|The Lancashire Evening Post, Monday, 26th February 2001|
You don't generally think of buildings in terms of masculinity or femininity. Houses or offices aren't particularly male or female for instance - they're just blocks of bricks and mortar.
But if ever a building could be said to have inherent traits of sexuality, in this case female, then it would have to be this one in Preston's Winckley Square. It's not that it looks curvaceous or anything, or indeed that it gets down in the dumps once a month or is anymore caring or practical than its neighbours. It's simply that for more than a century and a quarter number 22 Winckley Square has been used exclusively by women.
In the late 19th century it was a convent and girls school and continued to be used as such until it closed in 1975, almost 100 years after it first opened. But that wasn't the end of it. Then it became a model agency, again used by women only, and subsequently developed into a gym and health club – again solely for women members.
Sharon Stansfield, who currently owns the health club, called Contours, researched the history of the building after one of her members, a former convent girl began reminiscing one day about what it looked like in the days when she was at school there.
And she'd always been fascinated by its nooks and crannies, blocked off doorways, passages that lead nowhere.... and the odd curious happening. Such as the time two other lady members called her into the gymnasium to witness the pedals on one of the exercise bikes steadily turning around and around. There was no wind blowing, no one had been near it for ages, and anyway the pedals have to be pushed before there is any momentum.
Very odd. Could it have been the spirit of one of the convent nuns in a belated attempt to get fit?
Sharon did a bit of research in Preston Library and discovered that during the revolution in female education in 1875 the three convents of St Ignatius, St Wilfred’s and St Walburge plus a girl’s school in Fox Street, Preston, amalgamated on Winckley Square to form the Winckley Square Convent. Number 23, now a Heathcotes restaurant, was purchased for 2,000 and number 22 was rented and later bought in 1878 for 3,000, the higher price due to the extensive gardens which then stretched right the way down to the railway line... land now covered by housing and the Fishergate car park.
Karen Allison, former convent pupil and a current Contours member, recalls that what is now the dance studio was once part of the nuns' quarters during her time there from 1967-72. Although previously a boarding school, the convent was an all-girl day school at this time. Contours at number 22 was mainly used for the nuns' quarters although the sixth form common room was also located here and it's thought that what is now the gymnasium was once part of the library.
The convent finally closed in 1975 and the whole block was bought and separated into individual numbers once more.
In March 1985 the International Studio of Elegance, a model agency, opened its doors at number 22, consisting of lounge, make-up room, studio with a catwalk, hair salon and sun beds. A huge mail shot targeted Preston advertising the six to eight week modeling and deportment course. Models from there promoted the opening of Easy Street night club and some even travelled as far afield as Japan on assignments. Meanwhile the gymnasium was installed upstairs and Countours Ladies Health Club was created. Although the model agency no longer exists. Contours is in its 15th year. How- ever, it hasn't all been plain sailing. Ten years ago a fire wiped out the changing area and it was six weeks before it reopened its doors.
Sharon, whose aim in life is to get more women into sport, is selling the club in order to pursue her goal of ridding sport of its intimidating and 'masculine' image. But she hopes that whoever buys it will keep up its feminine use, if only for tradition's sake. She said: "Contours is unique. Its long standing female-only status provides not only health and fitness but a second home to many. For years women have come here on the recommendation of friends, knowing they will be individually catered for. Now it's someone else's turn."
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|© The Lancashire Evening Post, February 2001|