Nostalgic Reminiscences at the Firm's Centenary

Written by former Wilson Gunn employee F.J.Meredith in 1964

THE WRITER'S first acquaintance with the firm then carrying on business under the title John G. Wilson & Co. was early in 1905 when he was engaged by the late Mr. Walter Gunn as a draughtsman.

Manchester in 1905

The Manchester of those far away days was a very different place to work in than it is at present. Life was much more leisurely and moved on a more even keel. Cotton was king in Lancashire and Manchester was said to be the place where cotton goods were thrown to the four corners of the earth from the third floor windows of warehouses. This saying arose from the method employed by "corner boys", as they were known, for loading the horse drawn lorries of the day. The "corner boys", now practically an extinct species, were casual labourers who stood at street corners near to warehouses, waiting to be called for jobs, each gang having its regular pitch. The lorry was drawn up in the street fronting the warehouse and "lumps" of cloth were dropped from the upper windows, three or four storeys above, to land with a thud on the waiting lorry with uncanny precision. The loader on the lorry grabbed it, placed it in position and then waited for the next one. It was an unwritten law that the loader did not move until he heard the thud of the next lump. This gave the "dropper" an opportunity to choose his target area on the lorry platform with the least risk of injury to the loader by a heavy falling lump of cloth.

Horses were mainstream and used in all kinds of ways

Those were the days of horse drawn traffic and most of Manchester's streets were paved with granite setts to afford a good grip for horses specially shod for the purpose. Another feature was the use of chain-horses to help pull loaded lorries up inclines such as John Dalton Street on their way from Salford station. These horses, in charge of boys of about 13 or 14 years of age, stood at the corner of John Dalton Street adjoining Deansgate and one was hitched to a laden lorry to assist its horse to pull the load up to Albert Square. A double row of flagstones spaced the width of the lorry wheels was laid to ease the passage of the lorry wheels, while the joints between the setts gave the horses the necessary grip. A notable sight in Market Street in the mornings was the passage of laden lorries of a Cheadle firm each drawn by a magnificent team of matched grey Clydesdale horses. In the afternoon another sight was the News and Chronicle carts racing up Market Street to London Road Station (now named Piccadilly Station) drawn by fast trotting ponies who at the blast of a starter whistle leapt instantly into a fast trot and probably did the journey from the News Office to the station with the newspapers for despatch by train as quickly, or even quicker, than the present motor vans. It was also a magnificent sight to see a fire engine careering madly along, drawn by a pair of galloping horses, all traffic making way for them, the shoes of the horses striking sparks from the setts. All these sights have gone, as has now the last of the horse drawn railway lorries with their beautifully groomed horses. There was little motor traffic in those days and travellers used the electrically driven trams, which had open decks, which were not pleasant places to ride in on a rainy day. There were plenty of hansom cabs and four wheelers but very few taxis, just one or two of the early UNIC type. In the hansom cab the passenger sat inside facing the direction of travel, with folding doors to protect him from the weather, and the "cabbie" or driver was perched at the back of the vehicle on a high dickey seat. It was said that if a cabbie could get his horse's nose into a gap he would get the vehicle through! The four wheeled cab, or "growler" as it was called, was driven from a seat in the front which was usually panelled with glass so that the inside passenger could see where he was going. A Victorian wit described this vehicle as "A conveyance in which the superior in the interior viewed the posterior of his inferior on the exterior"! All those early forms of transport have long since disappeared, although in fact a firm of opticians in Withy Grove still used a hansom cab to deliver goods at least up to 1962 or thereabouts.

Cotton was king at the Manchester Royal Exchange

As has been said, Cotton was King; and Manchester Royal Exchange was his Court. The membership of the Exchange was at its peak and on 'Change days, Tuesdays and Fridays, the steps up to the Exchange (before the rebuilding) were crowded with men from all parts of Lancashire buying and selling cotton and cotton goods. Quantity and price and date of delivery were quoted, a grip of the hands, and that was that. A Lancashire man's word was his bond. There was a rule that members of the Exchange should wear toppers when they appeared on the floor of the Exchange especially at High 'Change on Tuesdays and Fridays. Many a cloth cap was exchanged for a topper pro tem to meet this custom! The custom has long passed into general disuse although one firm still continue the practice and its members are regularly seen crossing from their offices in Norfolk Street to the Exchange wearing the conventional silk topper.

Food in Manchester

It used to be said that Manchester was the place where the business men dined underground, and certainly the number of cellar restaurants and cafes lent some truth to this statement. A three course lunch could be had for two shillings! Speaking of eating, the writer's mouth still waters at the recollection of having Darbyshire's Eccles cakes at eleven o'clock each morning (in a quaint old shop with its bow windows of greenish bottle glass), luscious, hot, oozing with butter and full of sugary currants, and only two-pence each! The shop has long since disappeared from Market Street where it was sufficiently close to the firm's office, then at 55 Market Street, to enable one to slip out quickly to join the crowd waiting for the eleven o'clock delivery! The secret of making them has apparently been lost, for there was not, and still is not, any Eccles cake to compare with them.

Pubs on Market Place

At the time this was written in 1964 Market Place had changed little in appearance from what it was when John G. Wilson first set up his office in 1864. There was a labyrinth of narrow passages (one could not call them streets) leading off Market Place, for example Blue Boar Court, Bull's Head Yard, Cockpit Hill, and the Shambles. Market Place was a Mecca for the thirsty, for there were twelve pubs within its immediate vicinity, amongst which were The Falstaff, The Slip Inn (where Leslie "Lily of Laguna" Stuart was well known), The Blue Boar, The Bull's Head (where the Officers of Bonnie Prince Charlie once had their headquarters), The Kings Arms, The Globe, The Sun, and The Old Wellington (once the residence of John Byrom, author of the well known hymn "Christians Awake") a splendid black and white timbered building adjoining Sinclairs Oyster Bar in the Shambles. In near-by Withy Grove there were two more black and white pubs, The Old Seven Stars (pulled down in 1912), and further along the old Rovers Return, which later became an antique dealer's shop until it was demolished in about1962. One wonders what happened to Charlie, the friendly ghost, many times reputed to have been seen by occupants.

Photo Market Place 1900

Market Place Manchester c. 1900

Photo Market Place 1964

Market Place Manchester 1964

Market Place continued with little change in its appearance, except for the departure of the stalls, until the Christmas air raids of 1940 reduced it and its surroundings to a mass of rubble, dust, and fire blackened ruins; though amid all this destruction the old Wellington Inn miraculously escaped unscathed, the only survivor of those houses mentioned.

Pre World War 1 free lunch

A feature of some of these pubs was the free lunch offered to patrons each morning, for the price of a pint (three pence!); cheese and biscuits and celery, or a wedge of pork pie, a portion of steak and kidney pie or a helping of Lancashire Hot-Pot with the red cabbage pickle without which no true Lancastrian would eat hot-pot. The pubs were so close together that anyone so disposed could go from one to the other and acquire quite a varied meal for the expenditure of a few pence on beer! This custom disappeared during the First World War.

Well known characters in Manchester city

Save for the Shambles, which comprises the Wellington Inn and Sinclair's Oyster Bar, no trace remained of that area in 1964, the site being occupied by the towering multi-story buildings of an insurance company and a large store. Something else too has disappeared from the streets round about, for the colourful personalities that used to be seen, like "Red Dick" the big policeman with the flaming red beard generally on point duty at the junction of Bridge Street and Deansgate, more often to be found joking with the girls while the traffic tangled up, have vanished. In a newspaper competition of the day searching for the best known figures in Manchester "Red Dick" came second to the well-loved and gaitered figure of Bishop Welldon. Another well known figure was" Madge Morgan", always dressed in black and heavily veiled, who frequented Deansgate, St. Ann's Street, St. Ann's Square and St. Mary's Gate singing in what must at one time have been a wonderful contralto voice. Her favourite song was "Queen of the Earth" and the writer has listened to this many times with pleasure as it rang out over the din of the traffic! She was a mysterious, tragic, figure who accepted contributions but never begged. Another and very different figure was "Methylated Annie", always in trouble with the police for indulging in the liquid which gave her her nickname, and in a wonderful flow of language! There was also the unfrocked parson who used to parade Market Street dressed in a shabby clerical coat, corduroy trousers, and hob-nail boots, and wearing a dog-collar and a battered shovel hat, selling copies of Lancashire poetry written by himself under the name "Tim of Hebers" and also the story of his life. He was an object of charitable concern to old ladies and sentimental young curates ! Yet another character was the old lady who sat on the steps of a warehouse adjacent to the corner of Mount Street and Peter Street, on the site now occupied by the Central Library, dressed in ancient black Victorian clothes. She sat, never speaking and hardly moving, day in and day out for years at what must have been a profitable pitch. She was known as "Queen Victoria" because of her supposed resemblance to the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly. Incidentally this statue was usually surrounded by bushes in tubs and was irreverently referred to as the old lady among the gooseberry bushes! Then there was "Chatty" who rubbed the end of a wall of the Deansgate Hotel smooth, and who, rumour had it, when he visited a Hospital was immersed, clothes and all, into a bath of strong disinfectant!; and" Snowy", the old knocker-up, with his bunch of wires at the end of a long pole, whose round covered most of Moss Side and who rattled at the bed-room windows until a light appeared. He could always be relied upon whatever the weather, a human alarm clock, six days a week for a few coppers from each customer. Another well known figure was "Blind Bob", who delivered newspapers in the same area, putting them through the right doors with unerring accuracy. There were still others whose names evade the writer's memory, but they have all gone long ago and there are none to replace them.

Street trading

There was little restriction on street trading in those early days and Market Street used to be lined with "gutter merchants", flower girls, fruit sellers, and others. During the pre-Christmas period they would form up shoulder to shoulder both sides of Market Street from Deansgate to Piccadilly selling everything under the sun; toys, Christmas decorations, books, post-cards, and gadgets of every description. Pandemonium! In the office of Wilson, Gunn & Ellis, directly on Market Street, one could hear the rattle of the electric trams, the clatter of horses' hooves and the iron tyres of vehicles on the granite setts, and street cries of every description, particularly the penetrating metallic voice of a news-vendor at his pitch below what was then the writer's window. The whole cacophony was indescribable and not conducive to quiet concentration. One was glad when Christmas was over!

Shopping facilities were much more extended then, and Market Street and its tributary Oldham Street were crowded with shoppers well after eleven o'clock on Saturday nights. In fact on nearby Stretford Road it would be safe to say that the shops were busier after eleven o'clock on Saturday than at any other time of the day. Closing time for the pubs was eleven o'clock and perhaps this was the reason.

Theatre entertainment

Although cinemas were unknown then there was a great variety of entertainment available at theatre or music-hall. For example there were the theatres, Royal, Princes, Gaiety, Queens, Osborne, Grand Junction, and others, although none are now in existence, much to Manchester's eternal discredit, or so the writer believes. As for Music Halls there were The Palace, Hippodrome, Tivoli, Ardwick Empire, Hulme Hippodrome and others. Of these only The Palace now remains, although one or two of the others have been converted to cinemas. Music Halls, as such, have ceased to exist in the old style. The stupendous water spectacles staged at the old Hippodrome in Oxford Street could not be bettered even now. Outdoor entertainment then, as now, included Belle Vue, also famous at that time for its firework displays; The Botanical Gardens, Old Trafford, long since closed, the site now being used as a dog racing track or a speedway track; and boating on the large lake in Trafford Park in sylvan surroundings, dominated by Trafford Hall, the ancient seat of the de Trafford family. There were many acres of open parkland in which deer still grazed. The writer spent many happy Saturday afternoons boating on the lake, the size of which can be gauged by Crookes' advertisement of his fleet of seventy river boats. There were also sailings from Blackfriars, down the River lrwell and the Ship Canal to Mode Wheel and Latchford. Pierrots were also popular for example Leslie's Pierrots played regularly at The Pavilion at the corner of Dickenson Road, Longsight, and there were other similar shows at Chorlton-cum-Hardy and various places. Some of the artists appearing were destined to achieve fame later. The writer can remember seeing Wee Georgie Wood carried in his father's arms to the tent at Chorlton where he appeared first as a child c. 1907.

Saturday night rendezvous

At that time Tib Street was the Saturday night rendezvous for youths and girls from all parts of Manchester, although the reason for this venue was lost on the writer. The street would be packed with a crowd of what would now be called "teenagers" (a term then unknown) jostling and skylarking, with not a policeman in sight nor even wanted. On Sunday evening the rendezvous was Seymour Grove from Trafford Bar to West Point which from about 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock was crowded with young folk. It was locally known as Monkey's Parade. In those days Seymour Grove was for most of its length a pleasantly rural road running between fields on both sides. Now it is a wilderness of bricks and mortar!

Properly conducted dances

Dancing and roller skating were pastimes well catered for. Dances in those days were not the free and easy, go as you please, affairs of 1964, but properly conducted dances with a standard of dancing not bettered anywhere. Male dancers did not confine themselves to one partner all evening but circulated around so that "wallflowers" were few and far between. No outrageous forms of dress were tolerated and in most cases the gentlemen's dressing room displayed the notice "Slippers and Gloves essential".

The writer well remembers demonstrating the "Valeta", "The Military Two Step", "The Merry Widow Waltz" and other new dances as they were introduced at The Kings' Hall, Stretford, then run by a Mr. W. H. Cadman, a well known M.C. and dance instructor. The writer was usually partnered by the lady who for the past 52 years has been his wife. Happy days to look back upon now that one is old and not so lissom!

A further pastime was to take week-end rambles alone or as a member of a rambling club, when the adjacent countryside of Derbyshire and Cheshire was thoroughly explored. A packet of sandwiches and a walking stick was all the equipment needed and we saw no call to go laden down with everything but the kitchen sink, as appears to be the common practice nowadays. We were sure of being able to get tea, usually comprising new-laid eggs, bread and butter, jam and cake, all home-made, at some wayside cottage or farm. The cost was often in the region of a shilling a head and we were welcome guests. The changes in money values over the years can be appreciated from the fact that it was possible for a fellow to go into Manchester on Saturday night, have a drink or two, a packet of twenty cigarettes with a box of matches given free, a seat in the "Gods" at the Tivoli, a most popular rendezvous, a fish and chip supper and his tram fares in and out and not spend more than half a crown! Unbelievable, but true.

Beer and cigarettes

Beer was three pence a pint, brandy four pence a nip, gin two pence a nip, a small port three pence, cigarettes known as Woodbines were five a penny; while Players, Gold Flake, and Ogden's Guinea Gold cigarettes were five pence half-penny for twenty, and frequently with a box of matches thrown in. Matches were a penny or three half-pence a dozen boxes! The writer can remember buying eggs at forty for a shilling, oranges thirty or forty for a shilling, enormous bananas two for three half-pence, a coconut for sixpence, many kinds of sweets at four ounces a penny, half-penny and penny bars of chocolate, ginger beer and lemonade penny a bottle, and so on ad infinitum. A youngster's weekly pocket money of one penny (yes, one penny) was a common amount, and could buy more than sixpence or a shilling does today.

Newspapers cost a half-penny, letter postage was a penny, postcards a halfpenny and for a telegram, sixpence.

F.J. Meredith gets married

The writer was married in 1912 and then, as frequently happens now in our profession, found it impossible to escape the calls of business even for a few days, for he has a vivid recollection of receiving a telegram on the second day of his honeymoon calling him back to the office to explain some point in a client's patent specification dealing with cutting out the nodes from bamboo canes before macerating them for paper making. For this re-call he was rewarded by Mr. Walter Gunn with a golden sovereign, half a week's wages at that time. The wedding ceremony was at St. Clement's Old Church, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which was demolished some years ago, a quaint little old place with high backed pews closed by swing doors; the church being heated by two huge coke stoves one each side. Incidentally the curate who married us was found with his head in a gas oven a few weeks later! Was there, I wonder, any connection.

These were years of peace and relative prosperity under King Edward VII (known as the Peacemaker), the instigator of l'Entente Cordiale with France. All good things come to an end however, and in 1914, the year in which John G. Wilson & Co. celebrated their fiftieth anniversary, came the start of the First World War, and life was never the same again.

War inventions

At the office there was a flow of war inventions, many of a weird and wonderful nature. The writer remembers dealing with a complicated machine for throwing Mills Bombs, or hand grenades, a rifle for shooting round corners, rubber skid brakes for aeroplanes, an imitation rifle made from gas pipe for drilling purposes and many others. One well-remembered invention was a woven machine gun belt for holding cartridges to be fed into a machine gun. This was a revolutionary invention which increased the rate of firing a machine gun to a level well above that obtainable with the then used circular pans. This was the invention of the then principal of a firm which to this day remains one of the most important clients of Wilson, Gunn & Ellis, and brought him deserved renown in addition to financial reward.

Machine Gun Belt

Many important events took place during the period which has been described: The death of King Edward VII, the coronation of King George V, his visit to Manchester, the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage, the news of which was received in Manchester with stunned disbelief. Incidentally a set of complicated V.S. patent drawings relating to a multi-speed bicycle gear in course of post to America were lost in this sinking and had to be re-done. The first aeroplane flights from London to Manchester and from Liverpool to Manchester, the loss of the warship taking Lord Kitchener to Russia, and so on, but these are matters of history and duly recorded. It has been the object of the writer to bring to remembrance some of the simpler aspects of life in Manchester as he knew it in the early part of this century. Things and events not recorded in history, but retained only in the memory of the older people who are still alive to recall them. Simple things, but constituting a pattern of life which ended in 1914 and has never nor will ever be the same again.

The writer left the employment of John G. Wilson & Co. in 1921 or 1922 and subsequently joined the office of Howard Cheetham in 1923 and following the death of Mr. Howard Cheetham in 1936 he had charge of the office until July 1957 when the practice was acquired by Wilson, Gunn & Ellis and the writer returned to the firm he had previously been associated with, until his partial retirement early in 1960.

Life in 1964

Manchester has changed considerably since the time of which I have written and life now seems to be lived at a much more hectic pace. People, especially the young ones, would not now be content with the simple pleasures we enjoyed when young and had mostly to make for ourselves. Who today would attend Lewis's Penny Readings in their basement on Saturday nights or pay a penny to go into the engine room in the basement to see the machinery at work generating lighting for the shop.

Pensions made life easier for old people

Some things of course have changed for the better. Unemployment is not now the sheer tragedy it used to be for the working class and retirement pensions have made life easier for the old people.

Going for family walks no longer common

Another custom that the writer recalls has changed for the better was the display of meat carcasses outside butchers' shops, the windows of which were generally open, exposing the joints of meat to contamination by dust, flies and so on, and indiscriminate handling by potential customers. Hygiene was not a particularly strong point then and nobody bothered overmuch, nor were they worried about calories, so long as they got enough to eat. Incidentally, it was quite a sight about Christmas time to see butchers' and poulterers' shops with their shop fronts covered to the roof with all kinds of meat and poultry and lit up at nights by flaming gas jets or naphtha lamps; electricity was not in common use and of course neon lighting was unknown.

Beautiful old buildings torn down

The loss of some of the beautiful old buildings which have been torn down to make way for new is to be deplored from an historical and artistic point of view, but commercial progress will not be stopped and the site is much more valuable than the old building on it whatever its historical associations. For instance only determined opposition by a few interested people prevented the picturesque "Old Wellington Inn" in the Shambles from being destroyed to make way for another huge block. Fortunately it and its neighbour Sinc1air's Oyster Bar are now protected as ancient monuments and will afford pleasure to future generations.

Street traffic has completely changed and the crossing of a city street is now a risky process. A horse is now a novelty in a city once noted for its magnificent horses.

Another pleasant custom which has completely disappeared was one which used to be a feature of Sunday afternoon or evenings, of numerous little crocodiles composed of Father and Mother bringing up the rear of their family of children, all dressed in their Sunday best walking two by two to the Park perhaps or to visit relatives or maybe to Church. The large families of Victorian and Edwardian days which were so general could make up quite a respectable "crocodile" too. The art of going for a walk just for the sake of going for a walk appears to be lost.

The writer hopes that these reminiscences will have made interesting reading. No doubt similar recollections in 2064, perhaps written by another ancient member of the staff at that time, would be equally interesting!

The above is extracted from our 1964 centenary brochure. This was written by F.J. Meredith, then in his sixtieth active year in the patent profession!