We walk Manchester streets, eyeing shop windows – not noticing that just round the corner is the hidden gem of St Mary’s, the oldest Roman Catholic church in Manchester. Originally built in 1794 in a poverty stricken slum area, it’s now surrounded by grander buildings – the John Ryland Library, the Town Hall and Albert Square. Its roof and tower collapsed dramatically in 1835 – no reports of any deaths, but great alarm. You can see it was rebuilt in a medley of styles – Norman, Gothic and Byzantine. Pugin said, somewhat unkindly, ‘It shows to what a depth of error even good men fall, when they go whoring after strange styles.’
Victorian exuberance at its best – an early use of decorative cast iron with an extensive glass curtain wall, built in 1871. It has 2 octagonal domes, one of which is visible in the photo. The interior is light and airy, with 3 tiers of balconies. It’s probably one of the best examples of cast iron and glass in Britain.
Restored in the 1980s it houses shops and offices.
On Portland Street is the magnificent sandstone ashlar facade of the Britannia Hotel. It has only been a hotel since the 1980s and its earlier history is remarkable. It was built in 1856 as a textile warehouse for the wholesale drapery firm of S&J Watts and is the largest textile warehouse in Manchester. James Watts started his business in a small weaver’s cottage in Didsbury and eventually became Mayor of Manchester. But why not go inside? The sweeping cantilevered staircase is beautifully made of iron and lit by magnificent candelabra.
In the portico at the entrance stands a bronze statue of a WW1 guard wearing a Tommy helmet and in battle gear, with a fixed bayonet on his rifle. This is a memorial to all the employees of Watts & Co who died then. It was designed by the sculptor CS Jagger who also designed the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London.