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Who Built Wythenshawe? The Forgotten Story of Ernest & Shena Simon and the Creation of Manchester’s Garden City

This new exhibition seeks to explain this seemingly simple question and reveal what turns out to be the fascinating history behind Wythenshawe’s origins. This blog has been written by the exhibition's curators, John Ayshford and Dr Martin Dodge

By Ted Harris · May 13, 2022

Wythenshawe was, as the exhibition illustrates, designed as a garden city, a model settlement based on utopian ideas. It was developed to rehouse the tens of thousands of families previously forced to live in Manchester’s inner-city slums in well-built and spacious neighbourhoods amidst green surroundings. Alongside tracing Wythenshawe’s growth from a handful of small villages at the turn of the twentieth century to a settlement of 100,000 people by the 1960s, it details the captivating yet somewhat forgotten lives of Ernest and Shena Simon who played a pivotal role in Wythenshawe’s creation.

1922 General Election

The Simons were a dynamic husband and wife team from Didsbury who spent their lives devoted to the cause of social reform. Ernest was the son of German immigrants who, as well as being a pioneering industrialist, was a leading housing expert in the early twentieth century who campaigned to abolish the terrible slum housing millions of poor people had to live in. He played a significant role in interwar politics, later becoming chairman of the BBC and helping to found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Shena was an eminent educational reformer who fought for the introduction of comprehensive education to overhaul Britain’s class-ridden education system. She was a dedicated public servant who spent over four decades on the education committee of Manchester City Council. Shena campaigned throughout her life to improve the position of women in society and was friends with the famous feminist writer Virginia Woolf. Her first actions in the cause of social reform were to campaign for the rights of poorer women workers and to ensure the interests of women were included in David Lloyd George’s National Insurance legislation.

The focal point of the exhibition centres on the Simons’ decision in 1926 to buy Wythenshawe Hall and park for the Council. Following the First World War the housing situation in Manchester was truly dire. Thousands of people were living in old, unsanitary and overcrowded homes, and new space was desperately needed by the council to build new dwellings, but buying new land south of the Mersey in Wythenshawe was extremely expensive. With the council’s idea to purchase Wythenshawe looking like it was not even going to get off the ground, the Simons stepped in and bought Wythenshawe Hall and 250 acres of its surrounding land and donated it to the council to help massively reduce the burden of purchasing the rest of the estate. The exhibition also highlights Shena’s major role in designing Wythenshawe with Barry Parker along garden city lines during the first years of construction in the 1930s and her efforts alongside its first inhabitants in helping to cultivate a community spirit in Wythenshawe for its pioneer residents.

The exhibition is curated by John Ayshford and Dr Martin Dodge who hope it will engage the local community in Wythenshawe with its history and foster local pride. In light of the housing crisis and debate about devolution for cities, the exhibition aims to convey the importance of the story of Wythenshawe as Manchester’s great housing project and the story of two of Manchester’s most inspiring civic figures for today. The exhibition is richly illustrated with historic photographs, plans and newspaper clippings unearthed from the archives and will be held at the Wythenshawe Forum Library from 21st May–2nd July 2022. There will be a launch event on 21st May at the library at 11am, during which visitors will be able to listen to speeches from the curators, view old footage of the Simons and look at some of the many books they published. The curators hope to have the exhibition displayed elsewhere in Manchester throughout the summer and autumn of this year.