The Portico Library was founded in 1806 and is one of Manchester’s hidden heritage gems
As well as writing about places we’ve travelled to, it’s sometimes nice to focus on places a bit closer to home. And do have a lot to choose from here in Manchester. Today’s post is about one of the city’s historical (hidden) gems: the Portico Library.
The Portico Library first opened its doors (to members) in 1806, as a newsroom. Shortly afterwards—once a sufficient number of books had been acquired—it became a subscription library as well as a place for the Mancunian intelligentsia to peruse the daily news. The library survives to this day, and is a significant part of Manchester’s literary heritage.
The building was designed by Thomas Harrison and built by David Bellhouse
The idea for the Portico Library was conceived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The story goes that a couple of Manchester men—Michael Ward, a surgeon at the Manchester Infirmary (which was on the site of what is now Piccadilly Gardens), and Robert Robinson, who was (I think) a bookseller and stationer—were inspired by a visit to Liverpool’s Athenaeum and wanted to create something comparable in Manchester. They gathered support from Manchester’s intellectual elite and—perhaps more importantly—from local businessmen (though there was not so much of a divide between business and academia then as there is now). Subscriptions were sold to raise money for the project, and architect Thomas Harrison (who also designed the Lyceum in Liverpool and the Commercial News Room in Chester) was commissioned to design a building to house the new library. Work started in 1803 and was carried out by David Bellhouse, who was also one of the founders of the library.
The Harrison-designed, Bellhouse-built Portico building is the earliest surviving Greek Revival building in Manchester. It’s now a Grade II* listed building, with a pedimented loggia and four unfluted Ionic columns facing on the Mosley Street entrance and a charming (almost secret) doorway round the corner on Charlotte Street next to a five-bay colonnade. The original design of the building had the reading room at ground floor level, with a mezzanine gallery housing the library and overlooking the reading room. In 1920, it was decided that the library would have to take a tenant to occupy the ground floor, and a ceiling was put in to separate the ground floor from the upper gallery (which were converted into the library as it is now). The original ground floor tenant was the Bank of Athens, who leased the property in 1921.
Exposed columns give some indication of the original floor plan
Downstairs is now occupied by The Bank pub (formerly the Forgery and Firkin). Although the pub’s ceiling obscures any view (or hint) of the library above, the columns of the gallery are exposed, giving some indication of the original floor plan of the reading room. However, you have to squint a bit to imagine this, as the pub bears far clearer traces of its more recent predecessor—it’s much easier to see how it’s a converted bank than a converted reading room. When she was in her late teens, Hannah used to sometimes drink in The Bank before heading off to Discotheque Royale nightclub for the night. Royales (as it was known) was housed in the old Theatre Royal on Peter Street, a theatre built in 1845, which saw performances from Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank in its heyday (as a theatre—it saw a famous performance from Take That in its heyday as a nightclub). Of course, Hannah knew none of this in 1995, and so had no idea that she was actually on a very literary pub crawl.
The library continued—and still continues—to live in the first floor of the building, and is now accessed via the doorway on Charlotte Street. The shelves (containing the library’s impressive collection of nineteenth-century literature) still sit in what would have been the gallery, with the central area being used as an exhibition and café space (tea, coffee and cake are available throughout the day). Above all of this is the wonderful painted glass and plaster ceiling dome, which is completely invisible when you’re outside the building but utterly stunning when you’re inside.
It’s a membership library (and you can join as a ‘town’ or a ‘country’ member, depending on how close to Manchester city centre you live), but it’s also now a venue for public events, exhibitions and meetings. The library also has a strong association with local literature, and in 1985 the Portico Prize was established to celebrate books set in the north of England.
The Portico has had many illustrious members over the course of its history—from John Dalton to Eric Cantona. The first secretary of the Portico’s committee was Peter Mark Roget, who began the work of compiling his thesaurus in the library, and the Portico is also mentioned (though pseudonymously referred to as the ‘Porch’) in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The library still has a rare first edition of this book, and you can read more about de Quincey’s association with the library in this article by Grevel Lindop.
In 2013, we actually hosted our own event at the library. Blood and Water, the debut novel by Beth Daley, was published by Hic Dragones (aka: us) and had launch parties in Manchester and Leeds. We chose the Portico Library for the Manchester launch, because the opportunity to hold a book launch in such an amazing space was just too good to pass up.
More recently, we attended the Portico’s Christmas party. We do love Christmas, so it was great to be able to celebrate in such a lovely building. There were carols, mince pies and mulled wine, and a fantastic seasonal performance by The Shining Bones, a trombone quartet from the Royal Northern College of Music.
In May 2015, Hannah interviewed Emma Marigliano, the librarian at the Portico for her radio show. To hear more about the history of the Portico—but also about more recent plans and events—you can listen to the interview here:
This is a post by Hannah about the city where we live—Manchester
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:
We got married on March 15th in the Victorian Gothic splendour of the Manchester Museum
In March 2014, we got married at the Manchester Museum on Oxford Road in Manchester. Since this blog is intended to be a travelogue of the places we go as a married couple, it seemed fitting to start it with a post about where we actually got hitched.
The Manchester Museum began life as the collection (or ‘cabinet’) of John Leigh Philips, which was purchased by the Manchester Natural History Society in 1821 and housed in a premises on Peter Street from 1835. In 1868, the museum was transferred to Owens College (which later became part of the University of Manchester). The college asked architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a museum building to house the collection, and this building was first opened to the public in 1890. Alfred Waterhouse is probably best known as the Victorian Gothic Revival architect who designed Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London, though he was also the architect behind the design of Strangeways Prison (now HMP Manchester). Though the Manchester Museum underwent major expansions in 1977 and 2003, the original architecture and Waterhouse’s designs are still a significant feature of the venue.
Married underneath a dinosaur
The Manchester Museum has a special place in the history of Manchester—in terms of the city’s architectural, intellectual and cultural history—and this did play a choice in our decision to get married there. We’re both proud of our home town, so it made sense to get married in one of the city’s gems. But our decision was also partly influenced by the happy childhood memories both of us have of visiting the museum on school and family trips. The museum’s Egyptian collection has long been a popular attraction for Mancunian kids, and both of us have fond memories of the temporary Lindow Man exhibitions (Rob in 1987 and Hannah in 1991). But, at the end of the day, our venue choice was pretty much decided by the fact that the Manchester Museum allows you to get married underneath a dinosaur…
Our ceremony was in the museum’s Fossils Gallery, under the watchful eye of Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex (the museum’s famous polymer cast of a skeleton found by Stan Sacrison in South Dakota). Stan (the dinosaur, not the palaeontologist) has the distinction of being the second most complete T-rex skeleton ever found, with a virtually complete skull. This impressive fella loomed over the registrar as we tied the knot.
After the ceremony, we had a drinks reception in the gallery, surrounded by a 3,500 million year history of life of earth. We had quite a few kids at the wedding, so the museum staff arranged a special tour of the Living Worlds gallery for the children and their parents, while the staff set up the gallery for the meal. We weren’t expecting this added bonus, but it made for a lot of happier (little) guests.
Our wedding meal was in the Living Worlds gallery—one of the museum’s galleries that still showcases Waterhouse’s original architectural design, and Hannah’s favourite part of the museum. The guests were shown to their seats, and then we made our entrance by sneaking through the vivarium (with Hannah’s eyes resolutely closed so she couldn’t see the sleeping snakes), along the balcony, and then down the staircase at the end of the gallery. The tables were laid out amongst the exhibition cases—and underneath the imposing sperm whale skeleton that hangs from the gallery’s ceiling.
A few little crystals on the table
Given the surroundings, we didn’t think our wedding needed a theme or over-the-top decorations. The museum provided formal linens, crockery and cutlery, so we just added our own homemade favours and centrepieces (and a few little crystals on the table to catch the romantic lighting of the gallery). We made small parcel-style favours, filled with sugared almonds and black foil chocolate hearts (with a vegan and nut-free jellybean alternative) and tied with organza ribbon. We got all the stuff for favours, as well as our guestbook and table numbers, from The Wedding Mall. For the centrepieces, we placed hand-tied cream silk roses (from Just Artificial) in posy vases (from the very helpful Bluebells Florist in Middleton) and tied big black ribbon bows around them.
After the meal and the speeches, staff walked our guests down to the museum’s foyer, which had been arranged and lit for the reception. As we walked through the Ancient Worlds gallery and down the wide staircase into the foyer, our wedding band—the Dixie Kings—began to play, much to the delight of our younger guests (who all, apparently, love Dixieland jazz). The venue staff had set up the wedding cake at the entrance to the Living Worlds gallery, but they carried it down to the foyer so we could cut it at the reception.
The cake was made by Hannah’s brother, and decorated with black ribbon and black foam roses from Silk Blooms, the company from which we got the bouquets, corsages and buttonholes. If you’re wondering why we chose artificial flowers, there are three reasons for this. Firstly, it was much less stressful to have the flowers delivered weeks before the wedding, rather than worry about a florist delivery on the day. Secondly, Hannah and her bridesmaids really wanted to be able to keep their bouquets as souvenirs of the big day. Thirdly, a wedding in a museum means that certain restrictions are in place for conservation reasons—for example, all real flowers need to be treated with chemicals prior to being brought in, and lilies are strictly forbidden. Silk flowers just made more sense all round.
As well as the pretty black roses, our cake was decorated with a bespoke cake-topper from Little You in Sowerby Bridge (a wedding gift from Hannah’s parents). This lovely clay model was made especially for us, by Kate at Little You, based on photographs of Hannah’s dress and Rob’s suit. She even recreated the black laces on the back of the wedding dress, the bridal bouquet and Robs’s ivory rose buttonhole.
As our night at the museum came to an end, we headed off down Oxford Road to the Midland Hotel—appropriately enough, next door to the site of the original Manchester Natural Society museum—ready to begin our honeymoon the following day.