John Street Birds


WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn

READING TIME: 3 minutes


Perching above the streets of the Northern Quarter are a family of ornamental exotic birds.

On John Street in the Northern Quarter, and around the corner on Tib Street, you may have spotted these ornamental birds and their neighbouring ceramic parrots. There’s no shortage of street art to be found in this area yet it’s surprising how few people know the motivation behind each installment.

As Manchester moved into the Victorian Era this particular area transformed from a poorly maintained, muddy lane that was characterised by poverty to a much more amiable community. The cotton trade had brought some riches to the area and the radical, publisher and eventual major of Manchester, Abel Heywood, had brought education and free speech. The residents of Tib Street began to shape the trading community and, once where pigs roamed the lanes raiding side streets for discarded offal, there stood a thriving hub of enterprise. In true Victorian fashion, the shops pulled a crowd because they provided entertainment for the consumer and the speciality of Tib Street became a form of natural history. 

Almost every shop featured live animals on display inside the window or tethered outside in the street and often the shops would remain open well into the night pulling a larger crowd still as food prices dropped as the clocks approached midnight. At one point it’s believed that almost 20,000 people descended on the area in a single evening to take in the sights and pick up a bargain. 

The area quickly became synonymous with animals and there was even a travelling canary salesman based on the street. The novelist Howard Spring sets his children’s book Tumbledown Dick in Tib street of the 20s and Mike Harding’s comic sketch The Fourteen and Half Pound Budgie features the former Bob Groves’ pet shop.

john street birds

The last of the pet shops, Walter Smith’s, closed in 2002 as the area became the focus of a regeneration project but for a hundred years Tib Street had continued to showcase its natural wares and as ‘pet paradise’ it became a huge draw for children and families, which is quite the opposite now when you consider that the area is saturated with bars and sex shops. But this shift in trade is natural given that the post-war focus was to revitalise the city centre thus leaving the Northern Quarter to fend for itself, and it did so; offering the cheapest rents in the city it continues to host all manner of local businesses that took refuge here from the commercialism of the city, and its blossomed as a refuge for artists, musicians and alternative business ventures. For administration purposes, the residential figures for the area don’t actually exist but it was recently awarded Great Neighbourhood of the Year 2011 at the Academy of Urbanism Awards in London.

The artist responsible for these beautiful ornamental birds is Guy Holder, a Brighton based sculptor. The idea is that although the exotic birds and pet shops of the area are gone, the birds are not - instead, they escaped their demise and fled. They flew to the surrounding streets and made their homes there and now freely perch on old fire escape brackets and window ledges.

I’m glad they escaped their ‘paradise’ in the end, and that they’ve stuck around the neighbourhood.