King Cotton & Cottonopolis

On visiting Manchester in 1825, the German architect Karl Schinkel wrote of his visit that “the enormous factory buildings are seven to eight storys high…where three years ago there were only meadows”. He went on to say that the buildings were so black that they looked as if they had stood already for a hundred years. King cotton, textiles, spinning, weaving and dyeing were the staple commercial enterprise of Manchester and the host of small mill towns that surrounded it. The city became known locally as “Cottonopolis”.

Thanks to the infrastructure of a well connected canal system, the coming of the railways, and later, the Manchester Ship Canal, Manchester was ideally placed to receive incoming raw materials, had the large workforce required to process them, and the means of distribution for finished goods. It was, in many ways, the warehouse of the western world.

So the city built warehouses – many of them – fine and architecturally elegant pioneering buildings which often belied their purpose. They were also structurally advanced, being the first large scale commercial use of cast iron frameworks – then a revolutionary new material whose integrity was largely untried. Thankfully, due to the enduring quality of the building method, many still survive intact today -some have found new functions, as in the originally Watts Warehouse, now the Britannia Hotel.

 Manchester - Great Northern Railway Goods Warehouse Manchester - London Warehouse, Piccadilly. 
Left to Right: Watts Warehouse; The Great Northern Railway’s Goods Warehouse; London Warehouse, Piccadilly; Dale Street Warehouse

Manchester’s Main Warehouses


Built in Manchester’s Portland Street, just off Piccadilly Gardens in 1851-56 for S&J; Watts by the architects Travis and Magnell, this spectacular building housed the largest wholesale drapery business in the city, and is regarded by many authorities as the queen of Manchester’s warehouses.From the start it was regarded as an ambitious and showy structure, eminently suited to its owner, a self-made businessman and entrepreneur. The building is constructed using classical devices, each storey in a different style – Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan, French Renaissance and Flemish, and each corner is topped by a large tower with Gothic Rose Windows. It typifies the confidence of its owner and the civic pride which men such as he had for the city of Manchester. He numbered the rich and famous among his friends – politicians and churchmen all dined regularly at his home in Cheadle, and Prince Albert chose to stay with him when he visited Manchester to open the Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857. The building narrowly avoided demolition in 1972, and now thrives as the Britannia Hotel.


Still rising high above the streets of Manchester, this fine large warehouse in Watson Street still boldly proclaims its lineage in large white letters under its cornice. Built in 1898, quite late in commercial terms, it was to be the forerunner of modern freight transportation systems, in that it provided an interchange between rail, canal and road networks in Manchester. A tunnel ran beneath to connect it directly to the Manchester & Salford Canal Junction. Trains arrived directly from the Central Station (now the GMEX Centre) alongside on a specially constructed iron viaduct into its huge marshalling yards, and goods were raised and lowered using hydraulic power. The building acted until recent years as a car park for visitors to the GMEX Centre, but is now under considerable refurbishment and development with fully restored fabric and shopping and leisure facilities being created out of virtually derelict spaces. Good to see such a fine old building coming back into its former glory. The new public square created in front of the warehouse offers several cafés and bars as well as meeting and performance spaces. The whole row of frontage shops in Deansgate have also been vacated and restored so as to reflect their original cohesive and uncluttered architectural styling, as well as allowing visual access to the warehouse behind, obscured as it was for decades by a virtual ‘shanty town’ of shop frontages and signage.


Piccadilly Railway Station was originally called London Road Station, and was opened by the Manchester & Birmingham Railway Company in 1842. Later its use was shared by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, and the two companies jointly built the new station in 1865. The MS&LR; erected four large warehouses nearby for goods storage, of which only this one survives. It stands seven storeys high in brick, with large stone cornerstones (quoins). Internally it has a skeleton of massive cast iron columns with wrought iron box girders and brick arched floors, all designed to minimise the risk of fire. It was originally joined by the Ashton Canal, but this has long since been filled in to provide access to the building which for many years has been used as a car park. The whole building is currently being lovingly restored to be commercially viable once more as a luxury and executive apartment block.


In the mid-19th century, Portland Street was devoted almost entirely to warehouses. Many stood until the Second World War when they suffered fatal damage through bombing. Fortunately, a few remain. Many, like the Portland Street Warehouse, were built in the very highest architectural styles. This one, on the lines of a great Italian Renaissance palazzo , with a simple elegance and monumental strength which exudes security and confidence. Its grand central staircase leads up to the storage floors, for, while buying was actually done at the Royal Exchange, goods would be inspected in the warehouse prior to delivery. The basement house a steam engine and boilers which powered the hoists to raise goods up and down the building. Loading and unloading was never done on the street side – this always presented a dignified Victorian elegance. The rear of the warehouse is the hoist loft (or hovel), where work was actually carried out. In 1871, the periodical The Manchester Civic , describing the architecture of Manchester commented on its warehouses : “…the high quality of the town’s architecture is mainly derived from these buildings”.

Castlefield Warehouses


Partially rebuilt in 1987, this warehouse had been demolished in 1960. First built in the early 1770s, as a terminus to the Bridgewater Canal along which coal had been transported from Worsley, the warehouse overhung the canal so that narrowboats could moor in below and goods could be raised by winch the 20 feet up to the warehouse above.
The reconstructed front shows two docks- one, the entrance to James Brindley’s original tunnel by which coal was offloaded, and the other constructed much later in about 1807.


On the south side of the Castlefield Basin lies this large 5 storey brick built warehouse constructed between 1828-3, still has two large arched openways to allow boats direct access at water level. It was substantially restored in the late 1980s, when it was converted into luxury flats and offices. It can be accessed from the canal basin through a wooden lift bridge which owes more to nostalgia than practicability.


Built entirely in brick in 1825, this is the oldest surviving warehouse at Castlefield, though it stood dangerously derelict and decaying for many years until it was restored between 1995-97 by Ian Simpson Architects. Standing 3 storeys high at street level and four at water level with 2 arched water entrances for boats. Later glass stair units were subsequently placed at either end of the warehouse. Some of the interior work has been preserved in the renovation, including the wooden king posts and some of the original hoisting gear.

Other Manchester Inner City Warehouses


The first three are now the Thistle Hotel, (formerly known as the Portland Hotel) and No. 9 are offices, of which only the facades survive on all, these buildings were designed by Edward Walters between 1851 and 1858 – (Walters was responsible for at least 10 major warehouses in Manchester city centre, the Free Trade Hall in St Peter’s Street). This row of fine buildings has distinguished ground floor rustication with arcading (a wall of arches – now glazed). As a point of interest, No.1 Portland Street was formerly the Queens Hotel, replaced by a modern steel and glass structure by Charles, White & Hood in 1974.


Now the Princess Hotel, this building was formerly known as the Pickles Building, standing on the corner of Portland Street, and was designed by Clegg & Knowles between 1858 and 1863. Built in a so-called “continental gothic” or palazzo style, popular at that time due in large part to its introduction by Alfred Waterhouse. Its exterior carries fine gothic stone carvings (oak leaves and quatrefoils), though it lost the elegant tall chimneys some years ago. Clegg was to go on to design many of the warehouses on Princess Street.


(Corner of George Street). Thought by many to be the earliest warehouse to be built in Manchester city centre, No. 83 was built by Travis & Mangnell around 1847. Described in a contemporary edition of The Builder , as “the best warehouse in Manchester”.


Now the Malmaison Hotel, but originally designed by Charles Heathcote in Piccadilly-London Road for Joshua Hoyle in 1904, this is a steel framed building, elegantly clad in brick, terra cotta and distinctive green ceramics. It stood idle and decaying for several decades before its modern conversion to a hotel by Darby Associates in 1998.


Number 37 Peter Street, opposite the Free Trade hall, built for Clegg & Knowles by the Ralli Brothers in 1868. Its ground floor is rusticated stone forming a series of circular headed openings, and the building was much criticised in The Builder in that year as having little architectural merit.


Designed and built by Speakman & Charlesworth in 1874, this warehouse, now known as Chepstow House, is situated in Chepstow Street and is a fine clean cut three storey brick building with stone banding with a frontage of some 300 feet. It has a magnificent 10 foot wide grand staircase and wide corridors. Recently converted into 76 luxury flats.


(Corner of Portland and Princess Streets). Large building by Pennington & Bridgen in 1887. Built in red brick with stone string courses.


At the corner of Portland Street and Oxford Street this plain brick building with stone detailing was designed by P Nunn in about 1860 for Louis Behrens & Sons. It is of four storeys with 23 bays running along Portland Street. The ground floor level is entirely stone clad.


Probably designed by William Crosley in 1906, this is the earliest surviving warehouse in the city, it shows the early use of cast iron columns supporting wooden floors throughout.