Remembering Hulme: Manchester's Scruffy Squat Party Republic

In the 1980s and 90s, Europe's worst housing estate became a bohemian paradise for ravers and punks.

by Mof Gimmers
17 February 2015, 12:50pm

(Hulme in 1978)

Manchester in 2015 is a very different place to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Today's skyline almost unrecognisable from the past. Back then, everything was a bit rough around the edges and, colloquially, "a bit rum".

Ancoats, right next to the city centre, is now being enveloped by the fashionable Northern Quarter. Not too long ago, after everyone there lost their jobs and the residential population fell below the levels it was pre-industrial revolution, it was basically just a place where you could buy a lot of drugs of varying quality. The G-Mex centre – or the Manchester Central Convention Complex as it's now officially called – once a rail link to St Pancras known as Manchester Central, was little more than a dilapidated car park. The Great Northern Warehouse, before it had luxury bowling, cinema screens and a celebrity chef, was, plainly speaking, a shit-hole.

If you watch old episodes of Cracker, you'll see how grotty Manchester was. That's not to say it was a bad place to be and there was nothing going on, but there was something about the city that was insular, dirty and dysfunctional.

Then, in 1996, the IRA blew up Marks and Spencers and, from that point on, Manchester started to change. Basically it went pro, with a £1.2 billion clear up operation. Most Mancs can see both the good and the bad in their city cleaning up its act. However, of old Manchester, one thing is definitely lacking in the current landscape – the wild frontier that was Hulme.

(Hulme in 1985-86. " Manchester- the evils truth or myth?" from Steve Mardy on Vimeo.)

Hulme Crescents was one of the biggest urban regenerations in Europe. After being a slum area for the mills, Manchester City Council oversaw the building of a massive new housing project in 1972. It housed 13,000 people, which at some point included Warhol's Nico, French actor Alain Delon and Mark Kermode. The whole project was flawed, with loads of design and construction problems. 19 years after it was built, the whole thing was pulled to the ground.

The Crescents were what they sound like – four enourmous, crescent shaped blocks of flats. They were such a gigantic balls-up that a mere two-years after being erected, they were deemed unsafe for families to reside there. When 1984 rolled around, the council stopped taking rents.

That's when the fun started.

(Image via MDMA Archive)

Even though the Architects Journal described the area as "Europe's worst housing stock", people started to move in. There was something about the dystopian look of it all that appealed to some of Manchester's futurists in Thatcher's Britain. Others, meanwhile, just saw it as somewhere to live where you didn't have to pay any rent. With newly built flyovers cutting Hulme off from the city, the feeling of isolation made Hulme feel like it was its own republic within Manchester.

The police pretty much avoided the place, which meant that the squats started to party and creative people saw it as the perfect place to be. The council couldn't afford to knock the thing down, but still provided electricity to those living there.

Parties sprung up in the area, most notoriously at the PSV Club, which of course, everyone knows as the birthplace of what was to become Factory Records. Joy Division played early shows there and Mick Hucknall could be seen having a pint in the Grant's Arms. Dancehall sound-systems were plenty, with local crews battling it out, as well as attracting some of reggae's biggest and best.

(Baron Turbo playing at PSV in 1982)

While the press focused on Tony Wilson and the Hacienda, many Manchester party-goers were much more interested in The Kitchen, slap bang in the middle of Hulme. The city was known for its blues parties – ad-hoc clubs in derelict houses – but The Kitchen was something else. Three knocked-through flats created a space that was crazier, more direct and off-the-hook than Factory's show club. That's not to say the Hacienda was a polite venue, but The Kitchen didn't have to worry about trivial things like licensing laws and not pissing wherever you wanted. Also, if you wanted more room to dance in The Kitchen, then instead of writing to the council, you'd just get yourself a hammer and knock a wall in.

The concrete of The Crescents were soon livened up with graffiti and street-art. The lack of ownership and communal areas were perfect catalysts for Hulme residents to let their creativity flow in whatever direction they felt like. During the mid-80s, Hulme had its own clubs, arthouse cinema and its own style – the Hulme look saw young men buying second-hand baggy suits. An area that was unloved and unused by a city gracious enough to leave it on the power grid was thriving.

At one point, the creative folk decided to make a massive pirate ship, because why the hell not? There was also "The Nautilus", which was built by attaching steel and wood to a Sherpa Van. It looked like the Yellow Submarine and was known to locals as The Naughty Bus. In the wild west of Hulme, it enjoyed a brief spell razzing around on local fields before some scallies firebombed it.

Ruthless Rap Assassins

Hulme carnival rocked soundsystems, gave a stage to Manchester's poet laureate Lemn Sissay and from The Crescents came the Ruthless Rap Assassins, Manchester's very own take on something between the politics of Public Enemy and the Daisy Age positivity of De La Soul.

Travellers, acid-drop outs, MCs, punks, deadbeats, photographers, artists, crusties and every other bohemian daydreamer and blagger started to focus on Hulme. Counterculture was the energy that kept things moving, along with the dealers and prostitutes who were now finding refuge there.

Graffiti and street art was a huge deal in Hulme, with swathes of it attracting artists from all around the country, and Manchester's Kelzo making a name for himself (his work is still seen throughout the city).

Everything creative in Manchester owes something to Hulme and its crescents. Of course, there's a myriad of influences on the city, taken from far outside the ring road, but while many pinpoint Manchester's pop-cultural Year Dot to the Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the city has an entire cultural output that barely noticed Johnny Rotten and Co, emanating from its own bohemian enclave. Some of Manchester's most iconic images sprung out of Hulme – most notably perhaps, Kevin Cummins' shot of Joy Division on Princess Parkway.

The free raves, the political protests, the music, the space to do as you pleased in an area untouched by stupid things like rent – it couldn't last. In 1991, Manchester City Council got millions of pounds from the government to sort it all out and the Hulme Crescents were razed in 1994. In February 1996, a gas explosion in Bonsall Street was caused by people who had ripped out gas pipes in a flat. In June 1996, the IRA set off a 1,500kg bomb on Corporation Street in Manchester city centre, ushering in a complete change in the way Manchester was going to do things.

Where Manchester once felt like it was propelled forward by enthusiastic amateurs, post-bomb and post-Hulme, everything became more professional. Hulme itself underwent a £400 million redevelopment programme.

Some of that Hulme spark is still there, especially in the Hulme housing co-op Homes for Change. Right now, despite bridges that link to the city centre, Hulme still feels separate from the rest of Manchester. Sure enough, it is quieter than it used to be, but the echoes are still there. It isn't as lawless and chaotic as it once was, but a sense of distance remains. Rather apt for a place that takes its name from the old Norse word for "small island".

Either way, it shouldn't be forgotten what Hulme gave to everyone. Manchester – you owe Hulme a pint.


More stuff about Manchester:

A Love Letter to Manchester's Post Millenium Hard House Scene

Manchester Is a Paradise

Meet the Manchester Woman Who Saves All of the UK's Lost Birds of Prey

United Kingdom
Joy Division
Tony Wilson
Factory Records
The Hacienda
Vice Blog
Hulme Crescents
The Kitchen
Ruthless Rap Assassins
Princess Parkway
PSV Club
Europe's worst housing stock