A mural featuring the name of the town, its Latin motto, cotton bolls and red roses, created on the side of a mill building.
Mural by artist Philth on the west elevation of the former Water Street Mill, now Waterside House. The white plants are cotton 'bolls', referencing the town's textile history. © Rochdale Development Agency
Mural by artist Philth on the west elevation of the former Water Street Mill, now Waterside House. The white plants are cotton 'bolls', referencing the town's textile history. © Rochdale Development Agency

Heritage Place-making and Co-operative Connections in Central Rochdale

New research is supporting the Rochdale Heritage Action Zone initiative.

The ‘Co-operative Connections’ Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) programme launched in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, in May 2018. A partnership between Historic England, Rochdale Borough Council and a variety of local organisations, the HAZ focuses on the historic Drake Street leading from the railway station to the Town Hall and aims to revitalise one of the key gateways to the town centre, encourage investment into historic buildings, and significantly contribute to the town’s wider regeneration programme.

The HAZ area includes two conservation areas: the Maclure Road Conservation Area and the Rochdale Town Centre Conservation Area, which is on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register.

Some of the main challenges affecting the area include high vacancy rates and continuous loss of historic built fabric.

The 5-year HAZ programme includes building grants and an ambitious research, engagement and events programme and is framed by an interest in exploring and highlighting Rochdale’s co-operative heritage and using co-operative place-making strategies as a launch-pad for regeneration. Historic Englands’s recent Historic Area Assessment of Rochdale’s town centre is one of the first completed projects. This article details some of the findings and puts them in the wider context of the initiative.

Central Rochdale’s character and significance

Historic England’s guidance Understanding Place defines an Historic Area Assessment as ‘a practical tool to understand and explain the heritage interest of an area’. It is based on archival research and fieldwork, which at Rochdale also included a comprehensive photographic survey.

The Historic Area Assessment provides an overview of the history and development of an area, defines its character and significance, and highlights any vulnerabilities.

While the HAZ programme in Rochdale focuses on a relatively small and clearly defined area, the Historic Area Assessment covers the wider town centre, including part of Yorkshire Street and the area surrounding the river Roch. Widening the focus slightly was thought to yield more meaningful results, by placing the HAZ area in its historical context.

First mentioned in Domesday Book, Rochdale started as a medieval market town at the centre of a large parish and developed into a woollen and later cotton town.

Trade and industry were dominated by several local families, such as the Vavasour family of merchants.

Between the 1540s and the 1790s, the market place on the north side of the river Roch was the commercial centre. However, in 1798 this was complemented by the basins and wharves of the Rochdale Canal branch, which prompted the development of the glebe land on the south side of the river, with Drake Street as a major new road.

The problems of a rapidly expanding industrial society contributed to the opening of the world’s first modern co-operative shop in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.

They developed the so-called ‘Rochdale Principles’, which balanced mutuality and self-interest and gave workers the means of feeding their families and taking control of their lives. Purpose-built branch stores and other co-operative societies soon followed.

During the Victorian and Edwardian periods, Drake Street and Yorkshire Street developed as the main high streets, connecting the two commercial hubs of the canal terminus and the market. However, in the 20th century, the textile and engineering industries declined, leading to the demolition of many industrial buildings and the in-filling of the canal terminus. The opening of two large shopping centres on the north side of the river (Rochdale Exchange Shopping Centre in 1978 and The Wheatsheaf Centre in 1990) marked the first major changes for the historic high streets. Such changes in retail patterns have particularly affected businesses on Drake Street.

Today, the character of central Rochdale is largely shaped by its historic road pattern, the topography of the river valley, the prevalent building materials (local stone and red brick), and its ginnels (alleyways). Several building types are characteristic for central Rochdale and are of local, and in some cases of national, significance: shops, banks, co-operative buildings, the late-Georgian buildings of the Drake Street area, industrial buildings and workers’ housing.

The smaller buildings of artisanal industry, including domestic workshops, are particularly rare and vulnerable. These findings and the research captured as part of the Historic Area Assessment will inform the next phases of the HAZ programme.

The HAZ programme

A central aim of the Rochdale HAZ is to revitalise Drake Street by encouraging a greater diversity of uses and using a heritage-led approach to regeneration which is sensitive to context but also innovative and community-led. The Historic Area Assessment is a valuable basis for a programme that enhances and protects heritage assets while supporting the creation of high-quality contemporary space.

The success of residential conversions and small businesses taking over vacant properties depends on creating and supporting a sense of place that celebrates local heritage.

The first year of the HAZ programme included a year-long collaboration with Manchester School of Architecture that culminated in the exhibition ‘Rochdale Reimagined’ in the Rochdale Central Library and the publication of an accompanying catalogue of the same title. A large-scale mural festival called ‘Rochdale Uprising’ brought local and international mural artists to the town who worked to a brief created by Rochdale Council in collaboration with the Co-operative Heritage Trust and delivered 12 artworks highlighting Rochdale’s unique heritage

The Council’s collaboration with the Co-operative Heritage Trust is also central to a further HAZ project: Opening in early 2020, a Co-operative Enterprise Hub in the former Butterworth Jewellers’ building will provide an innovative community space for young people wanting to develop their own co-operative businesses.

The first-year building grants programme focuses especially on historic shops in South Parade and the northern part of Drake Street. This aims to link the HAZ area to the river crossing, which was recently the focus of an award-winning restoration project, and the new Riverside cinema and shopping centre development, which will open in 2020. This building frontage and shop front reinstatement scheme will be complemented by public realm works. Additionally, a number of residential conversions of historic buildings are underway in the HAZ area.

Laying the foundations for further work

The Rochdale HAZ has the potential to deliver lasting benefits for the area by improving the condition of the historic built environment and bringing empty buildings back into use, and thereby changing perceptions of the town centre.

The research component is a fundamental part of the early phases of delivering this, by highlighting the area’s special character and the significance of its heritage assets, and by providing an evidence base for the future management of the two conservation areas. Reviews of the national and local designations are currently underway, using the information provided by the Historic Area Assessment. The first outcome of this process is the listing of the historic Rochdale Bridge at Grade II.

About the authors

Johanna Roethe

Architectural Investigator, Historic England

Johanna joined Historic England in 2017 after working in the commercial sector for seven years. She has contributed to several historic area assessments, including for the Heritage Action Zones at Weston-super-Mare and Rochdale. She is one of the authors of the recent book Weston-super-Mare: the town and its seaside heritage (Historic England, 2019).

Kaija-Luisa Kurik

Heritage Action Zone Project Officer, Rochdale Development Agency

Kaija-Luisa has been working as the Heritage Action Zone Project Officer in Rochdale Development Agency since 2018. She moved to the role from the Conservation and Design team in Rochdale Borough Council where she contributed to variety of masterplans and conservation area appraisals as well town centre regeneration projects. She is a final year PhD student at the Manchester School of Architecture.

Further information

Roethe, J and Williams, M 2019 Central Rochdale, Greater Manchester: Historic Area Assessment, Historic England Report Series 56/2019

Historic England 2017 Understanding Place: Historic Area Assessments