Making connections and transport links
The Station Agent’s House lies within Castlefield Conservation Area of Manchester, named after the four Roman forts built here because of an intersection of roads and the Rivers Irwell and the Medlock. It was this very transport connectivity that attracted both the Romans and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (LMR) to the area. Prior to the railway, in the 18th century Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, his land agent John Gilbert and his millwright James Brindley, built the first modern canal, the Bridgewater Canal, through to Castlefield. The area became a major transhipment point and a variety of industrial premises developed along the canals and rivers.
The coming of the Railway
Through the industrial revolution one of the persistent challenges was transporting imported raw cotton from the docks at Liverpool to the weaving mills of Lancashire and then back to Liverpool to re-export around the world. Travel was by canal, smooth but slow, and hard to manage at scale. To this conundrum the engineers and entrepreneurs applied themselves and in 1826 the world’s first purpose-built passenger and freight line, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, was authorised by Act of Parliament.
By the early 1820s, the only substantial nearby vacant land included just two small developments, one of which was 41 Liverpool Road, a house built in 1808 for John Rothwell, who was a partner in the nearby Rothwell & Harrison dyeworks. The newly formed Liverpool & Manchester Railway began planning the railway route in the early 1820s, under the initial supervision of engineer George Stephenson who spotted this plot’s potential.
John Rothwell’s well-placed, simple but handsome house (today known as The Station Agent’s House) at the corner of Liverpool Road and Water Street became the dwelling of the first Station Agent, Joseph Green. It was, and still is, the anchoring ‘pin’ around which all the rest of the railway station fanned out. During 1830, a viaduct and bridge were built by George Stephenson behind Station Agent’s House to bring the track to the arrivals platform. The world’s first railway warehouse – the 1830 Warehouse – was built opposite and Coach Offices next door. Although the house came to be known as Station Master’s House in the 20th century, in 1830 the role of Station Master had yet to be defined. Joseph Green was known as the Station Agent and the 1841 and 1851 censuses record the inhabitant as ‘station agent’. By 1861 this had become ‘station manager’ and the house had also been subdivided into tenements. We have re-adopted ‘Station Agent’s House’ as the most historically accurate name for the earliest days of the railway.
“Flying through the country”
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened on 15 September 1830, with a prestigious guest list, including the Duke of Wellington, then the Prime Minister. A cavalcade of eight locomotives that set out from Liverpool included Northumbrian leading the way, driven by George Stephenson, followed by Phoenix driven by his son Robert, North Star driven by his brother Robert and Rocket driven by assistant engineer Joseph Locke.
Large crowds thronged the route, but the celebrations turned sour midway through the day when William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool, met with a fatal accident when the trains stopped to take on water. Huskisson had alighted and was standing on the track talking to the Duke of Wellington, who remained in his carriage, when he was struck and injured by Rocket approaching along the adjacent track. When the delayed convoy eventually reached the Liverpool Road station, a further blight was cast on the proceedings by the crowd’s hostile reaction to the Duke of Wellington.
Within months passenger traffic on the railway was exceeding expectations and within just four years, travelling by rail had put local stagecoaches and mail coaches out of business. One traveller, known only as EWS commented that, “We then began to find that our progress was increased by every succeeding stroke of the engine; so that in a very few minutes we were flying through the country at the rate of twenty five miles an hour.”
The instant success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway made railways an appealing prospect to investors and encouraged the revival of a number of railway schemes. This included adding a new stretch of track to reach what is now Manchester Victoria station and once that had completed, Liverpool Road Station operated solely as a goods station. This major freight depot serviced the Manchester cotton and other industries with commodities, and transported away the factories’ products. Decline set in only after the Second World War.
The use of The Station Agent’s House in the decades after 1845 has yet to be fully discovered; by the 20th century it was fitted out as a shop, passing through various businesses and selling at various times sausages, automobile parts and no doubt other goods too.
After the Station Closure
In September 1975, British Rail closed Liverpool Road Station. However, recognising the site’s significance, talks had begun to save the site with Manchester City Council as a heritage and museum centre.
In 1978, the whole site became what is now known as the Science and Industry Museum and The Station Agent’s House was renovated as the first offices for Museum staff, but now it is no longer needed. Standing empty and in need of repair, it urgently needs a new use.
Now it’s our turn to give this house a new lease of life.
For the last 200 years at least, The Station Agent’s House has pragmatically evolved, shape-shifted and adapted to meet the needs of the time. It has been a crucible for pioneering technological and engineering experimentation. Our involvement is a thrilling opportunity for the Landmark Trust to be right at the heart of the next chapter for this modest building that played such a pivotal role in the history of the railway.