Building Secrets: The Lost Botanical Gardens of Manchester

I went to that big Iceland Food Warehouse in Old Trafford a while back and something caught my eye.

By Ben Brown | 8 March 2022

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No, it wasn’t frozen party foods or 3x Dr Oetker pizzas for £2, it was in fact a strange white-washed wall just sitting there in the car park.

Once I got home, and while my Bernard Matthews Turkey Drumsticks were in the oven, I looked it up – only to discover that the retail park now sits on what was once some rather splendid Botanical Gardens – gardens that stood there for around 50 years before being unceremoniously ripped down and lost forever.

Back in the mid-1800s, it seemed that gardens were all the rage, with some pretty impressive attractions popping up just on the outskirts of the city. At this point in time the centre Manchester was a complete shit hole – much, much worse than it could ever be today – and that’s saying something from someone who has to walk through Piccadilly Gardens pretty much every day!

The city was in the depths of the Industrial Revolution, with thousands flocking to the dirty, packed streets each year to live and work in the factories and warehouses, and it’s around this time that a certain Friedrich Engels even went so far as to call it “Hell upon Earth.

As a consequence of the disgusting state of the inner city, a few industrious blokes decided to create botanical gardens in the suburbs as a way for people to escape the pollution, smog and shite and get back to nature a little bit. To say that they were successful is probably an understatement.

There was ‘Strawberry Gardens ‘ an idyllic escape on Pomona Island, filled to the brim with flowers, gardens and activities, Belle Vue Zoological Gardens with a whole host of exotic creatures and oddities, and this – the Manchester Botanical Gardens at Old Trafford.

The gardens were home to the Manchester Botanical and Horticultural Society, with the 16-acre site being conveyed by Thomas Joseph Trafford to John Holy Stanway for its use as “gardens for the recreation of the citizens of Manchester” and also to “further the scientific discipline of botany and horticulture…”

The assembled team actually spoke to the famous scientist John Dalton to ask him where they should put the gardens – and he recommended Old Trafford to the south of the city – for the sole reason that the prevailing winds carried the city’s pollution (and awful stench) eastward and away. Very scientific there John boy!

By 1839 the gardens were coming along swimmingly, with some very impressive specimens of trees and shrubs, an extensive arboretum, fruits, flowers and conservatories.

The central conservatory was over 40 feet high and extended some 321 feet in length – this thing was massive! It housed many rare and beautiful specimens of plants that had been collected from all corners of the Empire.

Elsewhere around the gardens visitors would find an ornamental lake, a rockery, extensive lawns and even a fruit garden – although ripping apples off the trees was probably frowned upon as much as it is today.

The gardens played host to a series of exhibitions over the years, including the UK’s Art Treasures’ Exhibition of 1857 which attracted a whopping 1.3 million visitors in just 142 days, and the Exhibition of Art, Science & Industry of 1887.

Lasting 192 days, the exhibition of 1887 was attended by around 5 million people – a huge feat and one which was helped by the construction of a new main building with a 140ft high central dome and over 1000 feet in length.

This was seemingly a last successful hurrah for the gardens though, as quickly after the exhibition they fell into financial difficulties due to seriously declining attendance. Much like the Royal Pomona Palace just down the road, the gardens were losing out to the much more successful Belle Vue Zoo – who actually had tigers and zebras and stuff to look at instead of boring flowers and grass.

Another reason for the decline in numbers heading to the gardens was the movement of many of the city’s middle classes into the suburbs, such as Didsbury and Alderley Edge, where they could get back to nature themselves, and take advantage of the wide-open spaces and newly constructed (and free) public parks.

After a last-minute attempt to get the Council to buy the gardens, much like when Ian Beale got on his hands and knees in front of Phil Mitchell to save himself from going bankrupt, the gardens were dead. Set to wither away and be forgotten forever.

The site was sold to a company called White City Limited in 1907 who turned it into an amusement park and dog track. But that’s a story for another day.

So next time you’re at Iceland, go and check out that weird white wall just at the far end of the car park, which, 185 years ago started life as the glorious main entrance to the Manchester Botanical Gardens. Get some Turkey Twizzlers too – they’re BACK!