A Victorian Fantasy: The Potted History of
Mr Thomas's Chophouse
“The gastropub is one of the most interesting developments in the pub scene in the last decade – but it’s not really that new. More than 100 years ago Mr Thomas’s Chop House was doing much the same thing,”
Paul Ogden, the Manchester Evening News
WELCOME to Mr Thomas’s Chop House – once described by The New York Times as “probably Manchester’s most venerable pub.”
Its location is at the very heart of Manchester. Almost literally so.
It backs on to St Ann’s Churchyard, the site of St Ann’s Church, consecrated
in 1712 when Manchester was just a small rural town, and the point from which all milestones and distances from the city are measured. The church is a Grade I-listed building, representing Manchester’s only surviving example of English Baroque Architecture.
What is now St Ann’s Square was then Acres Field, the location of the town’s original farmers’ markets – created in perpetuity by royal decree on behalf of King Henry III in 1222. Cross Street itself emerged from what was originally Plungen’s Meadow. One of its most significant early buildings was the first Dissenters’ Meeting House created here by Henry Newcome in 1694. Wrecked by a Jacobite mob in June 1715, it was rebuilt and enlarged, eventually becoming the Unitarians’ Cross Street Chapel. It now sits below the Observatory office building. The congregation of this remarkable, nonconformist church gave Manchester its first six Lord Mayors and the country 12 members of parliament!
This particular site was originally occupied by a Georgian town house, hence its long, slim shape. Thomas Studd, who gave his name to the premises, first opened it as a public house and restaurant in 1867 at a time when Manchester had become one of the world’s wealthiest and most important cities.
The view from Tom’s front door in 1867: Manchester’s original Town Hall;
The location then was of the highest local significance as the site faced the city’s original Town Hall on the corner of King Street.
Manchester is widely regarded as the cradle of The Industrial Revolution, based on the rise to global prominence of its textile trade.
The world’s first railway station opened here in 1830 on Liverpool Road, where it remains now as part of the Museum of Science and Industry. Marx and Engels met here at the John Ryland’s Library in the 1840s. The Co operative Society was founded here in 1862. Britain’s first telephone exchange was established here in 1881- with 420 subscribers. And the Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1894 – turning an inland city, 35 miles from the sea, into the country’s third largest port for a while.
Manchester had become a place to do business in.
At this time a Chop House was part public or beer house, part restaurant and very much a meeting place.
And business certainly was done in Mr Thomas’s Chop House, which became by common consent a Manchester institution. Its contemporary, Sam’s Chop House, was established in 1872 on Market Street by Thomas Studd’s brother Samuel.
As the city boomed, the size of its administration soon outgrew the old town hall building and in 1877 they moved into Waterhouse’s masterpiece in Albert Square. The original became a library, but was eventually demolished. The Manchester architect Edgar Wood was among those who campaigned to save the facade of the building and it was dismantled and reassembled as a folly in Heaton Park, where it can be seen today.
Tom’s was a place where businessmen (and it really was male-only at the time) met, dined, caught up with the news and conducted their affairs over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meats, frequently grilled as ‘chops’ on the bone and washed down with fine wines or well-kept local beers. Little change there then.
All that remains of Manchester’s original Town Hall, save for the Yorkstone flags in the bar at Sam’s Chop House
The origins of the modern British pub can be traced back to Roman taverns. Then the Anglo-Saxons established ale houses that grew out of domestic dwellings. While the pubs of the early 19th century fulfilled an interesting public health role in British life. 1830’s Beer Act was designed to reduce public drunkenness. At the time beer was viewed as harmless, nutritious and even healthy. Young children were often given what was described as ‘small beer,’ which was brewed to have a low alcohol content, as the local water was frequently unsafe. Even the temperance movements viewed the drinking of beer very much as a secondary evil and a normal accompaniment to a meal. The beer of the day was thus intended to wean its drinkers off the evils of gin!
Architect Robert Walker had been commissioned to rebuild and extend the Chop House’s original premises and this version of Mr Thomas’s was completed in 1901. It was one of the first cast iron-framed buildings in Manchester.
The decorative, hand-cast terracotta blocks, Accrington brick and Victorian tiling finishes which are Mr Thomas’s principal distinguishing features were specified to combat the soot which was the curse of coal-fired industrial Britain in the Victorian era. These surfaces have been recently cleaned and restored to reveal the beauty and skill of the original craftsmanship.
The interior with its tiled arches and intense green lustre remains almost completely original.
The architectural and historic significance of this area was formalised when St Ann’s Churchyard was recognised by English Heritage as Manchester’s first Conservation Area. This unique little building was given protected Grade II-listed status at the same time in recognition of its own importance to the city.
Front illustration courtesy of Bill Ge/dart, inside images copyright David Boardman
The Enduring Family History Of Mr Thomas's Chop House
St Ann’s Church in 1745 (left); the view ftom the back door in 2016
Thomas Studd was the first licensee between 1867 and his death in 1881. His name lives on. His widow Sarah continued in post until 1896, when she was succeeded by their daughter, also Sarah, until 1900. The premises were then closed for a year, rebuilt and clad with the current facades (dated 1901 in the terracotta itself) by two gentlemen of Manchester’s Victorian era: James Binney and Frank Willoughby.
The James Binney Family Trust owns the building to this day. Actually, two buildings to be precise.
His father was Edward William Binney the geologist from Morton in Nottinghamshire. Edward settled in Manchester in 1836, founded the Manchester Geological Society and became secretary and president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He perfected the means of extracting parrafin oil from coal with his business partner James Young, another member of the same society. They set up the world’s first commercial oil-works, E.W. Binney & Co. in Bathgate, West Lothian in 1851!
Young was a fascinating man: a friend of the famous Victorian explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone, he established a competitor to the Manchester Guardian in 1846 and bought out his partners from the oil works in 1865. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1873.
Frank Stanley Willoughby was a builder, publican and wine merchant. He was responsible for the construction of the second building – behind the first archway in the front bar, which is where the two structures join at the ground level. Frank is registered as the licensee here between 1902 and 1912. He then went on to run Willoughby’s Wine & Spirits Merchants from these premises for 30 more years between 1912 and 1942.
Willoughby’s continues today as part of the J.W. Lees Brewery business, itself established in 1828. And itself still a supplier of fine, local cask beers to Mr Thomas’s Chop House.
The first floor was originally a private members gentleman’s club, a club ‘with no name,’ but with a colourful reputation before the First World War. The kitchens were originally located on the second floor. Whilst the rooms at the top received visitors from the gentleman’s club below.
Manchester’s two original chop houses, named after and once run by two brothers, are now joined in ownership and philosophy again. The Victorian Chop House Company is also a family business dedicated to serving great British food, made with fresh local ingredients, and to preserving the special things that make Manchester unique and different.
We’re a local, independent business, thank you for your support.
Roger Ward, proprietor