Manchester and Shakespeare are two themes which seem to have no connection. However, if you were to travel back in time a hundred years ago, you could visit Manchester’s very own “literary district” – with a twist.
Chorlton-on-Medlock & Ardwick
Unlike Bloomsbury, Manchester’s literary district was not an aspiring hub of cultural, artistic circles instead, it was very much a ordinary, residential area in between Chorlton-on-Medlock and Ardwick. Until the early nineteenth century Ardwick was a small village, about a mile from the town centre of Manchester. In the mid-to-late eighteenth century the area around Ardwick Green became an especially popular residential location for Manchester’s elite classes. However, the area was quickly industrialised, those who could afford to, left the district.
Chorlton-on-Medlock, south of the city, became the next popular area. In the eighteenth century it was known as “Chorlton Row” and it was largely undeveloped pastoral land. By the start of the nineteenth century the area was carved up by developers and it quickly became a substantial township in its own right, independent from Manchester. In 1838 it was absorbed into the newly-formed Manchester Corporation and it quickly became the more popular suburb for the wealthy middle classes. By the time Chorlton-on-Medlock was amalgamated into the South Manchester district in 1896, working-class housing replaced many of the former villas and gardens and the district bordered other working-class areas such as Greenheys, Gorton and Hulme.
In the late 1820s land on the periphery of Chorlton-on-Medlock and Ardwick was sold to speculative builders who divided the area up into building plots. They clearly capitalised on the trend in Manchester at the time, which was to give middle-class residential areas more refined street names and examples were often taken from connections to royalty and the aristocracy, locations and famous people or events. In the case of the Shakespeare connection, the name came from a local pub which was then expanded upon to include other literary figures. Despite the changing status of the area across the subsequent decades and centuries, one continuity was the naming of streets after literary figures, characters and locations. So by the end of the nineteenth century, running off Shakespeare Street was: Chaucer Street, Geoffrey Street, Avon Street, Dryden Street, Romeo Street and Juliet Street.
Shakespeare Street was the first of the literary streets to be laid out around 1829. The Street crossed two boundaries between Chorlton-on-Medlock and Ardwick. It was connected to Oxford Road via Nelson Street and it also provided a connection between Plymouth Grove and Stockport Road (historically known as Stockport and London Road). Shakespeare Street took its name from a local pub The Shakespeare, which was located just across from the Ardwick entrance into the street. The Shakespeare Inn can be dated back to at least 1810 and in 1818 the owner was Mr R. Bratherton. The pub was popular as it had a large bowling green attached to it. Later in 1842, the owner, John Wilkinson, unfortunately went bankrupt and had to sell the premises and belongings at auction, which included a “billiard table, brewing equipment, a camera obscura and birds and animals.”
By the 1830s, construction began on Shakespeare Street, one example was a cottage orné, occupied by a Mrs Mary Bentley and her three daughters, which was an ornamental, decorative cottage, originally built as a small retreat by the wealthy. By 1838 land was advertised for development being “in very superior order and condition and form, most desirable residences for families of respectability.” Later properties such as Stamford House, Stamford Place and Legh Lodge, named after aristocratic families, conformed to the middle-class, respectable setting of the district.
Legh Lodge was a large and spacious home, which could be described at the time as a country residence in Ardwick. In 1848 the house was at the centre of a nationwide scandal when, unfortunately, Mr. Edmund Peel Thomson, a calico printer, committed suicide at the property (suicide at this time was illegal and only decriminalised in 1961). In the 1850s Legh Lodge comprised of four entertaining rooms, eight best bedrooms and dressing rooms, servant bedrooms, store rooms, a bath, kitchen, pantry, offices, stables, gardens and an orchard. It was occupied by Henry Verity for the rent of £160 per year. Although this may seem like a trivial amount through modern eyes, it would have been a huge expense at the time. For example, in 1850 Elizabeth and William Gaskell rented their house on near-by Plymouth Grove for £150 per year, which was actually half of William’s annual salary. If Legh Lodge proved to be too expensive, then a house in Wellington Terrace on Shakespeare Street containing drawing, dining and breakfast rooms, kitchens, WC and five bedrooms could be rented for an annual rent of £37. The trend of owner-occupiers is a twentieth phenomenon, the majority of middle class and working class people rented their homes in the nineteenth century. Even as late as 1918, it was discovered 75% of the population rented their homes.
However, by the late 1870s and early 1880s the area around Shakespeare Street began to change as the city expanded and the suburbs grew with a new population of working-class residents who could now afford to commute into work. Around this time Legh Lodge was demolished and the land around it was divided up into new streets of terraced houses. In an act of homage to the past, Edmund Place, Thomson Street and Thomson Place were named after the former resident of the Lodge. The land adjoining some of the other larger houses on Shakespeare Street was also used for terraced housing. So by 1880, the area changed from an open rural retreat to a typical brick-built suburb. Some of the larger houses had been split into lodging houses, for example Hope House became servants’ lodgings and the opening of the Plymouth Grove Hotel in 1873 at the end of Shakespeare Street again shows the changing nature of the area.
Yet for the most of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Shakespeare Street retained an air of its former status and it had become a respectable upper-working class area. This can be determined from newspaper advertisements and the use of buildings along the street. Some advertisement still offered positions for servants (normally maid of all work positions) and one offered a grand piano for sale. In 1908, a three bedroom terraced house, with two reception rooms, kitchen, scullery, cellars, garden and most importantly, a indoor WC and bathroom, could be rented for £28 per year. This sets it way above other standards of working-class housing according to T. R. Marr’s survey of housing conditions in Manchester of 1904. The Workers Education Association also had their Manchester branch located in Shakespeare Street until 1915. The Association provided social, cultural and educational talks and events for working-class people at the lowest possible cost and was very popular. Therefore, it is possible to see how the area changed in just a few decades, the Association was based in the ideal neighbourhood.
Romeo Street and Juliet Street
In the 1870s, just off Shakespeare Street on what had been pleasure gardens, Romeo and Juliet Streets were laid out, of course named after the tragic love-struck couple. There were eleven terraced houses on Juliet Street and thirteen on Romeo Street. Unlike some of the larger terraced houses on Shakespeare Street, these houses were smaller with a typical two-up, two-down layout with outside toilets. In 1879 it cost 5 shillings and 9 pence a week to rent a house on Juliet Street.
In 1901 among the 42 people living in Romeo Street were; two police constables, a teacher, a bricklayer, a grocer’s carter, an insurance clerk and the assistant Secretary of Manchester City Football Club (the club has been founded in 1889 as St. Mark’s, West Gorton, which wasn’t too far from Romeo Street).
On neighbouring Juliet Street lived 35 people and among their occupations were; a sailor, a wardrobe dealer, a rubber worker, a dress maker, a granite mason, a fish dealer, a tram conductor and a horse dealer. In 1900, Mr. Knowles of Juliet Street was sent to prison for fourteen days when it was discovered he was claiming parish relief of five shillings a week on behalf of his mother – except his mother had been dead six months. He claimed he was using to money to repay the cost of the funeral, but an anonymous letter inferred he was using the money instead to buy alcohol.
As with almost every street in the country during the First World War, the residents of Romeo and Juliet Streets felt the repercussions. In 1915 G. H. Lock, of Juliet Street was injured during a campaign in the Dardanelles. In October 1918, James Albert Charles, who had lived at 3 Romeo Street was killed in action just over a month before the armistice. He was only 26 years old and had been married to Mary Elizabeth Pascall for only four years. They had two young children; Mary (b.1916) and James (b.1917).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, but only a few doors down on Romeo Street, lived Rupert Smith, who was sent to court and fined £5 in February 1918 for actively dodging military service. Unlike many conscientious objectors, who stood by their moral and religious beliefs and faced harsh public disapproval and served prison sentences, Smith instead avoided service by claiming to have invented a submarine catching device, which he needed time to work on. However, he also wrote abusive letters to local recruiting officers which did him no favours in the eyes of the magistrates or the public. Smith was also ordered to be handed over to a military escort.
The Twentieth Century: Disappearance
In the post-war era Shakespeare Street became a commercial street, with many independently run shops servicing the local community. However, in the 1960/70s, as part of huge slum clearance programmes, the network of terraced streets in Ardwick, Chorlton-on-Medlock and many other districts were swept away in a frenzy of redevelopment. Whole communities, which were often well-established by the post-war period, were broken up and rehoused. In some places, such as Hulme, this proved to be a disaster, as city planners and architects had little idea of what working-class families actually needed, let alone wanted.
However, the clearances around Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet Streets appear to have been more successful, as the council houses have survived into the twenty-first century. Today it is hard to follow the old street plans, Romeo and Juliet Streets are now under land around Cavanagh Close and Tarleton Street. Nonetheless, the history has somewhat survived, Elizabeth Gaskell’s house and a few other properties on Plymouth Grove are rare survivals of the area’s middle class origins and the Plymouth Grove Hotel is a later nineteenth-century survival of the commercialisation of the area. Wilson and Thomson Streets still follow their same pattern. Finally, Chaucer Walk and Shakespeare Walk reunite past and present and provide a continuation of Manchester’s literary theme in the area.
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
- Manchester Courier, 7 April 1838, p.1
- Manchester Courier, 24 December 1842. p4
- Manchester Courier, 29 July 1843, p.1
- Cheltenham Chronicle, 4 May 1848, p.4
- Manchester Courier, 30 September 1854, p.12
- Manchester Courier, 12 January 1856, p.12
- Manchester Evening News, 4 August 1875, p.1
- MEN 24 November 1879, p.4
- Manchester Courier, 19 October 1900, p.8
- Manchester Courier, 6 June 1908, p.2
- MEN 23 June 1915, p.8
- MEN 2 February 1918, p.3
- MEN 31 October 1918, p.2
- MEN 15 June 1945, p.7