A NAMELESS TOTEM POLE
WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn
LEAD IMAGE BY Russell Hart
READING TIME: 3 minutes
The frustrating search for the backstory of one of Portland Street's most distinctive buildings
82 Portland Street - what a delight that nameless totem pole of windows is. I asked the building’s oldest resident, Colin of Colin Jellicoe Gallery, if he had a nickname for it, “work” he shrugged. So henceforth it shall be known as the Portland Street Erection.
Either side of number 82 are former weavers’ cottages that would become The Circus Tavern (perhaps the smallest pub in Britain) and The Grey Horse Inn which take their names from the doomed voyage of an equestrian circus which sank on the journey from Manchester to America. Originally the enquiry office of Great Eastern Railways, the dimensions of this unique building are glaringly out of place amongst those, its neighbours.
Tall and slender amongst a row of dwarves; why does it stick out like that? I like to think that the building is a kind of beacon - a symbol of hope, space and light amongst those depressed, light-deprived workspaces that flank it.
For a long time I assumed it to be the oldest building in the row and the cottages built around it, but in fact it’s a later addition and so the way it stands out from the rest of the row was planned. Perhaps it was it part of a larger plan that was never realised, something more sympathetic that would have been built up around it, but it’s impossible to say.
Built in 1883 by J.M. Porter, Porter was 20 years old at the time and still learning his trade as an architect and surveyor with Messrs Farrer and Co. I thought it a little peculiar that an apprentice should have the building credited to him rather than in the name of his employer and I was curious to see Farrrer’s back catalogue so I looked them up and therein lies the mystery. Seemingly Farrer and Co did not exist.
I traced a Farrer and Co in London, a law firm with quite an impressive and far-reaching history and ties with Charles Dickens, who I knew had ties with Manchester, but my fleeting moment of hope was dashed when they emailed to say they have no records of ever having run business from Manchester nor any connection to Porter
For the most part the building was occupied by Great Eastern Railway, and the bricked sides of the building still show the outline of the old signage. After that it was occupied by a sportswear and textile store until, rather wonderfully, the site came totally full circle and became occupied by the current tenants - a hairdressers and an art gallery: the exact same trades that occupied number 82 before the current building was even erected.
A few weeks before I started my investigations a man from The Antiques Roadshow had visited Portland Street and mentioned to the occupants that it was likely the building dated back to the 1850s. I dismissed this date at first, but could he be right? If so then that would certainly mean the architect was someone else, but what does that mean for J M Porter and his mysterious employers?
In 1886 Porter moved back to his home in Wales and remained there, his company archives are held by Denbighshire County Council who can’t find any mention of 82 Portland Street.
Whilst researching the site I’ve called in to question the date, the architect, and even the firm where the architect purportedly learned his trade. Nothing adds up about this place, whole companies associated with it are seemingly non-existent and there’s not only gaps in the archives but chasms.
And that frustration, that’s the reason its a favourite building of mine. What I love, as my Columbo box set will verify, is a good old mystery and this one is a real head scratcher. Number 82 is wooing me with its slow reveal, a Portland Street enigma.