From Textile Mills to Joy Division: A History of Rochdale in 10 Buildings

In just under 1000 years, Rochdale has developed from a medieval settlement to a modern town centre.

Here are 10 fascinating buildings and structures that tell Rochdale’s story.

1. A medieval bridge

Rochdale Bridge, South Parade, Rochdale © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221862
The River Roch and Rochdale Bridge © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221862

First mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, Rochdale developed around a crossing of the River Roch.

Initially, this was a ford but was later supplemented by a bridge, probably in the 14th century. The present bridge may contain medieval fabric but has been widened and partly rebuilt several times.

In 2016, the river on either side of the bridge was exposed again after being covered over for most of the 20th century.

2. A centre of the cloth trade

17 Yorkshire Street, Rochdale © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP248371
The former town house of the Vavasour family at 17 Yorkshire Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP248371

By the 16th century, Rochdale was a local trading centre of woollen cloth and yarn.

Many cloth merchants built large houses for themselves near the river. The earliest surviving one is 17 Yorkshire Street, which was built in 1708 for the Vavasour family. It was later used as an ironmonger’s shop, and from 1930 to about 2013 as a Lloyds Bank.

3. Late Georgian housing

Cloth Hall, 150 Drake Street, Rochdale © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221917
A group of early 19th-century houses at 150-154 Drake Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221917

In around 1800, Drake Street to the south of the river was laid out to connect the Rochdale branch canal of 1798 and its wharves to the town centre.

Over the following decades, the street was developed with houses, mostly in the form of terraces, but also a few semi-detached houses and grander, detached houses.

While the canal and wharves were demolished and infilled in the 20th century, the housing on Drake Street survives.

4. Domestic workshops

13-17 Milnrow Road, Rochdale © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221875
17 Milnrow Road, an early 19th-century domestic workshop © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221875

Prompted by the construction of the canal, the growth of Rochdale’s industries accelerated after 1800.

In the early 19th century, spinning took place in mechanised factories, while weaving was still done at home using hand-powered looms. Domestic workshops such as this combined the living quarters with a workshop on the top floor, lit by the distinctive row of windows.

5. Textile mills

Waterside House, Water Street, Rochdale © Historic England Archive. DP221867
The remaining range of the former Water Street Mill, now known as Waterside House © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221867

By the early 19th century, more than 90% of the local population was employed in trade or manufacture, mainly in the woollen and cotton industries.

One of Rochdale’s earliest steam-powered textile mills was Water Street Mill of the late 1820s. Its engine house survives today as part of the later warehouse and office range, which was given a decorative new elevation in 1872.

The mill closed before 1952 and the rest of the complex was demolished after a fire in 1979. The surviving range currently awaits a new use.

6. Pioneers of the co-op

The former co-operative branch store at 7-11 Oldham Road © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221845
The former co-operative branch store at 7-11 Oldham Road © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221845

In 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was founded to provide good quality food at fair prices. This was the beginning of the international co-operative movement.

The Pioneers opened their first shop in Toad Lane (today the Rochdale Pioneers Museum), but quickly expanded, with a network of branch shops. This building from 1864-5 is the earliest surviving Pioneers’ branch.

Originally it had a grocer’s and a butcher’s shop on the ground floor, and a newsroom and library for members on the floor above.

7. A spectacular town hall

Rochdale Town Hall © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221956

In 1856, Rochdale was incorporated as a borough, enhancing its prestige. To reflect its new status, plans were made for a suitably grand town hall.

W.H. Crossland designed the new building in the Gothic Revival style which was built between 1866 and 1871. Only 12 years later, a fire destroyed the tower, which was rebuilt to a different design by Alfred Waterhouse in 1885-7.

The interior is lavishly decorated with murals and stained glass, with numerous pictorial references to the local cotton and woollen production and trade.

8. A Byzantine-style church

The chancel of St John the Baptist is decorated with Byzantine-style mosaics © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP248394
The chancel of St John the Baptist is decorated with Byzantine-style mosaics © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP248394

After the First World War, the British textile industry slumped, resulting in mill closures and high unemployment in Rochdale. Nevertheless, several important buildings were erected during the interwar period, like this Roman Catholic church.

Designed before the First World War in a Byzantine Revival style by the architect Oswald Hill, the Roman Catholic church of St John the Baptist was built after his death in 1917 and opened in 1925.

9. Art Deco-inspired offices

The Rochdale Observer building of 1954-6 in Drake Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221852
The Rochdale Observer building of 1954-6 in Drake Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP221852

The Rochdale Observer newspaper was founded in 1856, reflecting the town’s new civic identity.

In the 1950s, its old headquarters were replaced by new offices. This was one of Rochdale’s first post-war buildings, although its design by Frank Bradley of Bolton harks back to the 1930s fashion for Art Deco.

Its foundation stone was laid in 1954 by the Rochdale-born singer and actress Gracie Fields.

10. Joy Division’s recording studio

Music studio at the corner of Kenion Street and Baron Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP235589
Music studio at the corner of Kenion Street and Baron Street © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP235589

In the post-war period, some historic buildings in Rochdale lost their original use and fell into disrepair.

Others were repurposed, like this small workshop building which in 1977 became a recording studio. It was used by many bands including Joy Division, who recorded many songs here including ‘Atmosphere’ in 1979.

Rochdale is one of our Heritage Action Zones, which aim to boost regeneration by encouraging investment in historic buildings. You can find out more about Rochdale’s history and architecture in our research report and about the work of the HAZ on our website.

Written by Johanna Roethe, Architectural Investigator at Historic England.

Further reading:

6 responses to From Textile Mills to Joy Division: A History of Rochdale in 10 Buildings

  1. artculturetourism says:

    Brilliant! Many thanks for sharing. Looks like I’ll have to write an article for you, with photos, on our historic town of Beeston-Nottingham! Our landmark building is Anglo Scotian Mills, once Europe’s largest lace curtain manufacturers, and the Wilkinson brothers who started it.

    • Allan Brodie says:

      Never knew there were such great buildings in that area. Really interesting article.

  2. Pamela Ashton says:

    Fabulous article, I am a very proud Rochdalian. We are full of energy culture and history.

  3. Sheila Acton says:

    Thank you, so interesting, I am a proud of Rochdale and look forward to all the planned regeneration.

  4. Maree Lee says:

    Do they have a list of workers, who were employed in the Cotton Mill, around the year of and preceding 1950? My adult children’s, paternal grandfather, James Clayton, worked in a Cotton Mill, before emigrating to Australia.

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