it's in the heart of Oldham

it's in the heart of Oldham

In The Heart Of Oldham

In December 2021, work started on the conversion of a mysterious old building in the heart of Oldham town centre. You may not have heard of Billingtons and you may not know where it is, but for every person in Oldham like you, there’s someone who knows exactly where it is and who holds it dearly in their heart. 

Tucked down the side street linking Clegg Street and Parliament Square with the Spindles car park, at number three Ascroft Street, is Billingtons. You may not have paid much attention to it, it’s been unused since 2016, but it’s been there for a hundred years, its exterior having barely changed in that whole time. It has outlived most of the other buildings of its generation, including the Ascroft Street Fire Station, which once lived next door. Ascroft Court now sits where the fire engines once parked and it’s there that you will now find Ascroft Medical, which opened for business in 2015. Since then the successful medical and dental practice has expanded to open another facility on the opposite side of the Billingtons building on Clegg Street. 

Can you see where this is going? Ascroft Medical just HAD to have the building in between for phase three of its expansion. The building was signed over to its new owners in late 2021 with the following plan of action – Ascroft Medical is to leave the site at Ascroft Court and occupy the ground floor of the building known as Billingtons. 

At this point, it’s time to explain what “Billingtons” was and why it’s so dear to so many people. Since 1970, Billingtons was owned and operated by a local couple, Dennis and Brenda Massey, as a Dance school and social club. The couple took over the business, which was already the successful and popular dance academy known as Billingtons, from previous owner Mrs Nora Billington, after her husband Albert passed away unexpectedly in 1964. It’s no exaggeration to say that people have lived their whole lives as part of the Billingtons community.

Dennis and Brenda met at Billingtons when they were children and ultimately, they fell in love, got married and became heads of the wider Billingtons family. They taught children to dance who in turn grew up and brought their own children to learn the foxtrot, waltz and samba within those same walls. The building comprised three floors; a basement bar and suite known as the Brenden Suite after its founders, the ground floor, which was a music hall with a piano in the corner and the first floor, which hosted the main ballroom. 

When Dennis and Brenda retired in 2016, they sold the property to two local brothers, who initially had plans to turn the venue into a restaurant but when that didn’t come to fruition, it was mostly used for storage. Amazingly, when the building was purchased from them in 2021 and their belongings removed, the interior was basically the same as when the Massey’s handed over the keys in 2016. It was impossible not to feel the history, the memories and energy that still hung in the cold damp air. The pigeons had moved in and made it home, there were holes in the roof and it was clearly a massive and expensive job to save this famous old building, before it went the way of so many of its town centre brothers and sisters over the years.

A plan was formulated: start at the top and work down – put a new roof on, convert the first floor into a bar and coffee lounge and host a wide range of events and functions in the ballroom. Following that, the conversion of the ground floor to house the brand new medical centre. 

There is actually one part of the building we’ve not mentioned yet and that is Mrs Billington’s house, which adjoins the building on the left hand side. There used to be a door that join the house, where Mrs B would emerge directly into the main ballroom. We’ve sealed that door now, but if you’d like to see, there’s a great clip you can watch here on TikTok. The plan for the house now is for it to remain as accommodation, but as a short-term town centre rental facility. 

There’s something about Billingtons. Despite its previously decaying condition, everyone who visited it in those early stages fell in love with it. It was an easy decision to embrace the history, the folklore and acknowledge its place in the cultural and societal history of Oldham. From the start, we wanted to talk with the people whose lives have been shaped and touched by the place. Unfortunately Dennis Massey passed away a few years ago, but it has been a joy to chat with Brenda and Graham and to learn about the people and the history of Billingtons. We wanted to save as many of the original features as possible, including the maple dance floor, which was taken from a cotton mill many years prior, to be danced upon by countless feet since.

As you can see from the photos, things have changed, (they had to!) but the spirit of Billingtons remains. The medical centre is set to open in 2023, but the main attraction for many, the ballroom, coffee lounge and bar area are already open for business. The original dance floor remains, it is a little smaller than it used to be due to important accessability changes that needed to be made (we’ve installed a lift), but it has been treated and restored and is fit for its original purpose once again. We’re very proud to say that dancing, music, meeting, conversing, laughing and community are some of the reasons people will come to Billingtons again.

That’s why we kept the name and that’s why we say “It’s In The Heart Of Oldham”, because in every sense, it really is. 

 

By Matt Dean

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In The Heart Of Oldham