'It's a very special place': The end of Owens Park Tower

-Credit: (Image: Jeni Carr/Paul Carr)
-Credit: (Image: Jeni Carr/Paul Carr)

It’s the mid-1980s, and a desperate lover or concerned friend has arranged sheets of A4 paper to spell out ‘ROB PHONE ME’ across a south Manchester tower.

It’s the early 1990s, and there are pencils and papers pinned to residents’ doors in a south Manchester tower so they can leave one another messages.

It’s the mid-2010s, and the fire alarm has just gone off in a south Manchester tower for the fourth time that night after someone drunkenly burned a late night snack.

READ MORE: The faces of Mancunian workers who'd be amazed at what's happening to their mill now

Many will already know the tower referred to: Owens Park, the home of thousands of students. For some, it would have been their first home in the city.

And it gave a hell of an introduction to Manchester, as revealed by the memories of alumni shared with the M.E.N. They’ve been unearthed because, after 59 years, Owens Park Tower is being demolished.

Built in 1965, Tower was then the gold standard in student digs. It had sinks in every room, shared kitchen facilities as well as a dining room, plus a music hall where the infamous Owens Park BOP student night would run until 2009.

It was at one of those events in the late 1980s that students The Chemical Brothers played their first ever gig. Other musicians who’ve lived in the tower include Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien.

More famous names also inhabited those walls. Rik Mayall, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jack Whitehall all lived there — with the latter saying it had ‘so many sordid memories’.

'ROB PHONE ME' is spelled out across the Tower -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr
'ROB PHONE ME' is spelled out across the Tower -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr

But, as the decades went by OP, as it was nicknamed, became something of a relic of the past. Its fit-and-finish couldn’t match up to newer student digs such as the Richmond Park complex built just behind it in the mid-90s which were used as the Commonwealth Games athletes village.

Even so, ‘the Tower’ — to give it its more ominous nickname — retained a patina of gritty charm that stayed with it until it closed in 2021. In its last years, it had one final swansong as the centre of Manchester’s student world — being the site of protests against lockdown fences and rent prices.

None of this would have been possible without the people that inhabited the 1,000 rooms. They built connections which often went far beyond university years.

“I met my future wife Katharine, in the tower five [fifth floor] common room where she was doing the everyman crossword in my Observer,” said Danny Dicks, remembering 1984. His contemporaries were Paul Carr and Jeni MacQueen — who now share the same surname, having been married for 36 years now.

Paul Carr takes in the south Manchester views from Jeni's 17th storey window -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr
Paul Carr takes in the south Manchester views from Jeni's 17th storey window -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr

“It’s a very special place for us, for obvious reasons,” Paul reminisced. “In early October 1983 Jeni and I met for the first time in one of the two lifts in the Owens Park Tower.

“It was my first day back in my second year as a Botany student, and Jeni’s first day in her first year to study Economics. She asked in that brief encounter if I was a first year student. At that moment I knew I’d met my future wife.”

A year earlier, when Paul first moved in, he had a baptism of fire: “I’ll never forget the first night when, after our familiarisation walk around the OP site, followed by an evening in the bar, a few of us stood waiting to cross the road to get a Prairie Dog from the Canadian Charcoal Pit opposite. Yes, we were somewhat worse for wear, but I’ll remember the unicyclist who almost collided with us forever!”

Jeni in her room on the 17th floor -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr
Jeni in her room on the 17th floor -Credit:Jeni Carr/Paul Carr

It was in Jeni and Paul’s day that ‘ROB PHONE ME’ appeared on the windows. Several years later, when Ruth Hennell lived in Tower, they had a simple method of communication.

“I’d have a paper and a pencil pinned to my door for people to leave messages when they’d been to my room and I wasn’t in,” she recalled. “Everybody did it. “The phone would ring on the boys’ floor below and we’d race to go and answer it. We’d pile into someone’s room to drink a bottle of Thunderbird cider before going to the Friday night bop.”

One of the first to move in to Tree Court was Maggie Cobbett, who secured a room in 1966. She stayed in the block next to the Tower because, at the time, it was men-only. The spirit of community was alive and well from the get-go, she remembered: “A few of the residents worked hard to produce a sheet to keep the rest of us up to date with everything that was going on.

“I think it may have been called 'Village Voice' after the one in New York's Greenwich Village. I remember one year reading a report on how volunteers were in very short supply for building the OP float for Rag Week [Raise and Give charity week, organised by the university] but in abundance for 'manning' it.

“At one time there was some kind of internal 'radio' system rigged up by engineering students through the radiators. I have no idea how it worked, but it did and was speedily suppressed by the tutors.”

Maggie's official photo ID from 1966 -Credit:Maggie Cobbett
Maggie's official photo ID from 1966 -Credit:Maggie Cobbett

The communal newsletters, radiator radios, bottles of awful cider and sordidity will soon be long gone. Demolition work has started on the Tower, to make way for a series of new buildings to provide space for '5,400 student beds by replacing the existing, older accommodation on site and delivering 3,300 updated bedspaces to meet the growing demand for high-quality, modern bedrooms across the popular campus’, according to the University of Manchester. It will be razed by Spring 2025.

Dr Simon Merrywest, Director for the Student Experience, added: “Owens Park has been home to tens of thousands of students over the years, and served our community really well.

“However, as we enter our 200th year as a University, we have a chance to create new residences which are more sustainable and better suited to students’ needs in the 21st century. I am sure that just as many memories will be created in the future by these new generations of students.”