The Ghosts of Stretford Mall


WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn

IMAGES BY Shirley Bainbridge

READING TIME: 6 minutes


Above the market of Stretford Hall is a a corner frozen in time

Set within Stretford Mall is the market square, still gloriously sixties in appearance though sadly dying in trade. But there’s more than just these units who are struggling on despite everything; there’s a mezzanine level that houses something of a time warp. 

It was whilst stood admiring the textured frieze surrounding the market, a leftover of the 1969 decor that once covered the entire centre, that the mezzanine level above became apparent. It was like staring through a tear in the fabric of time; it wasn’t altered, it wasn’t hidden yet it wasn’t paid attention to either. Totally isolated and hidden in plain sight. 

Looking at an archive image of that old interior still present here in the square there’s that tinge of glamour, the same tinge evident when looking back at Manchester airport when the departure lounge was framed by enormous Italian chandeliers (these chandeliers are now in various homes: one at MOSI where it has never left storage, one in Pilkington’s Glass and another, recently dismantled into many parts, to form a display at the Tatton Biennial).

The three units up here are a wood-panelled John Andrew Ladies and Gents Hairdressing; a decoratively-tiled Tiles and Tiling of Stretford; and the seemingly quaint brick and net-curtained inn that was O’Brien’s Cafe Bar. The latter is the back-room of the existing O’Brien’s pub that can be accessed from the street-side of the mall but the room, despite opening out quite brazenly onto more modern parts of the pub, seems to be more or less out of use.

Inside the hairdressing unit there are headshots of all the latest styles at the time and posters that herald the arrival of mousse and all its “magic”. I couldn’t get an exact date on the last time this was open for business but by the looks of things it doesn’t look like the place was around to welcome in the 90s. Next-door the tile shop is clad with a decorative tiled display in yellow and black, and the window inset is plastered over with a strip of brown and orange floral wallpaper. 

The mall, or the Arndale as it was known at the time, was opened in phases and was one of seven that already existed at the time by the developers Arndale Property Trust. The trust was started in the early 50s by Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippindale, “Arndale” itself a composite of their names, and Mr Chippindale was present for the opening ceremony. Stretford Arndale was opened six years ahead of the Manchester city centre location, and was the sixth biggest shopping mall in the country at the time.

Skyliner - Stretford Mall Market Mezzanine - walkway 3.jpg
Skyliner Blog - Stretford Mall walkway.jpg

The market has caught the eye of others in recent times, with people realising the potential of a space preserved in time as a real-life filmset. Last year Theatre of Dreamswas filmed in much of the market area including the absolutely wonderful Kingfisher Cafe that is still very much in business downstairs. The cafe has wood panel interior with orange furniture and solid corner booths made of plastic; a nostalgist’s dream come true.

Skyliner - Stretford Mall Market Mezzanine - & Tiling.jpg

Besides Kingfisher, next to the strange little patio area in what is effectively a small tunnel (with a bizarre convex ceiling), lies another old unit but it’s hidden behind shutters and locked away to even the operations manager of the building.  If you could get in there and pass through this unit into the next you’d find yourself in El Patio. Onestory about this closed down pub, and indeed the shopping centre, is that it’s the backdrop to The Smiths song Reel Around The Fountain. The fountain in question refers to a central water feature no longer installed in the mall (they also had fish tanks) and the line ”slap me on the patio” harks to the rough and ready nature of the customers who frequented El Patio.

Reel around the fountain

Slap me on the patio

I’ll take it now

Over the years the story that Mohammad Ali opened the centre has been ingrained into the fabric of the community, even the centre themselves thought that he had visited three months after the opening to cut the ribbon on the American-owned Safeway store, and there’s very little information freely available to suggest otherwise, unless you do a little digging. 

The fountain

The fountain

Skyliner Blog - Newspaper cuttings - King Street 50s.jpg
Skyliner Blog - Newspaper cuttings - Cassius Clay_.jpg
A reader contacted me to say he met Ali during his visit and had a boxing glove signed. This is John’s photo of the glove and a photo of him looking very happy with himself at the time.

A reader contacted me to say he met Ali during his visit and had a boxing glove signed. This is John’s photo of the glove and a photo of him looking very happy with himself at the time.

In the office, operations manager (and former Guardian Exchange employee) Mike Russell, shows us a scrapbook of archive images relating to the mall over the years. Press cuttings and photographs of car shows, belly dancers, live camels, beauty queen parades and an elusive press clipping of Mohammad Ali’s visit showing him backing away from a 1000-strong crowd.

Both The Guardian online archive and the press clipping uncovered in the office fromThe Journal confirm that Ali did indeed go to the centre but he didn’t open it. Ali was at the centre two years after it opened on October 12 1971, as part of an Ovaltine promotion and, from what I can gather, a UK tour of selected Tesco stores.

Ali, in a much more timorous fashion than we associate him with, declared

"I am the greatest…and so is Ovaltine".

Clearly uncomfortable with the sales pitch he added

"Of course, I’m being paid to say that. But it’s true"

Ali said the Stretford fans scared him and after an hour of minor hysteria and injuries he called an end to his visit stating that if the crowd, who had shattered the doorway to the shop, didn’t get back then he would have to go.

"I was scared of that crowd. I had no idea it would be as big as that" 

Ali was there to actually try and sell the Ovaltine tins that bore his (replicated) autograph, and a police spokesman at the time justified the hysteria that broke out thus:

"Some of the crowd thought Ali was there to give away tins of Ovaltine”.

Times may have been tough in 1971 but I’m sure that the crowd broke into a frenzy at the sight of one of the biggest stars and sporting legends in the world, rather than the notion of a free powdered drink. 

Part of the archives in the Mall’s collection include photographs of a 1973 beauty contest. The winner of ‘Miss Stretford’ that year was June Pickering and, intrigued to know where she is now, the centre released images of the contest to local press in October 2011 in the hope to trace the winner. A few weeks later they did so. The former beauty queen and daughter of one-time chairman at Stalybridge FC, now lives in New Zealand with her family and bears the rather apposite married name Mrs Perfect

Stretford Mall was built on the site of the original shopping district on King Street, which no longer exists (pictured below). The mall are hoping to revitalise the market area of the centre and bring in new tenants in the coming months.

Photos by, and copyright of, Shirley Bainbridge unless otherwise stated.

Replications of archive images are with thanks to the management at Stretford Mall.

Article also published on Untapped Cities and Manchester Confidential