Boarded up pubs
Clockwise from top: Cross Keys, by Stephen Richards; Mitchell Arms by Ian Chapman; Smith’s Arms by Gerald England.

From pubs to music halls to Dr Bedale’s swimming stunts, Manchester’s leisure heritage is rather neglected. Take the boarded up husks of Ancoats and Holt Town’s old boozers, skulking in the shadow of the mills and apartment blocks.

A certain aesthetic dominates the heritage-led regeneration of Manchester’s canalside areas. It’s grand, imposing and industrial. Not only are large mill buildings preserved and converted to new uses, but new buildings often echo their form. They are often built of the same red brick, incorporating large arches, like those built to take in the cables that powered the machinery in the cotton mills. This kind of heritage is both impressive and gritty; the architecture speaks of the great wealth produced here, but there is a well-known darker side to the industrial revolution of Manchester as the ‘Shock City’.

While Bath has Jane Austen to draw on and Dorset has Thomas Hardy, northern towns have the so-called ‘State of England’ novels, like Gaskell’s North and South or Dickens’ Hard Times. Not forgetting Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England and Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. All of these are critical of the plight of the working people whose labour made the vast profits of the Industrial Age, but who worked long hours for little money and lived often in very poor housing. Industrial accidents were common, as were preventable diseases.

If we ignore these histories, we risk glossing over that injustice and exploitation. But on the other hand, this slightly prurient hand-wringing about cellar dwellings and child labour and 16 hour days in many ways reproduces the exploitation and domination of those many thousands of working people, by still focusing on the power of their bosses and landowners, whose power over the workers is written into the high walls and gated archways.

How can we include working people in the heritage of Manchester, without reinforcing this idea of them as passive victims? One thing is to pay more attention to the leisure and culture of Lancashire’s working people.

Take pubs – there were dozens in Ancoats alone. Almost all of them have closed. Some still stand, boarded up, awaiting demolition, others have long gone. So it’s certainly not easy to incorporate them into a heritage trail, given that they don’t, to any great degree, still exist…

Maybe we could do a ‘dry’ pub crawl, or ‘ghost pub’ crawl, marking the places where the people (especially the men) gathered, argued, laughed, relaxed, gossiped, warmed up before a football match and, latterly, watched it on TV.

There are other traces of leisure – In the 1830s the slightly eccentric Dr Bedale set records for swimming in reservoirs. The New Islington Baths is fondly remembered. There were music hall venues or working men’s clubs. There are images in the Canal and River Trust archives of numerous outings on the canal, with boats crammed full of people in their best clothes, from a church or trade association, so even the canals weren’t solely for work.

The music scene of the 80s and 90s has been celebrated, and commemorated in texts on the walls of the Hacienda apartment blocks.

Still, these other, non-industrial, Manchesters are at risk of being overshadowed by the looming red mills and new apartment blocks. Yet the recreation of a sense of community are precisely what is called for by local groups and the Canal and River Trust. Maybe a leisure-themed heritage trail could help redress the balance in some small way.