March 3, 2013
It’s funny how some places have an unexpected resonance. There is a garden tucked away behind the bustling thoroughfare of Deansgate, Manchester that draws me every time I visit the city. It is a small city park with colourful flowerbeds and formal lawns and I love to sit there, away from the traffic, and reflect in the quiet with the birds singing. There used to be a church where the park is now: St John’s. Founded in 1769 and demolished in 1931 there is a monument remembering the 22,000 people who were laid to rest in the church graveyard.
St John’s Church used to stand on the edge of one of Manchester’s most notorious rookeries. The dark alleys and filthy slums were home to criminals and the desperate poor. Detective Caminada lived in these streets in the 1850s and when he joined the police force in 1868, this ‘haunt of vice’ was his first beat.
The street that runs down to the gardens, St John St, is now lined with smart offices and prestigious law chambers but 150 years ago, the clientele were quite different. My 3 xgreat-grandfather John Dawson lived at no 2 in a ‘house of infamous notoriety’ that he shared with his family and five prostitutes at the very time that PC Caminada patrolled the street. iI don’t know if they met but I like to think they did. Although the area is now full of shiny glass office blocks and slick designer stores, I like to sit in the gardens and let my mind wander back in time to its murky past that still lies just under the surface.
Recently my relationship with the gardens took a surprising twist. My Grandad worked for Manchester City Council as a gardener but I’d never known where and when I asked my Dad, his answer sent a shiver down my spine: St John’s Gardens. I will think of him too next time I visit this special place.