Oldham’s Grand Design, 1948 Style

How Oldham would have changed beyond recognition

What might have been, but never was 1
What Could Have Been: the County of Oldham Borough’s new civic centre on the site of Tommyfield Market. (Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Sutcliffe).

According to today’s Oldham Evening Chronicle, Councillor Jim McMahon aims to create 2,015 jobs by 2015, with flagship schemes to add a new hotel and conference centre. This would also include the old town hall’s conversion to a multiplex cinema.

It was this recent story which inspired me to write about another grand design, this time from 1948.

Besides being a century since Oldham’s first bus left The Star Inn, 2013 is also the anniversary of an unrealised plan which would have had a great affect on the town centre. By great affect, I mean anything much greater than the opening of Spindles Shopping Centre, Gallery Oldham, St. Mary’s Estate or Mahdlo. One which would have upset the grid pattern of some of the town centre’s older streets.

Overshadowed by its bigger brother’s 1945 plan [Manchester], the County Borough of Oldham created a plan almost as ambitious as theirs in 1948. Key points of the plan included:

  • Two bypasses;
  • A shopping precinct on George Street – albeit with the retention of St. Peter’s church;
  • A Civic Theatre by the Lyceum and a new library;
  • A Technical College of Education;
  • New Civic Centre on the site of Tommyfield Market;
  • A new market on Mumps Bridge and the extension of its shopping area;
  • The closure of Oldham Mumps railway station with all facilities concentrated at a combined Oldham Central and Oldham Clegg Street;
  • A central bus station close to the newly combined railway station.

Work would have began in 1952 with the fully redeveloped Oldham, as per the 1948 plan completed in 1978. The new look Oldham would have been a car friendlier centre, hence the elimination of side streets in favour of wider roads. High Street and Yorkshire Street would have been made into a dual carriageway, though the southern bypass would have been more akin to conversion into motorway standards.

Owing to the overall cost, only two elements of the plan were fully implemented as seen on the map. These were the southern bypass (today’s Oldham Way) and the Technical College. Other projects part of the plan were constructed elsewhere, such as the Civic Centre and Municipal Offices. These came courtesy of a later plan (which may be covered on this hallowed chunk of server space in future).

The 1948 Plan in Detail:

1. Municipal Buildings: the grand municipal buildings (seen at the top of this page) would have occupied the open market part of Tommyfield Market with a square replacing the much loved (and subsequently burnt in 1974) Victoria Market hall.

2. Civic Halls: the site of the proposed Civic Halls would instead occupy the Clemens and August [C&A] department store. Cheapside (where Oldham Central Bus Station is now), would have been grassed over.

3. Police HQ and Courts: the 1948 plan proposed the siting of the aforementioned building on what is now the site of Oldham Sports Centre. Instead, they moved towards Manchester Street and the concrete artistry of Leach Rhodes Walker weaved their magic.

4. Government Offices: they would have shared the same site as the Police HQ and Courts. It isn’t clear as to what purpose the government offices would have served. I suspect it could have been the Labour Exchange.

5. Technical College: the Technical College project was realised, albeit on a less ambitious scale than originally envisaged. Today, that too is facing redevelopment, whilst remaining on the same site.

6. Fire Station: slated for being on Rochdale Road, it would have been on the site of today’s County Court. Instead, Oldham’s fire station moved out of town towards Roundthorn.

7. Health Centre: Oldham’s Health Centre would have been opposite the Technical College (5). An extension of Oldham Council’s civic centre occupies the site.

8. Royal Infirmary: it was anticipated that the Royal Infirmary would have stayed on the side of King Street and Oldham Way in 1978, albeit as a modernised facility. Instead, Oldham Sixth Form College occupies the site with facilities at the infirmary moved to the Royal Oldham Hospital on Rochdale Road.

9. P.O. Telephone Exchange: it was proposed that Oldham’s telephone exchange would move to the opposite side of King Street on Brunswick Street and Chaucer Street. This would have meant the loss of the Gaumont Cinema which would have been unpopular with Oldham cinemagoers.

10. P.O. Sorting Office: it was envisaged that the sorting office would have been on the south side of Oldham Way. This would have been ideal as a railhead as well as for road traffic.

11. Art Gallery: it was proposed that the whole of Oldham’s old (as in the 1948 plan as well as in 2013) library would have become the art gallery. Some architectural critics would have agreed with that plan, which would have seen…

12. The Central Library moved to Clegg Street. The purpose built library would have been on the corner of Clegg Street and Ascroft Street, where the long vacant TJ Hughes store is today. Opposite was…

13. The Civic Theatre: a new Civic Theatre on Clegg Street would have led to the demolition of Oldham’s old town hall, which would be unimaginable today. Today, there are plans to convert Oldham’s old town hall into a multiplex cinema. Extended and retained instead of demolished as per the 1948 plans was…

14. The Lyceum: the clustering of the beefed-up art gallery, plus purpose built libraries and theatres along with an upgraded Lyceum would have been some sort of a cultural quarter. Except for the fact, we never had Cultural/Shopping/Business/Bohemian/Vertical Drinking Quarters or the like in 1948. In front of the Lyceum would have been gardens leading to the boulevard style Oldham Way. Today, the National Careers Service’s Oldham office, part of Sainsburys and TK Maxx’s car park, and Gallery Oldham occupy that site.

15. Public Baths: on the west side of the square would have been the public baths. The scale of which was great enough for Olympic sized swimming pools, and it was only a short walk from the baths’ original site on Union Street. Sainsburys and TK Maxx occupy what would have been the baths.

16. Oldham Central/Oldham Clegg Street railway stations: both Oldham Clegg Street and Oldham Central stations were close enough to combine into a main junction station. In 1948, they favoured the closure of Oldham Mumps station and the upgrading of Oldham Clegg Street and Oldham Central stations. This would have meant better town centre penetration. Instead, this never happened as Oldham Clegg Street closed in 1959 with Oldham Central following suit in 1967. In the long term, that may have improved the fortunes of the Oldham-Rochdale loop line.

17. St. Mary’s Church
18. St. Peter’s Church
19. St. Patrick’s Church
20. Union Street Congregational Church

The 1948 plan favoured the retention of all the above four churches. By 1978, the envisaged completion date, it was St. Peter’s church which fell victim to the wrecking ball. In its place is today’s Town Square Shopping Centre, which would have been Phase Two of the St. Peter’s Precinct development designed by Tony Cartiledge. The draughty walkways of the 1967 development was eschewed in favour of air conditioning and covered arcades. On opening in November 1981, it also broke new ground in Oldham terms for being privately funded and operated.

21. Covered Market
22. Open Market
23. Market Hall

The most controversial decision affecting Oldhamers would have been the move of Tommyfield Market, lock stock and barrel to Mumps Bridge. Besides merchandising, Tommyfield had historical links with the Wakes’ Week fairgrounds hosted there. It was also a meeting ground for political speeches.

The Market Hall would have been on the corner of Yorkshire Street and Union Street, close to the Oldham Evening Chronicle’s offices today. Needless to say, had the 1948 plans gone ahead – along with the Metrolink works – market traders would have cried foul over the works hitting their trade. Equally unpopular would have been the loss of the Empire Theatre to a semi-open market. The open market would have been opposite the semi-open market on Waterloo Street. This would have meant the demolition of pubs along the popular Yorkshire Street strip. The Hark to Towler and Yates’ Wine Lodge too would have disappeared.

24. Transport Garage: what is now today’s headquarters and Oldham garage of First Greater Manchester’s operations would have been moved 90˚, backing onto Bell Street. Residents may have been a little apprehensive over its then recent garage being razed (the Wallshaw Street garage was almost ten years old at the time).

25. Transport Offices: Oldham Corporation Transport Department’s offices would have been directly in front of the depot. Today, most of the proposed site is a car park for First Greater Manchester’s employees and a more modest office, built for GM Buses. The offices would have had a view of Mumps Bridge roundabout and the railway. This would have been necessitated by the demolition of the imposing National Westminster Bank building.

26. Bus Station: Oldham would have had a central bus station and a fairly decent interchange with bus, taxi and rail. The site would have been between Clegg Street and Hobson Street, where today’s Sainsburys store is. Ironically, the eastern part of the site was used by the North Western Road Car Company as its Oldham depot and bus station during the mid-1960s.

27. Car Parks would have been located near the Municipal Offices and the Mumps Bridge roundabout.

28. Residential Hotel: several years before the Belgrade Hotel opened on the side of Manchester Street and Oldham Way, there was plans for a hotel adjacent to the Public Baths (15). Its location would have suitable for business travellers alighting at Oldham Central station, or theatregoers.

Streets and Shopping:

Retail areas would have been redeveloped with larger units replacing the hotchpotch of terraces along George Street and Union Street. Oldham Way would have been its main southern bypass with King Street and Union Street upgraded to dual carriageway status. Manchester Street would have been downgraded with a realigned and upgraded Middleton Road compensating for this.

Egerton Street would have been extended and upgraded to dual carriageway status, linking up with the main bypass. Today, that lives on in a more modest scheme as the St. Mary’s Way bypass from Yorkshire Street to Rochdale Road. Rochdale Road itself would be downgraded.

Oldham, as per the 1948 plan (if fully implemented of course) would have been a raving canyon of motorised traffic in 1978. It would have been more akin to Coventry with its ring roads. Bus movements would have been more circuitous with the 9 bus for example forced to take a detour from its otherwise straight route. Perhaps we ought to be thankful to some extent part of the plans weren’t realised. Not least drinkers who would have been hit by the loss of The Star Inn in favour of a roundabout, along with The Castle, Buck and Union and the Royal Oak falling victim to a wider Union Street.

On the other hand, we would have been spared the joys of St. Peter’s Precinct’s wind tunnel and windswept malls. The Oldham Theatre Workshop would have got a nice new theatre much earlier. And of course, Oldham’s market remains at its spiritual home in Tommyfield.

S.V., 13 May 2013.

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