An unassuming red-brick building on the corner of a main road (cue attractive pelican crossing), Stretford Public Hall has been home to some pretty incredible moments. From being used as a Second World War bunker to Stretford’s first lending library, this extraordinary edifice was built by John Rylands in 1878. It was here that The Fall recorded their 1977 Live album and where Rock Against Racism featured the following year. The steps up to the iconic ballroom have been trodden by Oswald Mosley, and more than one suffragette fled back down them (a public meeting protest that did not go well).
Fast forward to today and the hall is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to The Friends of Stretford Hall, a community benefit society originally headed up by Annoushka Deighton.
‘‘A couple of years ago, I saw a post about the hall on Facebook,’’ says Deighton. ‘‘I’d never actually never been in. Then, one day, I popped my head around the door and fell in love with it. Things just went from there. We campaigned to the council to ensure that, when they were initially weighing up what to do with it, it would be opened to a competitive bid.’’
And so, The Friends bought the hall three years ago for just £15. ‘‘One of the first things we did was to register the hall as a community asset,’’ explains Deighton. ‘‘It means that, if it were ever up for sale again, it would only be able to be sold to another community group.’’
The hall’s showstopper is its ballroom which hosts weekly yoga and arts & craft sessions, as well as bigger events (a glorious boozy art auction is what led to my first visit to the hall last year).
Centre manager, Kate McGeevor, only joined the team a few months ago but her passion for the space is contagious. ‘‘One of our big events this year was Herstories, a weekend dedicated to film screenings, workshops and art, all celebrating the history of women in Manchester. Putting on those events – community cinema, live music – is really important and the great thing about the hall is that there’s no end to what we can do.’’
Of course, cost always plays a part and while there is a modest team in place, the centre still relies on volunteers. Deighton tells me that local couple, Beryl and Sid, had their wedding ceremony at Stretford Public Hall more than 50 years ago and that their children came to the hall for theatre and dance classes. Sid, a retired electrician, was one of the first in line to help when the hall began its first phase of restoration in 2015.
A quick tour of the rest of the building and we stumble across an artist studio jam-packed with sculptures, paintings, mannequins and beautiful hand-crafted leather bags. It’s a wonderful den of creativity with every square inch covered with fabrics and pictures meant to inspire. Down the hallway, Lofthouse is the hall’s co-working space which caters more to young businesses and start-ups. I’m not surprised when McGeevor tells me that there’s a waiting list to sign-up.
So, what next for the historic venue? The next major project will be some much-needed structural work, including new toilets and better storage around the bar, as it strives to become a more attractive venue for hire (the plan being that the space will eventually be self-sufficient).
There are also whispers about the revival of the hall’s basement space, although McGeevor tells me that this is a long-term ambition. Running a building of its size requires ongoing maintenance – repairing rotting wood around the doors, maintaining period window-panes, as well as preserving the emerald green tiling in the foyer.
Because the hall has undergone so many different lives and restoration phases, one of the biggest challenges is deciding exactly which period it should be restored to. ‘’We’d like to restore the ballroom, but we know that it’s changed a lot over the years. Everyone wants the ballroom to look its best but there are varied opinions on the colours and styles of different periods,’’ says McGeevor. ‘‘Where do you go back to?’’
Stretford Public Hall is an emotive space for many people, a melting pot which brings together old-timers and younger generations, with just a hint of gentrification as the area continues to develop. The Sip Club recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, with Stretford Food Hall opening its doors imminently.
Whatever new life the hall takes in five or 50 years, it’s clear that it will always be a space for the community.
Images by Andrew Allcock