As you may or may not be aware the Curatorial Services where I am based stores the collection items for a number of sites in the Stockport area. At the weekend two of the sites opened their doors for Heritage Open Day. Heritage open day is a weekend where various heritage sites, museums, libraries and the like open for free if they usually charge a fee. This is hopefully so people who usually don’t visit this type of attraction because of price and various other reasons are able to come and enjoy a bit of heritage.
On the Saturday Staircase House, a Grade II listed medieval building dating from 1460, was open for visitors to view the various features and rooms situated around its rare Jacobean cage newel staircase, installed in 1618. Hundreds of families came to visit and enjoyed the chance to see the house. The day was a huge, and very busy, success.
On the Sunday it was Bramall Hall’s turn. It has been open on various heritage open days before and the amount of people who arrived was so vast that the staff and the hall itself was just not able to handle them, so this year a different approach was taken. Guided tours were put on, they were free but booking was essential. There was four tours, on the hour between 1pm and 5pm. However, it is likely that people would arrive not aware that they had to book and so, unofficially, there was also tours running on the half hour, just in case. The tours were divided up between the tour guides of Bramall Hall and Katie S and I.
Neither Katie or I knew the history of Bramall Hall at all a few weeks before we were due to give the tour and so we followed some of the Bramall guides and did our own research in order to familiarise ourselves with the site.
Bramall Hall is a grand, black and white, timber-framed building. At the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 the hall stood as two manors but in the next 800 years they would become one and Bramall Hall would be owned by just three families; the most dominant being the Davenports who lived at Bramall hall for 500 years.
In 1883 the next owners were Charles and Mary Nevill. Charles worked very hard on Bramall Hall, restoring areas and adding alterations. Nevill was very interested in history and recognised the significance of Bramall Hall and tried to do the work in correspondence with the original style of the building. Following the death of the Nevills, a gentleman named John Henry Davies bought the hall. He was the president of Manchester United football club and lived at Bramall Hall until his death. He wife remained at Bramall Hall until she too died and left the option of the local council to buy Bramall hall, and its 70 acres of land, in her will in 1935, and that is how it became to be looked after by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council today.
We devised a route for the tour so we could go to each room and talk of the history and discuss some of the most interesting objects. For example, in the withdrawing room where the family would retire to after a meal we looked at two portraits of William Davenport X and his wife, Martha. This William was the final direct male Davenport descendant to live at Bramall Hall. They had no children, but William had two illegitimate daughters who came to live with them. One of the girls, Maria, went on to inherit Bramall Hall when they died, but the other girl rebelled and ran away with the halls coachman; not unlike Lady Sybil of Downton Abbey who ran away with Tom Branson, the abbeys driver!
My favourite room in Bramall Hall is known as the ‘Paradise’ room because the original hangings of the room were embroidered by Dame Dorothy Davenport, who the room belonged to, and depicted Adam and Eves fall from Paradise, hence, the paradise room. The bed is a key feature of this room, although it’s not Dame Dorothy’s original bed but it is Tudor in age. It’s a straw stuffed mattress that lies on rope slacks. The ropes did have a tendency to become loose so the servants would have to pull them to make sure they were tight before the bed was used. This is where the expression ‘sleep tight’ comes from, as if the ropes were loose the bed would dip and that night’s rest would be an uncomfortable one.
This room has had reports of it being haunted but that might be because of its interesting past. In the corner of the room there is a small cupboard in the wall, this is a priest hole. At the time Bramall Hall was occupied Catholicism had been outlawed and if you were caught practising the faith you could be punished by death. The hole was to enable the priest to hide or escape (its been suggested that before being blocked up this hole was once a tunnel) if someone unexpected called or if officials came to search the house. It was quite a smart move to have the priest hole in Dame Dorothy’s room as she was the Lady of the house, if anyone was searching the house they would search her room last out of respect, giving the priest extra time to scarpa.
On the day all of the tours that required booking were full and the extra tours on the half hour also ended up being full, overall 140 people toured Bramall Hall, delving into its vast and interesting history. Heritage Open Day in Stockport was a huge success. If you came along, be sure to tell your friends!
Bramall hall is not our only site, obviously, and as part of a HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) induction last week, I visited three more; Staircase House, Stockport Story museum and Hat Works. As these sites have collections that are over seen by the Curatorial Services I visit them on a regular basis and have written about them on this blog before. If you want to find out more about any of these sites, you can do one of two things; 1: click on the name of the site you are interested in, it is linked to take you to that sites website, or 2: on the right hand side of this page there is a list of categories, find the site you are interested in and this link will show you all the blog post in which I have previously discussed that site.
However, on the HLF induction we also visited a site that is not one of ours; Stockport Plaza.
Stockport Plaza is situated in the very centre of Stockport town centre. It was built in 1932 by the Read, Snape and Ward Circuit and was one of 10 built in the Manchester area. The architect, William Thornley, was responsable for as many as 15 cinemas in his career. The design he worked from was based on that of the Regal cinema in Altrincham, built in 1931. The Regal was devastated and destroyed in 1956 by a fire.
The site previously belonged to a row of cottages and was chosen due to its central location. The residents were paid to relocate. However, one refused to leave until the very last moment and reportedly said she would come back to haunt the cinema after her death.
The Plaza proved difficult to build as it is literally built in to the Sandstone cliffs that surround Stockport. The back of the stage is right up against the cliff wall and this explains why the front is made up of numerous doors; there is no other escape route but these front doors. During construction 10,000 tons of rock had to be removed down to a depth of 42 feet and then the building had to secured in place by 111 rock bolts, directly in to the cliffs rock face.
The Plaza is a beautiful building showing decoration influenced by Egyptian and art deco themes. The outside is decorated with neon lighting giving the Plaza a stunning appearance in the evening, whereas, the inside is decorated with approximately 6000 bulbs around the auditorium in various colours that can be subtly changed throughout a performance.
The Plaza was opened with its first show on Friday 7th October 1932. It was the first of its kind in the town and became hugely popular which was evident by the profits of over £5,000 in the first year. Showing a mixture a live shows and films for all the family, the Plaza met Stockport’s entertainments needs. But in 1965 the Plaza was sold to the Mecca group and for the next 20 years it would be used as a bingo hall, with many damaging alterations being made.
Luckily in 1988 it closed and the Plaza was grade II listed by English Heritage and identified as the best surviving super cinema in North England and was noted as suitable to once again be functional. In 2000 the Stockport Plaza Trust formed with the hope of saving, protecting and operating the Plaza. The group of dedicated volunteers initially raised over £3 Million to put towards some early stage restorations and the reopening of the Plaza as a cinema and theatre once more.
Restoration is still on going, in recent weeks the stage has been re-floored with Canadian wood once used for basketball and the circle is currently being taken back to its original height after being altered in past years.
On our tour we were shown behind the scenes of the Plaza, including dressing rooms and the projection room. We were shown the key points and features of the day-to-day running of the cinema as well as some curiosities; including a seat on the very back row big enough for two people on a date to share!
The Plaza truly is a beautiful building with an eccentric past, you can follow up to date information about their restoration program on Twitter, HERE.