Gladstone's extra finger, a camp Shakespeare and bang bang bollards... Jonathan Schofield reveals strange details often missed

MANCHESTER has a lot of the weird and the wonderful about it. Often though, this is easy to miss. So here’s a guide to ten curiosities to be found in the south west corner of the city. Over time we’ll reveal more in other areas of the city centre and beyond.


William Gladstone’s extra finger

As a young man, William Gladstone went hunting and bagged his own finger. While reloading his gun, the future four times British prime minister (between the years 1868 and 1894) shot off his left forefinger. After the incident he would wear a glove to disguise the injury. Everybody knew about the missing digit but, politely, nobody mentioned it. 

The Liberal politician, a Scouser by birth, was adored in Manchester, a famously Liberal city. Following his death a public subscription quickly raised funds and a sculptor, Mario Raggi, was employed to provide a suitable statue. It was erected in 1901 and purported to show Gladstone at the dispatch box in Parliament. It also gave him back his missing finger permanently. It was only kind to do so, but also perhaps Raggi realised that if he had delivered an accurate portrayal of the hand then, as the years passed and memory faded, passers-by might think he was a rubbish artist who couldn't even count, 'that hand’s only got three fingers and a thumb'.

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Gladstone with his extra finger in Albert Square

Manchester buildings suffer a set-back

In 1945 Manchester made a plan to essentially demolish the whole city centre and start again. Only a few buildings would remain: the Cathedral, Chetham’s, Central Library and the Midland Hotel. The rest, including the Town Hall, would have to go. They were too old-fashioned, too tarnished by an industrial and imperial past for the intellectuals of the post-war world. Time for a fresh start, time to wipe the slate clean. 

In the end such drastic action was unaffordable and increasingly undesirable. Some elements of the plan survived though, one being to widen Manchester city centre’s streets. Thus buildings in the fifties and sixties were set back from the street, the idea being that when the whole street was redeveloped it would have a new building line and a grander, wider profile. Of course whole streets weren’t redeveloped, so as you can see from this picture, the sixties building hosting Brewdog is set back from the Edwardian building hosting Albert’s Schloss. It’s a fun game spotting these post-war attempts at re-invention. Well, fun for me.

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Some 50s and 60s buildings were intentionally set back from the street

Daft William, the Ugly Bard of Peter Street

We should be proud. We have the worst (and campest) statue of William Shakespeare in the world. This is displayed on the 1845 Theatre Royal building on Peter Street. The head’s too big for the weedy body and legs just don’t work like that. The story goes that John Knowles, the impresario who created the theatre, also owned a marble and stone works down the road, where Churchgate House presently stands. Supposedly Knowles decided to get one of the masons to knock out a statue of the Bard, and it turned out laughable. A satirical poem was penned over a century and a half ago when the statue was revealed.

Old ‘Rare Ben Johnson’ came to town, 

And from Bank Top soon hurried down, 

Determined Deansgate first to see,

(For Ben at all times loved a spree.)

As down through Peter Street he passed, 

By chance an eye he upward cast, 

And saw above the playhouse door, 

A face like one he’d seen before;

Then thought as he advanced more near, 

‘Twas Shakespeare’s, his old crony dear,

‘Pray who are you are, perched there so high?’

The statue answered with a sigh,

‘They say I’m Shakespeare, what think you?’ 

‘Why, if you are, your case looks blue,

You’ve got a club foot, now I see,

And a white-swelling in your knee

And dropsied legs, and such a phiz,

You must be there for folks to quiz’.

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‘They say I’m Shakespeare, what think you?’

More maladroit theatre drama (sack the painter)

The Opera House began life as the New Theatre in 1912. It’s got a grand Classical style facade with details including a splendid bas-relief of god-like figures, horses and a chariot which was called ‘The Dawn of the Heroic Age’. On two altar-like motifs, the names of famous dramatists are displayed. The one on the west side mentions our two friends from above, Shakespeare and Jonson. There’s Marlowe as well, their contemporary, and Sheridan, the author of The Rivals, the first play performed at the Royal Exchange and now the name of the excellent restaurant there. 

But who is the other person...ah, yes Mr Vawbish. Who the hell is Vawbish? It seems the person who repainted these names didn’t know his drama, so instead of the 18th century playwright Sir John Vanburgh, we get the never ever written a play or even existed gent, Mr Vawbish.

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Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, Vawbish... hold on, who's Vawbish?

Wood in the street, shush please

Byrom Street hates its tarmac. Every year it sloughs off its bitumen coat and reveals itself to be carpeted with wood. Or rather paved with wooden setts. But why wooden? Well, directly opposite the Opera House and the famous Mr Vawbish used to be the delightfully sounding Manchester and Salford Hospital for Skin Diseases, which grew out (mind the expression) of the Manchester and Salford Institution for the Treatment of Skin, founded in 1835. 

The wooden setts were to ensure a bit of peace and quiet for the patients. They would often be used under bridges to dampen the echoes too, or outside libraries. Wooden setts were used because iron horseshoes rattling over stone setts pulling carts with wheels also wrapped in iron makes a right din. The more carts you have, the more din you have. Iron and stone don’t get on too well either, they scream and squeal like high pitched vuvuzelas when they come into contact. Iron and wood, on the other hand, don’t mind each other, thus the wooden setts.

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Wooden setts peeking through the tarmac

Bang bang bollards in St John’s

In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, aka ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, wanted the throne of Britain. His family, the Stuart dynasty, all the James and Charles kings, had been ousted from their position in 1688. Charlie invaded Scotland from France, Scotland being the ancestral heartlands of the Stuarts. He raised an army and marched on London passing through Manchester where, in the area that now forms Byrom Street and St John’s Gardens, he practised with his cannons. You might notice a small street in the area called Artillery Street. 

Problem was Charlies’ army was too small and despite gaining recruits in places such as Manchester, most of England was cool to the adventure. After reaching Derby he realised he was in danger of being surrounded by the overwhelming force of the British Army and retreated back to Scotland and ultimate defeat. 

Several Manchester men were hanged, drawn and quartered for taking part and thus, their treachery. Two of the heads were sent back as a warning and placed on the Exchange roof (roughly where the M&S cafe is on Market Street). To mark the area’s association with the insurrection and the artillery once fired here someone had a bright idea. When the area was developed with a church, two cannon were inverted and now stand at the top of St John’s Passage. They’re listed and protected as Britain’s only bang bang bollards.

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Bang bang bollards outside St John's Gardens

The lost chapel of Manchester

A little further down the street from the explosive bollards is 31 Byrom Street. This glorious 18th century house with its delightful Gothic doorway is in a disgraceful condition and needs urgent attention. It hides a secret around the back. In the mid-1870s the nuns arrived from the order of The Convent of St Mary. They built themselves a chapel, which you can clearly see stuck onto the back of the building from Camp Street. The decoration glimpsed on the windows is the giveaway. 

The nuns are long gone but their institution survives elsewhere. As their website says: ‘Founded in 1848 by the 29 year old vicar of Wantage (Oxfordshire), William John Butler, it is one of the earliest traditional Church of England Religious Communities. It is dedicated to Mary the Mother of Jesus, the pondering one.’ 

Crikey, ‘the pondering one’. The owners of this building should certainly think long and hard about themselves and their maintenance of this attractive property.

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This former chapel is in a disgraceful condition

Fly away postbox

On Liverpool Road, a stone’s throw from the offices of Manchester Confidential, is a blue postbox. It still functions as a postbox and receives letters, which for our younger readers, was a method of communication largely consisting of dead tree bits being conveyed great distances after being assaulted by ink. Blue postboxes were intended for air mail and were put up between the years 1930-1938. They were placed where there might be lots of tourists, or, in Manchester’s case, where there was a lot of international business taking place. The boxes were only used exclusively for air mail for those eight years, but here in Manchester we have a reminder of a time when air travel and air freight was exciting and new.

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The curious blue postbox on Liverpool Road

The big hole of Castlefield

Turn left down Potato Wharf to the YHA and you find a massive hole usually featuring a waterfall. It’s mighty impressive and, although altered, dates from 1761 and the creation of the Bridgewater Canal, the first true UK artificial navigation for industry, designed by James Brindley with John Gilbert. Brindley used to say ‘water is like a giant, safest while lying on its back’ which resulted in the Bridgewater Canal being the fastest in the country. There are no locks to slow the movement of traffic down as the canal follows the contours of the landscape. 

Here in the Castlefield basin a tunnel was placed under the canal which carries the River Medlock, in a curious combo of water flowing over water. At one end of the Castlefield basin the overflow of the canal water into the tunnel caused a waterwheel in a warehouse to turn, allowing coal and goods to be lifted from the canal to road level. Here, at Giant’s Basin, the water level of the canal is controlled by allowing the water, when it reaches a certain level, to drop into the tunnel carrying the River Medlock. Very neat and very efficient. The original design of Giant’s Basin was in a clover leaf form, but that was altered to the present shape probably in the early 19th century.

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A very efficient big hole

A towpath, but no canal?

In a subway, linking the car park under Manchester Central with a lift up to Bridgewater Hall, you can see traces of a long forgotten canal towpath.

In 1839, the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal (MSJC) opened, linking the Rochdale Canal with the River Irwell. You can still see the start point of the canal at Rain Bar and on the Irwell, marked by the stranded lock on its own at the Marriott Victoria & Albert Hotel on Water Street.

It's tempting to think that the idea for the canal was dreamt up in the Peveril or the Briton's, the old pubs close by. At best it's the sort of great idea you get after a gallon of ale. It never had a hope in hell. 

The MSJC proved ruinously expensive, because so much of its length was tunnelled, with expensive pump houses as well. There was a final and fatal flaw. During construction the Bridgewater Canal, which met the Rochdale Canal in Castlefield, opened a much shorter link to the River Irwell. Their fees were also much lower. Construction of Central Station (now Manchester Central) closed the eastern half of the canal in the 1880s, and in 1889 the opening of the adjacent Great Northern Goods Warehouse brought together rail, road and water transport. 

The canal closed in 1922. However, by happen chance, the subway linking the Bridgewater Hall (opened in 1996) and the Manchester Central car park followed the path of the canal and thus part of the towpath for the long dead canal was revealed - as seen here. 

Much of the old canal tunnel still exists under the Great Northern, but sadly the owners are presently denying access to the huge numbers of public who would love to visit it. 

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A long dead canal towpath

While you're here... Manchester's Most Unusual Structures: Part One