Manchester, gritty, workmanlike city that it was a hundred years ago, seems an incongruous subject for a book of comic verse and humorous drawings. In the first years of the last century however, a young writer and illustrator, Roger Oldham, set himself the task of producing just such a book. It must have felt a bit like running up a set of frilly shirts for the local rugby league team.
Oldham (1871 – 1916) was born in Lincoln but lived in Manchester for most of his life, his family having moved there when he was three. He attended Manchester Grammar School and subsequently qualified as an architect, working first at the firm of Charles Heathcote and subsequently from an office of his own. During his twenties he spent some time in London and is believed to have studied art at the Royal Academy.
Roger Oldham’s book, Manchester Alphabet, was published by the firm of John Heywood in 1906. As its title implies, it was constructed as a children’s ABC, although it holds appeal for adults too. The book contained 26 comical drawings of scenes from daily life around the city of Manchester, many of them featuring local landmarks. Oldham was a gifted illustrator. His drawings are imaginative, well observed and beautifully drawn. They have something of William Heath Robinson about them. Some of the verse has an ironic tone, which nicely captures that feeling that many of us will have had about our home towns (and indeed about some of our friends and relatives) – that it is their very lack of appeal to outsiders that endears them to us. Of “H” is for Heaton Park, Oldham writes:
Let children come
From dreary slum
And din of dusty highways,
And once a week
Play hide and seek
In nature’s leafy by-ways
The book is of course, long out of print and original copies are collectors’ items. If you want to see the drawings however, you will find them all reproduced, along with their accompanying verses, in Manchester Memories by George Mould, published by Terence Dalton in 1972. I am indebted to Mould’s book for the factual information in this post. Manchester City Art Gallery holds one original drawing from the Manchester Alphabet and has a full set of printed proofs hand-coloured by Roger Oldham.
The images here are from a group of four postcards I was lucky enough to find at auction. They were issued, I presume, at the same time as the book. The drawings on the cards are hand coloured in watercolour and my assumption is that this was done by the artist himself, since one of the four cards has had its verse added in ink and is signed by Roger Oldham.
Incidentally, as far as I can find, there appears to be no photograph of Roger Oldham himself anywhere on the web. I am therefore delighted to be able to add the image below, kindly supplied by a descendant of Roger who had seen this blog. It shows the artist with his his wife, Dorothy.