The Phoenix & The Student Precinct

In the early ’80s, my comprehensive school’s corridors heaved with perrys, bovver boys and Blondie/Siouxsie/Chrissie Hynde pretenders. So at sixth form, I was startled to encounter a throng of heavy metal fans from local girls’ grammar schools; they seemed to inhabit a parallel universe where it was still 1975, and their self-confidence was so overwhelming that it was me who felt out of step.

They had curly perms, hippy skirts and fringed neck scarves and they openly discussed the merits of David Coverdale’s leather trousers without a trace of embarrassment; this behaviour was as alien to me as the prospect of someone opening a fire-door and actually letting me walk through it. (Civilised corridor ettiquette was a new and confusing concept.)

The odd shortage of metal-loving boys at college didn’t seem to worry the hippy-rock-chicks. Their sights were set on The Phoenix; here they would seek out their preferred romantic targets – UMIST students – in an unquestioned social ritual which seemed to date back to the dawn of time.

I discovered that The Phoenix was where geeky long-haired male science under-graduates habitually mingled with under-age, private-school or convent-educated girls… each group apparently providing an antidote to the other’s cultural isolation… while the abundance of weed and snakebite distracted the girls from the scarcity of David Coverdale.

For months I had no idea exactly where The Phoenix was; it became a destination of legend in my imagination. Verbal descriptions led me to envisage an illuminated golden bird, hovering over Oxford Road, sign-posting a nearby medieval torch-lit chamber, as might befit the aesthetic preferences of the clientele.

In fact I’d passed The Phoenix regularly, on the bus into town, but as there was no sign or street entrance, I had no way of knowing. The club was inside the Manchester Education Precinct, which straddles Oxford Road and runs along the length of Booth Street:

When I eventually found my way to The Phoenix, the red brick exterior, escalator and motorway service station decor were not what I expected at all; they made the allure of the place even more puzzling.

It’s also a bit random that UMIST socials were held in the Education Precinct because it was part of Manchester University, which was separate from UMIST in those days.

Manchester Education Precinct was commissioned in the mid-1960s by Manchester Corporation and Victoria (Manchester) University. (Victoria and UMIST merged in 2004 to form the University of Manchester.)

Architects Hugh Wilson & Lewis Womersley produced plans for the new campus prior to beginning work on their redesign of Hulme (now demolished) and the Arndale Centre, but the development wasn’t completed until 1974*.

The initial concept involved the pedestrianisation of Oxford Road, and ideas about the best way to develop the Oxford Road Corridor are once again being debated. The Education Precinct is the only one of Wilson & Womersley’s mega developments in Manchester which remains almost unchanged since its conception.

But not for long. The enormous building, which includes Manchester Business School, the University Shopping Precinct and St Peter’s Chaplaincy, is due to be updated and redeveloped.

Phase One will involve the construction of a new hotel on the Hulme side of the Manchester Business School. This will free up MBS’s existing internal accomodation, which will allow a phased refurbishment of the interior.

The plans for the Shopping Precinct have not yet been finalised but changes are obviously afoot because the shops’ leases are not being renewed. Blackwells staff believe that the bookshop will remain where it is, but who knows what will become of the bizarre escalator and the perversely stepped access ramp? Will developers Bruntwood have the imagination to preserve these architectural gems?

*http://www.stpeters.org.uk/history/dates.php

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20 Comments

  1. I am be totally wrong on this but in my recollection the UMIST socials, namely the Saturday rock discos, were held in the Umist student union building near Piccadilly station. The Phoenix rock nights were in those days the place to go on a sunday night. There were also rock clubs like Jillie’s and the Banshee and plenty of places like the Playpen/42nd street that attracted a mixed crowd, so the week was full and as far as I knew the only connection between Umist socials and the Phoenix was the clientele, and even that had differences as one particular motorcycle club went to Umist on saturdays and another club went to the Phoenix on sundays. Anyway sorry to be pedantic, it is just how I remember it. Keep up the great work.

    • David thanks! I’m sure you’re right! I’ve got the Phoenix rock nights mixed up with the UMIST socials.

    • Spent many a good night trying to ‘get off’ with the female ‘Rock’ students at the Phoenix…….yes..not sure, but might of been the Slaves/or the Disciples, who also seemed to rule the roost ( mostly ‘Bouncing’) at the doors of Manchesters other Rock clubs,Jilly’s,Banshee, Salisbury pub…………one plus was as a Biker, you were often guaranteed to get in for free………………!!!

  2. Chris Wright

    Yes, The rock night on Saturdays was at UMIST in the Main Debating Hall of the Barnes Wallis building (Student Union). I was one of the DJs there between 1980 and 1984. Survivors of heavy Night (7pm – 1am) trundled onto Jillie’s for the last hour or two. Malcolm – owner of Jillies (formerly Henrys) opened the Banshee around 1983, I think. The Phoenix was very busy on Sunday nights with rock clientele and was frequented by the Satan’s Slaves. The Swinging Sporran, opposite UMIST and almost part of the multi-storey car park that was there, also had a mix of rock in the basement and disco upstairs – popular with students and locals – and was busy on Wednesdays and weekends. Great memories – thanks very much for reminding me.

  3. Quick question, I stumbled across this blog looking for something else but you might just be the person to help me….what was the name of the record shop in the University Precinct that had yellow bags with Laurel & Hardy on them …it’s doing my head in :-)

    • I don’t know – but hopefully somebody else will see this and reply… I’ll ask around in the meantime and get back to you.

    • John Holden

      Was it Black Sedan?

    • Hello VP – by chance today I dug out an old “Profile – An Introduction To Manchester” magazine/booklet from when I started a Social Sciences course at Salford Uni in 1975. The rear page is an advert for Gordon’s (in the main square of the Precinct Centre) and it features L&H. The ad advises of a “small floor”, which sold papers, mags, sweets etc, and the downstairs “large floor” selling records, posters, cards etc. There was also “Oasis” – a “youth fashion precinct” off Market Street…I wonder if young Noel & Liam got dragged around there a few times, well before they became part of THE UK’s fashion!

  4. Chris Wright

    Not sure about a record store in the Precinct Centre, but upstairs, opposite the old NatWest Bank in the late 70s and early 80s was Odyssey7, complete with a Dalek (probably borrowed from the BBC just up Oxford Rd) in one corner. John Brown Wheels (car and motorcycle accessories shop) was downstairs by the escalator until about 1983, if I recall correctly….

  5. Mike Casey

    There are facebook groups re UMIST Rock Disco, The Phoenix, The Swinging Sporran and Jilly’s.

  6. Lyndsey Hall

    Does anybody know who this property is currently owned by?

  7. Darren Vickers

    Yes, Sunday nights and the 11.pm bus the 210 or 211 from outside the Apollo back to Hyde.
    Seem to recall a comic shop in the precinct too. Later became one of the Forbidden Planet book shops .

  8. Henrys, was also a rock club until it’s change it’s name, became The Banshee, Jillys was originally known as Jillys 2. I was also a regular at UMIST. I loved going to The Phoenix, but couldn’t get there often.
    I didn’t go there for a while, then went, only to find that the little square dance floor had been ripped out and,even though it should have been busy by the time I got there, the place was empty.

  9. You’re spot on with your commentary on the confidence us girls had in those days, I can remember it well. How good it was, strutting about the places like we owned it! Still remember my bleach streaked jeans and ethnic blouses from the Underground Market.

  10. The Phoenix has risen from the ashes – upstairs at the Britons Protection, Manchester last Saturday in the month. 2 of the Phoenix DJs can be found belting out some cracking rock music. Why not give it a try and possibly meet up with some old faces from the old days?

  11. Simon Wroe

    In 1981 I had the honour of being in a metal band that nearly burnt The Phoenix down. We had super dangerous electrically triggered flashbombs. When we set them off, the drum kit set on fire & the flames shot up super fast. I grabbed the 1 fire extinguisher, broken trigger & zero pressure. The landlady organised a chain of pint pots from the bar to put out the kit, carpet & some seating that was now on fire. I thought, wait a minute, there’s one narrow exit out this place, death-trap, so I went to open the fire exit, it had a lock & chains round it & the landlady didn’t have a clue where the key was. We put the fire out, the DJ played Arthur Brown & then she had the nerve to ask us to pay for the carpet ! We asked if she’d like the police to know about the fire doors & extinguisher, she went quiet & we even got paid.

  12. MARTIN DAVIES

    I worked in the Precinct Centre at St Peter’s House in the late 80s running a small publications business. The somewhat misleadingly named “Fruit and Nut Bar” was a lunchtime staple. The proprietor had a ready, dry wit and many times caught me unguarded with a quicksilver one-liner. The whole building had an unworldly quality. Many of the units were never occupied and the empty shells gave the space a museum-like atmosphere. On winter afternoons, in fading light, it was an eerily silent place. The metallic lifts that took you down to the Booth St 86 bus stop were the archetypal lifts of despair. I remember someone had written “Alienation Palace” in blue ink inside one of them. The entire floor of the precinct was lined in a black vinyl industrial flooring with a raised circular design. The post office at the far end was a gothic, windowless place with long queues winding out the door sometimes. One of the servers was Albanian and proudly displayed the national flag on his desk. In high summer, the glass roof gave it a greenhouse feel. The walkway steps were cunningly spaced to suit neither long or short legs. Travelling on the unusually slow twin elevators on the other side felt like the loneliest place on Earth sometimes. During the day the Phoenix was a haven for me if I fancied working in a new setting. I always wondered where the daytime drinkers came from. It was dim inside with a large gold phoenix design attached to the wall. People at “St Pete’s” told me that the Precinct Centre was never properly finished. The original design involved walkways across Booth St to create a quadrangle – along the Womersley-Wilson “streets in the sky”model. I don’t know if that is true but, even unfinished, it was monolithic, cavernous and oddly ambitious. Beneath the recently demolished bridge over Oxford Road, it was foreboding on a rainy night. The architects are understandably criticised for their Hulme/Arndale dystopias but – wandering by the Precinct with my daughter the other day, mid-demolition – I felt a pang of nostalgia for the Precinct Centre. It’s hard to think of a more brutalist, 70s word than “Precinct” – but for a while it was a kind of home.

  13. Anybody remember UMIST in the early to mid 70s with a do named Conrad ? He played a lot of Hendrix, Stray, Doors etc. Great days.

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