Bye Bye Breadman

Recently we were contacted by Ian Hawkins who was on the trail of a half remembered public sculpture. Ill let Ian take up the story :

After eight years away, I moved back to Manchester in 2014. I didn’t really mind where in Manchester, but the house that got the most ticks happened to be in Middleton.

I grew up in and around Chadderton and Oldham so I was familiar with Middleton, but not much. I remember Thommy’s chippy, the cool statue outside the Middleton Archer pub and the big crucifix sculpture that used to be on the side of Middleton Arndale. You know, the big Jesus figure made out of different loaves of bread? No?

I asked my new neighbours if they remembered the breadman. No one did. I asked around further. No luck. I did a sketch on a Post-it pad for some shopkeepers. The best I could get was a vague recollection of something. This set me off on a mini-quest to find out more.

The breadman was designed by Rochdale’s town artist of the time, Michael Dames. There wasn’t an official title. It was known as ‘Bread Roll Christ’, ‘Sunblest Christ’ or simply the ‘breadman’. The whole piece was actually a triptych with giant corn dollies (made out of scaffolding) on either side of the breadman. The crucifix was around 20 feet/six metres tall and was to be installed next to a Tesco.

The artist was making ‘unlikely connections’ between the religious and secular; town and country; industry and agriculture. It was installed in 1980 and removed in 1984. According to the back of a photograph I found in Middleton Library, it came down due to ‘vandalism and public dislike’.

I don’t know how an art historian might assess the breadman. I don’t know how it ranks alongside contemporary works. I even find it hard to say whether I like it or not on a personal level. Either way, there was something about the figure that stuck in my mind from all those years ago. When I look at the photographs now, I think there’s something strange and dramatic about it. Perhaps even glorious.

As it turns out, the breadman was controversial. At least that’s how local media cuttings describe it. A 1200 signature petition was delivered to Rochdale Council to register their disgust at this representation of Christ. Other local vicars wrote open letters of support of the breadman.

One thing’s for sure, the local media got their money’s worth. After all, these were the early Thatcher years. The idea that councils were using ratepayer’s money for controversial art was too much for the Manchester Evening News and Middleton Guardian. But in reading through news cuttings, it’s clear that Michael Dames’ position was part funded by the Arts Council. The breadman itself was paid for by the Arndale property developers. These facts are absent from most of the articles that describe a ‘public outcry’ and ‘howls of protest’.

Eventually, Michael Dames resigned. A few years after that, a badly vandalised breadman was removed at the council’s expense (the press blamed the artist for that too).

I’m making a short documentary about the breadman. I’m pleased to say that Michael Dames is alive and well. He agreed to be interviewed on camera and told me that I was the only person in more than 30 years to ask him about the breadman. I’m in the process of finding whatever breadman memories I can and getting those on camera too. If anyone reading this blog knows of anyone involved, or has any photographs or film of the sculpture, or anything that might be useful to my film, I’d love to hear from you.

"Photo: The Local History Centre, Touchstones Rochdale"