Gracie: the highest-paid Hollywood actress of her time, and a Dale supporter

Events coinciding with home games in January
31 (to 7 Mar) Rochdale Music Service Festival of Performing Arts
10 (to 28 Jun) The Dippy Experience
21/22 Diplodocus Brick Build
4 Rochdale Food & Drink Festival

to 28 Jun Prehistoric Garden
to 10 Sep LS Lowry

What to see
You’ll find accounts of Rochdale’s tourist attractions in Towns of Two Halves (and of 91 other places: order the book now for £8 from For additional information plus shopping, eating out etc there’s Visit Rochdale and Rochdale Online.
For events coming up go to Rochdale Online’s Events page.

Pioneers Museum: ‘A bold modern wooden structure, perhaps modelled on a tower or on the circular ascent to a car-park, encloses the stairs’


Did you know that Gracie Fields was born in Rochdale? No? That can only mean you’ve never been to Rochdale. It’s hard to imagine spending much time there without encountering her image, or a recording or a memorial of some kind.

Her statue is in front of the Town Hall; the Gracie Fields Theatre is on the western margins of the town; there’s a special display and soundtrack at the Touchstones local museum; and eight commemorative plaques mark the Gracie Fields Heritage Trail.

And why not? She would have been a credit to any town. Born* over a fish and chip shop, Gracie Fields became a huge international star and at one time was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. There can be no doubt that she was much loved. Among the Gracie memorabilia in Touchstones is a bush hat to which the troops she entertained contributed badges; not much hat is visible.

Gracie was a practical Rochdale FC supporter. In the 1930s, during the peak of her popularity, she helped the club financially. Her assistance bore fruit and 35 years later the club achieved the first promotion in its history.

The other Rochdale institution you can hardly miss is the Co-op, represented by the Rochdale Pioneers Museum on the site of the first store set up by working people. This is so highly regarded around the world that in Kobe, Japan, there’s a replica of 31 Toad Lane, where it all began. ‘Toad’, incidentally, is a contraction of ‘The Old’ through ‘th’owd’ and ‘t’owd’.

It’s a fine old Georgian building in a well-preserved row in Rochdale’s Heritage Quarter. The name is almost superfluous: heritage is never very far away in Rochdale.

The museum’s ground floor tells the story of the origins and growth of the co-operative society. When the pioneers opened their first shop, on 21 December 1844, local wholesalers wouldn’t sell to them, so they had to go to suppliers in Manchester. The gas company wouldn’t supply them, so they bought candles. A panel emphasises the importance from the very first day of book-keeping, for the calculation of the divi. Within a few years, more such shops opened and by the late 1850s the pioneers were looking at doing their own wholesaling. The Co-operative Wholesale Society followed soon afterwards.

It’s a very human museum from the moment you open the ‘shop’ door. The store is laid out with produce on a counter composed, as in the original, by planks across two barrels. A bold wooden structure, perhaps modelled on a tower or on the circular ascent to a car-park, encloses the stairs. On the first floor the focus was on tea memorabilia and traditions in May 2018. The second floor has a viewing room and a selection of films running from 3.5 to 38 minutes, including a young Bill Owen (Compo from The Last of the Summer Wine) and a Stanley Holloway monologue.

A barrel and Rochdale’s social conscience also feature in the Touchstones local history museum. The American Civil War did the Lancashire mill towns great harm, especially when the Union blockaded the Confederates’ ports preventing the export of cotton. But the Rochdale mill workers nonetheless supported the North’s opposition to slavery. In 1863 the citizens of New York and Philadelphia sent supplies including 15,000 barrels of flour to the starving people of Lancashire. The barrel in Touchstones is the last surviving relic of that cargo.

Touchstones is an excellent civic centre. The museum genuinely brings history to life with some outstanding exhibits – I defy you to listen to the exchange of letters between Gladys and, at the front, her soldier Jim without sharing her anxiety. The collections combine local with general memorabilia and celebrate a number of great Rochdale citizens. One such, John Collier, turns up again in the Touchstones’ galleries as the Lancashire Hogarth. Using the pseudonym Tim Bobbin, he wrote Lancashire dialect poetry and produced satirical cartoons. Some of those appear in a display alongside prints by the London Hogarth, Rembrandt, Whistler and John Martin’s work for Paradise Lost. There are five galleries: four numbered and one described as the Heritage Gallery. The fourth had a very challenging display linking a food riot in 18th century Manchester to the 50th anniversary of the Paris uprising of May 1968. While England Mourns, by Magnus Quaife, is the kind of work that makes you feel irredeemably bourgeois just looking at it. The images should be taken, the notes say, as “an inducement for finding, through contact with the masses, new levels of action, both on the cultural and the political plane”.

Downstairs in the Heritage Gallery, among the Egyptian artefacts local worthy Charles Heape acquired from his chum Sir Flinders Petrie, it was a relief to be back on safer ground where the art wasn’t shouting at you. Next door, the Art Café is very good and has artistic intrigue of its own, with some glazing that looks old and French.

The Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum, on the road out towards Rochdale railway station, opens only on Fridays and that isn’t likely to coincide with many home matches. And that’s a pity, because it too is a fine museum. The equipment on display goes back to the 1740s but the information boards describe fire-fighting much further back. In the process they explain issues like water supplies, insurance, respirators and so forth. Early respirator technology involved soaking your beard, gripping it between your teeth and trying to breathe through it. Early appliances are illustrated in full sets of cards issued by John Player, whose products must have been responsible for some of the fires that needed dousing. In the background, real fire-fighters are on hand to pass on their own memories of the service.

Public infrastructure provides other things to admire in Rochdale. The bus station is quite something and the town has two notable bridges. One of these is now known as the Lviv Bridge, with a plaque in English and Cyrillic to record the twinning of Rochdale and the Ukrainian city. The other, more recently refurbished, is the medieval bridge lost to the town when the River Roch was confined to a tunnel in the early 20th century. The bridge reopened in 2016.

* She was born Grace Stansfield, which by coincidence is the surname of another singer who lived in Rochdale.

This is an extract from Towns of Two Halves. To read more on Rochdale and other football towns, order the book for £8 from

Rochdale links:
Gracie Fields Heritage Trail
Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum
Hollingworth Lake
Rochdale Pioneers Museum