When Neil Mutter locks his Northern Quarter jewellery store up for the final time next week, it will bring to a close an extraordinary 140 year chapter in his family – and the city’s – history.
As the fourth generation to take on the Alfred E Mutter jewellery business, he has witnessed the huge cultural changes of both the Northern Quarter and the wider city in the last 50 years.
And the building itself, which has now been sold and is set to become a restaurant, is of huge historical significance in Manchester – thanks to a “secret” basement that once housed the Cellar Dwellers of the city, the homeless workers from the cotton mills who lived in poverty in empty basements in the 19th century.
READ MORE : The secrets and stories of Manchester’s oldest pubs
Now, at the age of 68, Neil is retiring after following his father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s footsteps running the traditional jewellers and watch repair business established in 1884.
Neil says: “I’ll be very sad, very upset to leave, tinged with a great amount of sadness that I’ll be leaving behind the history and the name.
“And leaving behind all the customers – I feel a little bit like I’m letting them down because I’m not going to be here to do the jobs anymore, but I’ve got to think of myself a little bit and it’s time to enjoy my retirement.”
In his time at the premises on Thomas Street, he has witnessed the huge changes of the area first as a wholesale district to the now-pedestrianised food and drink hub of today.
He says pedestrianisation should have happened “years ago” and is delighted with the buzz of today’s Northern Quarter.
He has witnessed terrifying dramas that come with running a jewellers, having grappled with gun-toting robbers, numerous break-ins and having his business completely smashed apart during the Manchester riots.
But mostly he will remember his lasting friendships with customers.
Neil says of the decision to retire: “The thing that really brought it home was the lockdown last year, I was 67 and being at home for three months made me realise that I could quite enjoy not working, even though I will miss it immensely, miss talking to the customers, most of them have become friends.
“We tried to sell the business but unfortunately no one wanted to take on what we have.”
The three-storey building was put up for sale for £400,000 last year amid huge interest, not least due to its central location in the Northern Quarter, with Neil saying he’s even got seven people on a “waiting list” should the sale fall through in its final stages.
Neil and wife Judith, who have three daughters and four granddaughters and live in South Manchester, hope to travel more in retirement – when restrictions allow.
Judith said: “I’ve been after him retiring for a long time! If we want to do things while we’re still fit and able, there’s no point retiring when you’re in your 80s.”
How it all began
The story of the Mutters can be traced back to Austro-Hungaria in the 19th century – when Neil’s distant relatives had lost two of their sons in the many battles between Prussia and Austria – and were determined for their third son to survive.
Neil says: “They said ‘you’re not having my third son’ so the idea was to get him to America – they put him on a boat but he ended up in Liverpool. We don’t know how, but he turned up in an orphanage in Manchester in 1857.”
He was the original Alfred Edward Mutter – although the family believe his surname came from him calling out for his mother (“mutter” in German) at the orphanage rather than his original family name.
Apprenticed out as a watchmaker in the city, he was to learn his trade at the bustling former Lancaster Avenue off Fennel Street near Chetham’s Library.
Neil says: “His job was to get the shop ready for when all the watchmakers came in, he had to build the fires and get everything ready and gradually learnt the trade to become a watchmaker at Lancaster Avenue. It was a huge building with corridors all around, a little like the Corn Exchange.
“In those days you’d have in one building all associated tradesmen in one building – the watchmaker, someone to make the dials, someone who made the straps, and the glass – all together.
“Subsequently the rest of the Mutter generations just followed in that business.”
All the first born would be called Alfred Mutter – until Neil came along in 1957 and his mum insisted on breaking with the tradition.
Neil’s grandfather Alfred was listed in the 1910 census as a watchmaker, and it was he who started the first self-named business in 1884, initially as trade repairs at Lancaster Avenue, progressing to the start of retail counters in the shop selling straps and silver chains.
It continued until the Christmas Blitz of 1940 when bombs were dropped across Manchester including one that dropped outside Lancaster Avenue – sucking everything out in the “vortex”.
Neil said: “My dad told me they got about £87 and ten shillings back from the government in repayment because that building was damaged, so they had to start looking for somewhere else and moved on to a premises on Back Turner Street, then in 1952 they moved into this building where the business has been ever since.”
Neil’s father Alfred, born in 1925, survived being shot twice on the front line in the Second World War, and would join the family business after being de-mobbed in the late 1940s. He died in 2015 aged 89.
Neil’s earliest memories of being at the Thomas Street shop were from the age of 10 when his mum Jean would get him to take cups of tea up to the umbrella repairer based up on the second floor.
The history of 33 Thomas Street
The building where Alfred E Mutters has been based for over 60 years used to be a merchant’s house, dating back to 1792 with the building formerly used as G Williamson weights and scales makers.
It links it to the history of the district as a wholesalers, next to the old Smithfield Market.
When the Mutters moved in, initially to rent the ground floor, it was owned by the brewery who owned The Bay Horse pub next door.
Neil says: “We rented the ground floor, the basement was empty, and on the first floor was a book maker. In those days bookies couldn’t have shop fronts like they do now, they had private offices and runners taking the bets so all you’d hear all day was people running up and down the stairs taking people’s bets.
“Upstairs on the top floor was Charlie Williams, he was an umbrella repairer, back when that was a thing – he was there when my dad and his dad moved in which was 1952.”
When Charlie died, the building became effectively empty and so the Mutters approached the brewery about purchasing it, which went through in 1978.
The business began to expand into a retail shop while continuing all the watch and jewellery repairs that they were well known for, and Neil formally joined in 1970.
He laughs: “At the age of 17 I was asked would I come in and work for six weeks because Barry the Saturday lad had broken his leg – and I’m still here 51 years later!”
The upper floors have been used as storage space ever since, while the “secret” basement has lain derelict and empty.
But the basement was to remain a constant source of interest throughout Neil’s time on Thomas Street.
The secret basement and its links to the past
What lies beneath Mutter’s jewellers has been a constant source of interest and intrigue over the years – with documentary makers from the BBC, Channel 4’s Time Team and Channel 5 all delving into its depths.
The basement has been pretty much untouched since the times when it was taken over and used by Manchester’s “Cellar Dwellers” in the 19th century – mill workers who had nowhere to live in the city and were forced to live in horrifying conditions in empty basements.
Historians have told Neil that around 25-30 people would have lived in his basement with just one cold water tap, and a bread oven for cooking that still remains in the cellar.
The basement can currently only be accessed by a small hatch, and it is not yet known if it will form part of the development proposals by the new owner.
But there are plenty more secrets of the building yet to be uncovered – including the old fireplaces that have been boarded up for years that lead up to two massive chimneys at the top of the building.
Gun dramas and riots
Neil is astonishingly sanguine when it comes to recalling some of the more dramatic moments of running a jewellers.
He says: “We’ve had guns, we’ve had machetes, we’ve had mace sprays, window smash and grabs a dozen times – it’s usual in any business that deals with cash or has valuables.
“One of the lads who worked here was pistol whipped, I rolled on the floor with someone with a handgun, we didn’t know if it was real or not but when the police came, took them about four minutes, they’d gone but they found bullet casings on the floor outside.
“I just grabbed him and rolled my body over the arm with the gun, the other lad was punching me, I was pulling the hand, we just got hold of him and threw him out and he ran off.”
But Neil says that by far the worst moment was the Manchester riots of 2011.
“We lost everything in the Manchester riots,” he says. “They got through the door eventually and they absolutely cleared us out. They came in and smashed every single thing, the floor was 2/12 inch thick in broken glass.”
Neil’s attitude has been that it’s all part of the job.
He says: “You treat everyone with respect regardless of who they are. In every walk of life there’s always someone who wants what you’ve got and aren’t prepared to work for it.
“We’ve always tried to be honest and helpful to everybody, that’s how my father and mother brought me up and how we’ve brought our children up.”
Now, Neil and Judith are preparing for their final week at the shop – which is due to close at the end of August – with their final sale.
Sign up to the MEN email newsletters to get the latest on sport, news, celebs, what’s on and more by following this link