Forgotten Subterranean Sites of Manchester – Heritage Sites Or Valuable Gentrification Spaces?

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How often those who walk the streets of Manchester look upon its rich architectural heritage – Manchester Cathedral, Victoria Station, the Town Hall, the Royal Exchange and the gates to the old Smithfield Markets Markets to name but a few. They’re heralded as landmarks, of cultural poignancy and significance. Yet how infrequently the same is said for that which is hidden beneath. For left to the rats of Manchester resides a subterranean nexus of tunnels and passageways. Unlike the ever-redeveloped surface, they are widely untouched. Lots of them are sealed off, now time capsules to bygone eras. But as redevelopment forays begin to reach beneath the surface, is Manchester about to lose some of its most significant heritage?

Whilst one old underground canal beneath the Great Northern Goods warehouse has been repurposed in to a tourist attraction, many other such sites remain unutilised. One such case is that of Victoria Arches, an underground site built in to the bank of the River Irwell, positioned below Victoria Street and affront Manchester Cathedral. But the surface shows little evidence of its presence, only onlookers from the Salford side of the river may note a series of bricked up arches embedded in the riverbank. These arches extend beneath the streets towards the cathedral and have a rich history of use.

Victoria Arches were originally constructed as part of a road improvement scheme drawn up in 1832, as the road beside the river was only 2 foot wide. This development was to include underground space below the new road for industry. This took the form of a series of 17 arched rooms. The arches were accessible from street level by means of external wooden staircases, although they were not all initially internally connected. The project was completed in September 1838. From 1839 they were advertised as ‘underground vaults’ suitable for wine merchants, printers and machine makers.

Indeed, over subsequent years they have been used to numerous purposes, with the river providing easy access for the delivery of raw materials. Over the next 80 years they were home to pickle manufacturers, tailors, an electricity substation, ironmongers and even an undertakers. A ferry service offering excursions down the River Irwell was also run out of the arches, with some traveling as far as Liverpool. Similarly, it was the birthplace of the Richardson lifeboat, which became the template for lifeboats used in both New Brighton and Rhyl, saving many lives in their service.

Their function, however, was to change with the onset of the Second World War, when they were suggested as a candidate to be converted in to airraid shelters. This involved numerous considerations. Previously, the arches had only been accessible through a manhole and a set of wooden staircases that descended from Victoria Street. An additional set of stairs were added next to the (now removed) Cromwell statue near Cathedral approach, alongside a set near the Cathedral entrance. Furthermore, the arches were internally divided, as three arches accessible by the manhole were situated deeper underground due to being positioned beneath Victoria Bridge. Thus they were joined for the first time by means of a further internal staircase. This was also the moment that the riverbank would become as we see it today, with the arched windows being bricked up in order to make them gas and blast proof. Floors were replaced and lighting was also added. Following this conversion, up to 3,300 people could occupy the shelter. Despite the arches being just over a metre below the surface in places, they were still deemed fit for use and were heavily occupied during the Manchester Blitz.

The site is clearly steeped in history. This is visible from many of the online photographs taken by self-titled ‘urban explorers’, or those published in the books of Keith Warrender. Depicting aged posters warning that insobriety will not be tolerated in the shelter, 100 year old crisp packets, signs for an old medical post, equipment left from the electricity companies and the underground toilets of a bygone era – which intriguingly seem to be preeminent in photographs of the place. But all this could soon be lost due to gentrification as part of the new Irwell River Park (IRP) development.

The IRP is a waterside redevelopment project spanning an 8km stretch between central Manchester and Salford Quays. It has an economic worth of over £3 billion and is a major redevelopment project with both public and private funding. Specifically, the development of ‘Cathedral Square’ and ‘Greengate Bridge’ pose a significant threat to the arches. Some of the arches near Victoria Bridge have already been destroyed to lay the foundations of Greengate Bridge, as my photo above documents, taken whilst construction was underway and the internals of the shelter itself were visible. The remaining arches could also be in danger, for the Cathedral Square development proposes gentrifying them, turning them in to underground offices whilst the road above is pedestrianised. But the jury is out as for how much such developments destroy rather than conserve.

It seems it’s the very aspect that makes this site so significant that puts it at risk, the dichotomy of the arches being forgotten. They’re interesting as they’re undisturbed, a time capsule, and that wouldn’t be possible if they hadn’t been left alone. They might’ve been subject to ‘progress’, or the day to day functional development. But they’re also unprotected for this reason, they don’t have notoriety of what we commonly label heritage sites; the majority of people simply don’t know that it’s there. Its not seen day to day, it isn’t a landmark and it’s not of architectural beauty. It doesn’t have this attached sense of cultural value. Nobody is making a stand as this development passes under the radar. Therefore, the question posed is that just as something isn’t as renowned, should it be ascribed a lesser value to society? I contest that simply as something isn’t known, it does not mean it hasn’t the potential to be valued. It’s the result of it being forgotten that it has to offer; it’s a secret underground museum that we have the opportunity to conserve. Gentrifying them could arguably destroy the contents of this museum leaving nothing but the walls.

For more information please refer to: ‘Underground Manchester’ & ‘Below Manchester’ by Keith Warrender

Joe Blakey