I was taken up to Cromford Courts, on the roof of Manchester’s Arndale Centre, by my friend Angela in 1987.
The flats looked (to me) like council houses… but their location was inexplicable. And their mystique was compounded by their impossible hiding place… in the bullseye of the city centre.
We were visiting Roger Eagle, who was introduced to me as the force behind The International and an authority on American music of the 1950s and 60s. (I had no idea that he was also the original Twisted Wheel DJ and ran Eric’s in Liverpool.)
My friend Angela was busy mining Roger’s vast record collection for creative inspiration and this is what she found:
Annisteen Allen – Fujiyama Mama
She memorised the words and sang the song incessantly for weeks. So my only visit to Cromford Courts is forever lodged in my mind alongside the unusual song lyrics “I’ll blow your head off, baby, with nitro-glycerine…” and “I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb!”
I always assumed that the flats were destroyed in 1996 by the IRA bomb which exploded yards away, so I imagined that my association of the place with the song was apt… a premonition borrowed from Angela!
But in fact, the flats survived the bomb, and it was chronic water leakage, not the explosion, which became the justification for their abandonment.
There had been an earlier ‘Cromford Court’ which was demolished to make way for the Arndale Centre; Roger Eagle ran a club there called The Magic Village. There seemed to me to be some pathos in his returning to live over the site of his old venue… but perhaps I’m too fanciful.
Writer and publisher, Michael Butterworth, describes the place as he remembers it:
Cromford Court was originally a very small cobble-stone square crowded with tall soot-blackened buildings. There were two clubs — a ‘grown-up’ shiny nightclub where rollers pulled up outside and another one called The Manchester Cavern (which became the Magic Village).
When it was the Cavern we’d stand outside on the cobbles in our bell bottoms, cuban heels, combat jackets, chains and long hair waiting to get in.
Under Roger, the Village had an eclectic soundtrack of psychedelia and R&B, and put on great live bands. I remember standing a couple of feet away from Ginger Baker at floor level playing one of his electrifying drum solos.
As the Magic Village the club seemed to last up until the Arndale was built, then that whole city area went to the bulldozer. I remember streets and streets of densely packed Victorian buildings, warehouses and shops, all smoke-black, and barrows — a lost Manchester.
The Manchester Arndale Centre was built between 1972 and 1979 and was jointly financed by Manchester Corporation and the Prudential Assurance Company. According to Wikipedia, the joint company run by Manchester Corporation raised £5 million on the stock market after the Prudential admitted it could not fully fund the project, which was a first for a company formed by a local authority.
Cromford Courts was officially opened in 1981, and appeared to be ‘bolted on’ to architects Womersley and Wilson’s original design for the shopping centre. The housing development occupied the northern-most section of the roof space, between Shude Hill and Cannon Street.
The flats were then managed by Northern Counties Housing Association (now Guinness Northern Counties, based in Oldham.)
I asked Jane McCarthy, Communications Officer at Guinness Northern Counties, for more information:
Was Cromford Courts part of the architects Womersley and Wilson’s original design?
Yes, the concept from day one was to encourage people to live in the city centre. At that time, the only people who lived in the city centre were caretakers. The council wanted either rented or semi-social for housing not private ownership.
Did Northern Counties become involved as a result of Manchester Corporation’s direct involvement with the design?
We’re not sure about this but we think we were invited by the council to get involved.
How many dwellings were on the roof of the Arndale?
Were they all the same size?
No, they were a mixture of bed-sits, and one and two bed apartments.
So it would seem that Manchester Corporation was the driving force behind the creation of the housing development, and that they then invited Northern Counties to manage it.
Andrew Meredith was a member of the residents’ committee from 1990 until 2003. He was able to throw more light on the peculiar relationship between Northern Counties, the residents and the Arndale’s owners:
Cromford Courts was set up as a limited company with all the resident leaseholders as shareholders – the shareholders being personally responsible for any liabilities of the company. Northern Counties were the managing agents and so had very little to do with the running of the association. The flats were built on top of the Arndale, with the Cromford Courts company leasing the site from the then owners P&O. The lease made the Cromford Courts company liable for any water leaks from the flats. (This liability was subject to litigation between the Cromford Courts company and Northern Counties, who signed the lease on behalf of the Cromford Courts company.)
A flat application was made to & handled by Northern Counties as the managing agent. As a committee member I don’t recall vetting any applications. We only discussed tenants in rent arrears. It has to be said that very few people knew about the flats and so were unlikely to apply. It wasn’t part of Northern Counties social housing stock for them to rent out. I had to provide a financial reference to be accepted.
On signing the lease, a £5 fee was added and a share certificate issued along with a very long lease outlining the nature of the company. My lease & share certificate was surrendered when accepting the moving compensation & I did not make a copy. I’m pretty sure that there were 60 shares, one for each flat. There could be up to 2 named tenants on the leasehold (to give legal tenancy to both parties at the discretion of the committee) but only 1 person could vote.
The Cromford Courts site (known as ‘the podium’) had several incidents of leaking before the bomb hit. When the bomb hit, the feeling was that the Arndale would not survive, so when it did, the new owners Prudential gained planning permission to redevelop but had sitting tenants. The tactic they used was to restart action against the Cromford Courts company to stop the leaking from the podium. As far as I remember they served notice that they were going to make the repairs and bill the Cromford Courts company (as allowed in the structural lease), which it did not have the funds to cover, leaving the shareholders responsible.
Fortunately the City Council wanted the Arndale redeveloped, and so they took a rather more politic lead and persuaded Prudential to offer compensation to the residents to vacate. I left Cromford Courts in January 2003, which I believe was as early as possible to receive the compensation. I think that April 2003 was the final leaving date.
Northern Counties managed the site as normal once the bomb repair was made until we left. We did not have full occupancy, but I think were just about running at a profit.
So Manchester City Council (Corporation) shoe-horned residents into Cromford Courts in 1981, leaving them exposed to unacceptable and unnecessary financial risk, and then threw the whole process into reverse in 2003, when it suited them to do so. “All’s well that ends well,” the councillors will have said to themselves… doubtless.
During 2003, Cromford Courts was vacated and demolished and Cannon Street was sealed off, covered over and swallowed up by the Arndale structure. Previously the road had cut through the shopping centre, linking High Street on the East with Corporation Street on the West at a surprisingly steep tangent. Lined with bus stops and continuously filled with shuddering busses, it was a dirty, polluted, litter-filled wind-tunnel; in fact, walking down it with the wind behind you, it was easy to imagine that you were being fired out of a huge cannon (in slow motion).
There are photographs of the final day that Cannon Street was open to traffic at www.gmbuses.co.uk and Cromford Courts can be seen clearly on the first and second picture.
I asked Michael Butterworth how he first discovered Cromford Courts and what it was like to live up there:
I remember looking up at the the apartments from Cannon Street (now gone) and thinking ‘Wow! I’d like to live up there!’, and then finding a doorway on Shude Hill with the Northern Counties plaque. It was like the doorway to the Magic Garden, except you went up in a lift. At the top you entered into a smaller version of the Roof Gardens at Biba’s in Kensignton — there were trees, garden beds and lawns. Like Biba’s it was high above the city, which hummed mutedly all around.
The balconies were spacious, wide and long — you could put good sized tables out there and seating for six people and have others sitting and lying about. My kitchen window opened onto the balcony, and there was also a serving hatchway through to the lounge, which had French windows leading onto the balcony. The doorways to both kitchen and lounge were also adacent, so a circular flow of energy could be created; a very sociable space for cooking and partying especially in the summer when the windows and French doors could be opened. The daylight the big windows afforded, made it feel happier, sunnier than downstairs, where the bedrooms were, off the entrance hall; you had to go upstairs to the social areas.
I knew many of the neighbours well, though mainly ones that had followed me in moving there.
The bomb in the summer of 1996 happened towards the end of my stay there. We were all still in bed after a late night. I remember waking to the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead, and an amplified voice that was urging us us to evacuate the site. A bomb was going to go off.
We grabbed what we could and ran for it. Looking over the edge of the site near the Shude Hill exit I could see a long line of red-and-white ‘keep-out’ tape already surrounding the building, and police with loud hailers and streaming crowds moving away from the city centre.
As we raced down the steps, …The Arches Bar, by the river, came to me (on the other side of the road to the Cathedral, beneath the railway arches), and we quickly got there. We had just sat down inside… when the explosion happened. It sounded like a giant Chinese firecracker going off, its noise ricocheting through the streets making it seem like several explosions in rapid succession. The railway arches shook, and dust poured down from the ceiling on top of us.
After we felt it was safe, we left and, walked back past a row of plate glass windows that we had passed earlier…, noticing they were now shattered. We had only just missed injury. (Most of the bomb injuries were from flying glass.)
As we walked on – alive but homeless – it became apparent what a great job the police had done. For me at any rate, they hadn’t had much of a reputation. But they had acted brilliantly, and their bravery had saved possibly hundreds of lives and injuries.
The IRA’s warning (20 minutes?) was also something we were very grateful for. It made us feel that we weren’t the targets, just the System was.
We couldn’t go back into our flat, because the Arndale’s central office tower was suspected of being cracked. It was weeks before we were allowed back in to collect possessions (wearing yellow safety helmets) and weeks more before surveys were complete and we were allowed to re-inhabit.
Miraculously, our house plants were found to be still alive (just), but Damon’s white cat had gone missing… a few days later it turned up, scrawny, dirty and bedraggled… It must somehow have lived in the ducts of the Arndale Centre… and had ventured home when it realised we’d moved back in.
I left Cromford not long after we’d moved back. There were rumours of closure, even then, but I wasn’t on the residents’ committee and didn’t go to the general meetings so had only a hazy notion of the ‘business’ side of this slowly decaying idyll.
When I started to research this piece in early summer, I thought I would be giving Northern Counties great credit for seeing the need for, and providing, accomodation in the city centre, years before this became fashionable. But now I see Cromford Courts as something much more complicated and peculiar… a symptom of Manchester City Council’s idealism, impracticality, arrogance and complacency… a combination of characteristics which sadly I believe it still often displays today.
Northern Counties Housing Accociation was not a prime mover, though perhaps its involvement with Cromford Courts provided inspiration for the India House project (Whitworth Street) in the mid-80s, which was an impressive landmark development, and was also ahead of its time.
I asked Guinness Northern Counties’ Jane McCarthy, “Was the council’s enthusiasm for city centre dwellers how the India House project was raised as a possibility?”
Jane explained: “No, India House was a development opportunity we saw and took, although it was in line with the Council’s desire to bring people into the City to live it wasn’t something they asked us to do.”
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Many thanks to Michael Butterworth, Andrew Meredith and Jane McCarthy for their written contributions and thanks to Michael Butterworth and Jane McCarthy for the photographs! Thanks also to Jo McGonigal and Charlotte Martin for sparing the time to give me information.
For more on Cromford Courts, see Eddy Rhead’s article in The Modernist Issue 2.