Memories and regrets in the ghost pubs of Oldham Road
‘I am wet through in the dog-end gutter of a whiplashed Manchester’
The drinkers are pouring into Manchester city centre. Nothing brings out the thirst for pints quite like a dose of patriotism, or sunshine on a beautiful summer’s day. I pack a rucksack for a pub crawl of my own, up Oldham Road. It used to be rammed with pubs — you couldn’t move for them. In the 300-yard stretch from Great Ancoats Street to Poland Street, there were 18 pubs alone if you go back a century or so. Out of these, the Crown & Kettle is the last one standing. As I walk past, two men in their late 20s vape in the doorway.
I know I won’t get served in the pubs I’m looking for. They’re long gone — boarded up, demolished or developed over. Their absence speaks of generational shifts, industrial decline all the way up this famous old road and the loss of a drinking culture that will never return.
In 1894, the Morning Chronicle newspaper began an investigation into the English working classes, which included sending a Scottish journalist called Angus Bethun Reach around Manchester for a couple of months. After witnessing “young mill girls shouting, hallooing and romping” down Oldham Road, he wrote: “I am not one of those who look upon the slightest degree of social indulgence as a downright evil, but I confess, that last Sunday night in the Oldham Road astonished and grieved me.”
The first pub on my list is the Ram, which was attached to the Empress, a striking-looking building, its facade made of red and cream Accrington brick. The Empress was knocked down in 2006, after a suspicious fire. A blog called HistoryMe lamented, “Gone is yet another historical asset of Miles Platting and Manchester. Who are the guardians of our heritage?”
I find the location of both buildings thanks to Pubs of Manchester, part of a network of local blogs that keep the memories of these lost pubs alive. I pull up a photo on my phone, and walk up and down the road before circling back to a desolate area near Ferdinand Street, made up of a rubbled car park and a run-down petrol station with a forecourt choked with weeds.
Patrick Delaney, 60, remembers his father drinking in The Ram when he was seven. It was their weekend tradition, before watching United play at Old Trafford together, but this was the 1960s and Patrick wasn’t taken in. “It was frowned upon to have kids go into pubs in those days,” he recalls, so his dad would ferry out a pack of crisps and a bottle of coke to the car. If Patrick needed the toilet, it was a quick dash inside. They lived in Chorlton, and the drive to Miles Platting and then to Old Trafford was circuitous, but he tells me it was because the Ram was an Irish pub, owned by Jim and Cassie Curley.
“If you were part of the Irish community, you went to the Irish clubs, the Irish pubs,” he says. His parents had both emigrated from Ireland and met in one of Manchester’s dance halls in the late 1950s. His father worked in civil engineering, and before she married, his mother worked for Dunlop, in the factory on Hulme Street. Patrick’s family moved back to Ireland, but he returned to Manchester in 1977 as a trade apprentice and left in 1986. “Manchester was a good place to live,” he remembers, speaking to me on the phone from County Kerry. “We always worked — if you wanted to work, you could.”
I continue up Oldham Road, before crossing and turning right onto Varley Street. I pass the abandoned Apollo Inn, fringed by tall seed-headed grass and flanked by a tower block and a new build housing estate. From there I go left up Sawley Road, hoping to find the Spanking Roger. From Pubs of Manchester, I learn that its landlord Manny, was “a big strapping, very welcoming 6ft black man with a big beaming smile.” There was no draught lager on tap, but a can cost £2.30. The pub’s immortalised in verse by online pub chronicler and poet Keith Armstrong, who calls himself the Jingling Geordie.
This must be the lowest hour of the low.
I am wet through in the dog-end gutter of a whiplashed Manchester.
Where the rain bolts down and the darkness simply soaks you to the guts of your soul.
Of course, I do not find the Spanking Roger. It was closed around 2011 and later demolished for development. I find two boxes of rotting meat and an unfinished construction site. “Instead of a half-demolished grotty pub, we’ve got a half-demolished half-build,” Catherine, 40, tells me. She’s sitting in the adjacent playground, watching her daughter trundle around on her bicycle. She’s originally from Cumbria, and moved to Manchester in the noughties, first onto Monsall in 2001 and then Sawley Road Estate in 2005. She faintly remembers there was a fire, and that was the end of the Spanking Roger. “Land’s worth too much now for houses.”
She tells me about Miles Platting’s blue pigeons. (“You’re not pulling my leg, are you?” I ask) and its community gardens, which people are turning to for food as the cost of living crisis deepens. The Apollo was already closed when she moved here. “Traditionally the communities are built around the pubs or churches — we don’t go to church,” she shrugs. Alan Winfield, the owner of the Never Ending Pub Crawl remembers drinking in the Apollo’s bar in the 1990s, “which had a very rough edge to it.” Alan died in 2018 from cancer but during his lifetime visited a prodigious number of pubs. “I wish someone would do something with it because it would make a nice little community centre,” Catherine says of the Apollo. “It just stands empty – it’s worse in a way.” We say our goodbyes, and I head to Monsall.
Stephen Marland, 67, who runs Manchester’s Estate Pubs, is probably very familiar with the old adage, “never drink in a flat-roofed pub.” But he tells me to meet him outside the Queen’s Hotel. It’s one of the pubs that has so far escaped demolition. It doesn't have a garden so we sit at a table at the edge of its car park, which has a few graffitied shipping containers. Last year its license was temporarily suspended after Class A drugs and a knife were seized by police. The Queens is a typical estate pub but Stephen is keen to show me its mural by the Stockport-born muralist Alan Boyson (some of Boyson’s other murals are listed to save them from destruction).
As we talk, someone guns up and down the road on a motorbike, the sound of its engine ripping through the air. “Either side of Oldham Road, you’ve got big engineering works, and masses of people were employed there,” Stephen tells me. “The culture was to drink at work, at lunchtimes. All of those pubs would have been very busy.” Closer to town, the Crown & Kettle was the favoured drinking spot for the Daily Express and Daily Mirror journalists who worked around the corner, as was the Express Club, “an awful place,” Stephen says.
He started his blog in 2015, after a callout from Historic England, which had launched a project on postwar pubs. So far, he’s photographed close to 60 pubs. Why do it? “It’s recording a piece of social history,” he explains. He points out that in the 1960s, most people would have walked to their local pub. A pint cost about 11p and drinking in pubs was an affordable pastime for many people. “Civic social life is in decline,” he says. “And pubs suffer because of it.”
Inside the Queens, I find Pat, 54, helping out behind the bar. Stephen introduces us before he pedals home to Stockport. The Queens is old school — cash only — and it’s been a long time since I carried it, so no drinks for me. I watch as patrons count coins on the bar. Pat grew up on Monsall, and has been drinking here for as long as she can remember. “You've come on a quiet day,” she tells me.
There are a few punters, all men, who josh with each other and play on a fruit slot machine.“Here, write this down,” one of them jokes. “I’m going to leather him.” “I used to drink with his mam,” she says, nodding towards one of the men. “We’re like one big family.” The Queens has been running for 39 years, but the longtimers who used to frequent it have died, leaving the younger generation to occupy its very well-worn stools.
As I trudge up to Failsworth, I find other ghost pubs. There’s Copenhagen Tavern, the Brown Cow, the Cloggers Arms, the Old Pack Horse, the Black Horse, the Weavers Arms, the Mowbray, the Lamb. At each, I dutifully take out my camera. Click, click, click. I catch the 84 bus back to the city centre to my final stop: the Wheatsheaf, two minutes from the bottom of Oldham Road. There’s a woman here who has sipped pints at what feels like every single pub along the road I’ve been writing about.
Elaine Daly is 70 years old, and has worked in pubs all her life. She grew up in Collyhurst and started working at 17. She did piecemeal work — cleaning, and ironing clothes for people — to bring money into the house. “You had to back then,” she says. Both her parents worked, and her mother held down three jobs when she was growing up. She moved into the city centre in the 1980s. When I ask her about Oldham Road’s pubs, she tells me she needs to have a think. Later she hands me two pink post-it notes with the names of 20 pubs on them. “I’ve done them all,” she smiles. I scan some of the pubs on the list: The Swan, the Guido Inn, The Park, St Vincent Tavern, and the Cheshire Cheese. Before she worked in the Wheatsheaf, she was in the Hare & Hounds, and before that worked in the Britannia in Newton Heath.
I get a rundown of the pubs’ ecosystem: the vault was the male domain, filled with smoke and darts and card games; the lounge, often carpeted, was where the women could drink. A pub crawl for Elaine was something done over the course of a week, rather than a single night. It ended when the landlord threw them out at 10.45pm, which by today’s standards is very early.
Earlier Stephen told me that women didn’t drink pints — only half a pint of mild, or a bottle of beer. Did women drink pints? “Of course they did!” Elaine says, affronted. She liked to dance, and remembers the men were always after the ladies. “There were some nice looking fellas an’ all,” she says. “There was no pill out then, so we had to say ‘no, I’ll keep my drawers on.’” At this, her regulars hoot with laughter. “Give over,” one of them says. (The contraceptive pill was first introduced in the UK on the NHS for married women in 1961.)
I tell her I went to the Queens Hotel and talked to Pat. Her face lights up. "I used to drink with Pat!” she says. “Next time you’re up there, tell her I say hi.” By now it’s late in the afternoon, and sunshine pours over the drinkers. Elaine looks distractedly over her shoulder. Times may have changed, and the pubs she used to drink in may have disappeared, but for her, one thing is still certain: when people are thirsty for their pints, there’s work to be done.
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