The Social History of an Icon

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Manchester Club is a Grade II* listed building in the civic heart of the city, today it's managed by Bruntwood Works as space for retail, leisure and office space. But why is the building so significant in the landscape of the city?

Built as the Manchester Reform Club in 1871 at a cost of £24,000, it was originally a gentleman’s club for Manchester’s Liberal Party elite. One of the founders of the club was John Bright, his intention was to provide ‘a place of resort and social and political intercourse’. Bright was a Radical and Liberal statesman and a promoter of free trade policies. He is most famous for battling the Corn Laws, and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the expression ‘to flog a dead horse’ was made by John Bright in reference to apathetic MPs in parliament. Bright received the rare honour of having a statue of himself whilst he was still alive (in the Town Hall), and after his death in 1889, a second public statue was erected in Albert Square.

The Club was designed by architect Edward Salomons, and its grand Venetian Gothic balcony was the location for Winston Churchill’s election victory speech in 1906. At the top of the staircase former prime minister William Gladstone is immortalised in plaster of Paris. The Manchester Club was also known as ‘The Lighthouse of Liberty’.

The building is richly adorned with gothic carvings, winged beasts, coats of arms and references to our industrial city. By the 1870s, Gothic architecture had become synonymous with Manchester’s civic and political identity, and the Venetian Gothic style suggests that the club saw themselves not only as independent from the capital but also as social and political leaders in their own right. Gothic was associated with notions of freedom, liberty and individualism, and myths and nature play a huge part in the overall design. The building stood out as a landmark in the urban landscape and added to the Gothic appearance of the city.

There were also more practical elements involved in Gothic architecture. The development of nineteenth-century Manchester was largely unplanned, resulting in many corners and irregularly shaped plots (like the Town Hall). The plot for the new clubhouse was similarly irregular in shape. Salomons dealt with this problem by designing a building where each of the three main façades was slightly different in design and arrangement. One of the main advantages of the Gothic style was the access it gave to light, and the overall effect was to draw attention to the main dining room and the balcony on the King Street side.

It’s argued that the Manchester and Liverpool clubs were completely unique and not at all influenced by London. Whilst that’s correct architecturally, one thing that definitely influenced the surrounding area at the time was the naming of it: Pall Mall - London’s reform club was also on Pall Mall and Manchester often renamed its streets after the capital’s to prove our credibility and status (Oxford Road for example).

The Clubs were for men only, although the northern clubs were more open to women toward the end of the century and in 1895 the Manchester Reform Club had a separate Ladies Room, and women were also allowed access to the Reading Room, Sandwich Room and Grill Room after four o’clock in the afternoon. Generally, though the absence of women from nineteenth-century club life is seen as evidence of the club as an escape from domesticity and the ‘tyranny of women’ in the home.

The club was famous for the billiards room: ‘the handsomest and best-appointed billiards room in Clubland’. In fact, it wasn’t a political club in the strictest sense, though its members were undoubtedly politically active. Rather, it was a club for Liberal gentlemen. In 1889 one member admitted ‘during the fifteen years he had used the clubhouse, he had taken no part whatsoever in politics’ and used the club for its social scene.

Membership status hung in the balance if you showed any lack of self-control. Bankruptcy was seen as a loss of restraint, as was violence, and swearing. Drunkenness was another issue because the licensing laws around clubs were particularly appealing, there were none. Because the clubs weren’t classed as public houses, and largely because of the social status of its drinkers, the clubhouses evaded the laws and although the cities were plagued by the fallout of gin and beer, alcohol was not always associated with drunkenness. In fact, wine, which was served at the club, was promoted as a temperance alternative to other forms of alcohol. It was considered as something quite unlike alcohol owing to its purity (compared to beer which was often watered down or of poor quality). The club even had it’s own wine and cigar committee. Despite this, some political opponents described the clubhouses as: ‘worse than any beerhouse in my opinion, for public-houses have to close for some time at night and gambling is not allowed’, and made them out to be places of immorality in that respect.

As alcohol was served with dinner the dining room was the major attraction within the club and it wasn’t without its snobbery, people would gossip about John Bright’s love of custard puddings, as it wasn’t refined enough for the other members of the club. Custard was the least of their worries though with members such a Mr Thorpe. Thorpe would repeatedly urinate on the chairs in the Dining, Smoking, and Reading Rooms, and members would have to sort out ‘scuffles in the card room’ when displays of violent masculinity were no longer considered acceptable for the bourgeoisie.

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 meant that the Manchester Reform Club was experiencing a shortage of staff owing to military enlistment, and military service also had an effect on membership numbers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a move towards a more suburban-based club life where families could feel more welcome. The Manchester Reform Club merged with the Engineers' Club in 1967 to form the Manchester Club, but this failed to prove financially viable and was wound up in 1988.

King Street is a street of iconic buildings, the former Midland Bank is known as the King of King Street, Ship Canal House was built as a palace of industry, the former Town Hall and all the major banks found their homes here, but with it’s intricate details and floor to ceiling windows Manchester Club stands out as one of the finest in the street, if not the city.

Today, Manchester Club provides office and retail space for a range of business. Find out the space available at Manchester Club here.

 

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