Edgar Wood was born in Middleton in 1860 to parents Thomas Broadbent Wood, a wealthy cotton mill owner and his wife Mary, and was educated at Queen Elizabeths Grammar School as it was then known in the town. An artistic child, Edgar didn't want to follow his father into the cotton trade preferring to be an artist so it was decided he would study architecture. He was apprenticed to Manchester firm Mills & Murgatroyd, passing all his examinations and becoming an associate at aged 25 in 1885. He set up shop in Middleton where his mother gave him his first commission, the affectionately remembered shelter and drinking fountain which was erected in the town centre to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee.
Edgar's skill was applied to the design and construction of many buildings in Middleton and surrounding areas including domestic houses, shops, schools and churches. 33-35 Rochdale Road, built in 1891, can be seen today as an enormous semi-detached pair of houses oozing character. These were known as Redcroft and Fencegate, Redcroft being Edgars own home and studio. Fencegate was built for William Wiggins, Edgar's father's mill manager, who during the 1914/18 War was the Mayor of Middleton. Edgar also built neighbouring 37 and 39 Rochdale Road. In 1892 he moved to premises in Manchester and gained a reputation across Europe.
He designed the impressive Manchester & Salford Bank built in 1892 on Market Place which is nextdoor to what is now The Royal Bank of Scotland. Over the road from his own home, he designed a row of houses with a shop on the end at 34-48 Rochdale Road in 1895. The houses here feature an unusual pair of overlapping gables and the living area over the shop has a large corner bay window which must also be a great feature from inside.
Edgar founded The Northern Art Workers Guild in 1896 during the Arts & Craft movement following pioneer William Morris. He designed his biggest church built here in Middleton in 1899. This is Long Street Methodist Church and consists of several buildings around a courtyard. Constructed in brick and red sandstone the design is of a gothic style combined with the Art Nouveau style popular at the time and is recorded as an outstanding listed building.
Further up the west side of Rochdale Road are another pair of semi's designed by Edgar and built in 1900 at numbers 51-53. These houses today retain the original 'leaded lights' in the windows rarely seen nowadays with double glazing and the saving energy trend. Whilst the 'fake' version was popular throughout the 1990s, nothing compares to the glistening effect created by the way real leaded windows catch the light separately in the individual panes, a reminder of the work and craftsmanship involved in putting all these tiny panes of glass together. It breaks my heart to see all too often, the destruction of these works of art by today's thugs who delight at throwing stones at such masterpieces. Evidence of this can be seen at the time of writing at the old Providence church at the bottom of Townley Street.
In 1902, Edgar's father commissioned him to design a flight of steps leading up to a walled contemplation area overlooking Jubilee Park, known as an Exedra. He designed 36 Mellalieu Street built in 1906 and although fairly plain it is very distinctive and was featured in a recent property programme on TV. I believe it was built for the son of the founder of the local Middleton Guardian newspaper and was the first of a trend of flat roofed properties giving it an almost fortress like appearance with its familiar Edgar Wood ground to roof bay window feature. Edgar co-designed Durnford Street School on Rectory Street, built in 1908, which was considered unique in design and thousands of children thrived within its walls right up to my own generation. Also in 1908, busy Edgar designed the shops at 33-37 Manchester New Road now known as Middleton Gardens. With the geometrical pattern incorporated into a predominately white tile feature of the facade, these shops were locally nick-named White City.
These are just a small selection of his huge portfolio and as well as being an artist and architect, Edgar also became a keen conservationist and town planner and was President of The Manchester Society of Architects in 1911. He worked in other areas such as furniture, stained glass, metalwork, artwork and even jewellry design and was considered the most important architect in the North of England. Much like his famous Scottish counterpart of the same period, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, both are still regarded as being way ahead of their time. Edgar retired to Italy to paint in 1922 where he died in 1935.
His fountain was moved to Queen Street in 1925 and finally demolished in 1960, ironically, the 100th anniversary of his birth. An education shake-up left the Durnford Street school surplus to requirement by the 1990s leaving its future unclear. Many wanted to see it put to other uses but a flaw detected in materials used at the time of construction rendered the building unsalvageable and it was demolished in 2002. The 'White City' row of shops in the gardens have listed building status but are earmarked for demolition to make way for access to the huge new Tesco development at the time of writing which poses the question of how protected is a listed building? There are usually strict laws in place but it would seem Rochdale Council are above these laws and are able to bring in the bulldozer regardless, and it seems yet another piece of Middleton heritage is doomed. I read this information for myself when all these plans started and I am truly hoping I have either been misinformed or plans have since been changed to save this row of shops.
Written by the editor. July 2008
Updated August 2012. I'm pleased to say White City shops did not become victim to Tesco and are still standing!