Manchester’s oldest social housing block fell out over a Christmas party
This week, residents at Victoria Square staged a protest against ‘ageism and oppression’. But some say the tensions have to do with class, politics and which part of town you grew up in.
By Mollie Simpson
“And that was what started it all,” Joan Kempson, an actress best known for her role as Edna Miller in Coronation Street, tells me. We’re sitting in her fourth floor flat, a peaceful room filled with plants and books, talking about a Christmas Eve party that caused a dramatic falling out amongst residents at Victoria Square in Ancoats, Manchester’s most historic — and beautiful — social housing block.
Last week, residents at Victoria Square received a letter from Manchester City Council, who said they would be closing the community room outside of office hours while they completed an investigation into a series of breaches to the tenancy agreement, including “two very serious incidents”. Whether those incidents referred to the dispute on Christmas Eve is unclear, but most residents seem to agree: that night was the culmination of tensions that have been growing for months, if not years.
Since the letter last Friday, a handful of residents calling themselves “The Dwellers” have made their way back into the community room and staged a sit-in protest. Josie Loftus, a blonde 79-year-old, along with Angela Robinson and friends Chris Holgate, Bridget Doherty and Stella Hollingworth have been sleeping in armchairs, occasionally leaving the scene to buy sandwiches and doughnuts or to catch up on sleep. They say their aim is to secure access to the community room 24/7, but they also say they are fighting against “ageism and oppression”.
They have attracted the attention of the press (“They are using health and safety as a weapon,” Josie told the MEN), and I’m told they have the backing of Ancoats and Beswick’s Labour councillor, Irene Robinson, who has raised the issue with the council’s housing team. But within Victoria Square, the Dwellers don’t exactly enjoy universal support. “It’s not righteous what they’re doing,” says Pam Reilly, a straight-talking 68-year-old resident who used to work in community outreach. “I've got no time for Manchester City Council but on this occasion, I agree with them. They had to close the community room. Had to.”
I started reporting on this story on Tuesday after a Mill reader got in touch to tip me off about the protest. Within hours of spending time at Victoria Square, I had been treated to theories about residents monitoring each other’s emails, threats of violence and a Christmas Eve party that ended with a Polish woman in tears.
‘You might sit in the wrong chair’
Victoria Square has a very special place in Manchester history as the city’s first ever council housing. It was built to replace “vast swathes of slums on Oldham Road,” as the council website explains, and completed in 1899. If you have walked around Ancoats and admired the charming Anita Street just behind Cutting Room Square, you will have seen Victoria Square’s sweeping red brick facade and terracotta detailing. The building “feels proudly Mancunian to me,” says the writer Phil Griffin. “The corner towers and the parade of shops on Oldham Road bristle with the confidence and architectural brio that characterised the Victorian city.”
By the 1970s, with the concept of social housing now firmly established and vast council estates covering large tracts of the city, the grand Victoria Square was still serving its original purpose. In 1973, the author G.A. Wheale noted that the flats are “amongst the best in Manchester”, writing of a visit: “the tenants we saw were respectable working people; where they had adequate accommodation they appeared happy, and many had lived there for periods extending up to thirty years.”
The building remains social housing to this day, now catering for the over 60s. Victoria Square is taller than most in the area, at five storeys, but it’s smaller than you think: I’m told there are 161 flats, of which a handful are two bedrooms, and most are one bedroom, so we can assume that if each room is currently occupied, there would be somewhere around 170 residents.
The flats are arranged in a square, with a spacious courtyard in the centre. Each flat has its own terrace and most residents put out chairs to look out into the garden.
Victoria Square, like all tightly-packed communities, presents the interesting question — previously explored in my editor Sophie’s brilliant long read about Burnage Garden Village — of how neighbours should balance communal living and privacy; the need to get along with others versus the desire to live as an individual. In this case, I also sense a tension among people who are being asked to live together despite coming from different backgrounds, and perhaps holding different world views.
“I'll just want to get out of the building and then get back in and get in the flat,” says one resident when we ask about community relations at Victoria Square. Do they ever say hello to neighbours on the terraces? “No, no. No exchanges or anything.”
“I wouldn’t want to make any comment on what’s going on in there,” another resident tells us when we ask if they like to go to the community room for tea, before politely shutting the door in our face. “You can feel a bit uncomfortable when you go in there,” says a further resident, leaning on the railing outside his flat looking down on the courtyard. “Like you might sit in the wrong chair, like ‘that’s so-and-so’s, or Big Barry’s, chair.’”
The Christmas party
And that brings us back to where it all started — a dispute over the community room. Around midday on Christmas Eve, resident Anna Trojnek and her family walked across the courtyard of Victoria Square and into the community room, each carrying bowls, cutlery and traditional Polish food. A few days before, hundreds of miles away, her family were preparing to travel from Anna’s native Poland to celebrate Christmas with her. Having booked the space for the occasion, 27 members of Anna’s family bundled into the community room, which they managed to make magical with decorations. Anna’s grandchildren ran around playing games at their feet.
Around half seven, her son, Robert Trojnek heard a tap at the window. This was unexpected — they had the room until 9pm, when Anna had agreed with the housing scheme manager she would hand the keys over to a group of residents who wanted to have their own Christmas Eve party. Anna walked over to the window, and reminded the woman that it was a private party, and they had the room for another hour.
“She turned to my mum and said she didn’t care, because it’s her community room,” Robert Trojnek tells me over the phone. Not long after, another man came to the window and “demanded that we open it because it's their community room”. Robert pointed out that there had been signs posted all over the building in the weeks leading up to Christmas, informing people that there would be a private party, and Anna had sought permission in advance from the housing scheme managers, but the residents wouldn’t budge: this was their community room, they should be free to access it if they wanted.
A couple of residents walked in and took up seats in the corner of the room. At this point, Anna was becoming tearful, and asked her family to help her move the tables back to how they were before and start carrying the plates back to her flat. Pam Reilly spotted them coming back and asked what was going on.
Robert, along with Pam, walked back down to the community room together at around half nine — hoping to confront the residents and ask why they had upset his mum. Josie and Angela drifted in around quarter to ten, thinking that would have given Anna enough time to clean up after herself.
Pam explained that Polish Roman Catholics traditionally celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and that this was their special day, but she says she was rebuffed by the residents who had taken over the room. Chris started making “bizarre comments”, alleging that Pam — as she puts it — had “had it in for him the moment I moved in”.
Pam says it was at this point that Angela started shouting at her, telling her to “get out of the community room or she’d punch me”.
“Do it then,” Pam is said to have replied.
“Don’t fucking goad me,” Angela is said to have responded.
Angela strongly denies that she threatened Pam with violence. “I did not say that to Pam Reilly, I never said that, if I wanted to have done that, I could’ve done that seven years ago, when she drove me crazy and I had to move house because of her,” Angela says. “I told her to go, she’s a wicked woman, get through the door, it’s nothing to do with her.” She suggests the opposite happened — that it was Pam who made the “don’t goad me” comment.
Anna was in her flat at this point, but her son Robert was still in the community room. He says Angela did threaten to punch Pam and that Angela said she would “drag Pam outside and beat her if she would not leave the community room” and added that “she has no friends in this building and everyone hates her.” By both Pam and Robert’s accounts, Pam responded that she thought they were all racist, and she and Robert left.
Around half past eleven, Anna’s family walked to St Mary’s Church in Deansgate for midnight mass, but what was usually a moment of celebration didn’t feel the same this time. “I know we are foreigners and not everyone likes us,” Robert says. “The most upsetting thing was my mum doesn’t have space to accommodate her kids and grandkids. We didn’t have music, so it wasn’t loud or anything. But they interrupted her hard work. To me that was most upsetting.”
‘I want to move back to what it was like’
It’s day five of the protest and Josie Loftus is sitting with a pile of documents and a clipboard in her lap, her pen tapping against her notebook, where she has written ten points for Manchester City Council to address — including “no handing out keys to outsiders” and “TRANSPARENCY”. Opposite her, Sam Perrett, a tenancy support manager at the council who looks like he is not having a good day, is typing notes on his phone.
“This thing about an investigation, an inquiry,” Josie says, leaning forwards in her armchair. “It’s like a bit of a threat, that. You’re going to come up with rules, and it’s health and safety.” Sam keeps typing. “Look, Sam, you’re talking about moving forward. You know what? I want to move back to what it was like. But with dignity. We want a key. We want the right to be able to come in and use it 24/7. Only us though. Not outsiders.”
To the untrained eye, the Victoria Square community room is a drab affair, with harsh overhead lighting and plain carpets. But for the self-styled Dwellers, whose name refers to the building’s nickname as the Dwellings, it’s something to fiercely guard and defend. I’ve hung out with stubborn protestors occupying university accommodation and science laboratories before, colourful characters with pierced ears and very left-wing views. But this occupation is made up of residents in their 70s and 80s, some of whom, like Bridget Doherty, don’t even live in Victoria Square.
So why are they so protective of the community room? Angela Robinson’s granddaughter offers an explanation at the meeting. “Can I just say, I work for Manchester City Council as well,” she says. “And no other Manchester City Council owned homes actually have this policy. Obviously, they’re elderly people, they should be able to come in whenever they want.”
“Yeah, and we want it open at nighttime,” Angela says. “You’re lonely in your flat, come down, let’s use the kitchen, let’s have pie and peas, come and sit and have a chat. Bring the bingo back in the nighttime. There’s so many changes, we’re in 2024 and it needs to be what we want.”
Sam assures them that the council is listening, and will do their best to resolve the situation as soon as possible. “What we’ve said is we don’t want to restrict the use of the room, or say you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” he says. “So I will be here tomorrow with Sam from health and safety” (to be clear, there are multiple council-employed Sams in this story, not one).
A spokesperson for Manchester City Council said the community room is still available for residents to use, and that they have “genuine concerns should anything happen to our residents or the building while the site is unsupervised”.
North and South
Josie Loftus, Angela Robinson and Chris Holgate all strongly deny the suggestion that their objections to Anna’s private party on Christmas Eve were in any way bigoted. “Completely untrue, totally untrue,” Chris says, and goes on to explain that Anna used to do some cleaning for him, describing her as a “friend”. So why is that idea circulating? “Pam is playing the racist card, that’s what she does.”
Josie, Chris and Angela say they objected to Anna’s Christmas Eve party the moment it was proposed, on the principle that “this is a community room for everyone” and it wasn’t fair to use it for private parties, but were told by the scheme managers that Anna’s request had been approved, and “we’ll just have to put up with it”.
Josie pushes back hard against the idea that she is a bigot. To provide evidence, she wants to tell me about her past.
Born in Collyhurst, her mother died when she was two and Josie became an orphan. She drifted between foster parents, some of whom she says were emotionally and physically abusive. She had two sources of solace — her grandmother, a kind Lithuanian woman, and the nuns at her Catholic school. As a child she ran away from her foster parents and turned up at school. “What are you doing here?” the nuns asked. “I want to live with my gran,” she said.
Josie says her gran often faced discrimination in her community for being Lithuanian, which she says had a lasting impact on her. “I’m a battler, I am a campaigner against injustice because I saw that much of it against me and my grandmother,” Josie says. “And I cannot stand injustice, and I will fight tooth and nail.”
In 2014, Josie stood as the UKIP council candidate for Ancoats and Clayton, receiving 15% of the vote. The following year, she stood for election in Ancoats and Clayton again, receiving 9% of the vote, and Angela Robinson also stood as the UKIP candidate in Harpurhey, receiving 23% of the vote.
Residents don’t openly say that politics has divided Victoria Square, but maybe that’s because it’s a bit more complicated than that, the fissures here having something to do with class and Mancunian geography. Joan Kempson describes the tension as a divide between two distinct groups — residents who have had a more liberal upbringing in southern parts of Manchester on one hand, and the North Manchester group, who have more old school views, on the other. Josie and Angela are conscious of this difference, too. Josie remembers when she was chatting to a neighbour and told her she was from Collyhurst, “the bottom of the pile”, and her neighbour audibly gasped.
In May last year, on the day of the King’s Coronation, a group of residents decided to put on a celebration in the courtyard. They put out a cluster of Union Flags and stood for the National Anthem. “We were just in stitches, going, look at them standing up,” Joan says, remembering when she and Pam realised they’d put on God Save The Queen instead of God Save The King. In response, Pam hung a Caribbean flag outside her window, “this lone flag in a sea of Union Jacks”, and played Bob Marley.
Do the residents enjoy this kind of confrontation? They say they just want a peaceful life, but it’s clear some of them like the drama and the gossip. When I visit the occupation, Josie and Chris describe Pam Reilly writing “letters, long letters to the police, the housing, nearly every day about something. You could paper the walls with the amount of letters, and she always throws in something which is, what do you call it, a hot potato. Racism, that kind of thing.”
“Have you seen the letters?” I ask.
“Actually, we have,” Josie says.
“Indiscreetly,” Chris says.
“We’re not supposed to have seen them but we’ve seen them,” Josie says, and they giggle.
Later, I ask them if this has anything to do with an allegation I’ve heard from one resident who has said that someone has hacked into her emails and is monitoring her activity, possibly via the computer in the community room. Chris is equivocal. “That’s another thing, I’m not saying, that’s between me and this lady. I don’t want to discuss it because I’m going to court over it.”
“I don’t know how to do things like that,” Josie says.
On Friday, a resident posted in the “Victoria Square Then and Now” Facebook page announcing that the protest was over: the council had handed the keys to the community room back to The Dwellers.
But the shift in atmosphere seems to have had lasting consequences. Pam says she has applied to move to an estate in Devon, where her son lives. Joan is planning to move to Chorlton. Pam says Anna has said she “doesn’t feel welcome here anymore”, but I haven’t been able to speak to Anna because she’s currently away in Poland.
Josie says she has no intention of disappearing out of everyone’s lives. “Honestly, I love living here,” she says. “I love my flat, I love where it is. You can be on an estate, you’ll still fight, there’ll still be nasty people. It’s not anywhere different.”