All human life – and death – is there in just one street

Manchester Street
Manchester Street

IN the first Morpathia of 2013, Roger Hawkins examines one of the town’s places to cherish – Manchester Street.

UNLIKE many streets in Morpeth, Manchester Street is short and straight, but it is full of variety so that you could almost live there from cradle to grave without ever going anywhere else.

If we allow for residents crossing the road at each end, it has one doctor’s surgery, two chemists and two undertakers. For a time, it even had a monumental mason’s.

Life before death is catered for by two take-aways, two hairdressers, two accountants, a pub, a book shop, an interior design studio, an estate agent, a quantity surveyor, a tax office and, for the right upbringing of youth, the Boys’ Brigade.

Manchester Street no longer possesses a school. Mr Thompson’s accountancy practice on Wellway used to be an infant school and St James’s Community Centre round the corner was the National or Church of England school.

There is likewise no church, but the Boys’ Brigade Hall was once the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Co-operative Funeral Service was originally the Primitive Methodist Chapel.

It later became Thompson’s Red Stamp Stores and later again the Co-operative Freezer Centre.

Within the relatively recent past, Manchester Street has had a sports shop (Jim Alder’s) a bridal shop (Elle’s) and above all Simpson’s Sweets, dear to the memory of generations of children going to and from school.

Mr Tweddle, in his Town Trail for Morpethians, No. 2, says: ‘The street is wide because, so it has been said, the lane had a row of houses along the middle.’

He was evidently not fully persuaded, and rightly so.

If you go on the Northumberland Communities website, you can compare Wood’s town map of 1826 with the Ordnance Survey 25” plan of 1860.

Manchester Lane was narrow in 1826. What is now Appleby’s Bookshop was not on the corner, but some way down Newgate Street.

Three buildings to the north of it formed an L-shape, two facing Newgate Street and one on Manchester Lane. They were gone by 1860, leaving Appleby’s with its long side on Manchester Lane, as now.

There was one other building on the south side in 1826, a shed or small house at the corner of Wellway.

This was also demolished and the sites of these four buildings, together with all the garden land on the south side of the lane, were taken into the highway giving us the wide street we have now.

The oldest buildings in Manchester Street are found mainly on the north side, Appleby’s and Jacob Conroy’s, with its elegant portico, alone excepted.

Mr Tweddle says that the cottages at each end on the north side are from the 18th century and that others of the same date were demolished in 1967 to make a car park.

The car park in turn has been replaced by John Gerard’s hairdressers and the tax office.

I like to think those houses wouldn’t be demolished now. I say I like to think it, but Morpeth’s record for preserving its built heritage is not of the best. Alnwick does it better.

As a result of that demolition, Morpeth lost a valuable piece of 18th century townscape and with it the birthplace of one of its most distinguished sons, the Chartist and philosopher, Robert Blakey.

Fortunately, we have a postcard picture of the same house just over a century later when it had become the Wesleyan Rooms.

The flats above John Gerard’s, together with the pub and most of the houses on the north side, are still occupied as ordinary homes.

All the buildings on the south side are business premises, except Springwell House (the Alzheimer’s Society) which has a flat upstairs.

The Tap and Spile was once the Mason’s Arms. It has been a pub for at least 150 years and it’s a pity it couldn’t keep the old name.

The walls are whitewashed, making it difficult to guess its date, but the roof line is the same as the adjoining cottages and the chimney stack and one wall of the entry are of Cottingwood commons, so there isn’t much doubt.

It is everything a local ought to be, cheerful, snug and friendly.

Both it and the adjoining cottages have been re-roofed in traditional style, with slates below and pantiles above.

Three other buildings have interesting and reasonably well recorded histories.

Appleby’s Bookshop was founded by Alderman Alfred Appleby, who brought the proceeds of William Hunter’s estate home from South Africa and founded the Hunter Memorial Homes Trust.

The shop may have been the Manchester manufactory from which Manchester Street gets its name, but personally I doubt so for the reasons given above.

Like all old buildings, however, Appleby’s has its secrets. One of these is revealed in Mr and Mrs Wallace’s new coffee shop.

The inside wall of the cafe has the plaster removed to show its warm red Cottingwood commons, but you can clearly see the outline of a window, filled in with Victorian bricks of a larger size.

This suggests that it was an outside wall. If so, the area of the coffee shop was probably originally an entry leading to the rear yard.

Wellway Accountants, at the east end of the street, was built in 1838 as the Borough Infants’ School.

It was a bold project of the new Town Council set up under the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, and continued in use until the 1940s when the children were transferred to Goosehill.

There was a Borough Girls’ School in a separate building where the Dacre Street car park is now and the two school mistresses had purpose-built flats above the infant school.

Each was self-contained, with a kitchen-living room at the back and the bed-sitting room facing down Manchester Street.

The first chapel on the site of the Boys’ Brigade facility was built by Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791). She was devoted to the Church of England, and was for a time the friend and patron of John Wesley, but eventually founded a separate denomination known as Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion.

Morpeth was the most northerly of her meeting houses, quite isolated from the rest, and in 1809 the Wesleyan Methodists bought it.

They partially rebuilt it in 1823 and replaced it with the present building in 1884.

The Boys’ Brigade have occupied it since 1964. Two probable survivals of Lady Huntingdon’s chapel exist in the former boiler room beside the basement stairs.

Built into the brickwork are two soot-blackened capitals carved to represent fruit – probably grapes, these being a traditional symbol of the blood of Christ.

No pictures of the original chapel have survived, but I assume it must have had classical columns on the front, of which these capitals were the topmost feature.

Further reading: Alec Tweddle’s Town Trails. See also Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth, 1884, available at Appleby’s Bookshop.