Aytoun Street Dole Office

Another gone building.

This one, I was fond of.

Although it looked like a monument to industrial decline, this building actually bank-rolled Manchester’s grassroots creative community throughout the 1970s and ’80s, which is how the city managed to culturally re-invent itself.

Aytoun Street Employment Exchange had an Art Deco look… our very own piece of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis… or perhaps Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which co-incidentally is around the date I first signed on there. (Students could still claim Unemployment and Housing Benefit during the summer holidays in those days!)

As my friend Kate said, “Why sign on in boring old Chorlton when you can have a day out in town instead?” (You could choose where you would sign in advance… it didn’t have to be your nearest office.)

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This made perfect sense to me at the time, except that I was often late, and the place closed for lunch at 12, which meant I had to go back at 2 pm and queue up with the “men of no fixed abode”. This was an unpredictable experience which I didn’t relish… the men (and occasional woman) were often agitated and sometimes incoherent. It was like joining a queue of lost souls.

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Once there was an old man who arrived with a donkey – he tied it up outside near my bike!

I took these photos of Aytoun Street in July 2012.

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According to Mancunian Matters, the Aytoun Street Employment Exchange was designed in 1936 by architect David Thomson, but construction was delayed because of the war, so it didn’t open until 1951. Its doors closed in 1993… I didn’t realise it lay vacant for so long. It was finally demolished during 2014.

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These sunnier pictures were taken around September 2013, from along the Rochdale Canal towpath which runs under Aytoun Street and London Road towards Piccadilly Basin:

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Check out the amazing curved brickwork and the dramatic long window, which I presume must have been a stairwell.

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This stretch of canal is/was notoriously popular with rent-boys because of the covered section underneath Malmaison and London Road. I was very suspicious that these fishermen were actually look-outs:

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The structure of the space down here is amazing… but often, when I used to cycle through, (this was my route to work around 1999-2002,) I couldn’t enjoy the views. I would have to look straight ahead and pretend not to notice what was going on in the shadows. The rent-boys and their punters would freeze until I’d gone past, like eerie tableaux. It was generally all quite tense and sinister.

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Once, on the way home, I saw two youths taking a baby in a pram down to this stretch of towpath and I phoned the police. Did I over-react?

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When Mick Hucknall bought the buildings overhead in the mid-1990s, and developed the Malmaison hotel I thought… Yes, ‘Sick House’ is an appropriate name! But why would anyone choose to stay in a Sick or Bad House?

Personally, I think the place has really odd vibes. Whether this is due to the Mick connection, the subterranean rent-boy scene or memories of the old Dolls’ Hospital is hard to say… perhaps it’s a combination of all three! (Hucknall was notorious for his voracious appetite for young women in the ’80s and ’90s… he has admitted as much in interviews since… which could lead one to view his hotel acquisition in a particular light, not at all wholesome.)

Though the investment certainly made good business sense. According to The Guardian, Hucknall’s company So What sold the Malmaison chain of hotels in 2000 for 76 million.

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None of this detracted from the adjacent Dole Office’s austere charm in my eyes, however. And when I went to London last year, I noticed that its architectural style resembled Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern (Bankside), designed by Giles Gilbert Scott during the same mid-century period:

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If the building had been a power station and not a dole office, would we have cherished it more? In fact, Aytoun Street Employment Exchange looked industrial even though it was an administrative centre: which would have made it “a warehouse of unemployment”? Or “a production line of down-time”?

The building’s closure in the early 1990s happened to coincide with a government crack-down on casual cash-in-hand shop and pub work. This had the knock-on effect of making life on the dole less attractive, forcing many would-be creatives into more run-of-the-mill, conventional life-choices. (We didn’t consider ourselves benefit cheats in those days – it had been a way of life which we didn’t question because career prospects were so poor.)

But many artists and musicians had made good use of the precious breathing space provided by the student grant system and the welfare state. The government had paid us to do our own thing for short periods without much fuss, and though this was abused by many, it was an opportunity well-used by others, to be creative or entrepreneurial. Mick Hucknall is a prime example.

These days, many artists must submit funding applications to the Arts Council to survive, which means they need an expensive art degree to get a look-in, and their verbal powers of persuasion are arguably more important to their career development than the quality of their art… And we wonder why art is elitist? Meanwhile, musicians depend upon rich parents or business backers to get by. And we wonder why modern music is predictable and conservative?

In the 1980s, Aytoun Street Dole Office nourished creativity every bit as much as the Hacienda and Hulme. All these places were inter-dependent, bound together by laws of unintended consequences.

There are some great photos of the Aytoun Street Dole Office on Skyliner.

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3 Comments

  1. MARTIN DAVIES

    Blimey…very evocative post. Thanks. I was signing on there too in the mid-80s…I think ‘supplementary benefit’ was the preferred euphemism of the time. It was near there that I had a ‘coming of age’ moment. I realise now I must have been rather innocent for my years. One afternoon, after ‘signing on’, I was wandering down Minshull St and a rather hi-spec Jaguar purred to a pause next me. The driver – a middle-aged man in a suit – wound down the window and beckoned me nearer. I thought he must have wanted directions. He simply said, “Are you working son?” I remember being a bit nervous thinking he might be from the Dole Office doing some checks on people who had just ‘signed on’. So, I told him – in hilariously honest detail – about how I was not working but was entitled to collect some benefits as it was the summer holidays. There was a pause, his face turned red and angry…and he shouted, “Fuck off!” and sped away. I truly shaken. It was only later – when I met my more worldly friend at the Little Chef in Piccaddilly station – that the terms “rent boy” and “red light district” and “naive fool” were introduced to me.

    • Thank you Martin! What a brilliant story! Nicholas Blincoe’s thriller Manchester Slingback features that rent boy scene near Aytoun Street… I’ve mentioned the book on here, but in a different context: http://www.mancky.co.uk/?p=3592.
      I myself have spent years wandering round this city as an innocent fool… picking up on lots of odd vibes without really understanding their source. The pattern of people preying upon other people in the same places is often the cause… the negative energy must seep into the architecture. As our Victorian infrastructure was constructed by a brutally exploited labour force, maybe that pattern forms the blueprint for this city.
      Dark thought.

  2. I signed on at Aytoun Street in the 70’s and then they gave me a job there for six months. There were a lot of nice people working there but also some in cliques who thought they were a cut above. I hadn’t worked there long when I noticed a girl I’d been to school with on another team. If she was awful at school she was worse at Aytoun Street and I saw her bully claimants. I was only a temporary employee and didn’t feel I could challenge her. Good job she doesn’t know me now. :) Had some good laughs working at the dole office and have never forgotten sitting on the balcony – you can just see it on the left in the photo above – drinking tea at lunch time and messing about.
    I remember that Martin Bobker (headmaster from Cheetwood Junior School) came and gave us a talk about the impending Anti Nazi League march and a bunch of us went to the protest – 30,000 people walked through the streets of Manchester against the National Front.

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