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Feature

The incredible history of Withy Grove Stores round the back of the Printworks

It looks like it’s always closed…

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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.”

Feature

Did you know the NHS was born in Manchester 74 years ago today?

Happy birthday to the NHS!

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University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences / Wikimedia Commons & Peter McDermott / Flickr

Today, as our treasured National Health Service marks its 74th anniversary, we’re taking a look back on its extensive history and the substantial role Manchester played in its creation. 

Life before the NHS was a bleak one; before 1900, healthcare was typically provided by charities, poor law (the local welfare committees who operated workhouses) and a criminally unregulated private sector.

Others, including many in the lower middle class, struggled to afford treatment, relying on hospital casualty departments, kind-hearted doctors or dubious folk remedies – as a result of these archaic conditions, women frequently died during childbirth and the life expectancy for men was just forty-eight.

But in 1911, that was all set to change.

Science Museum Group / Wikimedia Commons

The National Insurance Act of 1911, something that many regard as the original groundworks for the NHS, was introduced and, for the first time, provided access to general practitioners for manual labourers and lower paid non-manual workers earning under a certain income. 

However, this groundbreaking new system wasn’t without its flaws – fees for GPs were increasing for the middle class and wealthy who were outside the system, and the wives and children of National Insurance members were excluded, as was hospital treatment, meaning that many had to pay further fees or rely on older workers’ society insurance schemes or free, less reliable clinics for mothers and children.

Something needed to change.

Nearly two decades later, the Local Government Act 1929 gave authorities the power to transform Poor Law institutions and develop them into the modern hospitals we know today. And, fast forwarding another two decades and another world war, Aneurin Bevan was appointed as the minister of health and thus, the wheels for the UK’s first National Health Service were set in motion.

Bradford Timeline / Flickr

On July 5th 1948, after years of hard work from various medical and political figures who felt the current healthcare system was insufficient and needed to be revolutionised, the first NHS hospital offering free healthcare for all, regardless of class, was launched at Park Hospital Manchester – known today as Trafford General Hospital.

On that historic day, Bevan arrived to inaugurate the NHS by symbolically receiving the keys from Lancashire County Council. Nurses formed a ‘guard of honour’ outside the hospital to meet him and, from that day forward, the healthcare of the nation changed forever.

In the early days, there were of course some teething problems – not long after its launch, expenditure was already exceeding previous expectations and charges were considered for prescriptions to meet the rising costs. However, by the time the 1960s rolled around, these early adjustments were altered and it was considered to be a strong period of growth for the NHS, characterised by new developments in the availability of drugs.

Since its birth here in Manchester, our NHS has gone through many changes, improvements, updates and modernisation processes, with no one back in 1948 ever fathoming the way in which the service has developed, pioneered and expanded from Manchester across the entire country.

Nicolas J Leclercq / Unsplash

However, there’s still room for improvement.

Today, the NHS continues to face a national crisis – the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the impact that years of underfunding has had upon our health care service and the long-serving staff members and medical professionals that continue to hold it together.

In October 2020, it was revealed by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) that as many NHS nurses died from Covid than were killed during the entirety of the First World War.

But regardless of the hurdles thrown in its path, the NHS continues to valiantly serve the British public – the idea of a National Health Service once upon a time would have been unheard of, yet today we cannot imagine a life without it.

Happy 74th birthday to our wonderful NHS!

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Feature

FORGOTTEN MANCHESTER: The rise and fall of Tommy Ducks

From coffins as tables and knickers stapled to ceiling, there wasn’t a lot that didn’t happen at Tommy Ducks…

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Salford_66 / Flickr

Out of all of Manchester’s weird and wonderful institutions, the legacy of Tommy Ducks remains today as one of the all-time greats.

 But what exactly happened to this infamous boozer?

Tommy Ducks stood proudly down what is now Lower Mosely Street, and is known to have roots dating all the way back to the 1800s. 

While it is widely believed that it was originally named The Prince’s Tavern, the pub underwent a name change at some point in the 1870s after its egotistical landlord Thomas Duckworth wanted to name it after himself. 

Manchester Libraries

But rumour has it that the painter-decorator hired to replace the pub’s sign either ran out of paint and supplies or found he didn’t have enough room to fit in the full name, so improvised and come up with the name Tommy Ducks, instead.

Of course, there’s no solid evidence for this mishap actually happening, but it is certainly one of the more believable rumours about the pub’s namesake.

Anyway, the pub settled with its abbreviated name and went on to quietly serve the good people of Manchester throughout the 1900s.

But then the 1970’s arrived, and Tommy Ducks started to gain a different kind of reputation, with it quickly becoming one of the most sought after boozers in the city – quite the accomplishment considering it was stood in the middle of a recently-demolished estate.

Rose McGivern / Facebook

One of the pubs more popular legacies is its makeshift tables – for reasons unbeknown to most Mancunians today, someone had the bright idea of using glass-topped coffins as tables, one of which was kidnapped by a rival pub for a while.

One of the coffins even featured a skeleton, which many people were adamant was a real one.

Tommy Ducks was also renown for having ladies knickers and bras stapled to the ceiling above the bar, with female punters allegedly been invited to remove their undies upon arrival (yes, before their first drink!).

The pub played home to these kind of shenanigans for the next couple of decades and, by the 1990s, it was one of the last standing buildings in the area, which lay in ruin following a mass demolishment.

Andrew Simpson

However, in 1993 the pub’s temporary preservation order – arranged by punters and supporters back in the 1970s – expired, plunging its future into uncertainty and doubt.

Greenalls Brewery, which ran the pub, was also coming under increasing pressure by fat cat developers to sell up and shut shop.

Tragially, the temporary preservation order expired on a Friday, meaning that the council offices were closed for the weekend. And because the order couldn’t be renewed until Monday morning, demolition began in the early hours of Saturday.

While Greenalls was eventually fined £150,000 for their act of destruction, it was still too late – Tommy Ducks and its abundance of coffins and bras was gone forever.

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Feature

It’s 26 years since the devastating IRA bomb and the people of Manchester are still waiting for justice

Why was no one ever arrested for the attack on our city?

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Manchester Fire / Flickr

Twenty-six years ago on this date, Manchester fell victim to one of the biggest bombs ever exploded in the United Kingdom. 

It was a beautiful, unusually sunny morning in Manchester on June 15th, 1996 – England were about to take on Scotland in Euro ‘96, football fans were swarming the city centre for the next day’s Russia v Germany fixture at nearby Old Trafford, and the Arndale Shopping Centre – built just twenty years prior – was heaving with weekend shoppers. 

However, the festivities of the warm summer’s day were all set to change when a security guard on the other side of the city received an anonymous tip off. 

Sometime after 9:38am, Gary Hall – a security guard at ITV’s Granada Studios – took a phone call from a man with a ‘very calm’ Irish voice, as per The BBC.

The anonymous man went on to inform Gary that he had planted a bomb in the city centre and it would be exploding in one hour. Following the phone call, the police were immediately notified and they sprung to action locating the bomb and evacuating 80,000 people from the area. 

However, this proved to be quite the task. At first, people were not keen to go; it was the 1990s and Mancunians had become seasoned to bomb scares.

One hairdresser allegedly refused to let his clients leave because they still had chemicals in their hair, arguing it would be ‘too dangerous.’ Alternatively, a group of workmen wanted to stay put because they were on weekend rates.

Slowly, though, the severity of the situation began to sink in, and authorities were able to successfully evacuate the centre, with some people screaming and running for their lives. 

Amid the chaos, police spotted a stationary white lorry parked on double yellows outside of Marks & Spencer with wires running from its dashboard. A bomb squad was swiftly dispatched from Liverpool; however, their attempt to dismantle the device using a remote-controlled robot failed.

At precisely 11:17am, the 3,300lb device exploded.

Smoke mushroomed above the city as the explosion shattered glass windows and rained building debris onto the people below. In the aftermath, emergency services scrambled to deal with the injured civilians – around 220 of them, to be precise – and fire crews searched shops and offices for casualties.

Yet despite the horror and the devastation, not a single person was killed in the explosion.

Nevertheless, Manchester’s city centre lay in ruins. Historic landmarks such as Manchester Cathedral and the Royal Exchange Theatre needed what has been estimated to be billions of pounds worth of repairs and renovations and, most gravely, hundreds of people were left with life-changing injuries, both physically and mentally. 

And yet, over a quarter of a century on from the devastating attack, the people of Manchester are still waiting for justice.

Quite remarkably, an arrest for whoever was responsible for the bomb was never made – it is widely believed that, while both Greater Manchester Police and Special Branch investigations identified the prime suspect, he was never actually arrested because of fears it could derail ongoing peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.

Graham Stringer, who led the council between 1984 and 1996 and who is today MP for the city’s Blackley and Broughton constituency, told The Independent: “I am sure the security services know who did this and I think it got caught up in the peace process.

“It’s appalling. In a democratic society, for someone to blow up the centre of a major city and injure hundreds of people, and then get away with it? It is wrong.”

In a 2006 review, GMP said there was no longer any ‘realistic possibility’ of a prosecution. 

Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Mole said: “The Manchester bomb affected many people which is why the case has remained open and has been kept under constant review. As the 20th anniversary of the incident approaches, it is now the right time for another assessment of the case in order to identify and explore any possible potential investigative opportunities.

“If new information comes to light it would be considered, and I would urge anyone with information relevant to the investigation to get in touch with police.”

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