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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Manchester’s city walls

Jonathan Schofield likes a rigid column of papyrus rearing up in front of him

Written by . Published on November 12th 2013.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Manchester’s city walls

Category: excellent

What do you mean 'city walls’?

Manchester has city walls. City walls longer than most in the country, only here they’re railway viaducts that girdle the city centre for 2.6m (4.2km) from Piccadilly Station clockwise to Victoria Station. Only the distance between Piccadilly and Victoria on the north east side (less than a mile) was unwalled by viaducts. It’s sort of very Manchester too, to have its central boundaries created by industry, trade and peacetime endeavour rather than defence and military need.

Cute idea - but from when do these ‘walls’ date?

The oldest go back to the beginning of the Railway Age. The earliest viaducts from Piccadilly to Castlefield date from the late 1840s when the Manchester, Altrincham and South Junction Railway was built - Manchester's first suburban line.

New Arts Centre Site Before The Building Began

New Arts Centre site before constuction began with the late 1840s Manchester, Altrincham and South Junction Railway viaduct behind.

Is that the oldest?

Nope. The very oldest set of railway viaducts was erected in 1842/43 through inner Salford for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway by Sir John Hawkshaw, engineer. This line opened in 1844, and connected the Liverpool line with the Leeds line at the present Victoria station. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway created the world’s first passenger rail service in 1830 and previously terminated at the station building now part of MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry). This was an awkward location for most passengers so the decision was made to bring things closer into the core.

But why build viaducts, not just lay the lines on the ground, or in cuttings?

I’d like to say because they look noble as they stride the landscape but that’s not the reason. By the 1840s much of the city was framed by a mixed residential and industrial belt. The only option for the railway companies was to build over these areas as much as they could, sometimes leaving existing structures beneath. By elevating the rail lines less land had to be bought and less work carried out on each side of the lines. Not that this wasn’t still legally fraught. The solicitor employed to negotiate the link line between Castlefield and the line to Victoria Station through Ordsall had so many contracts to draw up he had a nervous breakdown. There’s another curious but far-reaching nugget about these viaducts too.

Stuck between later bridges is the Grade 1 listed Liverpool and Manchester Railway viaduct

Stuck between later bridges is the Grade 1 listed Liverpool and Manchester Railway viaduct

Enlighten me

Manchester didn’t, to begin with, encourage railways. Despite the industrialised nature of the place - more industrialised than anywhere on the planet - the city fathers didn’t want railways right into the city centre, at least not until 1880 with the opening of Manchester Central station. Think of most other major British cities and the station is right there bang up against the major commercial areas – Birmingham, Edinburgh, Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle and so forth. If Manchester, the first true railway city, had adopted this idea our main station could well have been along one side of Piccadilly Gardens.

This reaction in the 1830s and 1840s defines Manchester city centre to this day, and placed the major stations and railway companies on the fringe of the commercial core. It’s worth remembering that the early rail systems were controversial with respected people predicting all sorts of disasters and tragedies emanating from speedy steam travel. Nor did the canal companies favour rail travel, and Manchester was riddled with waterways.

Were the viaducts anything other than functional - were they decorated?

Loads of times. Think of the mighty 1880 and 1894 viaducts that cross the Castlefield basin, fashioned from iron and bound for Central Station (now Manchester Central convention complex) and the Great Northern Railway Company’s Goods Warehouse. These huge structures are surmounted by castle turrets to show they pass through the old Roman Fort area of Manchester, even though in that marvellous Victorian doublethink way they completely destroy much of the fort site. Then there are papyrus and lotus leaves.

Massive Attack Of Iron

Massive attack of iron

You’ve gone all botanical?

My absolutely favourite viaduct stretch is that of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway by Sir John Hawkshaw, just to the south west of Salford Central Station. Here he went all Egyptian – or rather Ancient Egyptian. Nicking ideas from antiquity was big in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century - thus Manchester Art Gallery from the 1820s refers to Ancient Greece. But Hawkshaw chose perfectly for a railway viaduct, the temples of Karnak, Memphis and so on are held up by monumental columns. What better than to have these new civil engineering wonders of the industrial age held up by a monumental echo from those times?

And papyrus?

Well the tops of Ancient Egyptian columns (the capitals) were different from Greek ones and used Egyptian local and sacred plants. The red and cream painted columns here are lotus leaf, and the light grey columns have tightly bound bundles of papyrus. It’s all a bit grandly lovely.

Sir John Hawkshaw - EngineerSir John Hawkshaw - EngineerFinally a word about Sir John Hawkshaw then?

He was born in Leeds and was a true engineering giant. By 21 he was a mining engineer in Venezuela. On return to England he worked with Jesse Hartley designing Liverpool docks, worked on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal, the Manchester and Leeds Railway, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. In London he was responsible for the Charing Cross and Cannon Street railways, together with the two bridges carrying them over the Thames, and he worked on the Circle Line. He also advised or worked in Germany, Russia, India and elsewhere. He even built the Amsterdam Ship Canal....the list goes on. The Puerto Madero area of Buenas Aires' port is his baby too. Hats off to him. Where did those Victorians get all their energy from? That’s why there’s a problem.

What problem?

The junction between the simple row of papyrus columns doesn’t quite fit up with the lotus leaf columns. The station columns (lotus leaf) seem to have been built first and then the papyrus stretch of viaduct awkwardly matched up with it. Maybe John’s Casio calculator had run out of batteries. Even Victorian civil engineering, it seems, had its failings.

Getting The Calculations Wrong, One Column Cuts Into The Other

Getting the sums wrong - one column cuts into the other

This story was first published in 2010 and has been re-edited and updated.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield or connect via Google+

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13 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

John HarrisJuly 28th 2010.

It's good to know stressed solicitors aren't a recent phenomenon

AnonymousJuly 29th 2010.

Related to Victoria Station (and the development plan around), I think there is a project called "Medieval Manchester destination" including Chetham's School of Music (formerly Manchester Grammar School)? Would it be possible to tell us about this, Jonathan or anyone?

Rob.July 30th 2010.

But the IS a viaduct to complete the City Walls on the East side of town. The Midland Viaduct is a solid construction of red brick arches that runs from Ashburys station, past the City of Manchester Stadium and joins the line from Ashton in to Victoria Station. It may not be as fancy as the lotus and papayrus columned constructions, but it matches the fine red brick buildings that make up most of our great city.

Ali McGowanJuly 30th 2010.

What a good article. It's brightened my afternoon, somewhat. I am of course on a break if my boss reads this.

Peter HarrisJuly 30th 2010.

When the viaducts are no longer used they can have gardens grown in them and pedestrian walkways built through the gardens. Too fanciful? Go to New York and walk the "High Line". That's what they have done with the redundant"El". Brilliant and recommended.

Ghostly TomApril 30th 2012.

I really like the Ancient Egyptian columns by Salford station and the hypostyle hall of columns holding up the viaduct. With its proximity to the Irwell it did remind me of a trip to Luxor we were lucky enough to make. It would be cool if they could develop the car park in front of them and use the area with the columns as something more than a car park. It's very close to Spinningfields so it would be a natural place for that area to spread to. I posted about it on my blog if anyone would care to check it out.


1 Response: Reply To This...
ShuttyNovember 12th 2013.

Work is about to start Tom, beginning with a fairly well designed (from CGI images at least) multi-storey car park adjacent and a hotel at the far side of the car park. these will hopefully be a catalyst for further improvements including a temporary garden, proposed until some of the other plots are filled.

Jonathan SchofieldApril 30th 2012.

Cheeky bugger Tom. You put a link to your story on Confidential but no link to us on yours....

AnonymousNovember 12th 2013.

A word on station proximity to city centres; Bristol Temple Meads is miles away from what was (and is) the urban core, and Newcastle Central is hardly convenient either. Geography (and more pertinently, topography) is of much greater importance in determining station locations. Secondly, viaducts were built as level crossings of roads, canals and other railways in dense urban areas were generally ill thought of (even in 1840). If you can show me an example of a pre-existing building (not a transport artery) lying beneath a railway viaduct in Manchester I'll be impressed. Top article otherwise though, good work.

3 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldNovember 13th 2013.

I'd disagree about demolition. Just take a look at Swire's map of where Salford Central lies from 1824. Meanwhile countless properties were demolished for the later Central Station and Great Northern. I also think Newcastle is in a great location - just like its football club.

Stephen LakeNovember 13th 2013.

Follow this link www.transportarchive.org.uk/table.php… Look at how Kenworthy Warehouse (demolished in 1960, at the back of where Barca now is) sits below the Viaduct through Castlefield.

Stephen LakeNovember 14th 2013.

manchester.publicprofiler.org/…/… You can compare the amount of demolition at this site. It over lays Manchester streetmaps from the past 300 years. When it comes to demolition compare this 1960 map with todays OS. Lots of lost streets as the Manc way and Parkway went in. I think I would have liked to have lived on Tickle Street.

AnonymousNovember 12th 2013.

Great thread as usual JS - MancGuy

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