famous railway guide, was a Quaker, and, at the request of his friends, he altered the names of the days and the months in his guide so they weren't pagan. However, this confused too many people and he reverted back to normal names after a couple of issues. Michael Portillo never mentioned this in his TV series.

Finally, through St. Peter's Square, down Oxford Road to Portland Street and Giorgio’s for our well earned lunch. It's located in a historic building, but I can't remember its name, sorry.

Many thanks to Barry for organising this successful walk again. A record number of 35 members turned out for this event which culminated with a meal at Georgio’s. I’m told it was to the usual high standard. (My lunch was a humble MacDonald’s .... no comparison)!