Manchester Histories Festival

50 years of the Victorian Society in Manchester

Saturday 6 February 2016

The Victorian Society’s Manchester Group held its inaugural meeting on 18 January 1966. Over 450 people met in Alfred Waterhouse’s Town Hall with great interest shown by the press, radio and television. The meeting was held jointly with the Manchester Society of Architects, which that year was celebrating its centenary and Frank Jenkins of the Manchester School of Architecture was in the chair. The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Manchester attended – the Lord Mayor wearing the diamond incrusted insignia created for an 1850s visit by Queen Victoria.

Prof. Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and creator and main author of the authoritative series The Buildings of England (1951 –’74), gave the address on the understanding and appreciation of Victorian architecture.

The Victorian Society itself was formed in 1958, in response to the growing threat to fine examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The Society was one of many groups around the country and was in the forefront of long and hard battles to try to limit needless damage to our townscapes. We continue to demonstrate that conservation and re-use of historic places is a good thing. Unfortunately, many of the consequences of poor redevelopment were irreversible and blight our towns and cities today.

The Manchester Group started raising awareness of Manchester’s architectural riches, as it continues to do, through guided walks and lectures. It also carried out thematic studies of building types, forgotten historic areas such as Ancoats and Castlefield and the works of prominent Manchester architects. These studies were part of a long term campaign to have Manchester’s woefully inadequate schedule of listed buildings remedied. In 1972 only 25 Victorian buildings in Manchester were listed. It took many years of campaigning and providing information to gradually achieve the necessary correction. As a result hundreds of Victorian buildings were recognised as being of national architectural significance and Manchester’s position as a great Victorian city was eventually celebrated.

Since the Second World War Manchester, in common with all our great cities, had suffered some sad losses. These include the General Post Office and York House - where even Walter Gropius’ support for our campaign couldn’t save this early modernist building.

Other buildings were under threat. Parrs Bank (later the National Westminster Bank) at the junction of York Street and Spring Gardens was listed Grade II* in 1972. Designed by Charles Heathcote in 1902, this Edwardian baroque masterpiece was described by Pevsner as ‘the most opulent banking hall ... surviving in Manchester, and for that matter in London’. Both design and material quality were superb – seventeen foot high grand antique Pyrenean marble columns, bronze windows and solid mahogany fittings. In 1975 demolition consent was sought to permit the construction of a speculative office block and was granted by the City Council almost immediately.

After the Society raised an 11,000 signature petition the Bank, concerned by the extensive adverse publicity, handed back their listed building consent and the building survives.

Also in 1975, following a proposal by the City Council to demolish the Albert Memorial the group launched a ‘Save Albert’ campaign.

For many years the Manchester Group worked to save the world’s first railway station at Liverpool Road which lay empty and threatened. It established the Liverpool Road Station Society which in turn helped to secure the transfer of the site to Greater Manchester County Council as the new home of the North West Museum of Science and Industry (now Museum of Science and Industry). In 1979 we enjoyed the Rocket 150 celebration, held to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Rainhill Trials, whilst the following year the anniversary of the station opening was celebrated on the secured site.

Oldham Town HallThe Manchester Group has also been involved with many notable recent successes, such as at The Monastery, Gorton, Oldham Town Hall, Ancoats Dispensary and London Road Fire Station.

To celebrate the Victorian Society’s work to change public attitudes towards the nineteenth century’s best architecture, noted architectural historian Gavin Stamp has curated a large photographic exhibition which includes local images from Greater Manchester. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Manchester Group of the Society, Saving a Century finishes a 65-venue tour around Britain at The John Rylands Library on Deansgate, Manchester until 24th March.

Ken Moth and Steve Roman

The Victorian Society is the national charity campaigning for the Victorian and Edwardian historic environment.

Follow them on Twitter @thevicsoc or Facebook

Image: Oldham Town Hall, courtesy David Harrison. 

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