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Feature

The story behind Manchester’s mysterious Withy Grove Stores

It looks like it’s not been touched for 40 years, so what’s really going on in there…

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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 when lockdown is over.

A thread on Reddit 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 in 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

FORGOTTEN MANCHESTER: The dark secrets buried under Victoria Station

Something lurks beneath it…

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phill.d / Flickr & G-13114 / Wikimedia

Next time you’re stuck at Victoria Station late at night when your Northern train is inevitably delayed, again, keep an eye out for any spooky goings on.

That’s because Victoria has a dark history, one that stretches back to the time before it became a bustling transport hub.

Back in the early 1800s Manchester was hit by a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people, and most victims were buried at Walkers Croft – a 19th century church and graveyard.

Victoria Station was built on top of this burial area in the 1840s, with most of the site submerged as ground level was raised during construction.

The underground entrance at the end of Walker’s Croft opposite Victoria Station – Credit: Christopher Elison / Flickr

Walkers Croft was situated next to a workhouse and primarily catered for pauper and public grave burials, with those who couldn’t afford a proper funeral piled on top of each other in mass graves.

The death toll from cholera was incredibly high, although thousands managed to survive by drinking beer instead of the disease-ridden water.

Like other burial sites during the 1820s, the cholera pits were pillaged by body snatchers who would steal corpses and sell them to anatomy schools for dissection, which was a very lucrative trade at the time.

The next decade saw a huge public scandal hit the burial site, after three-year-old cholera victim John Brogan was delivered to Walkers Croft without his head, which had been mysteriously replaced by a brick.

A surgeon eventually tracked down the young boy’s head to Robert Oldham’s house. Oldham was a dispenser of medicines at the hospital, and although a warrant was issued for his arrest it’s thought he fled the country before he could face justice.

David Dixon / Geograph

The cemetery lies underneath the Metrolink tram platforms, while the old workhouse was situated over on the northern side of the station, where Manchester Arena sits now.

Over the years some of the bodies were dug up due to various redevelopments and extensions, and as recently as 2010 human remains have been found – these were carefully excavated and reinterred at Southern Cemetery.

So next time you’re getting a pre-train Greggs, do a double-take to make sure that pale looking child out of the corner of your eye is real…

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Feature

The Manchester Canal Pusher: a real serial killer or just an urban myth?

Since 2006, there have been over eighty ‘accidental’ deaths down Manchester’s canals with no suspect ever being apprehended…

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N Chadwick / Geograph & Diamond Geezer / Flickr

For over a decade, rumours of a serial killer lurking down the canals of Manchester have been rife – however, there’s yet to be any evidence of any such killer.

So why is the Manchester Canal Pusher such a famous phenomenon, and is this so-called killer even real?

Let’s start from the beginning…

Rumours of the ‘Canal Pusher’ were born on January 11th, 2015 when the Daily Star Sunday published a two-page article headlined ‘Manchester’s Killer Canals.’ The article cited sixty-one deaths in the canal way, which stretches for over ten miles through central Manchester, since 2006 – though since then, that number is estimated to have grown drastically to eighty-five, though an exact figure for more recent years is unknown.

The paper labeled the mysterious pusher as a ‘serial slayer’ while pointing out that it’s ‘extremely unlikely such an alarming number of bodies is the result of accidents or suicide.’

Daily Star

A number of the alleged victims have since been identified – in 2011, the body of trainee sports teacher Nathan Tomlinson was discovered in the River Irwell two months after he went missing following a Christmas night out. 

According to Nathan’s mum, he had texted her regularly throughout his evening, saying he had been pacing himself on shandies. And, when his body was found, his coat, wallet, phone and passport were all missing, leading his mum to believe there had been foul play and that his death was not an accident. However, thanks to the lack of evidence, the coroner recorded an open verdict in his case.

A year on from that incident, twenty-one year old student David Plunkett was found dead in Manchester Ship Canal in 2012 after attending a music event in Trafford Park. A coroner ruled his death as an accident, though his parents protested otherwise, saying they had heard ‘screaming and howling’ in their last phone call with him.

GMP insisted that they had ‘no evidence’ of foul play and, similarly, a pathologist said there was ‘absolutely no evidence’ that David had been assaulted and that the most likely cause of death was drowning.

Ian Roberts / Wikimedia Commons

Have there been any witnesses?

While any evidence of this so-called murderer is yet to be unearthed and the countless deaths remain either unaccounted for or labeled as tragic accidents or suicides, there is one man who claims to have escaped with his life from one of the infamous canal attacks.

Speaking anonymously to the BBC, a man known under an alias name as ‘Tom’ recalled the moment a mysterious man ‘swung at him’ as he was cycling home along the Bridgewater Canal one evening in April 2018.

He fell into the icy waters of the canal as a result of the push and, when he tried to pull himself out, the man allegedly kicked his hand away. Tom recalled: “I started to think, ‘This is quite serious. It’s pitch black down there. There’s no lights. You look up, someone catches your eye and then in four seconds you’re in dirty water.”

Eventually, Tom was able to haul himself out of the water. However, following the assault, the city’s police and coroner continued to deny that there was any evidence of a serial attacker. Greater Manchester Police said the ‘speculation’ surrounding the deaths has been made without ‘examination of all the facts and evidence.’ The force said it would reinvestigate if ‘new credible evidence comes to light.’

David Dixon / Geograph

And what have the police had to say on the matter?

To this day, the police have continued to insist that the canal pusher doesn’t exist – Pete Marsh, a Detective Superintendent of GMP, pointed to a review the force had conducted into eighty-five waterway deaths and insisted that ‘most have definitive explanations,’ adding that ‘there’s no evidence to support the theory that a serial killer is at large,’ The Mirror reported in 2018.

And, to support the myth theory further, former Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Blockley said in a Channel 4 documentary: “If a serial killer decided to cause their deaths by pushing them into the water, how could that person guarantee they would die?

“In which case survivors would have come forward. Also none of the individuals have marks [on their bodies] which are consistent with a violent attack which one would expect to see. In the three cases I have looked at I don’t feel there’s a serial killer involved.”

Clive Varley / Flickr

If the notorious Pusher doesn’t exist, what on Earth is going on?

It’s probably worth mentioning that a large proportion of Manchester canal deaths are blamed on drugs and alcohol – hundreds of people make their way home along the narrow pathways of the canals after a heavy night out every year, making the likelihood of people tripping up and falling in all too high.

The risk of waterway deaths in Manchester has also risen dramatically over the last few decades during which the city centre has boomed, with more people living and working there than ever before.

And after all these years, the lack of any clear evidence – or even a suspect, for that matter – suggests that the notorious serial killer doesn’t exist at all. Serial killers are known for making mistakes, slipping up, and eventually giving themselves away. This simply hasn’t happened with the so-called Canal Pusher, suggesting that the myth could sadly be a product of grieving families searching for an explanation for their loved ones’ tragic deaths.

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Feature

FORGOTTEN MANCHESTER: The Blackpool Tower is actually from Manchester

I mean, all the best things come from Manchester…

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I hate to break it to you, Blackpudlians, but your iconic Blackpool Tower actually reigns from Manchester.

Well, Newton Heath, to be precise.

Now, this will hurt the feelings of many proud Blackpool residents because let’s face it, the Blackpool Tower – which stands at 518 feet tall, making it the 125th tallest free-standing tower in the world – is easily the most famous monument the town has to offer.

So, why exactly did it come from Manchester?

aboutmanchester.co.uk

Well, the Blackpool Tower Company was actually founded by (brace yourselves) London-based Standard Contract & Debenture Corporation in 1890; they bought an aquarium on Central Promenade with the intention of building a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Two Lancashire architects, James Maxwell and Charles Tuke, were then put to the task of designing the tower and overseeing the laying of its foundation stone.

Newton Heath-based company Heenan & Froude were then put in charge of supplying the materials and actually putting the tower together – the company began its life as the Newton Heath Iron Works in 1884; a partnership between Mr Hammersley Heenan, an engineer with the East India Railway and the Public Works Department and Richard Hurrell Froude, English engineer, hydrodynamicist and naval architect famous for being the first man to formulate reliable laws for the resistance that water offers to ships.

theblackpooltower.com

Anyway, the company was truly put to the test when they were appointed as structural engineers for the Blackpool Tower construction in 1892, supplying and constructing the main tower, the electric lighting and the steel front pieces for the aquariums in Manchester before transporting it to Blackpool.

It was truly a sight to behold – never before had such an architectural challenge been attempted in the town – when it was built, over 10,000 lightbulbs were used to illuminate the tower (though these have been swapped today with 25,000 eco-friendly LED lights).  2,493 tons of steel and ninety-three tons of cast iron were also used, as were 985 tons of steel and 259 tons of cast iron for the base of the tower.

On the tower’s opening day in 1894, it was the tallest building in Britain at the time and the second tallest in the whole world. Over 3,000 guests were able to enjoy the the first of many lift rides to the top of the tower – an estimated 70,000 more people from not only Blackpool but the whole country swarmed the town to catch a glimpse of the seaside town’s new addition.

At the time of its opening, tourists paid sixpence for admission, sixpence more for a ride in the lifts to the top, and a further sixpence for the circus – ah, those were the days.

@Nathanemmison / Flickr

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing – the tower wasn’t painted properly during its first thirty years and became corroded, leading to council discussions about demolishing it. Thankfully, the tower was never brought down and, instead, the corroded steelwork was replaced and renewed between 1920 and 1924.

Following this new lease of life, Blackpool Tower enjoyed a number of monumental occasions – such as being painted silver in 1977 as part of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, having a giant model of King Kong placed on the side in 1984 and even hosting a cage-suspended wedding in 1985.

Yep, the Blackpool Tower truly has seen it all.

And as for Heenan and Froude? Well, by the end of the the First World War, they had been bought up by a Company in Worcester. Their name continued for some time but, by the mid 1930’s, they were no longer in Manchester.

Since the grand opening all those decades ago, the Blackpool Tower has become a staple part of the famous seaside town, and has enjoyed a rich and eventful history – though let’s always remember that it’s Manc born and Manc made – maybe we should rename it the Manchester Tower?

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