A Lunatic Asylum, The Berlin Wall & Spice: What Happened to Piccadilly Gardens?

Imagine yourself as a visitor to the city of Manchester for the first time.

By Ben Brown | 10 August 2021

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You get off the train at Manchester Piccadilly and you’re confronted with a nice, modern station that’s clean, easy to navigate and does a great Whopper in the Burger King.

Exiting, you walk down Piccadilly Approach towards where your guide book tells you is the centre of the city. Passing loads of people coming-and-going along the way, you end up right in the middle of Piccadilly Gardens and think “WTF is going on with this place?!”

There’s buses, trams, muddy grass, gangs of teenagers, a few homeless people asking for change, a fella on a megaphone talking about Jesus, someone is fighting outside Morrisons, kids are running in the fountains even though it’s barely 10°C and the people of Manchester seemingly go about their business undeterred by the chaos unfolding all around them.

How did it come to this? What exactly happened to Piccadilly Gardens, and was it ever really the central garden ‘oasis’ that rose-tinted glasses seemingly portray it to be? Let’s take a look shall we…

We’re going to start the whole story off by talking about Daub Holes. Back in the 1700s, the area where the gardens are was home to boggy, clay pits known as Daub Holes (‘Daub’ was mud, clay, or ‘excrement’, used in 18th century construction). Women that were suspected of scandalous behavior were actually dunked into these 615-foot-long pits!

By around 1755 though, the Lord of the Manor – who owned the land – grew bored of torturing women and decided to replace the muddy holes with something a little bit nicer – a lovely ornamental pond intended for public use.

However, it wasn’t just a pond that he installed in the space, nope – he decided to build the Manchester Royal Infirmary on there – an 80-bed hospital that was joined by the Royal Lunatic Asylum in 1763.

For just shy of 100 years the hospital and loony bin stood on the site – and in an era when rehabilitation for the mentally ill just didn’t exist – most patients were admitted and then locked up and forgotten for the rest of their lives.

During this time, the area surrounding the hospital and asylum weren’t exactly known for being picturesque, and that pond that was made by the ‘Lord’ – well, in 1892 passers-by noticed a dog barking into the waters. Initially ignoring the mutt, it wasn’t until an inquisitive coach driver pulled up and investigated the waters whereupon the body of a woman was found.

It was Winifred Hughes, a young woman who had filled her pockets with rocks and committed suicide in the pond after finding out that she was pregnant out of wedlock. One of the undoubtedly many grim stories that emanated from the area and it’s adjoining asylum over the years.

By 1849 the lunatic asylum was moved to Cheadle and later became the Cheadle Royal Hospital, while the Infirmary moved to Oxford Road in 1908 and is now part of the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, alongside Saint Mary’s. Both buildings were razed to the ground, to make may for the largest open green space in the city centre.

Piccadilly Gardens officially opened in 1914 after years in which the Manchester Corporation tried to decide on how to develop the site.

Utilising the old hospital’s foundations and basement, they created a series of sunken gardens, as well as making it home to The Manchester Public Free Library Reference Department before it’s move to Manchester Central Library when it opened in 1934.

By this point the gardens were being enjoyed by hundreds of people every day in the city, and when you see pictures of the sunken gardens it looks really rather nice – certainly much better than the concrete monstrosity that awaits us today.

But was it really the tranquil oasis that many think it was before the renovation at the turn of the Millennium?

I remember being a kid, back in the early 90s, and Piccadilly Gardens even then was generally considered a no-go zone.

Well, it was certainly rough and my mum would tell me not to go to that end of town when I started going into Manchester with my mates on our own. I do remember getting chased off some ‘bigger boys’ once, and also vividly remember a particularly grim visit to to Lewis’s Department Store during its slow decline.

That’s just my anecdotal experience however, and it’s clear that many people out there consider the 2002 renovation to be the start of the severe downfall of the gardens, and when most of the problems began.

I must say that before then the surroundings of Piccadilly Gardens weren’t exactly up to snuff either. Piccadilly Plaza became an under-used and almost derelict corner, as it slowly decayed after its heyday in the early 70s. Similarly, Lewis’ popularity was waning in the 80s and 90s, and the bus station was always a particularly grim place to find oneself.

I can therefore see what the Council were looking to do with the Gardens when they set up an international competition for the redesign of the area – and with Bruntwood buying (and injecting some serious cash into) Piccadilly Plaza, things were looking up.

As part of the renovation plans was a pavilion designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, one which would create a physical and visual barrier between the gardens and the unsightly bus terminal.

Plans were also submitted for the construction of a huge building on the eastern edge of the square, One Piccadilly Gardens, which was set to introduce some much-needed office space into the city centre, as well as provide units for retail and leisure on the ground floor.

The sunken gardens were gone, replaced by a flat design incorporating grassy areas, paths and a large water feature – the fountains that so many young kids and the odd pissed up adult enjoy during the 3 days of sunshine we get every year. All of this was built around the area’s existing infrastructure and statues and monuments – and the numerous Grade-II listed buildings.

Almost instantly the plans came under fire for its “cold, modernistic” design, with the concrete pavilion and the ‘Berlin Wall’ coming under particular flak from well, pretty much everyone really. The grass in the gardens is constantly in need of re-turfing at a cost to the taxpayer, and One Piccadilly Gardens proved to be controversial due to the simple fact that it blocks a ton of sunlight into the gardens.

So it’s all been a bit of a mess really, and subsequent tweaks and changes to the area over the last 20 years haven’t improved much. Piccadilly Gardens certainly lives up to it’s negative reputation as a unsightly and often dodgy part of town that’s riddled with crime, homelessness, drugs and constant anti-social behavior.

Knocking the Berlin Wall did very little to improve the area, the addition of a mobile police station didn’t do much and the improvement and re-generation of several surrounding buildings and areas around the gardens haven’t made much of an impact on the central space itself.

So it’s no surprise that the Council have launched another international competition – looking for architects and designers to completely change, improve and renovate the area – all to the sum of a hefty £25m.

This being Manchester’s Finest though, we always like to look for the positives in things, and Piccadilly Gardens is no exception.

In amongst the dirt and crime are some truly excellent venues and a few rays of sunlight peeking through. The Piccadilly Gardens Markets for example, taking place every Wednesday – Sunday are fantastic – and feature some mightily impressive street food traders including Rita’s Reign Caribbean Food, Simply Delicious Indian Food and Mia’s Arepas.

There’s Bundobust, an outstanding Indian street food restaurant, that Jan Bing place near Burger King, Franco Manca do a cracking Neapolitan pizza, and that new British Heart Foundation charity shop is one of the best the city has seen for a long time.

Also new is Vegan Shack, tucked away round the back of One Piccadilly Gardens, and the always dependable Foundation Coffee House standing proud facing the gardens on Portland Street.

Finally, the impending arrival of a Five Guys on the corner of Oldham Street, where the Yorkshire Building Society used to be is a step in the right direction, as is the upcoming hotel from Cristiano Ronaldo set on the corner of Newton Street.

So hopefully with a brand-new look, some new businesses into the area and effective schemes and policies that helps reduce crime and homelessness in the city – the future looks bright for Piccadilly Gardens. And frankly, ask anyone who lives here in Manchester and they will tell you – it couldn’t come soon enough.