Building Secrets: London Road Fire Station

This 113-year-old building is one of the city's most striking and it's finally escaped its 30-year development nightmare.

By Ben Brown | Last updated 30 March 2020

Share this story

Anyone exiting Piccadilly Train Station out the ‘back exit’, you know – where all the taxis are – must be pretty impressed with what they see. First of all, there’s the excellent Bull’s Head Pub, packed to the rafters with characters and cold, fizzy lagers.

Right next to it though you’d be hard-pressed not to notice one of the city’s most impressive buildings – the London Road Fire Station, a structure that throughout its 113-year history has gone from glory to ruin and hopefully, if future plans are fulfilled, back to glory once again.

To get back to the beginning you’ll need to get in a little time machine and go all the way back to 1906, a year that saw the first ever feature film make an appearance, and a massive earthquake pretty much destroy the whole of San Francisco.

The safety of people in increasingly expanding cities was certainly a hot topic amongst politicians everywhere, and as such the London Road Fire Station was built at the cost of £142,000 (about £16.5m nowadays).

The Fire Station is certainly like nothing you’ll ever see today, with its Edwardian Baroque style terracotta exterior and huge open courtyard inside.

The reason for this is that this building was designed to house not just firefighters and carriages, but also act to as a community hub – being home to their families, an ambulance station, a police station and even a bank.

As a result, the building itself became its own enclosed community, where firefighters not only worked but lived, grew up and were educated.

Kids would be playing around on the balconies while their dads were training in the courtyard below and their mums were doing some washing (or something equally as assumptively sexist).

It could be said that the building also acted as one huge emergency service – being home to the police, ambulance and fire services – all ready to nip off at the drop of a top hat to sort something out in the city. Bloody heroes.

This operation continued up until the war, where the services became particularly useful during the often relentless bombing and air raids from the Nazis – especially during 1940 and the period that’s become known as the ‘Manchester Blitz’.

After the war, the building became a training centre before being turned into the headquarters of the Manchester Fire Brigade. However, due to the sheer size of the bloody thing, decline was already beginning to set in and by 1986 – the building was closed for good.

Sad news indeed.

The building was derelict, it was falling apart and there were probably about a million rats scurrying around the gutters inside. I can image a few vagabonds enjoyed a couple of nights’ sleep in here too, on their way to jumping on a train out of the city – or maybe that only happens in cartoons.

Anyway, the building had been purchased in 1986 by Britannia – you know the ones who own Sasha’s Hotel and the Britannia Hotel – and if we’re being honest, this was the beginning of some truly troubling times for the building.

You see – they’ve not got a very good track record with some of the city’s buildings, and their hotels – well, from personal experience, it’s probably for the best that you never have to stay a night in Sasha’s. Not if you value your dignity anyway.

The plan laid out by Britannia was simple. They’d transform the building into a hotel, footing the cost for repairs and regeneration of it, in return (presumably) for many years of successful operation and heads on pillows. The problem was – it never happened.

For nearly 30 years the Fire Station remained derelict, with the Council and Britannia taking part in some serious tit-for-tat wrangling over its future.

There were planning permissions issued to turn it into a 227 room hotel, there were Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) issued – and lost (to the tune of £1.4m in taxpayers money) and even a bit of “he said, she said” when some paperwork “went missing” in the Town Hall.

It was an absolute mess, with most people siding with the Council in a battle against a seemingly unprofessional and selfish developer, one that doesn’t value the history of the building and couldn’t give a rat’s arse about Manchester.

2015 saw Britannia finally decide to sell the property, a factor influenced most likely by the threat of a second CPO by council bosses, or maybe simply just to be rid of the bloody thing and the bad publicity. The baton has now passed onto Allied London who have some pretty impressive plans for the station.

Work is already well under way on “extensive detailed sympathetic and sensitive restoration works” on the site that will include a hotel, bars, restaurants, community uses and a museum. There’s also plans to house a new bar in the excavated courtyard, housed in a striking red pavilion.

Recent months have seen extensive cleaning of the building’s iconic façade, extensive chimney stack repairs and even the casting of period-accurate rainwater pipe brackets and replacement terracotta tiles.

They’re currently repairing the pretty battered roof, before moving onto the more extensive conversion works in 2020.

So, the future certainly looks bright for this long-abandoned building – and with the on-going regeneration works around Mayfield just across the way, this often forgotten and frankly rough end of town looks set to get a new lease of life. Great news indeed I say.

For more information on the London Road Fire Station restoration works click here.