Fire on Oldham Street, Dobbin’s drapers and general outfitters

Fire hydrant on Tib StreetAnother small part of Manchester’s heritage went up in flames on 11th April when a former department store caught fire on Oldham Street.

Fire fighters had been tackling the blaze for several hours when I shot these pictures just after 8pm. The street was closed off and people had been evacuated from neighbouring buildings.

Flames could be seen in upper windows at the back while smoke billowed out from the front.

Fire on Oldham StreetFire on Oldham StreetFire on Oldham Street
Two police officers look on as fire fighters tackle the blaze in Oldham StreetTwo police officers look on as fire fighters tackle the blaze in Oldham Street

You can see a birds-eye view of the building here on Bing Maps.

This is how the building looked back in October 2004. The art-deco frontage dates from 1937 when it was a drapers and general outfitters known as Dobbin’s Limited.

The store in October 2004The store in October 2004The store in October 2004

Mr and Mrs J. Dobbin opened their first shop in Manchester around 1917 and a decade later moved to Oldham Street. This ad is from an edition of the Manchester Guardian in 1934.

An ad from the Manchester Guardian in 1934An ad from the Manchester Guardian in 1934

In June 1937 the Guardian reported that reconstruction work had started on the store. Accommodation was to be increased nearly five-fold and would include a cafe with seating for 400 people.

The article describes how externally the main feature would be five tall windows. These would reach from the first floor to the top and would be separated from the flooring internally. The aim being more light during the day and the inside lighting visible from the street at night. These windows are what we see today. William Dootson of Heaton Moor designed the reconstruction, according to the newspaper.

Comments on Flickr, apparently posted by a descendent of the Dobbin family, suggest that the shop was damaged in the Manchester blitz. A contemporary map held by the John Rylands University Library seems to show that fire bombs (red dots) damaged buildings nearby. I’ve marked the Dobbin’s building itself in yellow.

World War II bomb damage on Oldham Street

Here’s the whole map for Manchester city centre. Fire bombs are red dots, high explosives are blue dots and line mines are green dots. The red shaded buildings were destroyed, while pink shaded buildings were damaged but still standing.

As I took photographs last week parts of the building could be heard collapsing inside. So the future doesn’t look bright. Especially as this is Oldham Street — the most run-down part of the city centre.

It wasn’t always this way. A century ago, Oldham Street was one of the smartest shopping streets. But, after the Arndale Centre opened in the 1970s, there were probably far too many shops. When I moved to Manchester in 1982 there was still a Boots the Chemist at the Great Ancoats Street end and Woolworths stood on the junction with Piccadilly. But soon those had gone too (the former Woolworths building is being gutted internally as I write this).

More recently the Street has seen a little bit of a renaissance as part of the Northern Quarter, with interesting, independent shops and the much-loved Affleck’s Palace around the corner (although even that was nearly lost a couple of years ago). But a lot of Oldham Street remains tacky and run down.

A few doors along from the Dobbins building are the dilapidated remains of Abel Heywood’s bookshop, seen here in 1910 and here’s how it looks now. The shop to the far left was a Marks and Spencer’s Penny Bazaar at one time. Note the ugly mix of architectural styles to the right, which is typical of modern Manchester and gives the city a tacky appearance in many places.


Empty shops on King Street in April 2013

You might think that Manchester’s planners would have learnt their lesson from what happened to Oldham Street. But across the city centre the same thing seems to be happening to King Street.

I wrote about this five years ago. Many shops are now empty. Some have fled to the Trafford Centre because of the recession, parking charges, unrealistic rents and sky-high business rates.

But also it seems to be part of a longer term trend of the immediate surrounding area, and indeed city centre as a whole, moving downmarket and becoming less cultural. It’s odd but even in the grim years of the 1980s there was a certain buzz and “classy” feeling about Manchester city centre. That seems to have gone.

Could King Street be the Oldham Street of 2025? With secondhand shops and dereliction?

UPDATE (28 April 2013)

Demolition of the former Dobbins shop, Oldham Street, Manchester

This was the sad scene on 26 April. The top end of Oldham Street is closed off as they demolish the buildings that were damaged in the fire.

Sad unless you’re a property developer… In which case it could be a wet dream come true. Three old buildings obliterated and the chance to throw up another block of shoddy apartments.

Though, as Manchester’s most interesting and historic buildings continue to be neglected, reduced to rubble or damaged permanently by unsympathetic, trendy renovation, who will want to live in this city or visit in the future?

But I expect most people will just keep on shopping and voting Labour locally. After all, 40 years in power isn’t much time to get things right!

As is often the case, demolition gives us a glimpse into the history of the building. The comments on Flickr mention a front to back glass ceiling above a restaurant and ballroom. That’s what we seem to be able to see here.

Demolition reveals glass roof at the former Dobbins shopDemolition reveals glass roof at the former Dobbins shopDemolition reveals glass roof at the former Dobbins shop

Below: typical 1930s riveted box girders lie in a pile of rubble alongside the tangled remains of metal art-deco window frames.

Box girders and the remains of the metal art-deco window frames


  • John Reece says:

    I am the only Grandson of Mr Dobbin and last surviving family member
    Yes it is sad but I was told the council were going to keep the Fasade

  • Geoff says:

    We used to live in Bury, manchester until 2006. I’ve not been back long enough to spend time walking past old haunts, and no doubt shaking our heads in disbelief at the rapid change that seemingly has occurred . Well, time to rectify all of this so visit is in the offing in the next few weeks’ time.

  • Geoff says:

    Its appalling as to what happened to this old building. Is there any chance of the facade being rebuilt and returned to its former,elegant, self?
    I seem to remember it was a supermarket/general store in the mid 1980’s when I was a student or am I mistaken?

  • Lewis says:

    From June 1940, the Manchester branch of the Post and Telegraphic Censorship office was based in this building.

    My grandmother was based there and wrote about being based in the basement on the roof as a fire watcher during the blitz – ready to put out any flames that threatened the building.

    It’s eerie looking at the photo of it burning up the top, after recently looking at so many photos of Manchester burning in 1940.

    It’s a pity grandma wasn’t there in 2013

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