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Trompe l'oeil wallpaper border
Jenny Walker: the London Road Project

In 2018 I was the recipient of the Merryl Huxtable prize to support my continued creative investigation of an iconic but derelict building in Manchester. The intention was to collate an archive of wallpaper samples from the site, but I knew these papers were not high status finds. However I did believe this was a special place under a unique set of circumstances, and the wallpapers were testament to a community’s history that were in danger of being lost.

layers of wallpaper

‘If you look at how many people have gone past this building over the years, and how many people have actually been in it, there won’t be a lot and they won’t have known what was going on in here…London Road was not just a fire station but a community. You have got to remember that the city was a totally different place to what it is now, this was the only residential community within the city centre…’ *

 

This place was London Road Fire Station. Completed in 1906, it was the Manchester Fire Brigade Headquarters until 1974 and was one of the busiest fire stations in the country in one of the world’s busiest industrial cities. The dramatic architecture, dynamic action and prominent location meant that life through the building was keenly observed and it quickly became a regional landmark.

 

But London Road was more than just a place of work; it was home to hundreds of fire service families over its working life, creating a unique ‘township’ in the heart of the city. Firemen lived ‘on the station’, a term stemming from the brigade’s naval origins, and much as sailors living on board a ship, they lived, worked and played in close proximity. This notion of a self-contained world where home is work, work is community and community is the essence of home and identity is perhaps difficult to appreciate unless you have lived it. 

With some exceptions London Road was in the main a fairly transient population. Tenants moved in and out with regularity, yet every former resident and worker refers with reverence to their ‘home’, and in contrast to the jeopardy of a dangerous occupation the domestic realm was a safe one, as this resident indicated:

 ‘They thought a lot of my dad, he served 33 years… The fire station was his life, this was our life, I mean we knew nothing else. I lived here from three years old… when I got married and moved I didn’t know what a front door key was, I’d never seen a front door key in my life, I mean we never ever locked a door… we didn’t know anything different, people lived on streets but it could never come up to this, no one could ever replace this…’ **

 

 

This building and its communities safeguarded the city for over 80 years, but when sold to a private company in 1986 London Road was reduced to a storage facility and over the next 30 years it fell into a critical state of disrepair. Sold again in 2016, the building is being re-developed, but this transformative change will inevitably distance London Road from its former life.

I set up the ‘London Road Project’ to capture the lived experiences of the site through archived documentation and artistic response. The project has worked with Manchester School of ArtGreater Manchester Fire Service Museum, and the former London Road community to research the building’s stories through a variety of means and perspectives, including a photographic portrait series of residents in their former homes; in situ oral recordings from people who knew the building best; creative response projects by BA and MA art school students and the collation of over 550 wallpaper samples.

I developed a system of cataloguing and filming to record context prior to the removal of wallpapers, generating a comprehensive visual account of the building before redevelopment. A timeline of the building’s history through wallpapers was formed, with samples from every decade of its life, but it was the range of mid-20th century papers and décor choices of ordinary families across 40 different homes that was remarkable. The circumstances presented an unusual opportunity for returning residents to interact with a situation, still bearing the recognisable hallmarks of a home and life which they had left behind over 40 years before. The emergent collection formed a rare surviving physical connection with their past and a creative conduit to real and imagined lives and events. Sitting alongside personal testimony through the London Road Recordings, the wallpaper archive therefore becomes an important social record as well as a fascinating creative resource.

*Alex Heap, former fireman and London Road resident 1970-1984, London Road Recordings, March 2017

**Dorothy McKeown nee King, London Road resident 1939-59, London Road Recordings, March 2017

Jenny Walker

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