If you look up to the roof of what was Piccadilly 21 nightclub you might find yourself dazzled by the light. Up there is a giant disco ball. It’s mounted on a strange metal plinth that holds the surrounding spotlights steady and looks like a space age egg about to hatch.
You might also notice that of the six floors, only one storey is currently in use. The site is solely occupied by Nobels Arcade and the upper floors are as good as obsolete.
But this is an important site on the Manchester skyline with historical significance that shouldn’t be forgotten. It was here, that in 1979, a fire broke out which changed the entire UK fire regulations. The Woolworth’s store that occupied the site, at the time the largest Woolworths in Europe, spanned the entire six floors and two basement levels and one afternoon a fault in the electrical components led to a fire in the second floor furnishing department. The location and incident made the news again in 2012 as the subject of the 2012 Turner Prize by Elizabeth Price - The Woolworths Choir of 1979.
Staggeringly, this incident was Manchester’s worst fire disaster since World War II. Nine shoppers and one member of staff died. The staff member was killed whilst trying to find a regular, particularly eccentric, customer who was always to be found in the cafe on the top floor and horrifically, three of the bodies discovered were just six feet from the exit.
In contrast to the office girls trapped behind metals bars on the top floor, desperate to escape and the three people who found themselves stranded on the window ledge in search of rescue, many customers actually refused to vacate at the sound of the alarms and even stood their ground when the smoke was visible. Public behaviour in times of emergencies has been closely studied as a consequence.
Until the incident, it’s hard to believe now, the polyurethane foam furniture fillings weren’t considered to have been hazardous but it was these fillings that led to the severity and speed of the blaze. The inadequacies of the safety measures in place led to a change in UK law with new furniture materials being developed and, once it emerged that none of the emergency calls that day came from within the store, the requirement of stores to train their staff on what to do in the event of a fire.
The event also led to sprinkler installation in large retail stores becoming standard but even 32 years later this is a moot point. The notion that sprinklers could have prevented the fatalities is not likely to have been the case; conventional sprinklers of the time, because of the ferocity of the fire, wouldn’t have responded until it was too late. In fact, in rather macabre irony, Manchester city centre right up until 2009 was reliant on Victorian water pipes (installed in 1880s) that made the water pressure so low at times that even modern sprinkler systems were of little to no use.
Edit: since writing this article the mirror ball has been removed and Nobel’s arcade have been evicted from the premises to make way for a Travel Lodge, Nando’s and Morrison's Local.