Jim had innate design sense and George Best flair and set about transforming Manchester’s Castlefield before anyone else did, writes Phil Griffin.
In 1984, I had friends who moved to a rented house at the bottom of a dark and dingy street of burnt-out sheds, car tyres and oil-filled potholes, improbably named Castle Street. They rented the rather lovely Lock Keeper’s cottage at the bottom, by the 92nd lock on the Rochdale Canal, in Castlefield Basin. Their landlord was a chain-smoking compact man with blush-red face and carefully cultivated hair that time-released dandruff to mingle with the ash on his well-cut lapels. He was Jim Ramsbottom, and he was a remarkable man.
Jim fetched items of surplus furniture from his small empire of betting shops, to help them set up home. He liked an audience, and often sat in the hall on the bottom stair, fag on, riffing on his far-ranging philosophy. Jim’s uncle Albert had a van and a shed in the wreck of the nearby Merchants Warehouse. Uncle Albert fed ducks on the water and kept an eye on Jim’s investments because, by now, Jim Ramsbottom owned the Gail and JS Bass warehouses on Castle Street, as well as Merchants and the coal yard stables opposite Lock Keeper’s.
Jim dreamt of transforming Castle Street into the Camden Lock Market of the North. Manchester City Council’s then-markets and street trading officer was having none of it. Markets were the council’s gig. Jim had no forward plan to develop his warehouse husks, until he met Nick Johnson, a Bolton lad from real estate agency Guest Shaw, who had just qualified in Urban Land Economics at Sheffield Poly. Nick was a keen canal boater, familiar with the Castlefield waterways. He saw the wharfs and warehouses, yards and coal drops, and wrote Jim a “flowery” five-page letter (Jim’s adjective), extolling their virtues and potential, if properly regenerated by good architects, and marketed using modern designs.
Jim had innate design sense (who knew from where?) and George Best flair (yes, Jim was a season ticket-toting thoroughbred Red). He read Nick’s letter and heard his pitch. He engaged architect Roger Stephenson (and disengaged him several times, across three decades of typical Jim turbulence) and graphics prodigy Trevor Johnson. They called the first building in the now-developed Castlefield district Eastgate. After litigation, liquidation, bankruptcies, sackings and Salford diplomacy, Eastgate finally completed in 1991. In the whole of that year there were virtually no commercial lettings in Central Manchester, save one: Eastgate fully let – two floors to Ocean Software, two to Centre Screen and sundry other “artsy-fartsy” types (Jim’s adjectives).
In 1981, Jim attended the auction of Raleigh Buildings on the Salford bank of the River Irwell at New Bailey. He didn’t get Raleigh, but he did spot a rat run by the river’s edge. He partnered with an old school pal, architect Dave Barnes of BDP, and fashioned a pub, The Mark Addy, memorialising a local hero who had rescued victims of a boating wreck. Jim’s wife Jean was landlady and sold beer and pâte to the habitual lunchtime clientele, from the courts, chambers, customs, accounting, print and television offices. The Mark Addy was a destination, with an outdoor terrace for globally warming days, and a model Jim would reintroduce a decade later, at Dukes92 in Castlefield.
Jim had decided to develop Castlefield because if not him, someone would come up from London and do it wrong. He engaged (disengaged and reengaged) the pantheon of late-century Manchester design-led architects Roger Stephenson, SimpsonHaugh, and OMI. Trevor Johnson (no relation to Nick) was go-to graphics. The late great Ralph Capper supplied furnishing. Oddly, for a man of vision, Jim did not see the market for city centre residential development. He lodged objections to most of it (including Castle Quay) on the basis that residents would complain about the noise of his passing pub trade, where office workers would not.
The development company Castlefield Estates and hospitality firm Elle R Leisure are Jim’s legacy. They are successful family-run businesses, and family (children and grandchildren) and business are what made the dainty (Nick Johnson’s adjective) all-swearing all-smoking Salford man tick.
Jim Ramsbottom put design, imagination and respect for the ideas of young people into the Manchester DNA. He had a temper, vanity and a vindictive twitch. There are those who will cringe, at some long-remembered barb, ill-tempered dismissal or financial stand-off. And there are those who will reminisce long into the night, recalling the ashtrays, the drinks, goals, near-misses and dismissals, praise and prejudice, remarks from the corner of the small smiling mouth, slow knowing wink and wave of a dainty hand to underscore a point as another hilarious and irrefutable discourse on urban reality is fluently laid out.
Jim Ramsbottom was no angel, but I would stand in a queue as long as Deansgate, just to be in his shining company a few moments longer.
Jim Ramsbottom, founder of Castlefield Estates, died last weekend aged 81.
Phil Griffin is an Ancoats-born freelance writer and curator of Pop Up Gallery