When a prime piece of architecture was being allowed to deteriorate, squatting activists moved in. Ally Fogg reports on Manchester's Monastery campaign.
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pp. 22-23.
Wherever you are sitting as you read this, chances are you could throw a stone and hit an empty building.
In fact for many of Britain’s youth this is a popular hobby. Soon after the stones have hit the windows, the ‘tat’ merchants move in to liberate anything worth a quid or two. If this hasn’t happened in your street yet, it will soon. When it hits domestic housing, the effect is to reduce the numbers of homes available for immediate habitation and exacerbate the housing crisis. When it happens to some of the most beautiful, historical or plain old useful buildings in the country it is little short of a national scandal. Politicians say the answer is to lock up the kids who throw the stones. Sensible people say the answer is simply to stop the buildings from lying empty at all.
Empty buildings don’t come much more beautiful, historical or useful than St Francis Friary in Gorton, Manchester. They don’t come much bigger either. One hundred and thirty years old and designed by Edward Pugin, son of the architect of the Palace of Westminster, it has lain empty for six years. The building was officially built and run by Franciscan monks until 1990 but the history is one of community involvement. Begun in 1863, in 1871 the monastery was still an unfinished project so the monks staged the largest bazaar Manchester had ever seen to raise the cash for its completion. Fundraising continued, with the odd break, until 1980 when the roof and structure was repaired, the exterior was sand-blasted and the whole shebang was flogged off for £75K to be developed into luxury flats.
Not surprisingly locals felt robbed of their church, but worse was to come. The would-be developers, Zodeco, went bankrupt in 1994 without ever commencing the conversion. Liquidators Grant Thornton have been the owners ever since and the monastery was left to become another victim of stoning and ‘tatting’. And tat merchants come in all shapes and sizes. Twelve statues from the Friary were spotted in a Sotheby’s catalogue and, after a wrangle, bought back by the council for £23K. They had been professionally removed shortly before Zodeco went bust and stood for a year in the yard of a downmarket antique hypermarket nearby. They now stand in the Manchester Town Hall. No charges were ever brought for their illegal removal.
In this manner the monastery slowly crumbled. Lead, slate, marble, altars, cherubs and even stained glass windows were pinched from the building over the years. Empty Listed buildings lose value quickly until treasures become liabilities. More than a few cynics had noticed that should the building become a hazard to health and safety its Listed Building status would be affected. The land is almost certainly easier to develop into profit than the building. Many people began thinking that the best thing that could happen would be to knock it down before it fell down. Or they did until July 5th 1996 when a small group of activists decided to move in, put up their Section sixes and restore it themselves.
Cae was at school next door to the monastery in the late seventies. He remembers the fundraising well: “They always used to have this giant thermometer outside at between one and two hundred thousand. That was quite near the bottom. They got four or five in the end. ” Now in his late twenties and with a bigger beard, he was one of the first campaigners to move into the Friary in July. When I first visited shortly after they had taken residence, he showed me around and talked brightly about their plans. The whole building includes hundreds of rooms, all damaged but few irreparable; bedrooms, meeting rooms, offices, kitchens, a walled garden and acres of surrounding land all just crying out for some skilled hard labour. This alone could be a wonderful resource but it pales beside the great gothic church hall, or Nave. An extravagant, magnificent hall with an intricate towering altar flanked by stained glass windows, it remains breathtaking despite years of pillaging. One can only imagine its beauty before 1990. While I was there we disturbed some blokes hammering away behind the altar. Cae calmly informed them that the church was to be restored and they might like to leave now. Before they left they offered us ‘fifty quid for the stained glass window if you can get it out’.
The Monastery Campaign hoped to build up quietly, do some basic cleaning and sort out living accommodation, meet the neighbours and establish themselves in their new home before drawing too much attention to themselves. The police didn’t see it that way and on July 17th conducted their own eviction. Cae recalls: “We were actually securing the building against burglars when they arrived, they asked us what we were doing and we said ‘boarding up the windows’ and they said, ‘Oh no you’re not, get out’. We showed them our Section sixes and they thought we were joking. They threw us out, we phoned our solicitor who phoned the local nick and explained the housing law and we were back in by late afternoon. They hadn’t even changed the lock.”
The police have since relented, but the owners Grant Thornton have not. After ignoring the building for two years, they sprang into action. On Friday 26th July the monastery’s new occupants received word of eviction proceedings, the next sixteen hours ran as follows:
26/6/96 3.30pm Notice of eviction hearing posted on Monastery Wall, the court case is to be held four miles away in 30 minutes time.
26/6/96 4pm Judge dismisses defence’s claim that they did not have time to prepare a case and orders eviction from the monastery and its grounds.
27/6/96 7.30am Under Sheriff Andrew Wilson, architect of evictions at the M65, M66, Selar and countless other protests, arrives with bailiffs, police and a representative of Grant Thornton. The activists are evicted from the building but are then left with their possessions in the car park. Undeterred, they stick up a tent and settle down until further notice.
By Monday the monastery is receiving extensive local and some national media coverage.
The local councillor backs the campaign and the Council Planning Department promises to protect the building from deliberate damage. The activists are no longer inside but they are doing more to protect the monastery than ever. The campaign is now in full view of the neighbours, and without exception they support the activists with words or physical help.
Grant Thornton justify the eviction by saying they would be liable for injuries sustained by anyone on their premises. They say they cannot protect the church from vandals without hiring 24 hour security. They do not mention that they have already hired 24 hour security to protect the church from the people who want to make it safe and habitable.
A week later, August 5th, I return to find the camp in relaxed mood. Untroubled by police, and with the local papers now running ‘Save the Monastery’ style headlines, the campaign is now entering into discussions with Grant Thornton about the future for the building, and are optimistic about their chances of being allowed access again. A brainstorming session with local people threw up 20 or so suggestions ranging from OAP dances and theatre performances to an organic vegetable distribution point. The greatest wish is that it should become whatever the local people want it to be. It was the local community who helped build the church and it was the same community who kept it repaired for over a century. Now they are claiming what is rightfully theirs.
This campaign is different to many DIY activist squats. The modest name for their group, ‘The Monastery Campaign’ says it all. Cae insists that in all their plans, the ultimate goal is to be positive.
“There’s nothing personal here, we’re not interested in blaming Grant Thornton or the Monks or anybody else for what’s happened here, it’s history. What we’ve got to do now is persuade the owners that it is in their long term interests to let us in on a permanent lease or a 100 year mortgage or whatever it takes. The only thing that matters is the monastery. This building should be here for a long time yet, because that’s the way it was built.
“What it needs is respect and not neglect, and I think the people on this campaign and their supporters are the only people showing the monastery any respect. Any work we do on the monastery is to preserve it, improve it and protect it. If we take five years to do this up and then the local people decide they don’t like it, I’m quite prepared to spend another five years doing it again, I just want to show that it can be done. I’m just sick of feeling useless in a city full of useful things.”
It is tempting to conclude that there is nothing to stop them but their imaginations. If only this were so. The story of the monastery has always been one of money, and this will not change. Consider this: the eviction notices delivered to the campaign were delivered by a solicitor working as an agent for another solicitor working for an accountancy and liquidation firm working for a bank. Somebody is making money here. The Monastery Campaign has no money to speak of, only skills, time, energy and determination. But for the receivers, stuck with a rapidly devaluing liability, this might just be the best offer they get.
The Monastery Campaign can be contacted on (0161) 907 3123.
E-Mail: Cae Gests@xtml.u-net.com
WWW pages at http://www.manchester.com/organisations/monastery/ (offline)