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The Good, the Average and the Ugly: The Britannia Hotel

Jonathan Schofield books into the former S&J Watts warehouse and takes steps…or at least stairs

Written by . Published on February 19th 2010.

The Good, the Average and the Ugly: The Britannia Hotel

Category: Good


Best quote about a Manchester building ever?
‘I’m not naturally of a sceptical or suspicious cast of mind. I have eaten sausages and kidney pudding without asking questions but when I was told that this only a warehouse, I felt that it was necessary to draw the line of credulity somewhere.’ Journalist from the Freelancer Magazine, 1867.

What’s that about?
It’s not about the sub-standard restaurants in this hotel. It refers to how Manchester re-invented the warehouse. The city’s textile barons turned them into palaces of pomp and display for their products. These buildings were show off, hey-look-at-me places. They were confident expressions of people who knew that their trade was with the world and the world had to beat a trail to their door to do business. A thousand major orders a day were processed in this building of every type of fabric, furnishings and clothes.

Who designed it, who paid for it?

Travis and Mangnall, for the company of S & J Watts and it was built between 1855-57. The Watts’ family had the largest drapery business in the city. To underline their wealth, they got T and M to chuck the architectural style book at their new HQ: here we get Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan, French Renaissance, Flemish and even Gothic rose windows at the top. It’s mad. It’s also a bit fur coat, no knickers: round the back the Britannia is rude, crude brick. Out of site, out of mind.

 In fact the best feature is on the inside.

Which is? 

 Britannia.jpgThe quite staggering iron staircase which is grand, graceful and space-savingly efficient. This charges straight up, then divides, doubles back and crosses over itself via a bridge you might find over a Venetian canal. It repeats this four times. Drop in for a gawp, and on the way pause to look at the company war memorials in the foyer. The best of these is C S Jagger’s superb First World War Tommy in the foyer, recently vandalised, but still beautiful, full of fortitude, yet contemplative too, sorrowful for his fallen comrades.

A bit more history please
The Watts were the classic Mancs made good. Starting as hand-loom weavers in Didsbury they became millionaires, mayors and the friends of Princes. From being skint they got to hob-nob big style. Prince Albert was a fan of their hob-nobbery and even stayed in the house they’d bought on the back of their success. This still survives: Abney Hall in Cheadle. Which is where Agatha Christie comes in.

What, the mother of country house detective fiction? Mrs Murder on the Orient Express?

That’s the gal. Her sis married into the Watts family and she spent a great deal of time as a child at Abney Hall, occasionally visiting Watts Warehouse, aka the Britannia Hotel. Loads of country house moments in her novels were directly based on her Manchester visits. Some people think the clever governess at Abney became the model for Miss Marple. She also spent time here as an adult, including a recuperative period after her notorious disappearance in 1926.

So how come the building’s survived?
Luck in some respects. And courage. In December 1940 the area was hit by Nazi incendiary bombs: buildings which weren’t destroyed were demolished to stop the fire spreading. But Watts had its own fire brigade, the members of which, refused to budge even when they were told that they had to leave. They refused to budge again when their water supply was cut off, smothering the flames with the textiles they had to hand. It finally closed as a business in 1972. In 1979 the Britannia Group took over and converted it into a hotel, which if nothing else ensured its survival.

And how is the Britannia Hotel?
It’s a classic example of the well-managed accommodation in the Britannia Hotels group. It doesn’t have worn carpets, poor catering, mis-matched bed linen, eighties mirrors, a seedy feel or joke external fairylights in anyway whatsoever. Honest, it doesn’t. 

Sarcasm can be therapeutic, can’t it?
I feel much better now, thank you. Mind you, I know one couple who got lucky in the bedroom allocation lottery. They stayed in one of the rooms with the huge rose window on the top floor, in which most of the fixtures and fittings worked or nearly worked. Then again I know a TV producer some years back who stayed in one of the windowless internal rooms. He still has a story or two - although the nightmares are fading. Then again this place is much better than the worst hotel in the world, the Norbreck Castle at Blackpool: a place purely designed for hen parties to be sick in. Now guess which group owns that?

This article was first posted 16/4/2008 and has been re-edited for the new Manchester Confidential.

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