From 'No Go' Zones to Bohemian Utopia: What Happened to Hulme's Notorious 'Crescents'?

The story of the notorious Crescents of Hulme, and how such an unmitigated disaster unfolded.

By Ben Brown | February 15th '22

From almost immediate structural and design faults, through to serious crime, unnecessary deaths, poverty and eventually demolition, the whole ‘Crescents’ chapter is a serious black spot in Manchester’s history, one that tarnished the growth and development of the city for a whole generation.

But what exactly happened? What’s the story behind Hulme’s notorious Crescents?

Well, let’s take a look at where they came from, what happened and just why the people of Hulme still remember these concrete monstrosities with anger, but also, a certain amount of sentimentality.

200 Years of Development in Hulme

The development of Hulme can be roughly categorised into three distinct time periods when the inherent structure and shape of the suburb was changed dramatically in response to key factors in the wider city.

The first stage came back during the Industrial Revolution, where Hulme grew from a tiny village on the outskirts of the city, into a densely packed housing estate for the poor workers of Manchester’s mills and warehouses.

The area became home to a mass of uniform, Victorian terraced slums, a direct response to the rapid, almost uncontrollable growth that the city was experiencing at the time.

The second phase came after the Second World War, where local authorities and councils were looking to clear the Victorian ‘slums’ across the country, many of which had been ravaged by the Blitz, but also had outgrown their use as serious housing for the modern family.

Seven Sisters, Rochdale

The word ‘utopia’ was flying around hundreds of council buildings across the country, as the slums were demolished to make way for modern housing developments, many of them high-rise flats designed by promising young architects influenced by Le Corbusier’s urban planning ideals and a Brutalist method that utilised the flexibility (and economy) of concrete.

It’s during this second stage when the Crescents were built, but then, just 21 years after people moved in – they were unceremoniously pulled down, to make way for the third stage in the 1990s.

The Quest for ‘Utopia’

The post war years of the 50s and 60s saw a huge ‘housing boom’ across the UK, and Manchester was no different. Even though plans for change were drawn up in the immediate years after WWII, it wasn’t until the late 60s that things started to move in Hulme.

At the time the project was to become the largest public housing development in Europe, taking the desolate grimy houses and manky streets and turning them into a modern estate with the Crescents as the centrepiece.

The Council roped in architects Hugh Wilson and J. L. Womersley to design them, the latter a man responsible for the awful Park Hill Estate in Sheffield (called by locals ‘San Quentin’ after the notorious prison in California) and later – the Manchester Arndale building with its vomit-yellow tiles.

The design of the Crescents was intended to strive towards utopian ideals; not just providing decent housing but also to honour and foster community in the area. Each flat was adorned with its very own private balcony, rooms were built inward so as to protect from noise outside and the decks were designed as to allow milk floats to drive by.

The landscaped communal areas were intended for public use and contained play areas and trees, alongside the eventual arrival of shops, churches and public amenities that would ensure that the people living there could exist free from traffic.

Construction Begins

The diggers and concrete mixers moved into the area in 1968, and by 1972 they had built 918 dwellings across four, huge u-shaped blocks, all surrounded by green space.

Hulme’s original shopping street was gone – no longer necessary – and the development was served with ‘deck access’ fostering a “neighbourly spirit” and allowing the scheme to save money – reducing the need for expensive lifts that would always break down.

Richard Davis // British Culture Archives

It’s clear now though that the construction of the Crescents was an unmitigated disaster, one which was exacerbated with a constant need to save money – both from the local authority and construction companies.

The Council wanted to build big and build fast, but in doing so they hired construction companies of which there were people high up who were certainly reaping the rewards from cutting some serious corners.

There was a complete lack of quality control measures in place, shoddy workmanship and atrocious supplies used. Pockets were lined while substandard plumbing and insulation was used, and it wasn’t long until the cost-cutting became clear for all to see.

It wasn’t just the construction of the Crescents which was sub-standard though, the design was terrible too – again, most of the decisions came down to saving money.

Plans for gas-fired central heating were jettisoned in favour of a system of underfloor heating, and the demolition of the dense street layout of Hulme, in favour of huge open spaces, clearly segregated the population of the Crescents from the rest of the city.

And thus, after a very brief honeymoon period, in which tenants were shown to actively be “proud” of their new, modern housing – things started to turn sour. Really sour.

The Most Deprived Estate in Manchester

Only two years after opening, Manchester City Council deemed the Crescents unsuitable for families and the housing scheme became adult-only. This was in response to the death of a 5-year-old after they fell off a balcony ledge.

By this point, tenants had noticed severe condensation in their houses, a result of poor insulation and ventilation, and vermin was quickly spreading through the estate’s damp under floor heating, the perfect environment for cockroaches and rats to thrive amongst.

The new addition of the Mancunian Way and Princess Parkway further isolated the estate from the rest of the city, creating an almost separate state – one that was cut off from everyone else and free to govern themselves.

Add to this the 1973 oil crisis which saw fuel prices rise 6x, meaning most residents couldn’t even keep warm in their houses – and what transpired was a melting pot of crime, destruction and essentially  the social breakdown of the entire estate.

The police quickly saw the Crescents as a ‘no-go’ zone, especially up on the upper decks, and response times to crimes and injuries were diabolically bad due to the design and sprawl of the area.

Abandonment & Alternatives

By the early 1980s, the Crescents had become such a state that the Council decided to simply stop charging people for rent, although they’d still provide electricity for people who needed it.

The Council themselves lacked the funds to actually demolish the estate, and thus simply washed their hands of the entire debacle – leaving tenants to themselves. And, as a result, a whole section of subcultures and movements began springing up in the area – free from any outside influences or restrictions.

Richard Davis // British Culture Archives

The young, the poor, students and the unemployed flocked to the area – creating an almost unfathomable series of vibrant subcultures – all under the umbrella of ‘Planet Hulme’; “a modernist utopia decaying, gone crumbled and decadent.”

Squat parties were a common sight, and the notorious PSV Club in the area later became the birthplace of what was to become Factory Records. There was ‘The Kitchen’ slap-bang in the centre of the Crescents; three flats that had been knocked through to create a club that was like nothing people had ever seen before, or since.

By this point, the endless concrete walls had proven the perfect canvas for many of the city’s street artists, and the estate had its own clubs, own cinema and hundreds of creatives and movements.

The area was attracting artists from all over the UK, alongside MCs who got the chance to play on the ragtag sound systems dotted throughout, and everyone else in between; poets, photographers, political movements – you name it – it was happening in Hulme Crescents in the 80s.

Demolition & Redevelopment (Again)

Alas, like most things – it was not to last and in 1991 the council had managed to get themselves a loan off the government to knock the entire Crescents to the ground.

Over the next 3 years, the Crescents were pulled down willy-nilly, wherever there was an empty flat it was pulled down, until everyone had left and just rubble and the odd rusty washing machine and burnt out Ford Escort was left.

It was now the turn to replace the Crescents, and this time the Council seemingly learnt their lesson from the past. The redevelopment of Hulme began in earnest almost immediately with extensive input from residents, many of whom advocated the return to traditional terraced and semi-detached housing to the area.

The buzzword was ‘partnership’ and with the housing department working closely with housing associations and tenants, the elements of the new estate slowly came together.

Tenants wanted the new Hulme to have “more houses than flats, gardens, lots of greenery and safe areas for children”, and, wielding an unprecedented amount of power after the failures of the Crescents – tenants got what they wanted.

The ceiling at Kim’s

The £400 million redevelopment scheme has been deemed by many to be a huge success, completely changing the streets of the suburb once again. But the spirit of Hulme, of its people and communities still endures – and that’s something that makes Hulme one of the very best places to live and visit in the city today.

Finally, if you want to know more about the Crescents, perhaps chat to some of the people who lived and grew up in them, I suggest a visit to the fantastic Kim’s Kitchen on Old Birley St. Not only does it have a birds-eye view of the notorious Crescents on their ceiling – but you’ll always find a friendly gang of Hulme locals ready for a chat and a laugh.