Oldham Historical Research Group

Architecture in Oldham :
An Exercise in Looking

by Alex Balmforth


It is to Oldham's eternal shame that for a town built largely on the cotton industry there is no acknowledgement, no celebration or no memorial to the trade which gave this town its unique identity and economic foundation. This is a lamentable oversight which should be addressed before the last mill is demolished and all traces of Oldham's rich textile heritage are finally expunged.

Oldham is not a town noted for its architectural grandeur. However, the town centre embraces a delightful dissonance of architectural styles; from late Georgian, to High Victorian Gothick, to both restrained and playful Classical, Brutalist Modern and a charming hidden gem of Edwardian Art Nouveau whimsy.

As well as an abundance of building styles, a profusion of materials were employed in their construction. Brick, it has to be asserted predominates - bricks of varying quality, colours and firings, from humble reds to polychrome ornamental, semi glazed and glazed facing brick, through to carboniferous sandstones, limestone, glass and concrete.

Oldham's vernacular stone buildings are often constructed of dressed and undressed sandstone, known almost universally as 'Millstone Grit' …although this material should be properly be identified as a sedimentary freestone of variable quality; a mica, feldspar, quartz, 'grit' flooded, sharp-grained sandstone from the carboniferous coal measures. A good deal of this stone came locally from quarries in the Marsden, Mossley and Saddleworth areas. The towns 'polite' buildings are generally of ashlared sandstone/limestone.

Though for the most part the buildings in the area date from the early to mid 19th century onwards, there are several outstanding examples of late Georgian architecture and an austere but appealing mission church dating from the first decades of the 19th century.

Oldham is a town built on hills and is a study in how various architects, and builders overcame, addressed and exploited these difficulties.

The following is a look at Oldham's more notable buildings, secular, religious, polite and vernacular, even a former small cotton mill.


Greaves Street.

A charming building designed by the hugely important Middleton born, Edwardian Dandy, Arts and Craft, Art Nouveau architect, Edgar Wood. Compare and contrast its formidable depth, to the understated, slightly weak adjoining classical building. It was built, unusually for this area of Lancashire in an ashlared Cotswold limestone, which was chosen for its extraordinary pitted and fissured surface texture. Again contrast the building's assertive eaves, and the remarkable, self assured door case with its delightful etiolated decoration above the door, which, in turn aligns satisfyingly with the tall, narrow keystones below the windows at the second stage. Note also the vousoirs to the window openings are subtly joggled. The doors retain their original Art Nouveau lights, beautiful hinges and copper protection. (NB, July 2010 - It has now been removed - after an attack by thieves) Above the door case there is a pleasing tripartite light. (NB the lights appear blind - they are in fact pearled glass)

The roof is pitched and flagged (not slated) and features 3 powerful dormers with casement windows. This building is an outstanding example of the Arts and Craft, Art Nouveau approach to modern architecture. Though the façade is stone, the rest of the building is of brick. The rear façade of the building is asymmetrical and appears to have been altered.

It was constructed in 1902 for the then Town Clerk, Hesketh Booth, and his initials can be seen incised atop of the door case - as can the date, on the rainwater goods at the eaves.

Wood was equally thorough with his internal detailing. Later in his celebrated career he began to experiment with concrete and flat roofs, presaging the Arts and Craft inspired, 'Art Deco' movement of the twenties and thirties

Again this fine building is unheralded, almost forgotten, anywhere else in the UK the façade would be incandescently illuminated and warrant a blue plaque.

Town Hall

Constructed in three distinct phases. The façade facing the town's main thoroughfare on Yorkshire Street represents the first and earliest phase. Modelled on the Ionic Temple of Ceres in IIlissus near Athens and constructed of an unidentified close grained (Lancashire) sandstone. Completed in 1841, from plans drawn by the Architect, Joseph Butterworth The Ionic tetrastyle entrance is approached by a shallow series of steps, above, the columns a plain frieze and a neat almost unadorned pediment, within an escutcheon is Oldham's emblem, the owl. This is said to be a visual pun on the name of (Owl) Oldham. The entasis to the columns is perhaps a little overdone. However, there is a pleasingly crisply carved egg and dart (ovolo) decoration beneath the volutes. The lower entrance is rusticated, the door case is remarkably restrained and above this level the surfaces are ashlared. Over the pediment is a blind balustrade. The whole is surmounted by an ornate ventilation lantern. As with the building in Greaves Street the building to the rear of the façade is finished in brick.

The second phase comprises of various materials and is generally of a more ornate style, the third phase (C1920) is of a stylised Roman Ionic/ Corinthian. To the roof there are a profusion of chimneys, some of which bear a striking resemblance to those of Burghley House in Stamford.

The old building has now been empty for some time and stands like a former prosperous old lady, lately down on her luck. It is to the eternal shame of the Burghers of Oldham that this travesty of neglect has continued for what seems an age; this not a building of the first water, but it represents a sad indictment of the towns' administrators.

St Mary's Parish Church

The rebuilding of St Mary's church was proposed as early as first decade of the 19th Century. It was not until much later that a competition was announced for its reconstruction. Several architects submitted plans, including the man who was later, alongside AWN Pugin to design the new Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry (then plain Mr - he had so far yet to be knighted). The competition for the rebuild was eventually won by the architect Richard Lane.

The church is constructed from carboniferous sandstone, known as 'Millstone Grit'. Properly, a sandstone of the coal measures which is flooded with mica, feldspar, quartz 'grits' giving the surface a slightly rugged, craggy appearance. The quarry was local, possibly from nearby Saddleworth. Millstone Grit can be carved - though not as confidently or as boldly as limestone. It is styled in a homespun broadly perpendicular manner. The rebuilt church was consecrated in 1830.

The design nevertheless is confident and the square tower is crenulated and surmounted by four blunt coronetted finials. The nave is divided into six bays, each bay windowed in a distinct Commissioners perpendicular style, the roofline again is crenulated.

In 1967 to the east end a vestry extension was added. This appears to be a friable, red tinged Cheshire sandstone. The stone was salvaged from the demolished St Peter's Church which once stood in the area now occupied by the Spindles Shopping centre.

In the 1970's the church interior was controversially redecorated by Campbell Smith, working to the instructions of Mr Dykes Bower, Surveyor Emeritus to Westminster Abbey.

To the left of the west door is incised a Ordnance surveyors benchmark.

The area around the Church and adjacent to it, there are interesting, modest remains of earlier, much altered buildings.

Church Lane Terrace

As a group, the terrace is unfortunately let down by the old Law Courts (1902), which are visually a great disappointment and display architectural bad manners. They were began in 1895 to a design of Sir Henry Tanner.

However, the first buildings (7, 9,11) we encounter are an undoubted delight and ornament to the town. Late Georgian and of satisfying proportions, constructed of brick and rubbed brick with (sand) stone dressings. The door case to the third, 'Lord Chambers' (11) building is outstanding, engaged Tuscan columns and the opening decorated with a delicate rope carving, to the door case a subtle Adamesque oval pattera decorated with elegant leaves and over, a plain pediment bestowing upon this fine building a quiet dignity. The double fronted structure stands upon a stone stylobate, it is suggested this was salvaged from an earlier construction.

The three buildings facing the law courts are in all probability mid to late Victorian with identical doorways, pedemented and pilastered entrances. The window openings to the first storey are stone dressed and segmentally headed, whilst those above are modest sashes with gauged brick vousoirs.

The lane is visually pleasing with the west front of the Parish Church of St Mary providing a picturesque backdrop.

The adjacent Barclays Bank building is a huge construction designed by W Waddington in 1896.


Probably passed by hundreds of pedestrians daily and never noted are the elephants on an Art Deco building adjacent to Spindles. I am informed that this was once a tailors, however I cannot be certain. If anyone has information please let me know... The building once fronted a large traffic island, so the allusion is probably to a 'circus'.

Many thanks for this new information (contributed by Eddie Furniss):
This was Montague Burton's 'The Tailor of Taste' . It carried the same motif throughout the country. It was described as '... a three-storey Art Deco building with a remakable decorative faïence façade which includes stylised geometric patterning derived from the Egyptian design and elephant heads crowning the columns.'

Hilton Arcade

Built to a design by Wild, Collins and Wild, in 1893 this arcade presents a theatrical façade to Yorkshire Street. Constructed in three elements. The arcade is entered via a barrel vaulted triumphal entrance, over which is a stone stylised pilastered Roman Ionic bay, much decorated with rose cartouches to the spandrels. The third segment features a faux Venetian window whilst above announces the builder and over all this High Victorian ornamentation used to exist a Gallic inspired cupola and ogee dome, which was removed some time past. Thankfully the wrought iron entrance has not been altered and to the left of the entrance a billboard for a long since demolished pub, the 'Albion' which, thankfully has not been erased or 'improved'. Note the representation of Gladstone and Disraeli within the wrought iron entrance, and in a decidedly satirical manner the two are looking away from each other… reflecting that in reality each held the other In contempt.

However, for an exemplar in how not to restore a Victorian shopping arcade, one need look no further than this narrow boulevard. An inept glazed pitched roof has been chain sawed into the original shaped gable and distressingly, this vandalism continues; an out of context blind parade of shop fronts and a rhythm of surreal regency urns perched atop of pilasters completes the travesty.

Friends Meeting House

A curious, almost naïve assortment of styles from Romanesque to faux Classical. (I believe the Victorians called this style 'inclusive') Built over two levels and a basement from a locally sourced brick with (sand) stone dressings. The entrance is bisected by stout paired central columns which confers an unsettling duality to the whole and endows the building with an unsettling symmetrical façade, the segmentally arched windows to the second story above the string course echo the Romanesque entrance, whilst above a strong pediment is pierced by a quatrefoil window.

The side of the building is decidedly folksy, with gauged polychrome brickwork. At the second level the five window bays are segmentally headed and at the first regular square openings - furnished it would seem in their original frames. The basement level is partially visible from the library side.

The architect was a Mr Peter B Alley, himself a Friend and was completed in December 1869. The contractor was Emmanuel Whittaker Ltd., a business which still operates and is responsible for a number of notable buildings in Oldham. The Meeting House is presently used by the Oldham Theatre Workshop.


Is a building in the French manner by the architect Thomas Taylor and was completed in 1893, the facade featuring two pavilion roofs with ornamental wrought iron balustrades. The entrance is framed by polished granite Ionic columns. On the side of the building (Retiro Street*) is a carved detailed list of the early grandees. The building sits on an undressed granite stylobate.

*Retiro, literally 'park' or 'gardens'

Masonic Hall

Was originally the Union Club, designed by Thomas Mitchell and completed in 1869. This very austere Greek Doric façade is of coursed rubble and over two storeys. We enter via a fluted Doric colonnaded portico. Four of the windows to the upper storey are 'blind' possibly to reflect some tenet of Freemasonry. The building has a central pediment under which is a series of triglyphs To the rear is a later 1924 ballroom extension, which is of brick with stone dressings. Presently the building is unoccupied and up for sale.

The Old Central Library

This Victorian Gothic(k) building was built in 1883 to a design of Thomas Mitchell. The sculpture being completed by JJ Millson, curiously, the figure to the apex, girdled by a cruel wrought iron belt is of no deity, or individual in particular.

The design is symmetrical, and the main entrance is approached by a grand stone staircase, over the door is a carved stone tympanum featuring a patronising, egalitarian representative illustration of 'Learning,all the classes' . The central bay features a large decorated oriel.

The sides of the building are no less ornate - almost Wagnerian - and introduce a clerestory and portrait roundels styled in a decidedly late Victorian 'Walter Scott' triumphal mode.

The extensions including the lecture hall was installed a decade later in a similar stylistic approach to drawings by Winder and Taylor.

The Lyceum (and later the School of Science and Art)

The two 'double cube' buildings dominate Union Street and are arguably the finest public buildings in the town centre. The Lyceum was the first to be constructed in 1856 and was followed in 1881 by the School of Science and Art. The outer façade of the two buildings differ in minor ways, notably in variations to their entrances. I cannot properly identify the stone, but it appears to be a Lancashire sandstone.

They were designed by the architect NG Pennington (who additionally planned Greenacres Cemetery) and are of Italianate style with upper arched windows, a central bay with a pierced cast iron balustrade and below the roofline a Greek key stringcourse and a series of ornamental wreaths. Atop the roof is a blind parapet surmounted by classical urns. The lower storey is rusticated and the two levels are divided by a guilloche string course. The ventilation/ chimney to the rear is modelled in the manner of an Italian campanile, and is of brick with stone dressings. Of also suitable study is the terrace to the rear of the Lyceum.

These buildings were essentially 'Mechanics Institutes' and presently there is a sinister threat to the later, School of Art. On no account should these buildings be allowed to suffer the same shadowy fate as the sad Town Hall. Interested parties should be vigilant.

Prudential Building

This building was constructed from semi glazed/ glazed brick in the manner of the architect Waterhouse, however this building does not ring true. Certainly the Waterhouse approach is evident, but I feel though he may had have a hand in the design, his hand may not be the dominant one. The building is not as overtly 'red' as his earlier efforts and though broadly symmetrical it is by its geography, slightly asymmetrical. It was opened in 1901. Again, although not to everyone's taste the building stands empty and is rapidly deteriorating.

Union Street

Union Street possesses several other minor buildings of note. The United Reformed Methodist Church by Moffatt Smith and built in 1855 with a five light decorated West Window..., the lantern above and spirelette were removed some years ago. The church is lit by a lively clerestory.

There is a terrace of mansard roofed shops near the junction of George Street; some of which retain their original second storey glazing and glazing bars. A quite modernist Phoenix House, and the dead, decaying, embarrassing Grand Theatre.

Silver Street

A plain brick built mill, not much altered but interesting and unusual in that the iconoclasts have not demolished it. Now owned by a stationary company. 'Red Rose' it deserves further investigation.

George Street

The Independent Methodist Church. An austere Calvinesque meeting house in dark brick, which remains remarkably unaltered from its original 1815 template. The pedemented door case is probably a later addition. To the rear and front are 7/8 basement dwellings which provided the early church with a source of income. Internal features are retained. The windows are unchanged and internally to three sides runs a gallery. There is a queen post roof and box pews.

Horsedge Street

Once the vibrant heart of a theatrical Oldham. Site of the Theatre Royal, Coliseum and home to many characters. Now deserted and unloved. Many stars of the past have inhabited this area, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Karno, Buffalo Bill (William Cody) And the man who was responsible for closing the Theatre Royal down, Frank Randle. Who today is aware that the man who introduced weekly 'Rep' into the UK, Alfred Denville once plied his trade here? The remains of the Theatre Royal's back wall are visible as is part of the side wall on the aptly named 'Theatre Street'.

Additionally, on nearby Rhodes Street are the remains of what appears to be a 18th century wall and 'Gibbsian' doorcase.


In looking to the future we forget our splendid past. If we are to embark on a journey we must acknowledge our history.

Oldham has lost a lot, we must preserve and respect what is left - we must show consideration for this town's history, it's dignity. This has been an exercise in looking; many look, but do not see.

Picture Galleries

with image link

link to Gallery of Oldham Pictures

Photo gallery of Oldham Buildings,
details & materials

Link to gallery of photos of Town Hall Interior 2013

Photo gallery of
Oldham Town Hall Interior 2013


Selected Sources and Book Recommendations

There are a number of local books, booklets available to borrow or purchase from the library. The Local Interest Library is a repository of many ancient and modern books, references and documents pertaining to the town.
For books of wider interest, the following is a short, personal list of wider compass reference books I have found useful;

*The Pattern of English Building, Alec Clifton Taylor. Faber and Faber*
English Stone Building, Alec Clifton Taylor. Victor Gollancz
Ed., Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of … Oxford University Press
**European Architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner. Pelican**
English Architecture, David Watson. Thames and Hudson
The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson. Thames and Hudson
Victorian Architecture, Roger Dixon and Stephan Muthesius. Thames and Hudson.
The Home Front, Patrick Nuttgens. BBC Books (Social History and Architecture)
In Place of Fear, Aneurin Bevan. Quartet Books (Social, Political Thought, the rebuilding of Britain, post WWII)

* Essential reading!
** Sadly out of print, but well worth the effort of acquiring.
The Thames and Hudson series 'World of Art' are inexpensive, informative and invaluable

For a detailed examination of the 'Theatres of Oldham' and of the Theatre Royal in particular, type 'Theatre Royal Oldham' into Google/Ecosia/Bing and click on the 'Arthur Lloyd' website - usually the first on the list.

And I must include my own, not necessarily strictly architecture, favourite style; any good book on 'The Weimar Bauhaus. 1919-1932'


I would appreciate comments on this piece, as I would be grateful for notification of any mistakes/ oversights…

I can be contacted through the website email address (on the Home Page). Please include the words: 'forward to Alex Balmforth'

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