One of the strange things that happened to me in the summer break was that during August through my old network of acquaintances in Machester, I received an e-mail asking whether I knew anything about the Ghosts of the Royal Exchange.
Now to receive such an e-mail, must make you think that a ghost at the Exchange is a normal every-day occurrence and that their presence is as obvious as the crowds who queue up to watch the various dramatic performances put on in this magnificent setting on most nights of the week. And you would be right in thinking that, for in researching this piece I found that Wikipedia, that most basic of sites, tells me that there are more ghosts in the Royal Exchange than you can shake a stick at.
For all you readers who do not walk the streets of Manchester, the Royal Exchange is a massive ashlared stone construction on the corner of Market Street and Cross Street, in the centre of town, that was built for and used as the Cotton Exchange, where the price of cotton world-wide was controlled; where gambling on the prices of commodities, importing same and producing textile material gave Manchester the nickname of Cottonopolis in the 19th century.
The present building is the third Exchange. The first in 1792, the second in 1809 and the present structure completed in 1874 and extended in the 1920s to form England’s largest trading floor. The front area bounding Market Street was badly damaged by one of Mr. Hitler’s high explosive bombs, the ensuing fire also took its toll, in the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and the damage was subsequently repaired after the war. So it is no stranger to attacks from foreign interference.
Today it stands nine storeys high above ground, stabilized by four storeys below ground that are so big that you can drive lorries around in the undercroft, which is entered by its own lorry lift. With the death knell being called on the cotton industry finally, in the middle of the 20th century, the Exchange closed down in 1968 and remained a gargantuan empty shell until 1973, while the movers and shakers of Manchester decided what to do with it. In line with that era’s thinking, demolition was on the cards, with another concrete finger pointing to the sky, destined for this historic spot.
However an exuberant new theatre company asked if they could use the vast empty space as a temporary home for their forthcoming productions. With the help of local benefactors they constructed a remarkable futuristic seven sided theatre in the round, constructed of glass and steel and hung from the majestic columns that bounded the old trading floor. Once built nobody could shift it and some developers dreams went up in smoke.
Over the years I had the pleasure of watching some magnificent productions, I remember especially Sean O’Tracy’s “Juno and the Paycock”, Sheridan’s “She Stoops to Conquer”, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Tom Stoppard’s play “Jumpers” with Tom Courteney and Julie Walters, where Julie showed off her young buffness for long periods of time. During the 70s and 80s my mother worked as a dresser, fitting on the clothes and quick costume changes of all the shapely actresses that graced the parquet flooring of the theatre. At one time I knew every inch and gusset of the most famous ladies in the land. No names, no pack drill, but my juices used to rise every time my mother spoke of the intimate details of the bodies of these nubile ladies.
So is it any wonder, after all this history, there is not a ghost or two about and is it not a wonder that if these ghosts decided to appear, they would be word perfect and in tune, and this is where I come in.
On a lovely summer Saturday morning in June 1996, our friends, the IRA, decided to rid Manchester of its dowdy Victorian and 1960s styles of architecture and sent in its specialist demolition squad, who unfortunately did not work to normal construction practice. After a generous 30 minute warning they detonated a bomb on Corporation Street, less than 40 metres from the Royal Exchange.
Except for the fact that the Exchange is built like (pardon my expression), built like a brick shit house, with outside walls, feet thick, it would not have survived the biggest bomb blast in English history. As it was the blast enveloped the building, blowing in every window and door, gusting in and up in the trading room and shifting the three massive domes on the roof by 150mm. Damage to the trappings of the building was done in every one of its hundreds of rooms, shops and stores. The place was a mess, the Old Lady was on its knees, but thanks to the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein, our company was called in to retrieve the situation and there we stayed for two years.
The building was in such a state that the first thing we were asked to do was to make the place safe, so that insurance assessors and the buildings tenants could enter assess the damage and retrieve what was considered undamaged: the building was a shopping centre as well as a theatre. Following this we were then handed over sections of the building as the legal and insurance implications were sorted out. We would then go in and gut the building, back to its structural frame, test all structural members for loss of integrity and remove all the debris.
So it was that in January 1997 we were inspecting a new area that was being handed over to us, on the first second and third floors, at the western end of the building. Most of this area had never been used by new tenants and was the same as when the Cotton Exchange was vacated in 1968, except for one large room that the theatre used for rehearsal and general storage. It was in this area that we, the Project Manager and a team of architects, engineers and surveyors were inspecting prior to hand-over as a construction area.
There was about 10 of us altogether, all wrapped up warm in hats, scarfs and many layers of clothing to withstand the very cold, dark and dismal winter’s day. It must be remembered that every door and window had been blown in with the blast and on these upper floors the openings had not been covered over and the cold wind used to howl down those long corridors. The temperature was hovering round freezing, made worse by the wind and we were wishing our miserable task was over.
We wandered down through the rooms, taking notes to include in our reports and Method Statements. The Project Manager was pointing out various problems he wanted us to address and come up with ideas on how to overcome same, when all of a sudden we heard music, a piano being played and whoever was playing the instrument knew a thing or two about music, it was a recognizable tune. I cannot now remember the title but it was a tune none the less.
The Project Manager cursed us, thinking it was our lads skylarking in an area that had not been handed over and he marched over to the door of the room from which the music appeared to be coming. He barged in, the music stopped. the room was empty of people but immediately we felt the affect of about an 80 degree temperature, it was so warm we started to sweat under our many layers and we felt distinctly uncomfortable. The room was the rehearsal room used by the theatre company and it contained boxes of old scripts and bits and pieces of well-used props from past productions. In the middle of the floor was an old upright piano, but not a man or woman to be seen.
We looked at each other but none of us could summon up a word and we walked back out into the corridor and closed the door behind us. The piano started to tinkle away, the sweat on our bodies evaporated in the cold air. We opened the door again and went into the room, the music stopped as soon as we turned the handle, the heat was the same. We played this macabre game of musical chairs three or four times more, before beating a hasty retreat to the welcoming confines of the canteen and a well-earned cup of tea.
Over the next few days we completed our paperwork, without completing our exercise and a week later we received permission to enter the area. To my knowledge there was no inquest into what we had witnessed and while we were working in that area, there were no further reports of anything similar. We had the piano inspected by some form of an expert drafted in and he pronounced that it needed restringing and that it was not worth that cost and advised us to scrap it. We broke it up, let the ghost free and the bits went into the skip along with all the boxes of old scripts and props. We took most of the floor out of this room and the space went on to form what is now known as the Studio. So if you are ever in there watching a play by a visiting company and the empty seat besides you tips up, take your top layers off, its going to get warm.
The worst of it was, we never received an apology from the Project Manager after he cursed us that day. I am sure he still thinks it was our lads making a fool of him, but there was 10 witnesses there who had the fear of God put into them.