When I was at school, ‘The College’ on College Road, Whalley Range, was a University of Manchester hall of residence. Cycling past, I would catch glimpses of people only a few years older than myself, lounging in the beautiful grounds, chatting and reading books. The scene looked idyllic… like a scene from Brideshead Revisited.

It wasn’t far from my house and yet it seemed worlds away from my comprehensive secondary school, on Brantingham Road and Nell Lane. (My school occupied two sites, both built during the 1960s.)

The Lancashire Independent College was built in the early 1840s, for the purpose of educating Nonconformist ministers, who were denied entry to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for many decades. It replaced a much smaller institution in Blackburn called the Blackburn Academy.

Nonconformity is the refusal to ‘conform’ to the rule of the Church of England. At the time of the Act of Uniformity in 1662, Nonconformists included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, but the term was also later applied to groups formed after 1662, such as Methodists, Unitarians and the Salvation Army.

The Lancashire Independent College was designed in the gothic style, and was intended to resemble an Oxford or Cambridge university college. A book published in 1893 to celebrate its first fifty years can be viewed on-line at www.archive.org.

“The ediface was situated on a freehold plot of seven acres, on the estate which Mr. Brooks was laying out for large houses, and now known as Whalley Range.
The building is faced in front with a rough and durable Yorkshire stone, and had a frontage of two hundred and sixty-one feet, with two receding wings of one hundred and forty-nine feet in depth; from the centre rises a Gothic tower of ninety-two feet. The enlargements made in 1878 have greatly modified the structure…”
Lancashire Independent College (1843-1893) Jubilee Memorial Volume by Joseph Thompson (Page 60)

Links developed between the Lancashire Independent College and Owens College (founded 1851), which enabled Lancashire Independent students to study some of their subjects at Owens. In 1880, Owens College became the first college of the national Victoria University, which subsequently became the Victoria University of Manchester. The Lancashire Independent College came to be owned by the Victoria University and was later known as the Northern Congregational College.

When the Unversity of Manchester, as it came to be called, sold off the building, around 1984, there was an auction of the contents. I went along, naively expecting to see beautiful objects worthy of the grand exterior; instead the items for sale were mainly made from chipboard and plywood… because most of the rooms had been students’ bedrooms.

The building was taken over by Britain’s General Workers’ Union, the GMB, and became a training and conference centre for almost two decades. Then in 2003, the building closed and its future looked uncertain. Eventually it was purchased by Saudi investors on behalf of the Muslim Community of Great Britain, to be developed into a National Heritage Centre.

Day for Syria, July 3rd 2011

The building has Grade II* listed status and has required extensive repairs over the past few years.

The British Muslim Heritage Centre hosted a ‘Day for Syria’ during July, to raise awareness about the problems faced by the people of that country, and we were able to take a look inside the building and wander round the grounds.

The Day for Syria was well attended and included lectures, speeches, an exhibition of information, Syrian music and dance, children’s activities and a variety of food on offer. It’s wonderful to see the building being well cared for and well used by the community.