Placement Project – London Road Fire Station

Words: Harriet Redfearn 

Images: Harrier Redfearn, Alicia Hill, Benjamin Green

Undertaking a placement was one of the twelve options for our second year Unit X. I decided the London Road project would offer me a fascinating and engaging placement which would inform my future practice as a maker and/or curator. I was offered the role of the project and research assistant working alongside Jenny Walker. Jenny, my past tutor and now individual practitioner, is currently leading the London Road project in collaboration with staff and students from Manchester School of Art. Jenny is involved with other heritage projects similar to London Road. She is working as the creative advisor for the ongoing Bradford Pit project which aims to commemorate the lives of the miners who worked at Manchester’s Bradford Pit.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the City of Manchester Corporation commissioned a new fire station. No expense was spared. The finest architects, materials, and fittings were employed and state of the art technologies were installed to erect the ‘finest fire station in this round world’. But London Road Fire Station was much more than just a fire station; it was a thriving community at the heart of the city centre. The building was comprised of homes for forty-two firemen and their families, a police station, a coroner’s court, a bank, a club room, a gym, workshops, and more. This building, its fire brigade, police force, and ambulance service safeguarded the city of Manchester for over eighty years. Today, the building is derelict and has sadly been neglected for nearly three decades. However, the recent owners of the building, Allied London, are leasing spaces for the building to be resurrected and transformed into a variety of commercial uses such as a hotel, restaurants and apartments.

Before works on the building begin, there is a small window of opportunity for staff and students of Manchester School of Art to visit the site and gather inspiration for their creative projects in response to the fire station’s history. The intention for the student project is not to just visually respond to inspiration, it is to reveal some of the lesser known stories of London Road Fire Station through their artwork. This is so that future visitors can understand more about the history of the building, beyond what they can immediately see.

One of the London Road project’s aims is to collect and conserve memories of those associated with Manchester’s fire station. Over the past couple of weeks, myself and Jenny, along with volunteers from Manchester School of Art have been interviewing former residents of London Road Fire Station on site, often in the flats they used to live in. I have been recording the audio of these reactions, memories, and stories in order to compile an archive of oral histories. Perhaps these stories will also inspire the staff and student’s artworks which will be exhibited in the future. This exhibition may be held at the Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum in Rochdale but this venue is yet to be confirmed.

As well as recording the oral histories, we have been undertaking archeological style research at London Road Fire Station. We have been collecting and documenting old newspapers, rusted screws, fragments of vintage wallpaper, small pieces of terracotta and other physical material that may evidence what life was like at London Road Fire Station. Our documented findings, along with photographs, literature, and objects that people share with us will be gathered together and put into a digital archive that will preserve the memories made at London Road Fire Station.

Pursuing this placement is really giving me an insight into what is involved in running a creative heritage project and how a project like this can benefit a community. Managing both the public involvement and the student project are teaching me valuable skills that can be put into practice outside of university as well as within my studies. For example, I am learning about the various ways people attribute value to stories. The people formerly associated with London Road tend to recall memories of which they deem to be of real significance or value, stories they believe will inspire the creative students the most, such as the time a milk cart was stolen and driven into a wall of the engine house. But some of the students tend to attribute value to, and seek inspiration from, the more obscure and personal memories too, such as where an individual would seek lone refuge from such an inescapable communal place. Understanding these two contrasting ideas will benefit any further research I undertake. I will be mindful to encourage interviewees to speak of the less conventionally significant stories as well as their momentous memories in order to compose an in-depth primary research file.

I am also gaining an insight into the ways creatives and companies collaborate by working alongside professionals from other disciplines such as filmmakers and photographers, cultural institutions like the Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum, and commercial enterprises such as Allied London and Zetter Hotels. For example, I have gained an enhanced understanding of how regional museums can benefit from engaging with student projects. By inviting the students from Manchester School of Art to gather inspiration from their artefacts and paper archives, the museum increases their visitor numbers and improves their profile. This in turn has supported the Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum in its Heritage Lottery Fund bid to extend their Rochdale-based museum, as well as providing invaluable research for the students.

This is also helping me gain an understanding of how projects like London Road are mutually beneficial to all involved, from intergenerational members of the public and students to commercial enterprises and professionals. Gaining commissions and supporting applications for funding are examples of how creatives could potentially benefit from working alongside commercial enterprises. Commercial enterprises like Zetter Hotels could also commission creatives to work on projects which would add significant historical and cultural value to their businesses. Many of the older people we have interviewed on site have brought along younger members of their family who have been eager to finally connect the place with the stories they have been told throughout their lives of London Road Fire Station. As well as helping generations understand each other, recalling memories has been shown to benefit health and well-being, and revisiting the fire station has undoubtedly been a meaningful and emotional process for everyone involved.

In a nutshell, the London Road project aims to integrate heritage, arts and education by combining historical and archaeological research with creative interpretation, approaches, and visual responses. We intend for this interdisciplinary approach to add significant and unique social value to this heritage project. Jenny and I, along with everyone currently involved in the project, are all passionate about connecting people with an extremely significant part of Manchester’s history, with a building that holds so many stories within its walls, London Road Fire Station.