Pubs With Tales: Tommy Ducks

A famous Manchester pub that disappeared in the middle of the night. No, really!

Before we get down to business, some sad news. If you haven't already heard, Monster, the Brooklyn Brewery cat died earlier this week at the ripe old age (in cat years) of 91. Being a brewery cat must be a pretty copacetic life, and the little fella even had his own blog, although I reckon there might be one drawback in that a brewery probably has fewer mice than there would be in, say, a furniture factory, since a brewery has to meet certain hygiene and health codes which apply to all food production facilities and are intended to eradicate what to a cat would be 'good chasin' stuff'.

I've never been to Brooklyn Brewery but I figure one or two of our readers might have. Please post any memories of meeting Monster in the comments section below. I could have sworn I had a bottle of his namesake barley wine in my pantry but I guess I must have drunk it earlier this year, so I raised a glass of Black Chocolate Stout in his memory. Hardly a poor substitute. Wherever you are, Monster, may the rivers run with milk and the mice all have wooden legs.

Last week's piece about glassware reminded me of a pub that I visited once, and once only, and as you read on you will understand why both the glasses and my accent are relevant.

Tommy Ducks was a legendary Manchester pub. The story goes that its name came about because of an inept signwriter. Originally called The Prince's Tavern (perhaps because of the nearby Prince's Theatre), the landlord's name in the late 1860s was Thomas (Tommy) Duckworth. He wanted his name painted on the outside of the pub, but halfway through the job the signwriter realised he was about to run out of space and improvised. Whether or not this story is true or pure anecdote, the name stuck and the place was known as Tommy Ducks for the next 120 years or so.

This picture, taken in the 1920s or 30s, shows it to be in an industrialised part of town, and at the time Manchester was still known as Cottonopolis, so most of those buildings that aren't houses would probably have been cotton mills.  Fast forward several decades and the view was very different.

Comparing the two photographs you can see the same doorways, steps, and even the stonework abutment that was holding up a lintel across the entrance to the neighbouring building. Most of the surrounding buildings had been either bombed during the second World War or torn down in the intervening years, and if we zoom out you can get a better idea of its lonely position as the area around it was readied for redevelopment in the 1970s and '80s. That big old building behind it is Midland Hotel.

The pub was acquired by local brewers Greenall Whitley in 1906 and remained under their care, for want of a better word, until its demise. More of that later.

Tommy Ducks was notorious not so much for its exterior but for the questionable goings on inside its doors. Firstly, it wasn't the kind of place to go if you didn't support Manchester United or if you spoke with anything but a Manchester/Salford/Lancashire accent, which is why I went there only the one time (being guilty of neither of those two crimes). Secondly, some of the tables were made of glass-topped coffins, one of which had a skeleton (whether it was real is not known at this time) under the glass, and the ceiling was decorated with, and there's no delicate way to say this, knickers. On their first visit to the pub, women would be invited to remove their underwear which was then pinned to the ceiling for all to, umm, enjoy. This enraged some local feminists who tried, on one occasion, to raid the pub and take down the knickers (did I just say that out loud?), but the attack was repelled and the underwear stayed up.

In the 1970s there was a popular t-shirt showing two ducks in flight and in copulation, with the slogan 'Fly United' either above or below the image. Unable to resist the temptation, Tommy Ducks took the idea and used it both for posters and glassware. Of course, as soon as the glasses were broken out and put into use they pretty much all disappeared in a very short space of time as drinkers took them home, evidenced by that photograph which wouldn't have happened had someone not walked out of the door with them. I'd gladly hand over my first born child for one of those.

Towards the end of the 1980s the brewery was under pressure by developers to sell the property, and the brewery was keen to do so and make some cash, but local drinkers had persuaded the city council to put a temporary preservation order on the building, which had to be regularly renewed. By a sad quirk of fate one of the orders lapsed on a Sunday. Since all the council offices were closed for the weekend the order couldn't be renewed until Monday morning, and thus it was that in the early hours of a Sunday morning in February 1993, Tommy Ducks was reduced to a pile of rubble. It's said that one of the barmaids went there the next morning to get a coat she'd left behind the previous night, only to find the pub was no more.

Greenalls were fined £150,000 for their act of destruction but it was a fait accompli and Tommy Ducks was gone forever. A year later the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale held a wake for the pub and featured it on the front page of their Manchester newsletter. This is what stands on the site today. Thomas Duckworth must be spinning in his grave.