82 Portland Street - what a delight that nameless totem pole of windows is. I asked the building’s oldest resident, Colin of Colin Jellicoe Gallery, if he had a nickname for it, “work” he shrugged. So henceforth it shall be known as the Portland Street Erection.
image by Skyliner
Either side of number 82 are former weavers’ cottages that would become The Circus Tavern (perhaps the smallest pub in Britain) and The Grey Horse Inn which take their names from the doomed voyage of an equestrian circus which sank on the journey from Manchester to America. Originally the enquiry office of Great Eastern Railways, the dimensions of this unique building are glaringly out of place amongst those, its neighbours. Tall and slender amongst a row of dwarves; why does it stick out like that? I like to think that the building is a kind of beacon - a symbol of hope, space and light amongst those depressed, light-deprived workspaces that flank it.
For a long time I assumed it to be the oldest building in the row and the cottages built around it, but in fact it’s a later addition and so the way it stands out from the rest of the row was planned. Perhaps it was it part of a larger plan that was never realised, something more sympathetic that would have been built up around it, but it’s impossible to say.
Portland Street, 1904. Great Eastern Railway signs visible on number 82. Image care of Manchester Libraries. Ref. m04857
Built in 1883 by J.M. Porter, Porter was 20 years old at the time and still learning his trade as an architect and surveyor with Messrs Farrer and Co. I thought it a little peculiar that an apprentice should have the building credited to him rather than in the name of his employer and I was curious to see Farrrer’s back catalogue so I looked them up and therein lies the mystery. Seemingly Farrer and Co did not exist.
I traced a Farrer and Co in London, a law firm with quite an impressive and far-reaching history and ties with Charles Dickens, who I knew had ties with Manchester, but my fleeting moment of hope was dashed when they emailed to say they have no records of ever having run business from Manchester nor any connection to Porter.
image by Russell Hart Photography
For the most part the building was occupied by Great Eastern Railway, and the bricked sides of the building still show the outline of the old signage. After that it was occupied by a sportswear and textile store until, rather wonderfully, the site came totally full circle and became occupied by the current tenants - a hairdressers and an art gallery: the exact same trades that occupied number 82 before the current building was even erected.
A few weeks before I started my investigations a man from The Antiques Roadshow had visited Portland Street and mentioned to the occupants that it was likely the building dated back to the 1850s. I dismissed this date at first, but could he be right? If so then that would certainly mean the architect was someone else, but what does that mean for J M Porter and his mysterious employers?
In 1886 Porter moved back to his home in Wales and remained there, his company archives are held by Denbighshire County Council who can’t find any mention of 82 Portland Street.
Whilst researching the site I’ve called in to question the date, the architect, and even the firm where the architect purportedly learned his trade. Nothing adds up about this place, whole companies associated with it are seemingly non-existent and there’s not only gaps in the archives but chasms.
And that frustration, that’s the reason its a favourite building of mine. What I love, as my Columbo box set will verify, is a good old mystery and this one is a real head scratcher. Number 82 is wooing me with its slow reveal, a Portland Street enigma.
There’s a rather peculiar green metal arch above a window at the rear of the building, it looks like it might be a frame for a sign or a streetlight but why there on the back street? - image by Skyliner
I’m delighted to have once again contributed to the wonderful independent publication: Now Then. This is my article, taken from Issue 6 (found here). It’s my most personal article yet but it is very much an obituary of a town, not a person.
I arrive at my Auntie’s funeral an hour ahead of the rest of the family and to stave off the chill of the air I decide to walk around the town; a tiny Northern town much like any other, a place where I spent most weekends of my youth at my Grandmother’s pebble-dashed council house. My life’s knowledge of the place was really limited to my Grandmother’s street, the toy shop, and the graveyard where my Nan and I would talk to my Grandad’s gravestone whilst she proudly washed it down. We explored much further of course but these are the only places I committed to memory and could point out to you now on a map - everywhere else was an adventure of anonymity; a walk in a nameless forest, a mysterious country lane where my doll fell under the tyres of a car. My world was contained within a few hundred metres and my boundaries were marked, not by street names, but by a tree or a lamppost and so it shall remain nameless in this: its obituary.
My Nan had died a year before my Auntie and her house, which I have to pass on route from the railway station, is now occupied by a young family. It struck me, as I imagined new life in the old building, how her walls, once covered in that textured Anaglypta wallpaper which I’d take so much pleasure from pushing the crescent tip of my thumbnail into, were likely smooth and modernised and that my last ties with the town were being cremated later today - I’d never come here again. This was a new grief. A grief of brick and stone, dated shopping precincts, antiquated corner shops, and railway tracks leading away from me into a town and time intangible.
I first of all visit the library - the modernist block of ghostly-grey brick that even as a child seemed little taller than I was, and has a smell never replicated in any building I’ve been in since. It was here the most radical change of the town played out before me; a train carriage had been attached to the rear of the building serving as both an innovative extension and as a museum commemorating the town’s railway. Next I approached the precinct, a cluster of shops that I had always eyed with suspicion for in the precinct there was no toyshop, no sweet shop and no one my Nan deemed worthy of showing me off to. I thought that now, at the age of thirty, it was time to pay the place a visit. You can imagine it - a precinct like any other; fairly brutal in its 60s modernity and darker now than the planners’ untainted vision of it. The precinct is much like the library in its minute stature yet I’m surprised to notice that there’s an upper floor. Dashing up a staircase at the rear of the grounds the private mezzanine level reveals itself as a cluster of squat, little flats with net-curtained windows and all the space and intricacy of a shipping container.
I don’t have time to go any further than that, other than an intuitive visit to the corner shop where I stand at the magazine rack as if hypnotised - searching for my out of print adolescence in the pages of Mizz, Sugar and Smash Hits magazines only to be brought back to my thirties in those of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. The bell jar of nostalgia is already cracking, and that’s why I’ll never return.
Technology, or serendipity, is on my side on this one - Google’s Street View cars have neglected to drive down my Grandmother’s street; you can just glimpse the neighbours’ windows in the distance as the car drives on by, but her own house is obscured by the bloom and berries of a Rowan tree thus suspending the street of my childhood in all its pebble-dashed glory.
In Portuguese, and in Welsh, the words “Saudade” and “Hiraeth” come close to defining this grief of place, and in Brazil the feeling is recognised with an official Saudade celebration every January 30th.
The anonymous murals of Spring Gardens post office.
These murals that sit above the counters of Spring Gardens post office have always stood out to me as something quite lovely. They brazenly straddle the internal windows and allow me to eye them up and down until my number is called; try to photograph one of them and you’re as good as out on your ear - they’re very much the architects’ peep show. They leave me sated that even during the most mundane chores I can still get my fill of art.
Countless times I’ve taken a tour group through the post office to a chorus of "I’ve never noticed them before".
How do a series of huge brutal reliefs that squat just a few feet above the counter go unnoticed time and time again, but most intriguing of all is who made them?
I became a little obsessed with crediting these reliefs to an artist and found myself for much of last year lost in the archives, reeling from a multitude of dead ends and uncertainties. I have a theory, and a solid one at that, but I’m still looking for that definite answer, that "yes, you’re right, this is what happened".
So begins our whodunnit…
The staff at the post office don’t know very much about the murals, but what they do know is that they were a gift from Manchester University when the building opened 4th August 1969.
I’m certain that they’re wrong.
A post office has stood in Spring Gardens since 1623, and this current building promises to fulfil its postal requirements for “the coming 60 years” (until 2029). Designed by Cruikshank and Seward, Spring Gardens was the largest post office in the north when it opened and heralded the arrival of new mechanised sorting offices in the area at a total cost across all sites of £5m. In January of 1969 the lead architect, Lee Monks, fell from the 6th floor during an inspection of the building and was killed.
In anticipation of the opening of the post office there were multiple articles in both regional and national press, several pages were dedicated to the new site and yet the murals, though given cursory mention, are never credited to an institution, a student, or an artist. As if the extensive press coverage wasn’t enough the Piccadilly Hotel created a commemorative omelette called the ‘GPO Surprise’. That’s right, a commemorative omelette.
Surely if news was so lacking that a post office gets a four page spread (yes, really) somewhere in there they’d thank the university and name the students responsible. This seals the deal for me, they’re not a gift.
During this time public art was becoming more prevalent and Percent For Art schemes were common practice across much of the world (Bolton has a scheme to this day) and although there was no UK wide initiative the seed was planted and many buildings incorporated some form of public art into their plans. Sadly, although lots of buildings of this era are often artistically decorated it’s the art that’s first to go when the building begins to look a little dated. It’s because of this fact that the murals intrigue me further; it’s quite the feat that they have survived the extensive renovation especially when they are both anonymous in origin and really, quite crudely mounted.
Thinking back now I recall my initial interest in the murals was driven by the possibility that they could be the work of
Back in 2012 I acted as a guest curator for Northern Spirit and their Wondrous Place project. Over the course of a week I wrote about Manchester Hippodrome, Sunlight House and the Picc-Vic underground transport system that never materialised, and tied these visions and memories together by imagining them all occurring at one time, under the fictional remit of architect Joseph Sunlight as head of the city (now Cottonopolis) planning department. I’ve republished these articles, as one, below.
Cottonopolis: A Skyline Reimagined
Sunlight House, image thanks to Stephen Richards
My family are predominantly from Liverpool, and so it’s safe to assume I’m the black sheep of the family in my adoration of Manchester. I love it because I feel like I’ve made it my own. It’s a city where it’s very easy to do that and to carve yourself a place where you slot in and feel at home regardless of your roots. It’s also a challenging city to love because you have to work at it. There’s nothing immediate about it, it’s small yet spread out, it’s unremarkable in many ways, and you certainly don’t get that breath-taking moment of flinging open your hotel window and gazing down on an urban paradise – its not an easy city for a visitor to love.
Manchester was my blank canvas when I first came here and it remained that way for several years, just a corner of the canvas was filled in and it was rudimentary and pencil drawn. Then I realised that I hadn’t approached the city like I do all other cities; as a tourist – always asking questions about its history, its art, exploring the streets and getting lost in its dead-ends. I did this and my canvas became florid in its detail. I still explore like this everyday because there’s no reason, in any city, for that curiosity to ever wane.
I’ve adopted Manchester as a home and so it saddens me when a building I love is at threat, with that in mind I’ve looked at what Manchester could have been had these threats never reared their heads. What we’ve lost and what we almost had.
Over the years there has always been a kind of marvellous futuristic machinery at work behind the scenes of some of the major buildings. In the late 19th century Manchester Hydraulics Systems supplied this brand new source of power to the air conditioning of John Rylands Library (in itself a ground breaking concept at the time), the safety curtains of the Opera House, the organ of the Cathedral, and the clock of the Town Hall.
The Palace Hotel, image by Skyliner.
The Palace Hotel on Oxford Road used this hydraulic power in a fashion not dissimilar to something you’d expect to see in the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. They installed a series of tubes in what was then the Refuge Assurance Building, and inside of leather-bound capsules they would seal notes before dropping them into the suction system and transporting them to another part of the building.
Sunlight House on Quay Street is perhaps something of a silent star in amongst all of these landmarks and ground-breakers. It’s a grand building on an otherwise bland street, it’s not a building whose name is instantly recognised nor is the purpose of it clear to the everyday passer-by, but it’s this building that’s inspired me to look at Manchester as it could have been.
Although I mostly like to write about Manchester and more recently, Liverpool, there are a few places I’ve seen on my travels that are perfect Skyliner fodder - notably some theme parks that have fallen into disrepair after being abandoned.
The first is in Sweden, located behind an arts house that many years ago was a borstal. The house itself is a sight to behold, in the middle of nowhere just beyond an old chapel of sorts carved into the rock face and surrounded by a lake and forests, inside the enormous house are countless bedrooms some of which were once cells, an old bakery in the basement, some exhibition spaces for the artists that now occupy it, and a cluster of neighbouring cottages along a dirt track on the approach.
The area of Sweden, Tanum, was the first municipality to require urine-separation toilets which combats the global shortage of phosphorus. That requirement isn’t one that the borstal pay much mind to given that there’s not even running water here.
Not far from the house you can find the largest Greby in the region - an iron age graveyard, and an UNESCO word heritage site covering 18km at Tanumshede; a site full of bronze age rock carvings. Whilst staying at the borstal I met a lady who was staying there as part of her promise to her husband to visit all the UNESCO sites in the world, something they had planned to achieve together but her husband died suddenly only a few weeks before.
The old borstal
exhibition space in the basement
An old cell
The room for the naughtiest boys in the borstal
An old bakery in the basement, in complete darkness.
The borstal at night
Behind the house however is Sommarland, an abandoned theme park.The park was a wonderful and haunting thing to find in the woods behind the house.
Sommarland was closed in 2004, I first visited the water park in 2010 and as exciting as it was negotiating the rotten climbing frames and water slides it was the houses surrounding the park that I was most drawn to.
…and the extraordinary man who uncovered it.
The bombed out church, St Luke’s, stands at the top of Bold Street in Liverpool. The official name is St Luke’s in the City and was nicknamed the Doctor’s Church because of neighbouring Rodney Street which houses all the consultants and doctors in the area. St Luke is the patron saint of surgeons, physicians, and artists - fitting even more now that Ambrose Reynolds, original member of Urban Strawberry Lunch, is artist in residence at the church building and runs regular events in the venue including art installations and film screenings.
“We see ourselves as kind of guardians of this church; protecting it, stopping it from falling down, we try and make it a little bit better every day. We do out best with the garden. Even the rain water we’ve collected in the crypt that goes into here - every problem is turned into a solution. That’s very much the way we work.”
St Luke’s was bombed on 5th May during the 1941 May Blitz in Liverpool in an attempt to shut the port city down; shutting down the ports effectively shuts down the country. Ambrose tells me that churches were targeted to demoralise the residents. Twelve other churches were bombed; six were demolished, six were rebuilt and St Luke’s was abandoned and left as it was - a roofless cavern with grass in place of tiles and trees growing where supporting pillars would be.
The beams, burned to a cinder, can still be spotted in parts of the structure - blackened and torn apart. It was the burning beams that caused the roof to cave in, not the impact of a bomb itself, which is why so much of the rest of the church remains standing.
In the original bell tower, right above our heads, a beam juts out from one wall and has hung there, precariously, for seventy-two years. Ambrose, with an insouciant attitude to health and safety laughs and eventually suggests we stand somewhere else, just in case.
St Luke’s was famous for its bells, especially how they were framed - the first metal bell frame in the world. The bells were named Peace and Good Neighbour and they first rang out on 23rd April 1831 (shortly thereafter the neighbours lodged a complaint for disturbance of the peace).
Today, the bells are replaced by recovered alloy wheels (which you can hear chime at the end of the recording at the beginning of the article).
There are parts lying around in the bell tower that are largely unrecognisable, relics propped up against a crumbling wall.
AR: “These are original beams and bits that we’ve found. I think this is a part of a chair. That’s part, I think, of the original clock mechanism. The clock stopped at three thirty in the morning, which is when it was bombed. The bells came tumbling down and cracked and they were taken away to Manchester and stored until the 50s/60s and then they were sold as scrap. Makes you sick, doesn’t it.”
As we walk back into the centre of the building Ambrose points out the art displayed in the long grass and as we come along a pathway to a pond decorated with flowers and painted tyres he explains how it was made in the 1970s by a job creation project, a project that he himself was involved in; his first encounter with the building he became so fascinated with.
AR: “This was put in the 1970s…they did the pathwork as well and we think it was the consecration stone that was originally here. We didn’t know there was a pond there for ages and realised it rained a lot and left a soggy mess there, we got young offenders in and they cleaned it out and it was full of human waste, junky needles, dead rats and clothes. It’s our reservoir as well because there’s no water - when the church was bombed the water main was bombed at the same time, it burned for seven days and nights. So we have no water right now and we haven’t had water for seventy-two years.”
Scattered around the building are very minute elements which have defied the odds to survive - in the very corners of the windows two angels painted on the glass remain despite the bomb, the fire, and the onslaught of stones children have thrown at them.
AR: "These windows in the middle, some of these were still intact when I was a boy in the 60s and 70s and one of my earliest memories is these lads who were throwing rocks through them - my mum would box their ears. And that’s kind of when I got a bit obsessed with the building."
So the windows were intact even after the bomb?
AR: “There were actual figures intact in the middle. I know the elderly gentleman who was the one who put in the last set of windows in the cathedral in the 80s; he was ‘Mr Stained Glass’ and he came in and it took him about an hour to get from the door to here and he said ‘decommission these windows’ and he wrapped them up in brown paper and string and took them off to Manchester where all things Scouse end up. So those windows are still somewhere. On some Russian millionaire’s yacht by now but they still exist. But he missed those two angels.”
Exploring the structure is fascinating, as it Ambrose’s dedication and struggle to keep the light of life burning there but today I’m here with the sole intention of exploring underneath the church, in the newly uncovered crypt, and to meet the man who unearthed it…
The Black Lion pub, on the corner of Chapel Street neighbours Blackfriars Bridge and has been in business since 1776.
The site is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the The Showmen’s Guild.
The Guild began life as the Van Dweller’s Protection Association in 1889 and protects the interests of travelling showmen who gain their livelihoods by attending funfairs. The incentive to set up the guild was in reaction to an evangelist by the name of George Smith. Smith believed his mission was to reform all members of the itinerant community in the United Kingdom, labelling them:
"Dregs of society that will one day put a stop to the work of civilisation, and bring to an end the advance in arts, law and commerce."
Of all the travelling showmen one of the most famous is Buffalo Bill and he and his ‘Congress of Rough Riders of the World Show’ once came to Salford.
Real name William Cody, Buffalo Bill toured his show in the United Kingdom to celebrate the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria, putting on shows in London; Birmingham; and finally in Salford - choosing to remain here, on the banks of the River Irwell, for five months.
In honour of visit many of the roads of Salford were renamed, such as Cody Court, Sundance Court, Dakota Avenue, and Kansas Avenue.
During their stay a member of the show gave birth to a daughter, christened in Ordsall as Francis but her Indian name was Over the Sea. She was the first Native American born in Europe.
When the show returned to America at least two of the original cast did not. A man named Surrounded died in Hope Hospital and his body was said to have disappeared, the BBC had hoped to uncover it whilst digging the foundations for MediaCity but it’s most likely the body was transported to London and buried.
The other member who never left went by the name of Charging Thunder - he married a local girl and changed his name to George Edward Williams.
Williams worked as a cinema usher on Clewes Street for a spell before going on to work at Belle Vue Zoo taking care of the elephants. Apparently, when drunk Charging Thunder would head to the circus to sleep it off in the elephant enclosure.
His body is buried in West Gorton cemetery and he has two surviving grandchildren who still live in the area.
The Black Lion reopened in 2011 and Future Artists run regular film nights in the newly fitted cinema upstairs.
This article is taken from Skyliner From the Other City. An alternative guide to Sounds From the Other City.
Photo by Jennifer Brookes.