Sometimes, all the spin in the world won’t change a street’s reputation. So it was that, when Urban Splash eyed the triangle of warehouses and shops along Manchester Street and Preston Street as a site for swanky new flats, they were adamant about one thing. The name had to go.
Ironic, really, that the Manchester-based (but Liverpool-founded) firm wanted to wipe Manchester from the map of Liverpool. But there was a sound economic reason for it.
For Manchester Street, that long silted-up tributary along the side of the tunnel entrance, was a destination with a tawdry reputation. Its chief attraction was an infamous adult cinema, attracting the sort of types you really wouldn’t want moving in next door to your sleek new city loft.
Things have definitely changed – those Urban Splash conversions do look lovely (so lovely that they RIBA described them as a ‘textbook approach to urban renewal’, when they clinched the ‘RIBA Client of the Year’ award in 2001.)
They were built on the site of the Gilmore Adult Cinema Club, a members’ only cinema showing ‘continental’ films from the mid 70s, until it was, ahem, swallowed up in flames in 1985. Curiously enough, it shared bookending duties with a children’s game shop (called, appropriately enough, Game) at the opposite end of the street. Halfway along, the Yates’ Wine Lodge was a regular haunt for Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and co in the early 80s (seminal music programme, The Tube, filmed them here for Echo and The Bunnymen’s ‘Crystal Day’ extravaganza.)
Until the beginning of this century, Manchester Street burrowed its way off Old Haymarket – home to the first News From Nowhere shop (dirty movies and feminist books sharing a postcode, if not a clientele), and the continuation of Whitechapel towards the tunnel entrance. The street was so named because of the busy hay market which took place more or less where the tunnel roundabout is, until 1841.
Now, Old Haymarket has turned into Manchester street (literally, having to dogleg into its new route), but there’s a delicious irony here. Because Old Haymarket’s reputation is, if anything, even worse than Manchester Street’s…
We hope the residents of the new Old Haymarket aren’t reading this, because their lovely apartments sit atop one of the city’s largest-ever burial grounds, spreading across from St John’s Church, on the other side of Old Haymarket, where now the well-fertilized roses in St John’s Gardens bloom brightly.
In the 17th century this area’s patchwork of fields was known as ‘the Great Heath’, a pastoral scene of almshouses, archery lodges and farms. Haymarket (according to the 1863 book Recollections of Old Liverpool) was a field with a rivulet flowing through the midst of it. But a century later, as the city grew, it was one of the poorest corners of the city, served by the new parish church of St John’s.
“Mid-1780’s Burial records indicate the degree of abject poverty. Nearly one-in-two of the deaths that occurred were of children whilst one-in-four burials were of paupers, two-in-three of whom were from the Poorhouse.
“Baptismal records contain a number of mentions of people from Africa, Jamaica, New Guinea and other countries…reflecting that most unsavoury aspect of Liverpool’s past, slaves given English names.” says the Lancashire Parish Project.
By the time St. John’s churchyard was closed for burials in 1865, 83,000 bodies had been interred in its grounds – which straddled both sides of Old Haymarket (including the stretch where Manchester Road ran.)
Manchester road opened in 1821 – from here left coaches for London, Warrington and Manchester, travelling up London Road via a widened St John’s Lane. And it was this widening of St John’s that saw one of the Council’s grizzliest-ever civic projects
“In order to effect the proposed improvement in the approach to the town from London and Manchester it was found to sacrifice the churchyard on Manchester street,” reported the Liverpool Mercury at the time.
The engineering project was described as ‘difficult and revolting’ – revealing, just inches beneath the surface, a compact mass of coffins. Two thousand were re-interred at the new St Martin’s in the Field church in the north of the city, but the vast majority were too decayed to move.
“It was generally found that the coffins at the greatest depth were much more perfect than those nearest the surface,” ran the breathless report in the Mercury, “In many instances, some parts of the corpse had fallen into entire decay whilst the face or other fleshy part of the body would appear comparatively perfect, upon being touched the apparent substance moulded into dust or was found to consist of a kind of soapy substance, like grease.” Yum.
Still, it wasn’t all grim… There were some perks.
“The first appearance of a body at the greatest depth was of a kind of mummy. The face of which appeared nearly perfect, with a slight bloom to the skin, and the cotton which had been spread over the body was perfect. From the jacket beneath fell four guineas, two half guineas and two seven shilling pieces, which were divided among the workmen.”
With increased road connections, the street’s fortunes grew until, in 1920, its northern half was demolished to make way for the building of the world’s longest road tunnel.
On completion, the black obelisk lighting pylon (designed by Liverpool’s greatest 20th century architect, Herbert J. Rowse) became the area’s distinctive new landmark – but it was unceremoniously pulled down in that most reckless of decades, the 1960s (although its twin still stands at the tunnel’s Birkenhead entrance.)
After half a century’s decay, Urban Splash renamed Manchester street Old Haymarket – and created its smart new residential/retail and hotel scheme. Briefly, there was even talk of an 88 floor tower (before the development bubble burst in 2007).
Probably just as well it was never built. Massive erections would only bring the neighbourhood down…