In the 1830s an embankment was constructed on the Manchester side of the River Irwell, directly in front of the Cathedral. The embankment dramatically improved traffic circulation by vastly widening what was then Hunt’s Bank, now known as Victoria Street. The embankment, which is built upon 17 arches, also provided storage and business premises. The embankment predates the more famous and much larger Thames Embankment by around 30 years.
The tenants for the Arches ranged over the years from engineers and printers to undertakers and pickle manufacturers. Perhaps most bizarrely, a lifeboat designed by Henry Richardson was built within the Arches by William Lees and launched into the River Irwell in 1852. This double-hulled boat was entered in an Admiralty competition but failed to win.
Continuing the nautical theme, the side adjacent to the river was also used for landing stages for pleasure cruisers. Two floating landing platforms known as ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Victoria’ were constructed around 1895. They were built for rival companies - the Irwell Steam Ferry Company and the Ship Canal Passenger Steamer Company. Vessels departed for trips to Manchester Docks and on the newly opened Manchester Ship Canal to Lymm, Runcorn and beyond. The pleasure cruises lasted only until 1900, their failure attributed to lack of punctuality and the fact that the river was described as ‘little more than an open sewer’.
The Arches themselves received a new lease of life with the coming of World War II. They were converted into air-raid shelters accommodating around 1,600 people. New access stairs were built and connections made with the existing underground toilets in arch number 4. Any openings in the arches onto the River Irwell were closed and made gastight. The conversion took three months and is recorded as having cost £10,150. Wartime ventilation posters and signs still remain in the erstwhile shelters although damp, vandalism and theft have sadly taken their toll.
The underground public toilets closed in 1967 and the remaining entrances were securely sealed. Supporting as they do a public highway, the arches are today the responsibility of Manchester City Council Highway Services. Because of its location, the site is also known as Cathedral Steps.
Subterranea Britannica was fortunate to be granted permission to visit the site as part of a study weekend held in the city in September 2011. A contractor was employed to secure the entrance which is on a public footway and to ensure the arches were gas-free. Over 50 Sub Brit members were able to visit - almost certainly the largest number present since the days of World War II.
- ‘Below Manchester’ by Keith Warrender