Hulme Concrete Jungle

Growing up in Chorlton, during the 1970s and early ’80s, I would travel through Hulme on the way to town; all I knew about the area was what I could see from the top deck of the 85 bus.

From this vantage point, the tree-lined roads of Whalley Range gave way to a sliver of Moss Side (seventies brick Alexandra Park Estate) before the bus crossed Moss Lane and approached the vast concrete structures of M15. The view was then resolutely grey and depressing all along Chichester Road/Greenheys Lane, Old Birley Street, Bonsall Street and Boundary Lane, until the bus turned onto Booth Street (all the Bs) towards the warmer tones of Oxford Road.

I went to secondary school with kids from Hulme (1977-1982) but I knew very little about their lives; they didn’t brag about their area, they only bragged when they were moving out. Even though the Hulme flats were still very new at that time, they were already a source of shame for the families that lived there.

Then in the mid-eighties, for the first time, I met people who actually liked Hulme. Most came from outside Manchester city… to study, escape from their families or because they were bored by the confines of their hometowns. Hulme was almost a child-free zone by then, the families having been rehoused elsewhere, and residents were young adults who chose to live there – often rent-free. Many squats weren’t neglected as I had imagined; they were secure and kept in good condition. Keys were passed from person to person informally or sold on when a person moved out.

On the minus side there were cockroaches, pissy stairwells, no decent shops and the constant fear of meeting a nutter on a walkway. But the plusses out-weighed the indignities and risks for many; rent-free living close to the city centre was a big draw for students and creative people who were able to access a reasonable quality of life without needing a regular job or car. The usual economic certainties didn’t apply in Hulme and thousands of bohemian lifestyles and creative projects were spawned there as a result.

The Hulme concrete jungle was split into two distinct areas architecturally: the crescents and the decks.

The decks were closest to Oxford Road and were built in a grid pattern around central courtyards. They lay on either side of Princess Parkway, between Royce Road and Boundary Lane. Hulme 3 was the ‘zone’ between Princess Parkway and Boundary Lane, while Hulme 4 lay between Princess Parkway and Royce Road.

Elmin Walk 1973

The decks were generally no more than six storeys high, sometimes only four, and they were linked by walkways and footbridges which crossed the major roads. Most people preferred to cross the major roads on foot at ground level except for Princess Parkway which then, as now, was not intended to be approached by pedestrians and had to be crossed using footbridges.

The crescents were further away from Oxford Road and were therefore less attractive to students and people intending to walk back from town at night. They lay between Royce Road and Chorlton Road and their scale was intimidating as can be seen from this aerial photograph:

The crescents’ area was designated ‘Hulme 5′. Like the decks, the crescents contained 2 storey flats linked by shared walkways, but the structures were atleast eight storeys high and dwarfed the green spaces and few older buildings which still stood among them.

The Zion Centre was one of these buildings; it had previously stood on Stretford Road, but this part of the road was closed to traffic when the crescents were built, leaving the Zion Centre marooned and only accessible on foot. This would have been OK if people had felt happy walking around that part of Manchester but they didn’t. That stretch of road has now been opened again to traffic.

The four crescent-shaped structures were called Robert Adam Crescent, Charles Barry Crescent, William Kent Crescent and John Nash Crescent, together with Hawksmoor Close, which was a small straight block attached to Charles Barry Crescent. All these imposing buildings were named after outstanding British architects of the Enlightenment: John Nash (1752-1835) designed Regency London; Charles Barry (1795-1860) designed the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament; William Kent (1655-1748) was famous for the Palladian Style, in particular the Treasury buildings at Whitehall; Robert Adam (1728-1792) was famous for the Neo-Classical Style and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) was famous for his Baroque style architecture, in particular his six London churches.

This just goes to show the enormous confidence of the architects Hugh Wilson and J. Lewis Womersley; they were referencing giants of British architecture with the names of their new buildings. I don’t think this was ever explained to the people who lived in them though. Of course, some knew or found out, but that took patience and effort in the days before the internet, so many Hulme residents walked round in total ignorance of those names’ significance.

Hugh Wilson oversaw the design of Cumbernauld, the new town in Scotland where the tax offices are, before he undertook work in Manchester; Cumbernauld has been described as ‘a soulless concrete carbuncle surrounded by roundabouts.’ (It is the setting of the eighties film ‘Gregory’s Girl’.)

J. Lewis Womersley was the Chief Architect for the City of Sheffield in the 1950s. He oversaw the building of the infamous Park Hill Flats which replaced the Park Hill slums with ‘streets in the sky’. Park Hill still stands; now a listed building, it’s being redeveloped by Urban Splash under the supervision of English Heritage.

Wilson and Womersley designed the Student Precinct Centre and Business School on Booth Street, the Arndale Centre in Manchester city centre as well as the decks and the crescents in Hulme so they were clearly well in with the decision makers at Manchester City Council! There was an urban myth circulating in the eighties that one of the architects of the crescents was so distressed by his legacy that he hanged himself. There doesn’t seem to be any truth in this story however as J. Lewis Womersley died in 1990, aged 80, and Hugh Wilson died in 1985, aged 72, apparently of natural causes… unless it was one of their assistants.

Most of the flats I visited in the late 80s and very early 90s were in the decks as far as I remember. They were always very clean especially in the kitchen area; all food had to be kept in plastic boxes because of the cockroaches. Everyone had sticky cockroach traps which were constantly filling up with new victims.

The only crescents flats which I clearly remember visiting were the ones knocked through to create The Kitchen ‘club'; I would never have been able to find it on my own and I can’t remember which crescent it was in; it was on an upper level. Some people thought the Kitchen was great but when I went there (in late 1990) it was full of men who were either gauching or too pissed to form a sentence… so I didn’t hurry back there; it certainly wasn’t a rave.

Hulme’s grimey bulk was very glamourous in its own way: the concrete structures provided a gritty urban backdrop for the imaginary pop videos running inside the heads of the wannabe pop-star residents – certainly more rock’n’roll than Chorlton or Longsight.

Thanks to Ian Robinson, www.starfishprime.co.uk, for this picture.

Teenagers from nice homes in the suburbs could move to Hulme and instantly feel genuinely angst-ridden just by walking over a footbridge. Some people enjoyed the frisson of danger generated by the initimidating architectural scale, the urban decay and the unpredictable behaviour of some of the inhabitants. Meanwhile others just put up with these inconveniences in order to live cheaply near town.

I remember giving a lift into Chorlton to a friend who lived in Hulme; Hughie stepped out of the car, surveyed the 1930’s semi-detached houses with rose bushes in the front gardens and uttered the word ‘surburbia’ in a derisive tone… yes it was easy to feel streetwise and gritty coming from Hulme – it might even give a person a superiority complex!

It was common knowledge that the emergency medical services wouldn’t attend the crescents at night. I would love to know what the working practices were with regard to public safety in Hulme. People weren’t paying rent or council tax, so they couldn’t demand the same level of service as everyone else, but as far as I know the bins were collected, and gas, electricity and water supplies were maintained.

There was an accidental gas explosion which killed a woman near Otterburn Close, some time in 1990. This caused wide-spread alarm amongst the residents of the decks nearby, as it brought home the real risks of living without guarantees of safety in the semi-anarchic adult playground which Hulme had, by then, become.

On a lighter note, I remember Hulme residents who were art students using their front room windows as ‘shop windows’ for their ideas, very much in anticipation of the modern facebook homepage habit of representing yourself to others using images or literary references.

My friend Angela and I were once making our way through the decks. As we descended into a stairwell we saw a hand of playing cards flung onto the floor face-up – it was a good hand (a running flush?) depending on which game the player was playing when he or she dropped it! My friend said ‘How very Hughie!’ referring to our friend who was into ‘situationism'; it was quite likely that the cards had been left there on purpose as an ephemeral art work, or maybe even a message!

I believe Hughie is now back in his home town of Blackburn – Hughie please get in touch if you should ever read this! (What was the name of the painting my mum bought from you? We can’t remember.)

For more fascinating pictures of Hulme, visit MMU resources at Flickr here: 72157625038079675/>mmuvisualresources.

For more historical background see www.manchesterhistory.net.

For stories and social history see www.exhulme.co.uk/.

Also this documentary made in 1978:

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22 Comments

  1. Love the blog, the pictures – I’m becoming obsessed with Hulme 5.

  2. Brought up in hulme also went to birley 77-82. There was a great community spirit until the family’s moved out. Good tomes

    • The story of Hulme and The Crescents interests me more and more. I’m writing a novel about characters who went to Birley and lived in the tower blocks at this exact time, which is a nice coincidence. I’d be really grateful if anyone could reply to this message with anecdotes or information about what it was like (I wan’t born until after they knocked The Crescents down). I’m just trawling through the internet getting as much info as I can find :)

      • Have you tried the Exhulme website Izzy?

      • have a look at birleyhighschool.com

      • Gareth Jones

        Hi Izzy, I lived in Hunmanby Avenue and latterly Robert Adam Crescent 1978 – 1981. Not a particularly great time of my life, but I would be happy to talk about it should you be interested.

  3. I lived in on of the crescents in 1976-77. Then my family took over the Spinners pub :)

  4. nostalgic….i lived in the deck as student in early 90s…..by then hulme was almost deserted….n walking about at night was almost a no go area….

  5. wkd well written piece. i’ve got LOADS of old hulme photos here for the nostalgic http://www.albakerphotography.com/gallery-3-from-the-archive

    • Thanks Al… Just found your FB page! And thanks for the link to your photo archive!

  6. hotclaws

    You can see my flat in the first picture.I saw the terraces pulled down,the crescents built and then they were pulled down

  7. Hello, I am very good friends with The Hughie you mention. I would be happy to put you in touch with him. I shall ask him about the name of the painting. Ta. Andrea xx

    • I think I went to the Medlock Art School with Hughie. If it’s the same guy He was in the year below me so would have graduated in 1989. If that is the same guy please say hi from me. I lived in Charles Barry Crescent and everything that this person says about it rings true. You had to see it to belive it. I moved from painting into film making many years ago and would love to make a documentary about Hulme. If anyone has any old photos and would be willing for me to use them Please let me know.
      Thanks,
      Steve Rainbow
      http://www.rainbowfilms.co.uk

      • Hi Steve – thanks for commenting – I wrote this article but my friend Geraldine who lived in Hulme much longer than I did has also written on here about the experience: http://www.mancky.co.uk/?p=2095
        I will say hello to Hughie for you – I’m in touch with him by phone but he isn’t on the internet. A guy who commented on here left a link to some great photos – Al Baker – he’s further down this comment list. Thanks again, Urs

  8. Hughie says the painting is called the incessant noise. He is now indeed living in Blackburn.

    • Hi Andrea – thanks so much – i’ve emailed you with my contact details, hope that’s ok – i kept thinking ‘repressive force’ but knowing that was wrong because it was the name of a sculpture by a guy i knew through horse and bamboo… but now i can see why that kept popping into my brain because ‘incessant noise’/’repressive force’ have something in common – same syllable pattern X

  9. Loved the spinners and kitchens
    what road was it on as I know it’s now a car park with same houses that were close.

  10. Trying to find Bonnie or Marg they used to drink in The Spinners and The Eagle when Jack and Marlene ran the pubs any info greatly appreciated. Just an old friend and family wanting to get in touch before time passes and its to late thanks.

  11. My Nanna and Grandad lived in Elmin Walk in the early 70s. From memory, I reckon it was about next door to that old guy in the picture above (or thereabouts lol). Happy memories of riding my little platic milk float and three wheeler up and down that walkway/balcony. Happy, simple days!

  12. My nan and uncle lived in Hudale Close and my aunt and uncle lived in Arnott Crescent it broke my heart to see how it all ended and was one of the poorest parts of Manchester. I am thankful they never saw it end up like that

  13. margaret kirk

    I worked in Hulme between 1988 and 1998 as a Health Visitor, great memories of the resilient families who were often struggling with low incomes, poor housing and impending change { sound familiar?}. Worked from the health centre next to the Church of the Ascension. Lots of community cohesion and political activism around then.
    PSV on my days off!

  14. MARTIN DAVIES

    Every time I pass The Gamecock pub on Booth Street West, I get a brief tragi-comic flashback to Hulme in the 80s. It’s derelict but – if you squint at dusk – still recognisably authentic retro-Hulme. I went in it maybe twice. I’m sure it will be gone soon. I get a similar Proustian shudder when I pass the Hippodrome-NIA Centre but there aren’t many places left for those Hulmorist moments. This must be how now-dead Mancunians felt when the factories and chimneys and back-to-backs were pulled down decades ago and a whole 19th century “dream country” was replaced with the concrete and glass and promise of the ‘modern world’.

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