Alfred Alsop
Alfred Alsop, founder of
Wood Street Mission
 

 Victorian Manchester

Alfred Alsop founded Wood Street Mission in 1869.

Deansgate was then a narrow street and the site of Central Station was a squalid slum. Families were living in cramped houses with poor amenities. Many adults and even their children worked long hours in the numerous factories and mills around the city. Some were unable to secure employment and relied on the generosity of others to provide them with a meal for their families each day. A hundred years later Central Station was closed, Deansgate was replanned but Wood Street Mission carried on. Its original catchment area was the Deansgate slum as well as parts of Hulme and Salford. Today it covers all the wards in Manchester and Salford, but its original aim has not changed since that day in April 1869 when Alfred Alsop and a few of his friends conducted their first service in the street.

Alsop opened his first mission in Lombard Street and when that was demolished to make room for the railway station he acquired this site on Wood Street. The charity has been working from here since 1873. 

Alfred Alsop
'Deansgate Ragamuffins' c.1880 

Hundreds of meals were served from a soup kitchen and thousands of clogs and clothing were given away. At Christmastime hundreds of local kids were entertained to breakfast and thousands of toys presented. Over 400 tramps and criminals were invited to a meal and church service. Much of this may be thought ineffectual because the giving of a ‘treat’ merely relieved the misery for a short time but at least it did relieve the misery and gave some of the homeless men and women time to think and perhaps recover.

Holiday Camp

By the 1880’s the treats had grown to even larger proportions. Thousands of children were taken by train for a day at the seaside. 

Alfred Alsop
Crowds of children on Wood Street c.1900 

The queues formed before midnight and the trains left at 6am. Marshalled by volunteers the crowds of children were taken to the beach at Southport where they were fed and entertained. By the standards of those days to travel by train was an adventure and to see the sea was beyond the dreams of most children living in the city slums.

Back in Manchester the streets were searched at night for homeless boys sleeping in doorways and under market stalls. A home was set up in Wood Street and in Hulme where they were lodged and placed in regular employment. Many were helped to emigrate to Canada. A body of workers was built up from the people who originally came for help and when Alsop died in 1892, at only 47 years old, he was succeeded as Superintendant by John Richardson who in his youth had been a violent character himself but who had reformed on joining Wood Street. 

Alfred Alsop
Holiday Camp, Lytham St. Annes c.1900 

The trip to the seaside was developed by the building of a seaside camp. Temporary buildings of corrugated iron were erected among the sand dunes at St Anne’s, so that eventually there was accommodation for 120 children. The meals provided might not be approved by modern standards but they were nourishing and they were regular. The dormitories could hardly be thought cosy but at least every child had a bed to themselves. That the scheme was a success is evident from the number of reports from people later in life that recalled those trips with vivid memories of the beaches and camp life.

Building Renovations

The Manchester building had become too cramped for the numbers it attracted and was rebuilt and enlarged between 1896 and 1907. The Christmas breakfasts and the Boxing Day toy distributions became a familiar feature of Manchester life, frequently attended by the Lord Mayor. We still enjoy the support of the Lord Mayor today and receive visits to our work as part of their annual engagements.  

Alfred Alsop
Homeless men at Wood Street Mission c.1910 

Wood Street Mission has always been proud of its capacity to carry on with the ordinary small day to day acts of charity whilst being able to expand quickly when there is a great need. In the first decade of the 20th Century it showed that it had lost none of its adaptability. During the severe unemployment that lasted for a number of years, thousands of homeless men were helped. They were given a meal of bread and soup, and provided with sleeping quarters in the building here at Wood Street. The distress of those days is recalled by one of the staff who said that men who had twopence were asked to leave to make room for those who had nothing. Twopence would buy accommodation in a common lodging house.

In 1913 the charity was fortunate in engaging the services of George Herbert, although the First World War prevented him taking up his duties for a while. It is remarkable that during this war period the charitable calls on our work diminished, which was perhaps fortunate because most of the male voluntary workers enlisted and served in HM Forces. Throughout the war, children were taken to St Anne’s for holidays and the ordinary day to day work of Wood Street continued. The holiday camp was used for a short period for Belgian refugees and the Manchester building was used from time to time by the police and Red Cross Services.

50 Years on – a time to reflect

In 1919 we celebrated our 50th anniversary and it was decided that a seaside Holiday Home be built to replace the temporary camp, which had seen over twenty years of hard usage and was becoming beyond repair. The appeal was launched and in 1922 a fine new home was opened in Squires Gate, Blackpool which was to serve for over 40 years. In each of those years at least 1,000 children were given a seaside holiday. There were 7 acres of playing fields, a swimming pool, and a playground with swings and roundabouts. The children were entertained free at the Pleasure beach, the Tower Circus, the Ice Palace and the South Pier and the residents of Blackpool worked with Wood Street to ensure that the children had a holiday to remember.  

Alfred Alsop
Father Christmas visits Wood Street c.1930 

At Manchester the traditional activities were continued. Christmas was marked by the toy distribution and parties for old and young, the distribution of clothing went on all the year round and being in Lancashire it is not surprising that clogs continued to be issued even into the 1940’s. There were cinema shows, sewing classes, bible classes and a social club for young people with varied activities such as football, cricket and rambling.

The boy’s home had long been discontinued but some rooms in the building were set apart to be used as a refuge for girls in trouble.

During the Second World War the Holiday Home was requisitioned by the Government and part of the Manchester building itself was adapted as an air raid shelter.

The Forces Christian Fellowship held regular Sunday meetings, which were attended by over 37,000 men and women throughout its lifetime. The building here at Wood Street was used as a distribution centre for the return of evacuated children and even on two occasions provided emergency sleeping accommodation for a hundred American soldiers.

The Post Second World War Period and the Welfare State

After 1945 the full activity of the charity soon revived. The Holiday Home began again to give a free holiday to over 1,000 children each year and as restrictions were removed the Christmas programme resumed its former glory. The Youth Club which had been set up in 1944 prospered and for the first time in many years fielded a football team. The younger members of the congregation here at Wood Street produced a number of Nativity plays.

It has been said before that Wood Street Mission had always been adaptable but a period was approaching when all its powers would be needed. The Welfare State began to take over much more of the work of voluntary charities and the charity began that close co-operation with statutory welfare workers, which still goes on today. The re-housing of a large part of the population of Manchester and Salford in the distant housing estates caused a fall in the numbers attending the chapel here at Wood Street. Only the distribution of Christmas gifts and the giving of free holidays reached the former numbers because of the policy of the Management Committee of extending our work to other wards within the Manchester and Salford areas.  

The Lord Mayor visits the Youth Club, 1969

For some years the fate of the charity hung in the balance but the redevelopment of Manchester and Salford began to bring a large number of people back to live near the City Centre. Many of these were large families who needed help. In 1962 the ‘bulge’ of adolescents began to make its presence felt. The provision available for youth proved inadequate for the large numbers of young people who thronged the City Centre and had few places of resort other than expensive places of entertainment. Some of the coffee bars frequented were so bad that the Manchester Corporation obtained statutory powers to deal with them. By 1963 the Wood Street Youth Club had over 600 members and an attendance on a Friday night of over 200. We not only provided a place of resort, which was popular and wholesome but set up an Advisory Service so that any adolescent with a personal problem could discuss it with a skilled counsellor in complete anonymity. The counselling was supported by expert medical and psychiatric services.  

Outdoor activities at Birchfield Lodge, 1971 

100 Years on – The journey continues

Birchfield Lodge, a large mansion in nine acres of ground at Hope, Derbyshire in the heart of the Peak District was acquired to teach outdoor pursuits and give an experience of community life in a country house.  

In the matter of free holidays we encountered many difficulties. The Blackpool Home was proving too expensive to run and had to be closed in 1963 after catering for over 1,500 children during that year. In subsequent years some children were taken for a free holiday according to the money available, although this lasted only a few years beyond the closure of the Blackpool Home. However after a strategic rethink of our services and demands in the early 1980’s it was decided to sell Birchfield Lodge and concentrate on our main work of providing families in need with clothing, bedding, toys and food.

The work continues

Wood Street Mission continues its main focus on helping to alleviate the effects of poverty on local children and families through offering practical help. Each year we help over 10,000 local people with everyday items we all take for granted. Throughout our history we have always provided people in need with much needed clothing, a basic provision that is as much in demand today as it ever was. This alongside our annual Easter and Christmas projects help to relieve the pressures on parents struggling financially to provide for their kids. Our newer projects aim to try and break the cycle of poverty by engaging children more in their education, in the hope that they will then develop the necessary life skills to prevent them from being the next generation needing our help in the future.  

The Clothing Project, 2011

Wood Street’s partnerships with all its voluntary sector neighbours alongside key relationships with all statutory services across Manchester and Salford, all help ensure that the families we support today are those in most need. We remain a small charity set up by local people, supported by local people, helping local people in need have the chance of a better future tomorrow.

As we approach our 150th anniversary we can reflect on how Alfred Alsop’s vision of helping the poor souls he saw in need across the City back in Victorian times still remains our foundation today. The City may have changed; society may have changed; the world in which we all live certainly has changed; but remaining at our core is a belief and commitment that if we can respond to a need for help from a neighbour then we should and thanks to the generosity of so many local people today and throughout our history we have been able to meet that need for help.

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