If these walls could talk: The life and times of the Hotspur Press

'The flames were wholly extinguished by about eight o'clock. The south-west corner of the building is almost entirely destroyed'

Good morning Millers — our weekend read is about the many lives of a Manchester building.

The Hotspur Press building lies empty and derelict around the corner from Oxford Road station. When we posted a picture of it just before Christmas, dozens of people responded on Facebook and in our email inbox saying that their mum had worked there in the 1950s or that they had a studio there 20 years ago.

So Dani, who took the picture, set herself the challenge of telling the building’s story. It’s a biography of bricks and mortar, narrated via old newspaper reports and the memories of people who have worked in it. And it’s wonderful!

Enjoy the story and have a lovely weekend.

The story of Manchester in one building

By Dani Cole

Chapter 1: The cotton mill

Long before cranes dominated Manchester’s skyline and buddleia choked the windows of the Hotspur Press, the building was called Medlock Mills.

Built on the bank of the Medlock in 1801, it was soon dwarfed by Birley's Cotton Mill and Marsland's Cotton Mill — enormous edifices which later became known as Chorlton Mills and where a two-bedroom flat with exposed brick walls is currently under offer for £270,000.

In the early nineteenth century, this stretch of Chorlton-on-Medlock was a sight to behold: one of the engine rooms of the city’s industry, thronging with workers, vehicles and mess. In the 1830s, more than 2,000 people worked at Birley’s complex alone, suggesting it was the largest mill in Manchester. Three of the mills on Cambridge Street were connected by tram tunnels to allow them to move material between buildings unimpeded by the crowds outside.

One woman who made her living in the shadow of the mills was Lily Maxwell, the first woman in England to vote, who ran a tea and china shop nearby (if you are a Mill member you can read this in-depth piece about Maxwell’s extraordinary story). Maxwell grew up in Scotland, but many of the poorest workers in Chorlton-on-Medlock were Irish, and nearby the mills was Little Ireland, an area later described as “most horrible” by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class.

He wrote of the neighbourhood:

In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories … stand two groups of about two hundred cottages … masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys.

The building we now call Hotspur Press was the largest structure in the Medlock Mills complex, which was owned by a cotton baron called John Fairweather, and then by a series of his heirs in the following decades.

It was built on a site scarred by disaster. A factory that stood there had burned down with the loss of many lives around the end of the 18th century.

Later events might have suggested to the Fairweathers that they had built their mill on ground that was simply cursed to burn. On Saturday 17 June 1837 the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported another massive fire on the site. The newspaper takes up the story:

On Saturday morning, about a quarter before four o'clock, a police watchman perceived that a portion of Mr. Fairweather's factory, Cambridge-street, at the bottom of Gloucester-street, on the Manchester bank of the river Medlock, was on fire. He gave the alarm and Mr. Rose and a party of the police firemen, with the engines Niagara and Water Witch, were on the spot in about ten minutes after receiving notice. 

….On the arrival of the fire engines, the flames had so far spread that it was found impossible to save the store room; the efforts of the firemen were therefore directed to confining the fire to that part of the building in which it appeared to have commenced. It communicated through the engine house to that part of the building called the large factory, which is five or six stories in height, and also a room on the other side in which cotton is prepared for the spinners.

…The flames were wholly extinguished by about eight o'clock. The south-west corner of the building is almost entirely destroyed; the warps in the store-room were all consumed; and the total damage to the building and stock is estimated to be about £3,000. 

By the middle of the century, the mill had been repaired, but the Fairweathers were again the subject of media attention — this time for breaking new legislation that limited the working week to 63 hours. The city’s sub-inspector of factories found six women cleaning and oiling machinery in the mill “half an hour after the proper time to cease work,” and ordered them to stop. The Fairweathers were fined for the infraction.

Chapter 2: The printing press

In December I was still new to Manchester. My way of bedding into the city was to amble the streets, taking photos. I was still new to the rain, too — on one day, my rain mac was no match for the prodigious Mancunian downpours. I dashed under the train line on Gloucester Street, leaning against a lichen-soaked wall.  

It was the building’s faded blue signage that attracted my attention: ‘Percy Brothers, The Hotspur Press’. I snapped a photograph, which The Mill posted on Facebook. It soon emerged that I’d taken a photo of a place many people felt a deep connection to, and the comments and emails started to pour in.

They were filled with nostalgia from people who had worked in the building over the years, or who had relatives who’d worked there. So, naturally, I went looking for a few stories about life inside the Hotspur Press.

According to a map published in 1888, the building had by this point ended the first phase of its life making cotton, and was now a printing works, owned by the Percy Brothers Ltd. A brass sign bearing that company name is still in place next to one of the building’s doors.

It has been suggested that the name ‘Hotspur Press’ has connections with the popular boys’ comic the Hotspur, which ran from 1933 to 1959 and Henry Percy (‘Harry Hotspur’), the medieval knight who was the son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland during the Hundred Years’ War. Sadly, the former of these is not true, and the latter remains conjecture.

The best person to speak to about the building’s decades as the Hotspur Press is Bob Cummings, who started as an apprentice printer in the 1960s and whose grandfather worked there in 1899 when he was 13 years old. Bob has a quirky website that preserves some of his stories, each one coloured with warmth and humour.

Reading posts titled such as ‘Ron and the Great Milk Machine Robbery’ and ‘The Great Beer Wagon Robbery’ gives a sense of what it was like to be there. In one post, Bob, 72, recalls his first day working in the building in 1965 when he was a fresh-faced lad of sixteen. However, it was not after enduring some gentle teasing:

When I had been for my interview a few weeks earlier with my dad, he insisted that I wore my school uniform. This caused great hilarity in the Folding Room which was populated by girls and ladies aged anywhere between fifteen and seventy. At least I didn’t have to wear my school cap!

Bob retired as a web and software developer in 2013, and started the blog soon after. From starting as a compositor, Bob eventually went to work for the Daily Express, where he gained an interest in IT as “it was obvious we [newspapers] were going to change over from hot metal to a computer set.” His career spanned 47 years.

It’s not possible to get inside the Hotspur these days, but Bob describes what it was like during the building’s heyday:

On the top floor there used to be a thriving canteen, together with a full sized snooker table, a smaller one and tables and chairs for eating. A social club had competitions running between department in darts, cribbage and snooker and organised coach parties to Blackpool and Pickmere Lake. The company had heart.

In another, ‘Working Conditions’, he describes the environmental hazards which would certainly cause a health and safety inspector some concern:

There were many ingots of lead alloy hanging from chains above melting pots sending fumes throughout the building, printing ink fumes now known to be carcinogenic as well as solvents and other products – forget any romantic notions about crafts of the past.

“It was an absolutely brilliant place to work,” Bob told me. “The atmosphere was incredible – it was so funny. I used to look forward to going in, because it was a riot.” He also remembers the way his overseers used to dress, “in dark suits with white shirts and ties,” he says. “That seems bizarre nowadays.”

They resembled floorwalkers, like Captain Peacock from the BBC sitcom ‘Are you Being Served.’ “You probably don’t remember that do you?” Bob says after this reference was met with a brief silence (the sitcom stopped running eleven years before I was born).

Shelves in the Hotspur Press where printed products for different publications were stored. Picture posted by urbanchemist on the 28dayslater forum.

Chapter 3: The bohemian studios

Artist Richard Shields, 40, had a studio in the Hotspur Press from 2007 to 2017. He first moved to Manchester in 2002 as an art student, doing leafleting jobs with other “cash in hand weirdos” (fellow artists, DJs, and musicians) and working at Islington Mill in Salford for a few years before gravitating to the Hotspur. In the mornings, he’d ride his bike straight through the doors of the loading bay when the factory was still running, the spokes of his wheels tick-ticking across the bustling floor.

His studio cost £210 a month, but he rented bits of it out to other artists for £35 a month. Depending who was in there with him, preview exhibitions would sometimes descend into hedonism. If a show began at Castlefield Gallery, it would very often end in the Hotspur.

A typical night’s progression would look like this: from Castlefield Gallery northwards to Cask on Liverpool Road, then to Canal Street. Finally, in the small hours, the last ones standing would pick up clinking bottles from SPAR on Oxford Road before falling into the Hotspur, partying “until the sun came up.”

The press was labyrinthine and it had an alluring quality to it. “People were always curious about the building,” he says. “When they came to the art studio they would just wander off. It ended up being a boozy shitshow after a while anyway, so it didn’t really matter.”

For Shields, Hotspur Press wasn’t just a building – it had made an indelible impression on him. He says he felt at home in the Hotspur. “I was very nocturnal there,” he says. He would sleep on the sofa in his studio, when there was still warmth in the pipes and the ceilings didn’t leak. Sometimes at night, he would sneak into the basement, the beam of his torch tunnelling light through the building’s hushed underbelly.

In the silence, the place took on a different atmosphere. “That’s when you saw...almost like a time capsule,” he says. “You would walk around and see a museum, an accidental museum.” There was a wealth of old artefacts left in the basement. He’s kept some of the old tools and bits of machinery.  

Later, he produced work influenced by his time there. His piece ‘Construction Ciona – Construction Crane” (Manchester Bird of Prey) was part of the 50 Windows of Creativity project. The crane was taken from a Hotspur comic, which he came across in a ‘serendipitous moment’ in 2017.

He’d heard rumours about the building, that it was changing hands, that it might be sold. At one point it looked as though Arts Council England funding was on the table. Shields says this would have been the last chance for the Hotspur to retain its artistic community. But it wasn’t meant to be. “There were people coming round in suits,” he says. Sometimes when there were meetings in the office next to his studio, he would press a glass against the wall and listen to the conversations.

The moment came when he was in a shop. He’d found a pile of Hotspur comics — these had never been printed at the Hotspur Press, confusingly —  in a shop. The front of the comic depicted a phoenix, and the two characters on it had an uncanny resemblance to the Hotspur Press’ accountant and the owner. 

As he picked the comic up, which was dated June 9th 1973, his phone rang. It was the new manager of the building. He glanced down at the comic: “The firebird, it warns of death to come and the people must flee.” It felt like a warning, a “weird, shamanic omen”.

Shields seemed to understand that his time at the Hotspur was coming to an end. “In its last years, it really was an old, decaying lady. It had lost a lot of its lustre.”

Chara Lewis, a lecturer at Manchester School of Art, had a studio at Hotspur Press that overlooked the Oxford Road railway line. She loved the view the sense of place it brought — it felt like she was rooted to the city. She worked there for five years. “You felt like you were in a building with a connection the past,” she says.

For Lewis, it felt like a working, industrial building, something that was important for her. The mill had also been built to follow the shape of the River Medlock. On one side of the building, the walls flexed outward, meaning the inside of the rooms were unusual shapes – they curved in a strange way. The ceilings also had metal runners and trolleys.

The building, with its rich heritage, was in a way, a natural aspect of the city. Towards its final days, before its inhabitants were evicted, she remembers the ceilings would ripple and gleam with the wet. Artists would come in to find water pooling over their tables. In an effort to stop this from happening, they would rig up cobbled-together contraptions to divert the water out of windows.

“It’s happening increasingly that spaces for artists are being pushed into the margins of Manchester, rather than its heart because of the commercialisation of the spaces,” she says. Thirty years ago, “There were whole streets of mills that were completely empty.” Lewis remembers ‘whole floors’ of empty mills, where the rent was £30 a week.

“The city has developed around the artists,” she says. “The studios have been gentrified and the artists have moved on.” She lists the places she’s moved between over the years: Ellesmere Street, Knotts Mill, Crusader Mill.

There were times when she would invite people to her studio, but the lights wouldn’t work. “They’d look at you as if you were leading them to their death in a dark corner,” Lewis laughs. “It was such a rabbit-warren of spaces.” Thankfully, it seems people managed to find their way in and out, and no-one was doomed to wander the corridors of the building for eternity.

Chapter 4: Prime real estate

These days the Hotspur Press has been left to winter into its dereliction. “I think it’s been done deliberately so they can knock it down or just use the façade,” Bob says.

MCR Property Group paid around £2.5 million for the Hotspur House site in 2015. A report in the MEN said the building “remains among the city centre’s most distinctive industrial relics,” and MCR’s website boasts of its “prime Manchester city centre location.”

The company declares its intention to keep the historic building — or perhaps keep its face while demolishing some of its body. Its planned renovation “would see part of the historic building’s façade kept, its signage restored and a new tower block of 171 apartments built behind its frontage,” MCR’s website says.

The plans by architects Hodder + Partners got an approving write-up in Manchester Confidential, who said they represented “a leap of imagination which ensures continuity with the past yet allows modern development to take place.” 

Those plans are on the rocks. Last November, it was reported that the developers had reached a ‘stalemate’ with Manchester City Council over their proposals for the site. They reportedly now want to swap the residential scheme for a “hotel or student accommodation” but the talks with the council have broken down. “This story is a strong indication that city centre residential is floundering,” one user commented.

There are already 2-bedroom flats advertised for sale on Rightmove, although their price is unspecified. For now, the future of Hotspur Press remains uncertain, and its decline is painful for those who used to work there. “Now they’re just letting it rot, so they don’t have to save it,” Shields says. “You really felt the life that had passed through it.”


Thanks to Graces’s Guide to British Industrial History and Manchester History.net for their excellent information.

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