ROGER FROST: The commercial history of Burnley’s Manchester Road

There are times when I look at a photo of Burnley and don’t realise, for a moment at least, that the picture is not of the present.

What I have considered turns out to be an old postcard view of the town and such scenes are often as familiar to me as, say, my regular walk from the town hall to the market hall. This will come as no surprise to a number of my colleagues in the former who have long since held that I am more familiar with the past than I am the present. To them I say the “past might be a different country” but there is no reason why we can’t visit occasionally.

The picture, which accompanies this article, is by the famous firm of Francis Frith & Co. Ltd of Reigate and probably dates from 1950. For a book, which I wrote with Ken Bolton for Frith’s some years ago, the firm did not make this postcard available though two others, taken at the same time, and also of Manchester Road, are included.

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To my mind, the one you see today is easily the most interesting of the three. The others are also of Manchester Road and are taken from close to its junction with St James’s Street. The first (the photographer must have used an upper floor window of a shop in St James’s Street) shows the full length of Manchester Road to just above the canal bridge. The other has the photographer at street level, between the Savoy and Burton’s, and is of interest because is shows, in more detail than usual, the businesses which occupied the shops, particularly on the Bull Street side of Manchester Road. It might interest you to know that in 1950, when the photo was taken, 11 Manchester Road, was not then occupied by the Burnley Express as it is now. The business at that time in residence was New Day, the house furnishers.

Superficially, at least, not much seems to have changed in the 60 or so years since the photo in front of you was published. The vast majority of the buildings seen in the picture are still with us but if you look at the bottom of Manchester Road the domed building on the right, the Savoy, is no longer with us and neither are the shops at the top of Bridge Street.

There are a number of Manchester Road’s better known buildings which were still standing in 1950 but which cannot be seen on the photo. Perhaps the best-known of these was the Church Institute which occupied part of the block at the top of Yorke Street, on the left of the picture. Some of you will remember the Roxy Cinema was part of this complex, occupying the former Assembly Hall of 1898, and the Conservative Association had its offices here. All this property was destroyed by fire in 1960. When rebuilt, Royal Assurance occupied the premises but Burnley’s Wetherspoon’s has the site today.

On the other side of Manchester Road, apart from the Savoy, the other missing building is the Congregational Church which stood, set back from Manchester Road, opposite the top of Yorke Street. This was Salem which was founded in 1850 and opened on Good Friday 1851. The church was one of the descendants of Bethesda Congregational Church, on the street of that name, which dates from 1814. In its day Salem was a splendid building, the interior being of finished mahogany and the church had a very good organ.

On the extreme right of the image you might be able to make out the name of solicitors at the corner of Elizabeth Street. In those days the firm was known as Smith & Smith. It originally had an Elizabeth Street address but also occupied the Manchester Road premises you can see in the picture. Since that time the firm, at the same address and after a merger, operates as Smith Sutcliffe and has expanded to take over both the buildings below it in Manchester Road. I should call in and ask if I could make use of one or two of their old photos of Burnley. They have one of Market Street which would, I am sure, interest readers.

The building next door was 52 or 54 Manchester Road. It is difficult to be sure because so many town centre premises seem to be able to exist without numbers on their doors. I don’t know how they do it. Anyhow, in the picture I can just make out the name Redman’s over the window, so this was Redman’s Café and confectioners. The double-fronted premises, lower down, were the offices of Burnley Council’s housing department, a place I visited occasionally when Gerald Fitzpatrick was housing manager.

It might be of interest to comment that the properties from Smith & Smith to the housing office were, like a number of properties in this part of town, built as three large houses. Quite a lot have gone but a number survive on streets such as Nicholas Street and Grimshaw Street.

Prudential Buildings

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Below the housing office the next building has been discussed in this column before. At the time the photo was taken the property was known as Prudential Buildings and also contained the offices of Burnley’s Liberal Party.

The property, however, was erected in 1876, as Burnley’s General Post Office replacing another in Elizabeth Street which, I think, was the one occupied by Smith & Smith in the picture. Previously, Burnley’s post office had been in Fleet Street until 1850 when it moved to St James’s Row. The Manchester Road post office closed in 1905 when the present much larger Hargreaves Street building replaced it.

The next building was the one set back from Manchester Road – Salem Chapel – and then there was, as now, a row of property to Grimshaw Street. These buildings once provided homes for some of Burnley’s most well-known businesses. In 1950 they comprised; Heap’s (chemist); Hitchon, Pickup & Halsted (architect); Pierson Ltd. (costumier); Preston’s (furnisher) and Jay’s (also furnisher).

If we look at the Commercial Directory for 1883 we find at 46 Manchester Road there was James Hitchon who was described as a “surveyor, land agent and valuer”, the founder of the architectural practice. Mr Hitchon lived at Oaklands, Cliviger, and I have often wondered whether he designed that house.

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The property occupied by Jay’s in the picture (their sign can be read in the original) was number 36 and, in 1883, it was occupied by George Haslam JP who was a wine and spirit merchant. Mr Haslam lived at The Ridge. In 1883, his immediate neighbours, in Manchester Road, were Harrison & Son, cabinet makers and upholsterers, the firm which preceded Preston’s. Then came Pemberton Brothers who were general house furnishers at 42 Manchester Road, though they had a better known draper’s business in St James’s Street and came to own Pemberton’s, the loom-makers, in Trafalgar Street.

The remaining firm was at 48 Manchester Road and this, in 1883, was occupied by the wonderfully named Brian Horatio Cowgill, a chemist and druggist who lived in Palatine Square. I understand some of the records of this firm still survive.

The picture which accompanies this article has helped us to reconstruct a little of the business history of Manchester Road. I realise many of the names of the firms I have mentioned will mean little to some of you but to those of us who are sometimes accused of living in the past they give us an insight into how the people of Burnley lived not all that long ago.

We are also presented with the opportunity to reflect on how much things have changed in such a short space of time.