The Old Parsonage Stenner Lane Didsbury Manchester M20 2RQ info@didsburycivicsociety.org 0161 445 7661

Didsbury Spann`s Ghost Advertisement

This information was researched and written by Dr Diana Leitch ©

Who were the Spann Family who advertised their business on the gable end of the building which is now Costa Coffee in Didsbury?

The advert is now a ghost sign but originally read “TEL. 234 DIDSBURY, SPANN’S, BLINDS, REMOVING, CARPET, LINOLEUM & BEDDING WAREHOUSE”.

For many years the building was 35-37 Wilmslow Road until the road was renumbered (now 685) and the Spann family lived there and ran their business.

Like many skilled tradesman Thomas Spann (1876-1957) came to an expanding Didsbury Village at the end of the 19th century from south Cheshire where he had been born in 1876 at Cholmondeston Village near Nantwich to a family of agricultural labourers and farmers. However, jobs were changing and by 1891 he was a joiner’s apprentice, aged 14, living near Crewe and then by 1900 he was living at (Old) Oak Street, Didsbury, where he worked as a joiner. He probably met his future wife, Laura Martha Baldwin, a dressmaker, on the streets here as she was the eldest daughter of the Station Master at Didsbury Station. Her family had lived at No1 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, which was the Station House, since the late 1880s, a few years after the station opened.

On 4th August 1901 Thomas and Laura were married at Emmanuel Church on Barlow Moor Road. The newspaper report of the wedding described Thomas as a builder and contractor and said that the bride`s and all the ladies’ flowers were a gift from Mr Rogerson (florist) of Didsbury. In the years that followed they had three children Thomas (Tommy) b. 1903, Grace b.1907 and Richard Neville (b.1916). In the 1908 directories Thomas Spann is listed as a Joiner and Builder of 7, Oak Street and also a Joiner and Cabinet Maker of 35-37 Wilmslow Road. 35-37 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury became their home where they had established their thriving furniture and furnishing business.

When World War 1 started Mrs Emily Simon of Lawnhurst on Wilmslow Road turned her family home in to a Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers and Mrs Laura Spann volunteered there as a nurse in December 1914. Many Red Cross volunteers also raised donations across the community providing extra comforts for the recovering servicemen. In September 1914 Mrs Laura Spann was one of the “Didsbury Ladies” raising money for the National Relief Fund that had been established in August 1914 and within a week had raised £1 million in donations. The Manchester Courier carried the story

under the caption “Didsbury Ladies are making a special two days’ efforts to raise money for the Relief Fund. They raised £162 5s and 2d. The photographs at the time showed a Mrs. Braithwaite, Mrs. Spann, Mrs. McWilliam, and Mrs. W. Merrill, with “their organ”, outside Didsbury Railway Station. The Merrill family kept the wine and spirit stores at no. 25 Wilmslow Road.

The Spann’s furnishing business continued at 35-37 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, and is recorded as ‘Spann’s Ltd’ House Furnishers at 37 Wilmslow Road in a 1933 directory. No 35 was by then in multiple occupancy of various small businesses. Thomas and Laura moved to live at Leaside,

17 Brooklyn Crescent, Cheadle, and were living there at the time of the 1939 WWII census when Thomas described himself as a Master Builder with special duties in air raid precautions and rescue

services. Laura was described as a curtain specialist. In 1951 they celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary at their home in Cheadle. Thomas died there on 29th January 1956. A year later on 22nd October 1957 Laura, aged 81, emigrated to Sydney, Australia, travelling first class. On 2nd November 1960, aged 84, she died in hospital at Camperdown, Sydney, near her son, Richard’s, home.

The Spann’s older son, Tommy (1903-1957), served as a Private in the Army Service Corps at the end of WWI. On the 1921 census he is a joiner’s apprentice working in his father’s furniture and joinery business. Their home had 10 rooms and Laura’s widowed mother Sarah Baldwin, had moved in with them. However, Tommy’s great love was riding motor cycles. In the 1920s and 1930s he had a very impressive motor cycling career as a TT (Tourist Trophy) rider in the Manx TT (IOM) and in many

other countries. A fellow TT rider from Didsbury was Ralph Merrill (wine stores) who won the Manx Grand Prix in the 1930s. Tommy was a works rider for Sunbeam and AJS and married Millicent (Millie) Stevens, the daughter of the owner of the AJS company in 1930 in Wolverhampton. They had a daughter, Susan, in 1933 but divorced in1949. In the 1933 directory for Didsbury, he is recorded as a builder and a motor cycle agent at 31-33 Barlow Moor Road. In late 1945 he was Colonel in Command and Deputy Director of a Mechanical Engineering in West Africa. In 1956 he was living at Parrs Wood Court, but died in spring 1957 aged 54. In 2016 his collection of photograph albums put together by him since the beginning of his motorcycling career in 1921 were sold at auction.

The Spann’s younger son, Richard Neville (1916-1981), known as Dick, followed an academic career. Educated at Manchester Grammar School on a scholarship and then Balliol College, Oxford, he became Assistant Lecturer in Government at the Victoria University of Manchester in 1939.

Following wartime service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve he returned to his post in Manchester in 1945 but then held research posts in the USA before moving to New South Wales in Australia in 1954 as Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Sydney. He combined his teaching and research work with university administration for which he was greatly respected. He never married and died of a heart attack in Sydney on 25th July 1981, aged 65. A Spann Oration Lecture is held annually in his memory and there is an RN Spann Scholarship.

Their sister, Grace Spann (1907-2001), met research chemist Frederick (Fred) Fairbrother (1894- 1983) who was born and brought up in Heywood, Rochdale, where his father was a school teacher. He studied chemistry in Manchester and served in the RAF in 1918. They were married in 1930 and had a son Derek Michael Fairbrother in 1932 and a second son Jeremy Richard Frederick Fairbrother in 1939. When they left to go to Montreal in 1936, they were living at 75 Highfield Road, Cheadle Hulme. On their return they lived at 8 Athol Road, Bramhall, which was where they were at the time of the 1939 census. Fred later became a famous Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the Victoria University of Manchester and was a prolific researcher and author of papers and books. He died at his home in 1983 aged 89. Their son, Derek, was a research chemist in Birmingham but was very keen on photography and was famous for documenting in twenty time- lapse sequences all the structural changes occurring in Birmingham city centre over the years. His work has left a unique record.

Derek married Dorothy Davies in 1965 and died, aged 68, in December 1999 in Birmingham. They had a son, David Howard Fairbrother in 1967, who has continued the family tradition of chemical research and is a Professor of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore in Maryland, USA.

Their second son, Robert John Fairbrother, born in 1968 now lives in Graz in Austria and works for an automotive company called AVL. Grace died on 28th July 2001 aged 94, and was cremated in Cambridge, where she lived close to her son, Jeremy, who was the Bursar of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge for many years.

Grace was the last of the Spann family who had lived in Didsbury and been associated with the furniture and furnishing business at 35-37 Wilmslow Road, until her death,

The Spann family only lived in Didsbury for less than 60 years during which time the Didsbury community bought their furniture and furnishings at their shop. However, unlike many other families who passed through Didsbury at the same time and are spread around the world, their name lives on for all to see because of the ‘ghost sign’ still there on the gable end of 685 Wilmslow Road. It is fitting that the Didsbury Civic Society is actively trying to preserve this unique sign.