Surrounded by chicken shops and takeaways sits an oddity in modern Manchester, the Withy Grove Stores.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s abandoned, a relic from the 1980s that time and gentrification forgot, confusingly located round the back of the Printworks.
In fact, the safe and office supply store is very much still active, although you can’t just walk in off the street and have a browse – the whole thing raises so many questions, like who owns it? Why hasn’t it been bought and turned into a chicken shop? Is it being used as a front?
Well, the guys over at Manchester’s Finest had a bit of a dig around into the history of the building, and we now have some answers to your questions.
They spoke to a safe and office interior company called Withy Grove Office Interiors, who explained that the company began on Withy Grove in Manchester all the way back in 1850.
However, the history goes even further back, when the Richmond Safe Company was set up by John R Solomon back in 1799, supplying iron-branded and ironclad strongboxes for ships.
The Richmond Safe Company continued to operate until around 1840, at which point they located to offices on Withy Grove and renamed themselves Withy Grove Stores. From here the company expanded, eventually running three sites in the North of England – Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds (the company still operates from Leeds now).
For over 130 years the shop on Withy Grove flogged safes and furniture, impervious to the rapid change and development around it – the Withy Grove Printing House, which printed the Daily Mirror among other titles, closed down in 1985, while the Arndale popped up over the road in the late 1970s.
During the 1980s, it appears the Solomon brothers all fell out over something and each site was broken up and given to one of them to look after. The Leeds site was sold off to private owners by Casper Solomon, but the Manchester location is still very much owned by a Solomon to this day.
A quick check on Companies House shows the Directors of the company are Brian Solomon and Anthony Solomon, and both still own and run the Withy Grove Stores on Withy Grove. Financial statements show the company ran at a substantial loss in both 2018 and 2019, which isn’t really surprising.
So what do they do there and why is it never open? Manchester’s Finest rang up the store’s phone number – found on their still active website – and this is what happened: “The phone was answered by a lovely woman, and we were told that the shop is indeed open and she proceeded to bang out some rather erratic opening times for the week ahead.”
So there you go, if you are in the market for a safe or office chair, give them a ring and grab yourself a retro little number.
A thread on Reddit this week also delved into the mystery of Withy Grove Stores, and some people revealed their own experiences with the shop, including actually buying stuff from it.
A user called MR_EXCELLENT wrote: “I rang Mr.Solomon myself a few years ago to ask if I could rent a bit of space in the building, he declined stating he gets dozens of calls every week asking him to ‘sell up’. He told me his dad built the building and he’ll never sell, I told him how much I like the building and how much I’d hate to see a big company ruin it, he told me he thought it would make an excellent Italian restaurant. Good chat! He seemed to be happy to talk to someone who appreciated the building but he could have just been too polite to tell me to fuck off.”
Redditor asidonhopo added: “I went in about 8 years ago or so. Wanted a nice comfy computer chair and it looked like they had some interesting old school office stuff in there, so I rang and the lady said she’d be around that Saturday and to knock on. Her dad used to own the place apparently, she was dead happy for me to just root around through all the old stuff and chat away.”
Pedro-a-go-go actually bought something from there: “I’ve bought stuff i there before, admittedly about 15 years ago. Needed a load of office ‘in trays’ for work. There was a lot of standing about as the bloke was dealing with someone buying a safe, and couldn’t work out how it to change the combination on the safe he was demonstrating. He ended up snapping a teaspoon and jamming it in the lock to try to get it to change. The person didn’t buy the safe. Also office in trays are REALLY expensive….”
And so did Redditor scottynoble: “I bought a safe from there in 2008. Still have it. Friend who recently passed away was a big deal at printworks recommended the place and got me a discount. Was like stepping into 1971, lovely people.”
Retired teacher turned world’s oldest battle rapper stars in new documentary
She only meant to try it once, but now she’s a pro
A teacher from Greater Manchester who took early retirement and went on to become a battle rapper is now the star of a new documentary.
Joy France is a 66-year-old from Wigan who came across battle rapping around five years ago, shortly after taking early retirement from teaching to embark on a new direction in life.
Don’t be fooled though, beneath the warm and friendly appearance Joy will tear you apart with her brutal freestyle battle raps in front of all your friends – if you dare take her on.
After a series of life events, Joy decided to take early retirement from teaching so she could spend some time on herself to do the things she wanted to do, on a journey of self-discovery.
“I gave myself a year to discover, to enjoy this new found creativity that was to do with spoken word and I performed at festivals, and did all sorts of things for a year,” Joy told us.
But during that time, she was having far too much fun to go back to her old life, explaining: “And then I was meant to be sensible and get some supply work and be ‘grown-up’ again.
“But what happened was, I was chatting to somebody who had a little theatre – that used to be attached to Afflecks – about my year and I remember saying to him that I’d had three Residences and was appointed Creator in Residence that year at a charity shop.
“Then this guy said, ‘do you know what, Afflecks could do with a Poet in Residence. You should go and chat with the manager’.”
Thinking it would be a great idea, Joy arranged to sit down with the manager of Afflecks. She explained: “What came out of my mouth wasn’t planned.
“I said, ‘I’m going to tell you what Afflecks needs. You need a Creative in Residence – somebody who will celebrate and promote creativity of all kinds. And what you should do is give them an empty space on the quietest floor in the quietest corner, rent-free, that they can just go in and basically just invite people in to be creative and see what happens’.
“And he turned to me and said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it to you for three months, will you do it?’ I was like, ‘Okay’.”
She’s now been Creative in Residence at Afflecks for eight years.
Then, after turning 60, Joy decided to try 60 new things: “That could be anything from trying a new food, to holding an owl – I’m going with somebody to do some spray painting graffiti art, so that’ll be added to my list.”
On the events that led her into the unlikely route of battle rapping, Joy explained: “It started out I was still really quite shy into my mid 50s and then I found performance poetry and started writing songs and found my voice.
“And then I had a room in Afflecks, where I’ve been Creative in Residence for the last eight years.”
And it all went from there.
Joy showed her poems to someone at Afflecks who suggested she tried rapping – another new thing to tick off her list.
She went on: “It wasn’t like a sudden Ctrl+Alt+Delete, but there was a series of events that meant that I changed my attitude to life.
“So, instead of worrying about what people felt, and just doing what people expected me to do, you know? There were a couple of bereavements that were pivotal.”
About what it’s like to freestyle battle rap and her discovery of that world, Joy said: “It’s very intense and the battles are brutal.
“I stepped into that world thinking it was everything that I hated. I thought it was misogynistic and homophobic.
“And, you know, my intention was to see whether I had the guts and the ability to do it, so that people would look at people like me differently. What happened was, you know, people just accepted me as me.
“And all my preconceptions about that world turned upside down. It really is a lovely community, I’ve got some really good friends there. Young men talk about mental health and there’s just a mix of amazing people.”
Joy says she was meant to ‘run away’ from battle rapping and ‘only do it once’, but she’s done it several times now and plans to do more.
But her journey doesn’t stop there, as she’s now become the star of a new documentary, ‘Joy Uncensored’, available for free on YouTube by Northern Heart Films, directed by Natasha Hawthornthwaite.
The short film documents Joy’s story of how she entered the world of battle rapping and was released on August 11th this year.
Natasha came across Joy in her creative space at Afflecks in 2017 and was fascinated by Joy’s outlook on life. She approached her, and having been asked by many filmmakers before, Joy decided to say yes to Natasha.
There was something ‘different’ that she ‘liked’ about her, compared to all the other people that had previously approached her. Joy says Northern Heart Films have done ‘a really good job of capturing how scary [battle rapping] is’.
‘Joy Uncensored’ has gone on to win the Audience Awards at the Hebden Bridge Film Festival and the Wigan and Leigh Film Festival, and Best Documentary at Women Over 50 Film Festival and Beeston Film Festival.
Joy is now looking forward to heading to New York next year to compete in another battle rap. She’s also still trying even more new things, breaking ‘the stereotype’ and challenging herself.
“You know, somebody’s teaching me DJing at the moment, I might be the worst DJ in the world. But at least I’ve given it a go,” she added.
Head over to Afflecks some time and go up to the top floor – you might just come across Joy at work in her creative space.
Owner of iconic Tommy’s House of Fires in Old Trafford, Tommy Dolan, passes away at 72
His son TJ shares with us a look back on his dad’s life
Tommy Dolan, a Manchester businessman and owner of the iconic Tommy’s House of Fires in Old Trafford, has passed away at age 72, his family have said.
Paying tribute to his dad, his youngest son TJ Dolan, 36, shared with us the incredible story of a man he described as ‘a very well loved, known and respected character’, adding: “They simply don’t make people like these anymore.”
Born to Irish immigrant parents in 1951, Tommy started his early life living in Eccles before moving to Hulme where he grew up, considering himself a ‘Hulme lad’ — long before the concrete estates were built.
A keen businessman in the making, he would run errands for a local gentlemen’s club getting cigarettes and was also Sir Matt Busby’s paperboy.
Tommy never took any exams and left school at 16 to begin working at the prestigious Piccadilly Hotel, where he worked his way up while living in-house at the hotel, in the heart of Piccadilly Gardens during the ’60s.
Still at the hotel but in a new found career path, he became an Olympia (London) prestigious award winning chef – where he got to shake hands with stars including Muhammad Ali and even cooked for David Bowie’s 21st Birthday.
After spending time as a chef he decided to start-up what became the well known Manchester chip shop chain ‘Ye Olde English Chippy’, which eventually had 13 stores in total located all over Manchester — including Moss Side, Salford, Chorlton and Burnage.
He also opened a two-storey 24-hour chip shop in Piccadilly Gardens below the hotel where he had lived and worked at as a teenager.
Fancying a change of direction and leaving the chippies behind he thought, ‘Why sell potatoes when I could sell marble?’ — setting up the iconic Manchester institution that is ‘Tommy’s House Of Fires’ in Old Trafford.
Tommy sold fireplaces to almost everyone in the North West including the rich and famous (and infamous), as well as various footballers – being so close to Old Trafford.
It was at his Old Trafford shop where he once sold a fire to ‘Firestarter’ the late Keith Flint from The Prodigy, before going on a three-day bender with him where he was spiked with LSD.
TJ told us: “He would drive Cruella de Vil’s car from 101 Dalmatians to work as his daily car.”
Tommy’s bizarre, huge and well known advertising campaigns over the years attracted the national press in the ’90s: ‘FREE SEX (with every 100 fires sold)’ and ‘TOMMY’S GETTING A DIVORCE – (come get it before she gets half)’.
In real life, he was never actually getting a divorce but the displays landed him in all the major newspapers.
TJ recalls: “I remember my mum taking me to school and loads of camera men flashing and asking her what did she think of her husband advertising their divorce… which she replied, ‘I’m not f*****g getting a divorce, I’m going to school’, and off we went.
“His iconic and ridiculous ‘YUL save plenty’ signs of his face superimposed on Yul Brynner in ‘the king and I ‘ were lost on anyone born after the ’70s but are hilarious nonetheless.”
About his childhood and growing up around his dad, TJ fondly remembers: “Nothing was ever normal. There was never a dull day, you know? I mean, it was always fun. There was always something going on. It was chaos.”
On other links to the stars, TJ told us his dad ‘drank with George Best in Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy’s mum’s shebeen’.
Looking back at his life, it is clear to see Tommy was known and loved by many locally for his humour and sociable nature.
They had ‘nothing but good stuff to say about him’, TJ said. He added: “Everybody thought he had a twin brother because he’d be seen in like three or four different places in one day.”
On losing his beloved dad, TJ continued: “Nothing is ever going to be the same. He loved life and he added joy, you just can’t replicate that. I still keep thinking I’m going to see his car with his music blasting at 100. He just gave zero f***s.”
TJ shared some of his dad’s favourite quotes, that he often repeated, including ‘It’s all b***ocks’, ‘There’s nothing fair in life other than the fairground’, and ‘Life is funny – but it’s funnier being Tommy.’
Tommy passed away unexpectedly in his sleep last month. He leaves behind his wife of over 50 years Judy and his four adult children, Emma, Anna, Danny and TJ.
For anyone wishing to pay their respects to Tommy, his funeral will be held on Tuesday August 22nd at St John’s in Chorlton at 12pm. The wake will be held at The Woodstock in Didsbury at 2pm.
As TJ says: “A remarkable story of a man that started with nothing, no education and lived truly to the max.”
RIP Tommy, Yul be missed.
TOMMY DOLAN: 23.2.51 – 9.7.23
Man recreates iconic film and TV scenes across Manchester and the North West
The results are truly delightful!
A young creative photographer decided to travel the world finding exact locations from movies to blend scenes into pictures.
Film Student Thomas Duke, 24, had the creative and imaginative idea of blending pictures taken from scenes perfectly with their real-life surroundings, which started out just as a hobby born from a passion for film.
The film enthusiast says he enjoys ‘the world of movies and storytelling’ and so stepping through scenes ‘felt like a more visceral way to escape from reality’.
He’s now created hundreds of images to the point he’s lost count, saying: “There was a time where I counted each one but then I stopped as there started to be far too many. The beauty is that there is a never-ending supply to visit.”
On his favourite matches he’s created, Thomas revealed: “I have to say Pixar! Ratatouille in Paris and Luca in Italy to name my favourite spots.
“Animation is fun as there’s such a different dimension to it – there are no REAL filming locations for the cartoons of course, and so it’s wonderful to experiment and try with all of those scenes – it gives me a little more freedom to see what can work.
“Plus, Paris and the Cinque Terre are simply stunning to explore.”
On the spookiest and most realistic he continued: “Probably Dunkirk; the place and the film – for obvious reasons. The scenery has hardly changed and the history remains as visceral and surreal to explore in-person.
“The film was a triumph in telling such a story and so stepping through that location was more than just a film location, it was truly like stepping through history.”
On a destination he hasn’t yet done but could be on the cards for future shots to add to his collection, Thomas commented: “I would love to visit the other-worldly world of Iceland to explore Interstellar.”
“The landscape was used as a stand-in for multiple planets in the film due to its stunning visuals and unique atmosphere,” he continued.
According to Thomas, the process he goes through to capture movie moments on location is actually ‘really easy’: “I just watch the scene very carefully to spot any street signs or recognisable landmarks etc and then I head on out to the spot. If it’s a bit harder to find, then it takes longer but I’m always very determined.”
The process usually takes him from one day to one week depending on the location he is travelling to.
Asked what scenes are particularly hard to recreate the photographer explained that a ‘beach scene is always hard due to the wind blowing the piece of paper around’.
Adding: “One particularly hard shot has been from Skyfall when Daniel Craig is running to jump on the back of the tube carriage. That was a fun one!
“I had to sort of crouch down on the tube platform for hours just waiting for the perfect timing and train to line Craig up with running. It was also so hot down there!”
Thomas takes inspiration for the film scenes he recreates by leading ‘with a passion and love for the film or story,’ as he continued: “That’s the key. Otherwise, what’s the point really?
“Those that have a beautiful message behind them draw me in. Something like ‘It’s A Sin’ had me bawling my eyes out. It was an important story and one that motivated me to head up to Manchester to celebrate it on my own accord, not as a paid project.
“I’m sometimes guided by what’s upcoming in the cinema space too, if there’s a new Marvel film, for example, then I may go and do a related location!”
Thomas has come a long way since the very first creation he made, the photographer recalled: “It was the scene with Daniel Craig and Ben Whishaw sitting by some paintings – those paintings have since been swapped out and so that scene is impossible to recreate properly now!
“Other scenes I started with is the whole Cornetto Trilogy [Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End] which have been a joy to celebrate – all being UK based in London, Somerset, and then Welwyn Garden City.
“I’m based in Hertfordshire and so that led to so many possibilities with so much being filmed here.”
On why he loves what he does, and where he’s heading to next, Thomas added: “Every day is different and it gives me an excuse to travel while celebrating something I love – movies and television.
“Maybe [I’ll be] still doing this, maybe not. Perhaps [I will do] something in television/presenting…or writing about film in a different capacity.”
You can see what Thomas is up to next on his @steppingthroughfilm Instagram page.