Saving historic buildings is hard work - it takes a strong vision, tenacity, and more meetings and decisions than one person could imagine just to get to that first day of re-opening the doors. So, why do we do it?
What drives people to save a particular building usually goes beyond the aesthetics of the brickwork or a requirement for space. There are stories within the walls of every building; evocative tales that make its heritage more tangible. Ask local people about a particular church, cinema, or theatre, and the memories will start to flow, placing the building as the backdrop of a romance, a political moment, or an urban myth. So frequently, what really hooks the building’s saviour, is its history – the more they delve, the more anecdotes come, until a century-long saga begins to reveal itself, making it much more than just a pretty set of bricks.
When two friends and I naively, yet enthusiastically, decided to rescue the old building in the centre of our town, we knew nothing of the stories the rooms had held witness to. At the time, we were all relative newcomers to the neglected corner of Manchester that we now proudly call home.
Stretford Public Hall was built in 1878. In the 1960s, planners pulled down the old high street to replace it with a now dilapidated shopping mall. The hall may have survived this redevelopment but, in later years, when the council realised that it was both expensive to run and in need of substantial repair, they began to toy with the idea of selling it.
Until the day my friends and I read of its precarious future on Facebook, we had never been inside the hall. On our way to the Christmas markets, curiosity got the better of us, and we asked to be let in. Standing in the green-tiled, arched foyer, it was love at first sight. We knew that this forgotten gem could not be lost to developers; we had to protect it.
Image: Stretford Public Hall foyer. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Stretford Public Hall.
John Rylands, the benefactor of the building, understood the necessity of having a place for a community to come together. He was a believer that the divisions within the churches were causing conflict and that more should be done to bring the different factions together. The hall was to be a place for everyone, no matter their background or faith. In a time that was rife with classism, the opening ceremony of Stretford Public Hall went against the order - disregarding the class system, the mayor and dignitaries danced alongside the many workers who built the hall. This piece of history echoed our belief that the building belonged to everyone; our decision to become a community benefit society, where anyone could become a member, was driven by this ethos.
Images: Volunteers from the Friends of Stretford Public Hall outside the building (left) and behind the bar (right). Photos courtesy of the Friends of Stretford Public Hall.
The first meeting we held was in a pub and, to our surprise, over 50 people came. Once the nerve-inducing presentation was over, the ideas of what the building could be used for came faster than we could write them. I still have that list, which I frequently re-read and marvel at how every idea, from life drawing, comedy nights, debates, brass bands, discos, theatre, cinemas, to children’s parties and so much more, have since become a reality.
As tales of the hall began to unravel, our passion and determination to save it only grew deeper. It seemed that half of the older population had fallen in love at the infamous discos and, during the 50 years of the building’s time as Stretford Children's Theatre, there were moments of glory for young actors – the whispers of famous names who had attended added a sprinkling of glitz to the town. I also heard anecdotes about Jason Orange breakdancing on the wooden floors and Morrisey working in the Careers Office.
Image: Members of Stretford Children's Theatre. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Stretford Public Hall.
At one of the first meetings, a quiet older couple had been listening intently. Afterwards, they came over, held my hand, and vowed to help us in any way they could; they'd had their wedding reception in the ballroom 48 years ago, their daughter had danced at a show on the old stage, and they wanted to be inside the hall for their golden anniversary. True to their word, Sid, a retired electrician, spent weeks stripping out old cables and fixing up new lights, whilst Beryl served up tea and cake at Christmas and Easter fairs. Singing alongside Beryl at the community choir show is a memory I will treasure forever.
The hall holds stories of defiance too. One tale, which had been passed down through generations of family, was recited to me at the top of the tiled staircase by the protagonist’s great-granddaughter: in the 1910s, the outspoken suffragette had stood up and shouted her protest during a council meeting, refusing to go first down the stairs for fear of being pushed over the balcony. I met a woman in her 90s who approached me excitedly to recall memories of post-war celebrations in the ballroom. In later years, she had also held banners up on the busy road, shouting her disdain at Oswald Mosely. Then there was the infamous Rock against Racism gig, held in 1977, where The Fall and a young John Cooper Clarke played.
Image: Rock against Racism Christmas Party at Stretford Public Hall in 1977. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Stretford Public Hall.
Since it originally opened in 1878, the hall has been a refuge to many, its basement providing a haven for those sheltering from the bombs that hit the surrounding streets in WWII. After the Manchester terrorist attack in 2017, it was a place for the community to rally together and seek solace in one another’s company. More recently, during the pandemic, it became a mutual aid hub, providing a befriending service and food to support those most in need.
Nowadays, having been restored as a thriving multi-purpose community and arts venue, Stretford Public Hall continues to play an important role in many people's lives. Just last week, whilst drinking in one of the new bars that has sprung up around the hall, I saw someone point out to it and say, “I had my wedding there last month, it was just perfect.” With each story, old and new, I am reminded why saving the building was so important for the Stretford community. For generations to come, tales of the building will keep on flowing, setting the scene for the next chapter of its long and fascinating history.
If you would like to learn more about Stretford Public Hall, please visit:
Annoushka Deighton, Programme Officer (North-West)