Ah, the old Crown & Kettle, haunt of villains, ladies of the night … and journalists


HOW lovely to see the gathering of former Sunday Express Manchester staff featured in the Drone at the iconic Crown & Kettle pub in their wonderful city.

By chance, my chum Roger (Buffy) Watkins and I were talking about the former drinking HQ of the Northern staff only the other day as we sat having coffee and cakes (yes, coffee and cakes, not ale) in a quaint tea shop in a Lincolnshire village.

Both of us have drunk in the Crown, once the haunt of villains, ladies of the night, coppers and, who would have guessed, journalists and newspaper folk, as Manchester Expressman Andy Chapman says.

Buffy supped there more than me because he worked in the Black Lubyanka of the North before coming to London. And I always supped there when ‘helping out’ in Manchester, especially in the era of those golden E-shifts when the Star was launched … and the week the London staff came up to produce the paper in the North in case of a bomb attack.

For those who might not know, the Crown & Kettle sits prominently on the corner of Great Ancoats Street's junction with Oldham Road in an area known as New Cross, and dates back to 1734, although it didn’t become a pub until the early 19th century.

It was refurbished in 2020 but still features a fireplace with a roaring log fire and a snug at the rear with wooden panelling, said to be timber from the ill-fated R101 airship, I was told. Sadly, it was closed for a while because some hooligan burned part of it down.

Sorry to hear from Andy that he is in a period of nostalgic mourning that the old pub has changed its drinks menu to a list of trendy craft beer with weird and wonderful flavours and the Wilson’s mild and bitter have gone, along with the Guinness.

They don’t know what they’re missing today, eh? Although some of those craft beers are pretty good … depending on prices. A bit more dosh than mild and bitter cost in the Seventies … 2s.3d.

A century ago, there were 18 pubs in a 300-yard stretch from Ancoats, and now sadly the Kettle is the last. Like so many pubs across the country, they have put up the shutters.

Those of us who went North to work on the Express, even briefly, would probably have popped into the Land ‘O’ Cakes in Ancoats too … a fine old pub from 1791, but that sadly closed back in 2005.

All that’s left is its signage which is on display in the yard of one of the new luxury flats in the old Northern Daily Express building across the road. I wonder what Andy and the lads and lasses think of the trendy hallways, coffee dens and work hubs there?

Today's new Glitzy Express apartment building in Manchester

Both Buffy and I always loved the feel of the Kettle, the ambiance … a real drinker’s pub, if you get my drift. The wooden floors, the exposed brickwork … and of course that wonderful ornate, gothic ceiling with chandeliers, described in Time Out as the “best pub ceiling in the world.”

Looking at the promotional pictures I could still feel its history from centuries long past, even though it has been ‘done up’ as they say. It seems to have lost little of its historical appeal. Even the chandeliers are hanging on wooden supports from over 200 years ago. But of course, Andy and his fellow drinkers who met there may have other ideas.

Buffy now goes North regularly as his daughter, journalist Leah and husband, former Express reporter Graham Dudman, live there, a stone’s throw from Ancoats Street and the Grade II listed pub where Express photographer Jack Kay once popped in for a pint with his pet duck, which was served water in an ashtray. Graham still pops in for a pint too.

For those people in London who don’t know, the Kettle building was originally home to a Georgian court house which had the power to hang people and the hanging chamber is still said to be under the men’s urinals, with a rumoured secret tunnel, now bricked over, that links it to Strangeways jail.

There are gruesome tales about the area of New Cross, some documented. And for Drone readers who never ventured to the area, I thought I would paint a picture of what it was like. Centuries ago, it was a meeting point for traders … and people with opinions. A kind of Hyde Park Corner where people often came to blows. In fact, it was also the site of rebellion … and even murders.

The Manchester City News said of it: “It a place where the poison of discontent could flow freely, where wrongs were proclaimed, remedies suggested, and hopes entertained of their realisation.” At the beginning of the 19th century, before the glass art deco building of the Express rose from the ashes of a warehouse, the first publishing businesses set up there to mass print ‘Penny Broadsides’ – the production of posters and public declarations, all printed on both sides of a single sheet.

A Penny Broadside

They were distributed by hawkers and pedlars in the area and eventually all over Manchester. They announced upcoming events; plays and songs; even political views. Like the rest of the country the city was benefitting from the mechanisation of the print industry and by the mid-19th century, the Broadsides were reporting murders and other crimes. They became the newspapers of the day.

Some of the ballads came from the theatres or music halls, but most were penned by prolific, yet little-known, ballad-writers. Authors’ names rarely appeared on the sheets and ballads contained lyrics only, with no musical notation, but a popular tune might be suggested to sing along to. Some ballads were related to current or historical events, national or local, while others cover universal themes such as love, poverty (and there was plenty of it in New Cross) or mortality.

Printers sometimes decorated sheets with crude woodcuts from their stock, but these were often little to do with the story and were just random choices trying to get as near to the storyline as possible.

It wasn’t long before cheap, four-page-newspapers produced in the area came along with masthead and the cheap novels nicknamed ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ burst on the scene too, as Ancoats quickly became the Fleet Street of Manchester, and the Penny Broadsides faded away. But they are still a wonderful document of the history of our country, and you can read some of them in public and university records today. I did and they are wonderful, especially some of the ballads.

Meanwhile, as the print works and publishing companies moved in and dug out foundations for their new buildings in New Cross, they made some gruesome discoveries from centuries before. They uncovered many bodies from murders, suicides, and hangings. Most were unrecorded.

Some had wooden stakes, or a village cross plunged through their chests to allow evil spirits to escape. This is why they were buried around New Cross which sits on a crossroads, providing routes for evil spirits to escape.

The whole area suffered from gang warfare, poverty, and deprivation for years, so people weren’t shocked about finding bodies. It happened regularly in life in the slums. And the newspapers were right in the middle of it. Plenty of news stories there.

Poverty in Ancoats Street

In 1823, a Manchester Chronicle reporter wrote of trouble outside the Crown & Kettle, and two pubs in the Oldham Road: ‘At the ends of many streets stand groups of Irish ruffians who appear to feel no interest but in ill-treating the peaceable and unoffending inhabitants.’

And it was at New Cross that the Army used cannons and rifles to quell the crowds during the Bread Riots of the 1800s when there was a shortage of flour and people starved.

Of course, there was a Press Club in Manchester as far back as 1870, where hacks and inkies let off steam in the early hours, I am told. It was in Queen’s Street, opposite the old offices of the Manchester Evening News on Deansgate and the grand old white art deco building of the Daily Mail — both since demolished for the creation of shiny new developments.

Back in the 70s, 80s, 90s and our own heyday of print, it was the perfect location for hacks to head straight over the road to sink a few and play some pool — one Manchester Evening News sub was reported to have played a drunken round with snooker legend Alex Higgins at 3am. Higgins won of course.

At the end of the 18th century, there were more newspapers in Britain than ever before, and they were bigger. By the 1930s the Express was the most circulated newspaper in the world with sales of 2.25million and needed to expand to reach wider audiences quicker.

So, Lord Beaverbrook commissioned three new buildings, one in London, one in Manchester and one in Glasgow to handle printing and news gathering across the country.

When New Cross, the Fleet Street of the North, was chosen as the Manchester site, the news was welcomed by dignitaries and politicians in Manchester who believed that the days of the slums would soon be over. The Express would bring jobs and prosperity to the area. It did, giving work to hundreds of new staff from the canteen to Editor’s secretaries and people tying up bundles of newspapers.

Beaverbrook wanted his buildings to be of high quality to enhance the reputation of his quality publications which screamed Empire, Truth and Justice! And so he hired renowned engineer Sir Owen Williams to create them. Williams was the principal engineer for Wembley Stadium and Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction.

But even though all three buildings had an Art Deco design the Manchester one was the only example of Wiliams’s work as he handed much of the design of the other two over to London architects Ellis and Clark. Art deco was the term used to describe 1920s/30s architecture that had bold, sometimes rounded shapes and strong colours used in glass and on the front of buildings.

At the time the world was in the aeroplane age which gave birth to the shape of architecture too. Everything new became streamlined and modern. It was all about long lines, curving forms, movement and technology. Trains, planes, cars and ocean liners took the style, even fridges and telephones.

The Manchester building was considered to be the best of the three Express works because of its position enabling the glass and black-faced cladding to shine in daylight, especially with the concave shapes. The printing presses in the Press Hall were given a shopfront window so that people passing by got a view of the paper running off the machines. It was like a restaurant throwing open the doors to its kitchen.

The London building opened in 1931, followed by Glasgow in 1937 and the Manchester building in 1939.

Today the Express is just a shadow of its former glory and its newspaper management a shadow of the Beaverbrook and Harmsworth dynasties. Even in our time, journalists were still reasonably highly valued but now there appears little regard for their work and love of their title. They were kingpins of their buildings and words were their pride. The Editor was the be and end all. Journalists didn’t work for management or HR, and certainly not for the advertising department. They worked for the Editor and the masthead.

We lived through a time of reversal. The acorn didn’t grow to become an oak tree. The oak tree shrivelled back to an acorn.


Ok, So I’m getting old. But why does the audience cheer, clap and stand as young singers murder classic songs from the past on TV’s The Voice, ignoring their haunting melodies and replacing them with just the tuneless words screaming at the high notes? A mystery to me. Moon River, that wonderful Danny Williams hit from the Sixties, bore no resemblance to the melody at all, like so many others these days. My God, even Tom Jones, seemed to like it. Good luck to the lad singing it, but such a shame.


I understand The Guardian has a political field to plough and hates the Tories, fair enough. But to say, as it did, this week, that most people in Britain have changed their minds and now want open borders and back rising immigration, even the boat invaders, because of the benefits they bring, is simply a porky! Where do these journalists live? The anger in the pubs, clubs, restaurants and behind the chintz curtains grows. Does the entire Guardian staff now consist of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s best pals?

"Copy down, please Jack ... when you've emptied your pipe!"


11 December 2023