Street Life: Girl About town

Our own locality was generally the place we shopped, so a trip to ‘town’ was rather special. Some trolley buses still ran on the 88 route, and if I could persuade mum to go upstairs, it made the trip even better.

Although logic tells me it isn’t true, it was always a winter afternoon when we were in town.

03-02-1964_Highways_Market St-Mosley St-Piccadilly Junction_Pictures of Market St Junction/Traffic Island

The bomb site on one side of Piccadilly was a legacy of the Christmas blitz of 1941. However the gardens remained the town centre to us, and the illuminated signs on the opposite side kept our eyes averted from the devastation. Colourful neon lights exhorted us to ‘walk the Barratt way’, and a huge clock announced Guinness was good for us. In those pre-mobile phone days, many people used the flashing Mother’s Pride sign as a designated meeting point. And to keep you occupied while waiting, there was a newsfeed spooling across the building facades on a rolling display.There must have been traffic noise, but I remember the predominant sound as the Murmuration of thousands of starlings roosting on high window sills.

In those days, whatever the size, shops each had some USP (unique selling point) to tempt us inside. Whether you were looking for a kitten or an alto saxophone, Tib Street was the place to go. It was just one of the many narrow back streets teeming with shops supplying items not stocked by the larger stores.However the department stores’ magnificent window displays acted like a magnet. Once inside, the interiors were a symphony of polished wood, brass, and occasionally marble. Even the toilet facilities seemed opulent. With their own banks, cafes, and hairdressing salons, the stores were a sophisticated microcosm of the streets surrounding them.

I liked going into Henry’s because it had a moving staircase (escalator). It’s difficult to imagine, but travelling in a lift was then still something of a novelty. A uniformed man (often a disabled war veteran) operated the switches whilst calling out each floor’s merchandise.

In the fifties, to find a street market and an ancient black and white building standing alongside Georgian warehouses, or a modern office block, was not unusual. It was simply a glimpse into the different phases of Manchester’s commercial history.

If our elderly hens needed replacing, we headed for Shudehill market on Sunday morning. I recall sitting on the steps of an old building, once the Rovers Return Inn, while granddad checked out each bird. Finding a building of such antiquity in the middle of ‘town’ was what kick-started my interest in the past. Another historical landmark I liked was the statuary on one of the cotton offices. Two figures I called ‘the dirty ladies’ reclined across the top of an ornate portico. My name for them didn’t refer to their state of undress, but rather the blackening caused by the smoke from nearby mill chimneys.Henry’s was about as far down Market Street as we usually ventured. We had Woolworths, C&A, Affleck & Brown, M&S and Littlewoods, not to mention as many shoe shops as you could wish for, on Oldham Street and Piccadilly.

The other outer limit for shopping was New Cross, once part of the area known as Little Italy. Many Italian street musicians lived there in the 1800s, so it seems appropriate it was the place I last heard a barrel organ. Masons was one of the largest shops on the Oldham Road side of Victoria Square (aka the Dwellings).

While my parents were busy choosing oilcloth (linoleum), I was spellbound by the organ grinder doing his stuff at the Bengal Street entrance to ‘the Dwellings’. With no access to recorded music, little girls like my nana danced around barrel organs. I like to imagine the elderly flat dwellers sighing as they were transported back to childhood days.By the fifties, Manchester’s motto seemed to be ‘progress at any price’. That apparently meant the sacrifice of the Rovers Return Inn, and the multiplicity of small businesses trading out of buildings up to 200 years old, which effectively drained the life from the area now known as the Northern Quarter.

Bricks and mortar were not the only thing which disappeared when small businesses and workshops were demolished. We lost the irreplaceable skills of rag trade workers, manufacturing jewellers, tailors, picture framers and ticket writers. And suddenly there was nowhere to get shoe, umbrella, watch and electrical repairs done.

Today not even a ride on a trolley bus could get me excited about going to ‘town’.

 

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Street Life: Ginnels, Middens and Smoke

When I was immersed in researching Manchester’s worker’s houses (built 1750-1850) it suddenly occurred to me that these dwellings exactly paralleled my own family’s history.My 4 times great grandfather’s birth in 1786 coincided with the influx of country people seeking work in Manchester’s mills. The majority were casualties of mechanisation and newly introduced farming methods. Casual labour was replacing secure employment with a subsequent forfeiting of tied cottages.Many families were reduced to sharing turf huts erected on waste or common land with their livestock. But at the whim of a land owner, the turf huts could be pulled down, and the occupants driven beyond the parish boundaries.

As the destitute people surged into Manchester, the middle classes decided it was time to leave the central districts. New arrivals packed themselves into the vacated properties, as well as the two roomed dwellings of the labouring classes.Central districts soon reached bursting point, and speculative builders turned their attention to Ancoats and Collyhurst.

Ancoats was the world’s first exclusively working class suburb. My ancestors were already there as it began to spread out from the angle formed by Oldham Road (then Newton Lane) and Great Ancoats Street.

Today our picture of a typical working class house is generally a late Victorian terrace with a back entry. However, Cottonopolis was created by workers who spent their lives in two roomed dwellings built with single brick walls and only an open fire for cooking. Yards were communal, and contained cess pits or middens which it was nobody’s responsibility to empty. The intermittent water supply would have come from a pump or tap in the street.Primitive as these dwellings were, property owners soon realised that one up/one down terraces would yield more profit if they were constructed back-to-back (sharing a central wall).

A plot of land with a footprint of 24ft by 10 ft (approx 7.3m x 3m) would normally house 2 or more families, plus lodgers, whose total rent was 6 or 7 shillings (30 or 35p) per week. Properties with cellar dwellings below could yield an additional 2 to 4 shillings.Housing density was unprecedented, yet speculators were convinced still more profit could be squeezed from their investments. The solution they came up with was ‘closed courts’.

As his home in New Islington became surrounded by these new dwellings, great grandfather William would have observed humans packed into them like battery hens.

A prime example of uncontrolled speculation was hidden away behind two parallel thoroughfares, then called Lomax and Mather Streets (off Great Ancoats Street).Access to the seven inter-connecting ‘closed courts’ was by covered ginnels, 3 to 4 foot wide. Hundreds of people in the seven courts were served by a single pump. It was situated in the 4 foot wide Kerr’s Court which had 5 one up/one down houses with cellars. Until the corporation’s bye laws were implemented in the last quarter of the century, no sanitary provision whatsoever existed in some of the courts.

William Sutcliffe’s great grandson Thomas was born at number 1 New Islington in 1872. By that time, a programme of ‘knocking through’ had been introduced. The dividing walls between each of the one up/one down dwellings was breached to turn them into four roomed houses. Closed courts were opened up by demolishing half the properties to make space for the back entries and individual yards we know today. According to corporation bye-laws, each house should have its own cold tap, and outside lavatory.

My grandmother Rachel (daughter of Thomas Sutcliffe) was married in 1918, and by that time the family had moved to Collyhurst. Once my grandparents could scrape together ‘key money’ (deposit), they moved into a rented house in Culvert Street.

I still have the front door key to that typical two up/two down (cold tap and outside lav.) where my mother and her siblings grew up.

In 1936, Culvert Street was about to be demolished to make way for ‘Collyhurst flats’. My grandparents were offered the 3 bedroomed house in Moston where I was born. It had gardens back and front, a bathroom, hot water and indoor toilet.

In the 160 years between William Sutcliffe’s birth and my own, an amazing transformation had taken place in working class life. By the 1950s, an ordinary working man could aspire to a solidly built house at a rent the family could afford – how different from today’s New Islington.

 

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Street Life: Wish you were there?

Post-war, it was the likes of George Formby with his ‘little stick of Blackpool rock’, and the Huggett family in ‘Holiday Camp’ (1947 film) that revived appetites for the seaside.The choice for folk like us was: a holiday camp, a boarding house or caravan. Most of my first holidays were spent at Butlin’s. The camps were to Moston as Narnia was to the real world. Compared to the post war drabness at home, the fresh and brightly painted chalets seemed modern and sophisticated. I slept in a bunk bed and ate three course meals served by a smiling, uniformed waitress – never mind that she dispensed the soup from an earthenware jug rather than a tureen.Without it running away with the spending money, children could swim, play crazy golf or enjoy one of the numerous activities organised to keep them entertained. Also for ‘free’, my parents had the choice of a variety show, or indulging their passion for dancing to an excellent band, in one of the lavish ballrooms.

A week before any holiday, our solid dark blue suitcase was dusted off. Its dimensions and wooden banding meant, in a poor light, it could be mistaken for a transatlantic steamer trunk. With two of us sitting on the lid, the case could be persuaded to close on the family’s entire holiday wardrobe. My dad might have been short, but he was strong, and until we got a set of strap-on wheels, he hefted that Leviathan everywhere. Looking like an East End family on the way to pick hops, the rest of us trailed in his wake with our worldly essentials (buckets, spades and comics) poking out of shoulder bags.For men in particular, holidays meant freedom to wear comfortable clothing of their own (or their wife’s) choosing. My granddad’s normal work attire was trilby, suit and tie. His version of holiday chic was what he called ‘a jockey cap and duster jacket’. Dad favoured coloured shirts, shorts and sandals. If it wasn’t actually raining, I seem to recall spending most days in a pea green, elasticated swimming costume, plus canvas shoes that were permanently full of sand.

Travelling to a holiday destination meant a train, coach or (best of all) a ferry. Our most ‘novel’ journey was to Wales during a rail strike. In order that nobody would miss out on their precious week away, every vehicle, no matter its age, was pressed into service. The ancient coach we travelled in was just about adequate on the flat, but when the going got steep, the able bodied had to disembark and walk. In case the bus escaped back downhill if the engine stalled, the men carried large stones to place behind the wheels.Without doubt, my best travel memories were of the Isle of Man ferry. You could sit on deck or lie about in the saloon on a day bed with tasselled, sausage shaped cushions.

Two incidents, the stuff of family legend, occurred on the crossing to the IOM. The first was when a seagull let go its enormous ‘bomb load’ on great grandma Polly’s best black hat. Years later, granddad and I left to check on the lifeboats, prior to going below for an inspection of the engines. After discharging our duties, we returned to find my sister, then aged 4, tucking into an ice cream. It had been bought to stop her screaming, following dad’s attempts to extract her head from one of the port holes without amputating her ears in the process.

From our sea front boarding house in Douglas, we only had to cross the road to get on to the sands. For a couple of pennies, you could travel 1.6 miles on a horse-drawn, ‘toast rack’ tram. We took buses all over the island, but once I mastered reading, the nearby beach shop kept me happily occupied. Some part of each day would find me perusing the extremely saucy and non-PC McGill postcards. For evenings, there was a cinema next door, and a theatre within walking distance.Last year, in the name of security, I was treated to an airport body search. Suddenly it made those uncomplicated childhood holidays look positively idyllic – if you don’t count sunburn, insect bites and sand-filled underwear, that is.

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