18th December 2012:
Manchester is renowned for its world-class industrial heritage. It is perhaps less well known that Manchester also boasts the earliest public parks in the world, which were opened in 1846 to provide working-class residents with an ‘open space to take air and exercise in on Sundays’. Although of a slightly later date, Whitworth Park followed in this tradition, and is today one of the finest public parks in Manchester.
Whitworth Park comprises some 18 acres, and is set within the heart of Manchester’s university district. It was developed from Grove House, a wealthy merchant’s residence dating to c 1840. The house and its extensive garden was purchased in 1890 using a substantial bequest left by Sir Joseph Whitworth, the eminent engineer and entrepreneur. Grove House was converted for use as a temporary art gallery and the grounds remodelled as a park. It became the Whitworth Art Gallery Museum in 1908, while the park was leased to the Corporation of Manchester. The gallery is operated currently by the University of Manchester, which is planning to extend the premises.
As part of the planning process, the university commissioned OA North to facilitate a community-led excavation of the site. This was carried out in conjunction with the Friends of Whitworth Park, the South Manchester Archaeological Research Team, and local residents. The excavation followed an initial evaluation, which demonstrated that buried structural remains survived within the development area.
The principal excavation area targeted the remains of glasshouses and associated buildings to the rear of the gallery. The results were somewhat surprising, and turned a seemingly straightforward excavation into a triumph for community archaeology. In particular, an extensive cobbled courtyard was revealed, together with the foundations for several small buildings that had probably been used for the propagation of plants. The unearthing of the cobbled courtyard elicited much interest, not least among the architects for the new extension, who expressed an intention to incorporate the historic fabric in the development.
Following the excavation two volunteers visited the OA North offices to find out about the post-excavation process. They were surprised about the amount of work involved, very impressed with Mill 3 and appreciated the welcoming and friendly staff, some of whom were familiar faces from previous community projects in Greater Manchester. Their visit was the icing on the cobbles, as it were, for a project that exceeded expectations.