The incredible 30-year transformation of Manchester captured on camera

1997: The Shambles is demolished around the Old Wellington and Sinclairs pubs before they are dismantled and moved.

Most adults dread turning 30-years-old. But Len Grant will always look back on entering his third decade rather fondly.

It was at this age he decided to quit his uninspiring sales job and swap it for something he loved: Photography.

It was a bold move, especially given how there was very little to shoot.

Manchester in 1990 was a dry patch for a budding photographer. Snappers on the Hacienda beat had their hands full, but other lensmen were hard pushed to find picturesque scenes in the city worthy of publication.

New Islington and Ancoats May 2005

Springtime of that year saw photographers flock to capture prisoners rebelling on the roof during The Strangeways Riots, but the day-to-day surroundings offered little else in terms of inspiration.

Manchester looked tired; and not even the kindest camera could cheer up its forgotten inner-city neighbourhoods.

Castlefield was barren. Ancoats was a ghost town. New Islington was little more than a cluster of houses known as the Cardroom Estate. Hulme even had stray dogs scampering through its dilapidated Crescents tower block.

2002: The Cardroom Estate before its demolition to make way for New Islington.
1994: The indoor arena next to Victoria Station takes shape.

Change was coming, citizens were assured. But it would be some time before Manchester was remoulded. 

Until then, Len decided he would photograph the people planning these changes. Architects, entrepreneurs, town hall officers, developers, landowners, city councillors. Everyone and anyone set to play a role in Manchester’s forthcoming transformation.

His resulting exhibition, City Shapers, was displayed at the Arndale. It was his first big break. But it also created crucial contacts – meaning Len was given a front row seat whenever a new curtain was raised anywhere in the city. And he’d always take his camera with him.

Three decades on, Len has amassed the largest and most significant collection of images of Manchester’s amazing transformation. No other anthology contains as many photos across such a scope. For the first time ever, we have a bigger picture of the regeneration story.

The Fallowfield photographer is now publishing an upcoming book – in which he plans to showcase these incredible photographs to the world.

He’s got a big target to hit, but the demand is clearly there. £6,000 has already flooded in since the kickstarter was launched – and Len’s still campaigning fiercely to ensure the pictures go to print.

“I’ve been very lucky at being in the right place at the right time,” the humble photographer tells The Manc. 

“There was very little in Manchester before the nineties.

“If people came to visit me around that time, I’d take them to Liverpool for a day out. There were things to do there.

“But in the early 90s, things were starting to happen. Manchester was starting to look to find a way out of its post-industrial past.”

1994: The Nynex Arena under construction.
1998: The interior of Maxwell house was ripped out leaving just the facade, behind which The Printworks was built.

After getting up close and personal with many of the heavy hitters calling the shots on Manchester’s future, Len saw the blueprints unravelling right before his lens – and he was there to capture the changes when they came.

According to Len, it was the hard-headed approach of Manchester City Council that set off the regeneration domino effect.

“Manchester City Council were quite pragmatic about who they worked with,” he explains.

“For instance, in the eighties in Liverpool, the council were militant and against the Tory government.

“But in Manchester, it was much more pragmatic. There was an organisation called the Central Manchester Development Corporation which was a government quango, and MCC worked with them to do the best for the city rather than to score political points – so that was quite significant.

At the turn of the decade, Manchester was packed out with car parks and brownfield sites – which meant there was ample space for planning opportunities.

“Slowly but surely, there were pots of money to be able to do things,” Len explains.

“The CMDC put money into building Bridgewater Hall and the surrounding area of Castlefield – which was very run down back then; nobody went there.”

Bridgewater Hall under construction, 1994
1997: The Shambles is demolished around the Old Wellington and Sinclairs pubs before they are dismantled and moved.
1998: The Quays Theatre under construction at The Lowry. No Imperial War Museum North or MediaCity yet.
1998: Stell framework of The Printworks following the demolition of Maxwell House.

Len has cited the construction of the Bridgewater Hall in 1995 as being one of the most pivotal moments in the regeneration of the city.

Not only was it Manchester’s first civic building since the 1930s, it was also a sign that things could – and were – starting to happen. 

“I had a conversation with the council leader at the time, Graham Stringer, and he told me there were only two surviving photos of the town hall being built,” Len remembers.  

“He was quite aware that Manchester was on the cusp of new change and wanted it to be documented sufficiently.”

Len was the man to photograph this transformation in all its glory, seizing the opportunity to get involved whenever new finance came flooding in for local projects. 

Change from that point on was steady but scattered – with some development even being driven by disaster. 

Len recalls that Hulme won a much-needed pot of City Challenge money to redevelop the area after the inner city riots of the eighties, and finance was also made available for the city centre after the 1996 IRA bomb. 

“Crucially, the city council and the private sector actually took this opportunity to work closely together – something Manchester is very good at – to bring about key renovation of the city centre at a difficult time,” he explains. 

“Later, towards the turn of the millennium, there was money available from the National Lottery too, through the Millennium Commission. 

“Projects like The Lowry in Salford Quays were only made possible by the dogged determination of people at Salford City Council to make that money come in.”

2002: New Islington. Residents of the old Cardoom estate discuss plans for what will become New Islington.
2004: The demolition of Maine Road football ground.

From 2000 onwards, East Manchester enjoyed tremendous change. It was sorely needed after being neglected for so long, despite the area’s influential history.

An industrial powerhouse during the 18th century, Ancoats was the place that gave birth to Manchester’s first social housing development – with the construction of Victoria Square in 18964-97. 

But when the block was completed, the rents were too expensive for the people it was originally intended for, and the area plunged into economic decline during the 1930s. 

Following the war, East Manchester was essentially abandoned by everyone but its residents. 

“Ancoats, Beswick, Clayton, Openshaw – you’d have never needed to go into those areas in the early nineties,” says Len. 

“There was nothing there for you to go and see. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere, either. 

“When I first started photographing in Ancoats in 2002/03, the streets were dead and if you ever came across anybody you’d kind of worry you’d have your camera taken off you. 

“Not many people crossed Great Ancoats Street into Ancoats from the Northern Quarter in those days.”

“I’ve really enjoyed how Ancoats has changed. It’s just phenomenal looking at it now. It’s only when you see photos with the mills in them that you’re able to determine it’s the same place.”

2006: St Peters Church before Cutting Room Square is built and before The Smiths Arms is demolished.
2006: The New islington canal arm and the creation of Cotton Fields.
2009: Royals Mills, Ancoats during its refurbishment

Whilst sketching in Cutting Room Square one afternoon, Len got talking with a man who’d lived in the area for many years. 

He expected the resident to be nostalgic for the past, as so many of us often are – but he was besotted with Ancoats 2.0. Nostalgia was no competitor for the shiny new space – which he recognised had given the area a whole new lease of life. 

Len started his career by photographing people – and he has maintained that focus to this day. His interest in human subjects, and how their lives have been affected by the ever-changing skyline, has remained a key part of his work. 

“I think those stories can be lost sometimes,” Len tells us.

“Which is what my book will help to cover.” 

He has seen both the good and bad sides of regeneration, and whilst most of the changes have been positive, Len is hoping that further development does not come at the cost of loosened community connections. 

“We might be continuing to build, but how much effort are we putting into communities?” he asks. 

“I hope that’s being considered. After all, it’s the people who make Manchester so great. 

“During adversity, the strength of Manchester comes to the surface. We see that again and again. It’s even happening right now – with people in inner-city communities helping one another during coronavirus and supporting the most vulnerable. 

“Many people who come to Manchester call themselves ‘adopted Mancunians’. I love how people give themselves that tag. 

“I wonder how many other places around the country you’d call yourself adopted?”

You can learn more about Len’s incredible Regeneration Manchester project online.

You can pre-order his book now – which will be ready by November, just in time for Christmas. 

It will be money well spent, indeed. Stories about Manchester don’t come much better than this.

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