Manchester's hidden heritage

Manchester's hidden heritage

Posted 20th Nov 2017

National Tree Week (25th November - 3rd December) will see leading environmental charity City of Trees look into Manchester's hidden heritage, exploring the treasures from the city's botanical past

A striking white archway between Salford and Old Trafford seemingly leads to nowhere - the puzzling grade II listed gateway sits quietly alongside a busy multi-lane roundabout and a shopping complex; White City Retail Park.

However, the retail park actually hides a rich and fertile history which lies just beneath the concrete car park.

Some 186 years previously, the large striking white columns that stood on either side of the gateway guided people of the city into what was once Manchester's very own Royal Botanical Gardens.

The gardens have a curious and turbulent history, dating back to 1827, when the Manchester Botanical and Horticultural Society was founded.

A committee was selected from associates of small local botanical groups who had the job to gather members who would pay an annual fee. From this, they would buy plants and build glasshouses with large flower beds.

They were aiming to create a garden that could be used for studying botany and would also give the citizens of Manchester a place for recreation, along with access to clean air.

Mr. T.J.Trafford offered 12 acres of farmland on the border of the city at a bargain price to kick start the gardens.

The industrial nature of the city during the 19th Century meant pollution was widespread. Following the recent end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, unemployment was high and economic conditions were poor.

At this time, people were frustrated, with political unrest a common issue. Botanical Gardens were seen as a way of addressing the many social problems of the time, and also provided a place for people to escape the harshness of every day life.

The gardens increased employment too, with a large workforce needed to build the high surrounding brick walls. This included making and firing the bricks on site, along with the vast planting areas.

The next step was sourcing trees and flowers - for many botanical gardens, this would be gifts and donations from different horticultural societies. The Duke of Bedford made the first donation of willow trees in 1830, which was swiftly followed by numerous flowers, cuttings and a whole array of seeds from national and international donors.

While there are no detailed drawings of the garden plans that survive, it is known that a large variety of plants were planted, including a wide range of trees. These created orchards for the fruit garden, the arboretum, and individual lawn species.

The committee minutes from December 1830 revealed the London Horticultural Society donated the following trees for fruit gardens:

- 40 apples of different species

- 13 pears

- three plums

- four cherry trees

This was accompanied by a pledge to send cuttings of a further 30 apples, 14 peaches, 19 pears, five plums, five nectarines, four cherries and six apricots in the following spring when the weather was suitable. Up until this point, there had been no such array of exotic fruits could be found in the North of England.

An order to Caldwell's Nursery of Knutsford, by the committee, from February 1831 survives today, and details 622 trees, both deciduous and evergreen, which were to be planted in the gardens before they opened.

The official opening in June 1831 proved to be a truly grand event, with striking buildings and walled gardens unveiled, along with some beautiful displays of flowers, plants and trees which had previously never been seen.

A combination of lengthy decision-making and a difference of opinions within the Botanical Society committee meant only the outer wings of the impressive focal glass house for exotic plants was complete in time for the opening.

Among things that were missing were the impressive 35ft high central glass dome, as construction ran behind schedule.

The committee continued to push for the very best and highly regarded plants for the gardens, creating a true oasis within the City of Manchester.

A huge scope of trees from both Britain and abroad continued to be sent to the Gardens, which included 11 species of Hawthorn, Bosnian Maple and an African Tamarind being sent over in 1951. This ensured the Gardens remained at the pinnacle of horticulture - however, the housing and maintenance of such plants continued to create a lot of over-spend and debt.

During the mid-1800s, the upper middle-class moved out of the city into the countryside, affecting the number of paying subscribers who were the Garden's financial backbone.

So, in 1856, an Art-Treasures Exhibition was held to bring the Botanical Gardens back into the public eye, raising some much needed funds - even Queen Victoria was invited to attend.

This included a huge disagreement which took place between the committee and the director of the catering, Mr Donald, over temporary tents. This resulted in a quick exit to all of Mr Donald's staff and the refreshments. The tickets for the event were for one entrance only, so when people left to get food, they were not able to return.

This proved to be a disaster for the Gardens, as they fell into financial trouble. Then in 1857, the curator of the gardens for 25 years, Mr Cambell, was charged with 'gross ignorance and mismanagement' and was asked to leave.

He fought back against the charges, and proved that it had been the committee, not himself who had ordered the pruning at the wrong time of year, in the process damaging trees and plants in the garden.

Bruce Findley became the new Curator in 1858 - at this time, a new, larger committee was elected. Findleys motto was 'A garden is health, a garden is wealth, a garden is happiness'.

His dedication to debt management meant the gardens were back on track by 1865.

For many decades, Manchester's Botanical Gardens flourished, with great international flower exhibitions and a number of prestigious shows including car exhibitions held there.

In 1896, Findley passed away while at the gardens, and by the end of the year, it was decided by the committee that all underlying debts should be cleared by handling the land deeds over to the bank.

During this time, neighbouring land was bought by local businesses, factories were built and visitor numbers dwindled as people started to worry about the gardens.

Stretford District Council then offered to buy and pay for the garden's management, but the committee would not allow free access to Stretford residents, so the deal was called off.

By 1907, the debt was too much and the bank would have it's dues. The decision was therefore made to lease the Botanical Gardens to John Calvin Brown of Heathcote and Brown Ltd, who founded the company 'The White City, Manchester'.

The name was added to the top of the white Gateway we will see today.

John Calvin Brown was an international entrepreneur who specialised in creating permanent spaces for public entertainment, which included large communal gardens, amusement stands, skating rinks, concerts, fairground rides and much more.

By 1908, Brown had already started to reinvent the gardens, attracting people back. He applied to Trafford Council to build miniature train rides - as the years went by, further additions were made too, including ice skating rinks, water chutes, individual performance stands, larger band stands and a small zoo. Many plants and glass houses still remain as stunning features within the amusement park too.

John Calvin Brown dedicated a lot of time to creating a place of national importance for entertainment, from dog shows to innovative buildings for entertainment - he commissioned architects including Basil and Vician Pendleton to build grand constructions, which included a 75 foot Tower Swing and a Joy Wheel.

Yet as always, the fate of the gardens were tied to its finances - by 1912, The White City Ltd Company was declared bankrupt, and left the site.

With World War One beginning in 1914, the Botanical committee held it's last ever exhibition in 1916, 'The garden in Wartime'.

The committee worked tirelessly to give people of Manchester a true escape from the smog and grime of the industrial revolution, providing jobs, education and a place to enjoy life. Yet in 1927, they sold the land, which went on to become a Greyhouse racing track until 1982. Manchester was once home to one of just three Royal Botanical Gardens in the UK - the other two still remaining - Kew in London, and Inver Leith in Edinburgh.

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