I’ve always been really interested in the history of Manchester, and the stories and people that made the city what it is today. Recently, this has become a bit of a fascination with the almost-hidden echoes of Manchester’s past—things that you might walk past every day without realizing the story behind it. I’m planning to write a few posts about some of my favourite places to glimpse Manchester’s history. Today’s post is about a few Manchester street names that tell a story.
One of the side streets leading off Peter Street (in the city centre) is called Museum Street. It’s a short street, leading from Peter Street to Windmill Street. It’s fairly nondescript and there’s not really much to see. One thing that you definitely won’t find on Museum Street is a museum.
But that wasn’t always the case.
The story of Museum Street begins with John Leigh Philips, a wealthy textile manufacturer and collector of natural history specimens. When Philips died, his collection (or ‘cabinet’) of specimens was bought by a group of scholarly Mancunians who formed the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821.
Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned to build a new home for the museum and the university
In 1835, the Society made its home in a grand building on Peter Street. Philips’ cabinet was added to with donated specimens and, in 1850, the collection of the Manchester Geological Society. By the 1860s, the Society had filled its Peter Street premises (and run low on funds) and so the museum was transferred to Owens College (later to become the University of Manchester). In 1868, the Peter Street museum was closed, and the college commissioned architect Alfred Waterhouse to build a new home for the museum and the university. This building, opened to the public in 1890, still forms the heart of the University of Manchester’s Oxford Road campus—and the museum lives on as the Manchester Museum.
For more information about the history of the Manchester Museum, you can check out the museum’s website. If you’ve read our earlier blog posts, you might also remember that this venue is particularly close to our hearts, as we held our wedding there in March this year.
So there might not be much to see on Museum Street now, but the name of this little road remains as a tribute to the cabinet of John Leigh Philips, and to the Society that played such an important part in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of nineteenth-century Manchester.
But it wasn’t all serious intellectual study in Manchester… my next choice of street is all about fun. This next street is one of my current favourite stories about Manchester’s history (not least because it is about North Manchester, where we live), so I will be expanding this into a blog post all of its own at some point.
Another blink-or-you’ll-miss-it street—and another one that doesn’t really go anywhere or house anything—Vauxhall Street is hidden away on the edge of the city centre and North Manchester. If you head out of town on Dantzic Street, until it turns into Collyhurst Road—or head down Collyhurst Road if you’re coming from North Manchester—you’ll spot a side street called Vauxhall Street. There isn’t really anything there—in fact it’s a dead end, and you’ll just run up against the crumbling walls of this area’s imposing industrial past.
A pleasure garden created by Robert Tinker of the Grape and Compass Coffee House
To the side of Vauxhall Street, you’ll see an empty patch of land, which stretches up to Sand Street (and, beyond that, to Rochdale Road). Currently part of the Irk Valley Area Action Plan, this patch of land is still designated as contaminated below surface-level (and there’s a stern sign to this effect on Sand Street), as a result of heavy-duty industrialization in the later nineteenth century (specifically, here, dye-works). In the 1700s, the same patch of land was described as a ‘wild, uncared-for dell’. But in between these periods of wildness and contamination, this little bit of North Manchester greenery was Tinker’s Gardens—a popular pleasure garden created by Robert Tinker, proprietor of the Grape and Compass Coffee House. Although the gardens appear to have been most commonly known as Tinker’s Gardens, they went through a few names—including Elysian Gardens (as a nod to Greek mythology) and Vauxhall Gardens (after one of London’s most famous pleasure gardens).
I think that Robert Tinker and his pleasure gardens deserve a post of their own, so I can say a little more about the gardens’ heyday and their sad demise. But, for now, if you should go past Vauxhall Street, close your eyes and listen for the echoes of the 50000 jubilant people who (allegedly) filled the gardens to watch the ascent of the coronation balloon in 1827.
Tib Street and Tib Lane
Back to the city centre for the next one, though this one might be a bit more well-known. But I like it, so I’ve included it.
Earlier in the year, I had a conversation with someone from Poland who mentioned that he found UK street names a little confusing, and it reminded me that my American friends have had similar problems navigating UK addresses. The issue is that UK street names rely on both parts of the name to make sense: so we don’t speak about driving down Oxford, or meeting someone on the corner of Market and Corporation. You have to remember whether it is Oxford Street or Oxford Road—the ‘street’ and ‘road’ designations are important.
In the case of Oxford Street/Oxford Road, our quirky UK naming conventions don’t pose too much of a problem. (To be honest, most Mancunians don’t really know when Oxford Street ends and Oxford Road begins, so we tend to forgive visitors who get them confused.) Elsewhere, though, you can get in a bit more of a pickle if you don’t know your streets from your roads, lanes and avenues.
Most people familiar with Manchester city centre will know Tib Street, the busy road that leads up the side of Debenhams in Piccadilly into the heart of the Northern Quarter. Tib Street has its own place in Manchester’s history—from the early development of the city to more recent cultural and social events—and the Manchester City Council website is a good place to start to find out about the history of this part of the city centre.
But, for now, the important thing to remember is that this is Tib Street. Forget the second part of the name and you could end up somewhere rather different.
Although it’s within walking distance of Tib Street, Tib Lane is in quite a different part of Manchester. This small side street is found at the top of Cross Street, just before the junction with John Dalton Street and Princess Street. It’s another one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it streets—I mostly use it as shortcut to Fountain Street, and I probably wouldn’t have paid it much attention if it wasn’t for the name.
When I mentioned Tib Street/Tib Lane to my Polish friend, his first question was: why? Why would you have two streets with the same name on opposite sides of the town centre? But if you know the origin of these streets’ names, then it’s all completely clear.
The river is now completely underground, but old maps of the city remind us of its place in the town’s landscape
Tib Street and Tib Lane are both named after the River Tib—one of Manchester’s ‘lost’ rivers. A small stream that rises in Miles Platting, travels down what are now Oldham Road and Tib Street, through the city centre to Castlefield, where it eventually meets the River Medlock, the River Tib was gradually culverted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The river is now completely underground, but old maps of the city remind us that it used to be a (small) feature of the town’s landscape.
From written accounts that mention it, it seems that the River Tib was probably at its fullest at Tib Street. But I’ve also read accounts that suggest the river was a significant reason for the development of the part of town around Tib Lane—which was once much more than a mere side street. One book I’ve read (written in 1793) describes this part of Castlefield as the former home of fustian dyers’ crofts, which were relocated to the banks of the river after the nearby springs failed.
Now, the River Tib is underground. But, like the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers before me, I’ve become completely fascinated by this cheeky little brook that was elevated to the status of river and had not one, but two streets named after it. It’s my second favourite Manchester river (after the River Irk) and I’ve done a lot of research into its exact location, so (like Tinker’s Gardens) I think it deserves an entire post to itself and I’ll be writing that up at some point in the future.
From rivers to… erm… other liquids now, and a story that might be familiar to Mancunians but definitely deserves retelling.
Manchester is an industrial city—in fact, for a time, it was the industrial city. Known as Cottonopolis, Manchester during the industrial revolution was home to cutting-edge manufacturing, millionaires and the world’s first passenger railway station. But all these advancements came at a cost. Large areas of the city were turned over to cheap dwellings for labourers, and certain locations were almost synonymous with ‘slum’.
One such area was found in Ancoats, which has been claimed as the world’s first industrial suburb. By the late nineteenth century, housing conditions in Ancoats had hit an all-time low, with tiny cramped dwellings piled on top of each other and inhabitants suffering from appalling ill health and high mortality rates.
In 1885, Manchester Corporation formed the Unhealthy Dwellings Committee, and areas of Ancoats (specifically at Oldham Road end) were cleared in preparation for new, healthier residences to be built.
The five-storey Victoria Square dwellings (completed in 1894), also known simply as ‘The Dwellings’, was the grandest of these new municipal housing projects. Now a Grade II listed building, Victoria Square survives to this day as retirement housing, and is currently managed by Northwards Housing.
The new healthier dwellings were named ‘Sanitary Street’
As well as this red-brick housing block, the city council also built new tenement housing on surrounding streets. One such street saw the construction of two rows of two-storey housing (with ground-floor and first-floor tenements sharing a common entrance), separated by 36 foot wide thoroughfare—and you have to remember that this thoroughfare itself would have been a bold departure from the previous back-to-back housing that had filled the area. Even more excitingly, these new tenements each boasted an individual sink and WC (replacing previous shared facilities). The council were so proud of these new healthier dwellings, they named the new street ‘Sanitary Street’.
By the 1960s, the slums of the nineteenth century had fallen out of living memory, and an individual toilet was no longer a selling point for a flat. Residents of Sanitary Street came to dislike the sound of the street name. The story I’ve heard is that it was the residents themselves who forced the council to change the street’s name; they took to covering up the ‘S’ and the ‘ry’ and referring to their address by the much prettier ‘Anita Street’. Whether this is true or an urban legend, the street name was changed and the ‘model housing’ of Anita Street remains as part of the Ancoats Conservation Area.
The final street name in this post is often misunderstood, which is a shame because there’s a great story (and a great Mancunian character) behind it.
When I was 15, I did my work experience in the Zeneca (formerly ICI) archives at Hexagon Tower in Blackley. Sadly, the archives are no longer housed in Blackley, but in the 90s they were an amazing repository for information about the history of dyeing in North Manchester.
Among the many stories I was told during my short time working in the archives was that Lever Street in Manchester was named after the Lever Brothers, creators of Lifebuoy soap and builders of the Port Sunlight model village in Merseyside. The Lever brothers, I was told (a little vaguely), had some connection to Alkrington, near Middleton—perhaps a factory on the banks of the River Irk. Lever Street in the centre of town is named in recognition of this connection.
When I was older, I found out that this wasn’t true. There is no connection between the Lever Brothers, Port Sunlight and Manchester. It seems to be a persistent story though, as a number of people I spoke to have heard it before (or, they’ve heard that Lever Street was named after Harold Lever, Baron Lever of Manchester or his brother Leslie Lever, Baron Lever of Ardwick. Let’s lay it to rest for good now though—Lever Street has been Lever Street since way before the Lever Brothers started their business in 1885, and it definitely pre-dates Harold and Leslie.
Here’s Lever Street on a map of Manchester from 1797. You’ll see it’s in just the same place as it is today, running parallel to Newton Street and Oldham Street.
However, while Lever Street is most definitely not named after the Lever Brothers, it is named after someone. And there is a connection to Alkrington, Middleton.
Lever’s Row is one of the earliest streets in this part of town
If you look closely at the 1794 map, you’ll notice a significant difference to a modern map of Manchester. The street that runs perpendicular to Oldham Street, Newton Street and Lever Street, which is called Piccadilly today (and is a row of shops and restaurants facing Piccadilly Gardens), is named as ‘Lever’s Row’. Lever’s Row, in fact, predates Lever Street and is one of the earliest streets in this part of town.
In the eighteenth century, the part of Manchester town centre (which wasn’t really a town centre at this time) that is now bounded (on its four sides) by Lever Street, Piccadilly Gardens, Great Ancoats Street and Market Street, belonged to Ashton Lever (1729-1788), the son of Sir James Darcy Lever, former High Sheriff of Lancashire.
Ashton Lever was born in Alkrington Hall, near Middleton, but he also had a house constructed at the edge of the Daub-Holes (now Piccadilly Gardens) in Manchester. The new street on which his Manchester home was built was named after its owner – Lever’s Row. This house stood until after Lever’s death, when it was replaced with a coaching inn.
Although not always remembered nowadays, Ashton Lever was famous in his day. A collector of natural history specimens, Lever amassed one of the richest and largest private collections in the country. He exhibited it in Manchester, then at Alkrington Hall, and then in Leicester Square, London. His museum was so well-known that even Captain Cook donated objects collected on his voyages. Eventually, Lever bankrupted himself and was forced to dispose of his collection by means of selling lottery tickets, thus dispersing the collection for good. (As a little footnote to this, Adam Weymouth wrote a piece in the Guardian in July about a stuffed wolf that was sold as ‘the last wild wolf shot in Scotland’ with a surprising connection to Lever’s collection. It’s worth a read!)
While Wikipedia simply notes that Lever became bankrupt as a result of purchasing items for his museum, other sources paint more of a picture of a man who lived life rather large. Sir Ralph Assheton refused a young Lever consent to marry his daughter Mary, and the story goes that this was a result of Lever’s reputation for being a ‘wastrel’. He went on to form and join a number of eminent Manchester societies, and apparently was particularly fond of hunting, and his museum became known as ‘second only to the British Museum’. Ashton Lever died in 1788, and his death was recorded as being the result of a chill; however, there is a persistent suspicion among his (admittedly few) biographers that his death was, in fact, a suicide.
Either way, Lever seems to have sadly fallen into obscurity. However, a few people are seeking to put this right. A recent film by Anthony Dolan—Enlightenment Middleton—includes Lever in its catalogue of eminent Middletonians. And in my own humble way, I’ve offered a nod to Lever’s contribution to the early formation of Manchester city centre. My short story ‘Lever’s Row’ (published in an anthology called Hauntings) travels through the history of Piccadilly Gardens to the days when Ashton Lever’s home stood alone among cornfields and clay pits.
Like many other Manchester luminaries, Ashton Lever still has a street named after him. It’s just a shame everyone seems so keen to claim it’s named after someone else.
A short postscript
In 1834, the last of Ashton Lever’s family died without heir, and Alkrington Hall and estate was sold to the Lees of Oldham, who broke up and sold off the estate. I’m not sure what happened in the intervening period, but the local council acquired Alkrington Hall in 1942 and eventually transformed the glorious Georgian building into bedsits. Local people remember these as being rather ‘squalid’. In the mid-1990s, private developers bought the building and converted it into four luxury homes that are now privately owned. The building still stands, as it has done since the 1700s, above the River Irk, and is visible as you travel into Middleton on Manchester Road.
Obviously, now that it is privately owned, it’s not possible for the general public to visit the home of Ashton Lever (but at least it isn’t squalid bedsits anymore!). However, the last time one of the homes was put up for sale, the estate agent made a video to showcase the property. If you’re feeling nosy, here’s the closest you can get to having a snoop around the former home of Ashton Lever: