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Out in the Past: Part One

With Manchester Pride soon upon us, here’s a trail around the city looking at its lesbian and gay heritage

Published on August 27th 2010.


Out in the Past: Part One

This trail was written and researched for Europride 2003. It led to a series of mosaic panels designed by Mark Kennedy being placed in city streets at each point mentioned below. Sadly, some of these have been removed by careless contractors whilst working on the pavements.

There will be a whole series of trails around the city published on Manchester Confidential in the coming months, covering everything from architecture through retail to rock music.

This trail takes between one and a half to two hours to walk. This is part one. Part two will be published on Wednesday 26 August.

Start at the New Union at the junction of Canal Street and Princess Street.

1) The New Union, as a gay and lesbian meeting place, probably goes back as far as the nineteenth century. It certainly existed before WWII. One suggestion for the name is that the ‘new’ in its title celebrated the union of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland – it’s been celebrating many other unions ever since.

Through most of its ‘alternative’ life, the clientèle has been mixed, a combination of gay men, lesbians, prostitutes, transvestites, straights and everything in between. For gay and straight American servicemen during WWII and whilst they had a base at Birchwood, it proved a place of solace. It was never the most glamorous of pubs but had its homely, laid-back (occasionally not so laid-back) appeal.

One denizen from the Fifties recalls a lesbian three-piece (organ, drum and guitar) who performed there – in fact the New Union remains a last bastion of the Northern music hall, as evidenced by its appearances in TV drama Queer as Folk. A bastion of protest too; the landlord, one Prendegast, was briefly imprisoned in 1965 for ‘outraging public decency’ by running a pub which gay men visited. Amongst its well-known drag performers have been Bunny Lewis. For the Rochdale Canal, see point 18 below.

A little further down Canal Street is Manto. This opened in 1990 as a new and very different bar. It was a world away from the New Union and pushed the Village to the forefront of Manchester's (even the UK's) going out and coming out culture. It’s hard to understand now how a bar with balconies in which one could sip coffee and read the Sunday papers could be so revolutionary.

Manto was very successful and bred an offshoot in London, a sibling round the corner, and ran the popular gay and lesbian club, Paradise Factory.

At Sackville Street turn right and then left into Sackville Gardens.

2) In the gardens there are two sculptures. In the centre is the moving Alan Turing Memorial (2001) by Glyn Hughes. It shows the gay scientist sat on a bench with an apple in his hand. For his remarkable achievements and the tragic story of his suicide, read the adjacent panel.

Closer to Rochdale Canal is the Beacon of Hope by Chapman and Daniel (2000). This is confused work but carries some poignant text. It also underlines the work of Manchester-based charities in the fight against Aids. The park itself has been the location for many of the Mardi Gras and Manchester Pride candlelit vigils for victims of the disease.

Return to Canal Street.

3) The Rembrandt, Naps and Vanilla are nearby. Originally called the Ogden Arms, the Rembrandt Hotel is the nearest rival the New Union has to the title of oldest gay and lesbian Mancunian venue. Like the New Union, it has played host to a very mixed clientèle over the years. It is held in affectionate memory by many Village stalwarts.

A little up Sackville Street is Napoleons, known by most as Naps. This claims to be the city’s oldest gay nightclub, dating from December 1971. More ambitiously, it also claims to have the longest continuously running gay nightclub in Europe.

Vanilla is Manchester’s main lesbian bar and club. Further up Sackville Street and round the corner on Bloom Street, the Thompson’s Arms, New York New York, and Bloom Street Café, all have long traditions of welcoming gay and lesbian culture.

4) The Village, as an idea, has been around for several decades – at least since the Sixties. Some people recall a competition in which a name for the area – ‘Gaysville' – was suggested. There was a flea market 30 years ago on August Bank Holiday too, and there was a report of a tripe-eating contest. Lovely.

The original impetus seems though to have been that this canal-side location was a warehouse district of the city centre, little frequented by shoppers and office workers during the day or by revellers during the evening. Close to main transport links, it also developed as a red light area. In an age of gay suppression and repression, this twilight zone became an obvious place of rendezvous for ‘queers’.

Major TV dramas which have featured the Village include the legendary Queer as Folk and Bob and Rose (both by Russell T Davies) and Cold Feet. Novelists to have written about the area include Nicholas Blincoe with Manchester Slingback and Coronation Street creator Tony Warren in the brilliant Behind Closed Doors. The latter novel depicts gay life in the Fifties.

The Mardi Gras grew from a small, late Eighties charity event on August Bank Holiday. The Village Charity was formed in 1991 and Mardi Gras became its biggest fundraiser. One of the early money-gathering activities was a Gay Olympics which included handbag throwing. Within a couple of years, Mardi Gras had grown into a huge cross-community Manchester festival. Now it’s called Manchester Pride.

Continue up Canal Street to the junction with Minshull Street.

5) Minshull Street Courts. Here at the end of Canal Street lie the former Police Courts from 1873, now the Crown Courts. It’s ironic that this building, a place of fear for several generations of gay men, should be placed here. See point 8 for an example of repressive measures in which this building has figured. On a more light-hearted note, the street on the other side of the Courts, Aytoun Street, celebrates the dashing but rakish eighteenth century figure of Major Roger Aytoun. His nickname was ‘Spanking Roger’ – from, it should be noted, his love of brawling.

Turn left up Minshull Street to Portland Street, then turn right, past the Portland Hotel and over to Newton Street.

6) On Newton Street, in premises now occupied by the Empire Trading Company, was the former radical book emporium Grassroots. This co-operative began in 1971, moved to Oxford Road, and then to this site in 1976. As well as providing a full range of radical pamphlets, magazines and books on all topics, it also was the first bookshop to present large ranges of gay and lesbian literature. In 1999 it moved again to Wilmslow Road in Rusholme. It closed shortly after.

Continue up Newton Street, moving away from Piccadilly Gardens and turn left into Stevenson Square and then into Hilton Street. Continue over Oldham Street and turn right into Tib Street to the junction with Whittle Street on the left.

7) Close to this spot was the building occupied by the home of the Manchester Labour Press Society (MLPS) between 1893 and 1901. It was one of the most progressive publishers in the country and counted amongst its directors Edward Carpenter (1844-1926), gay poet and visionary. In 1894 he published here, for private circulation, ‘Homogenic Love, and its Place in a Free Society’ which explained and validated homosexual relationships and scorned current legislation.

An example of its clarity of thought can be gauged from the following passage:

‘It is difficult, of course, for outsiders not personally experienced in such matters to realise the great strain and tension of the nerves under which these persons grow up from boyhood to manhood – or from girl to womanhood – who find their deepest and strongest instincts under the ban of society around them.’

MLPS also published Carpenter’s ‘Sex-love, and its Place in a Free Society’ (1894) which explained how the primary object of sex is union and that procreation is a secondary object; and ‘Woman, and Her Place in a Free Society’ (1894) which argued for ‘large social changes’ to ‘bring about their desired and complete emancipation.’ This provides another example of how Manchester has often been at the forefront of radical thought

Return down Tib Street to Market Street, turn left and then right down Mosley Street. Follow Mosley Street to York Street and turn right. Pause close to the junction with Concert Lane.

8) A headline in the Illustrated Police News on 9 October 1880 ran ‘Disgraceful proceedings in Manchester – men dressed in female attire.’ In a temperance hall close to this point, a costumed dance took place in which ‘47 men entered the building…of these 22 were dressed as women.’ The windows had been screened and the music came via a blind (very clever, when you want to keep the identity of guests secret) harmonium player. Dancing, the ‘can-can’, started at 10pm and the police raided at shortly before 1am.

Detective Caminada, a famous Manchester officer, led the invasion. The prisoners were eventually brought before the justices at the Police Courts at Minshull Street (see point 5 above) ‘charged with meeting together for the purpose of inciting one another to commit abominable offences…unnameable’. But ‘as no case of such serious nature…had been established’ the prisoners were bound over for sureties of £50 ‘to be of good behaviour for 12 months’. The case provides early Mancunian evidence of rent boys with the proceedings mentioning, ‘a class of men…who prowl about the streets almost to the same extent as unfortunate women.’

Continue on York Street to Spring Gardens then right down King Street, right on Cross Street and left on St Ann’s Street to Deansgate. Over the road on the right of the junction with St Mary’s Street is Church House.

9) Church House, which is still a Church of England building, was the setting for the creation of Manchester’s first organised gay and lesbian body. On 7 October 1964, the North-Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee was formally launched at a semi-public meeting here. It was set up by Alan Horsfall, a former Labour councillor from the town of Nelson, 35 miles north of the city.

After the Sexual Offences Act 1967 gave gay men the legal right to have sex in private, the body renamed itself in 1969 to the Committee for Homosexual Equality. Other bodies currently operating in Manchester include the busy Lesbian and Gay Foundation on Pritchard Street, and the George House Trust at Ardwick Green. This latter is the second oldest HIV charity in the UK, and was established as the Manchester AIDSLine in 1985.

Next week we’ll conclude the Out in the Past Trail, with a return leg to Canal Street.

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Michael WestAugust 20th 2009.

Very good. Can't wait to see part two.

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