‘Johnny Ladders’ has been cleaning windows in Manchester city centre for 50 years – he’s seen it all

Carrying his bucket and cloth, John Cannon catches the 101 bus from his home in Wythenshawe to Manchester city centre at 6.30am.

He gets into town for about 7.30am and starts cleaning windows straight away before the shops get busy.

In between jobs, he stops for a natter with newspaper sellers, cleaners, delivery drivers and a whole host of other people he’s come to know as friends through his job.

It’s been the same routine for 50 years.

John’s dad Bernard started the business after the Second World War and had his son working for him as soon he left school at 15.

Now 65, the decades of carrying heavy ladders (before aluminum came along, they were made from wood) have taken their toll, leaving John with a bad back and a bit of a stoop.

Johnny ‘Ladders’ Cannon (Image: Joel Goodman)

But ‘Johnny Ladders’ or ‘Johnny Windows’, as he is known affectionately, is still out there cleaning windows come rain or shine, with a warm smile and a glint in his eye.

“I’ve had a broken arm or broken hand from a fall,” says John with a chuckle.

“And Sue, my wife, will say ‘you can’t go in’ and I say… ‘watch me’.

“That’s how much I like it.”

And it’s true.

It’s obvious that John loves his job now just as much as he did when he started out as a teenage boy in the 1970s.

Back then, he loved the kudos of working with proper grown-ups and earning his own wage, however meagre it was.

“My dad wanted me to learn what money is,” said John.

John knows the city centre streets like the back of his hand (Image: Joel Goodman)

“The value of it. So I wasn’t on 20 or 30 pound a week, I think it was only a pound at first.

“It doesn’t sound a lot but the thing was, it wasn’t a chore to come to work. It was fun!

“We had a lot of work around Manchester, on Oldham Street, St Ann’s Square, Oxford Road, all over the city centre.

“I wouldn’t have been doing it for 50 years if I didn’t enjoy it!”

It may have been exciting, but when John was a young man being a window cleaner was also a dangerous profession.

Before the era of health and safety laws, manual workers like him would take all sorts of hair-raising risks that would never happen today.

John told how he used to clean the windows of Manchester’s tallest buildings by simply climbing out onto a ledge without a harness or any other safety measures.

‘My dad wanted me to learn what money is’ (Image: Joel Goodman)

Fortunately, he’s never had a problem with heights.

“I had no fear,” said John.

“If you were bothered [by the risk] or you would never do it.

“I’ve fallen off ladders a few times, which happens, and I’ve had a couple of near misses”

“One time, I opened a sash window and went out and I’d forgotten, you would keep your foot in the window or put something there to stop it closing so you could get back in.

“I was rushing and the thing closed on me.

“I was shouting and banging on the window to get back in but it was lunchtime and no one was around.

“I was there on a ledge only a foot wide and I thought ‘I’m not going to be able to stand here much longer… that’s it for me’.

John Cannon (Image: Joel Goodman)

“This lady came in but she couldn’t open it, it was too heavy.

“Then she was panicking.

“Eventually a man came in and he got it open – but it was frightening.

“That doesn’t happen now, the Town Hall brought in all the health and safety – but before that people just went about their work taking it for granted.

“I knew a couple of window cleaners who fell to their deaths in Manchester. It was very sad.”

Traversing sandy window ledges over the years has given John a glimpse into the worlds of all sorts of people – and sometimes he’s seen more than he bargained for.

“I was walking across the ledge of a sash window once, and with me being 6ft I could see into the window above,” he said.

“The company boss was going at it with his secretary on a table!

John Cannon on the streets of Manchester (Image: Joel Goodman)

“They probably didn’t expect me to able to see in.

“She was shocked, but he just gave me the V sign and kept going at it!”

Shortly after that, John’s days of climbing window ledges were over, although the peril didn’t always end there.

He remembers witnessing a terrifying robbery at a jewellers one morning the week after the Arndale Centre, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, opened.

“These guys came in with high vis vests on and hard hats and bags,” he said.

“Next thing I just heard ‘bang bang bang’.

“I turned round and they had 6ft scaffolding poles and were smashing their way in and grabbing jewellery and watches.”

Nowadays, window cleaning is a much more sophisticated affair, with extendable poles, ropes and pulleys used to tackle taller buildings.

Good old ‘Johnny Ladders’ (Image: Joel Goodman)

There may be less thrills and spills than in his younger years, but John looks back fondly on the friendships he’s made.

Some have been famous names such as Rob Gretton and members of New Order during the Hacienda days.

“When I was born we listened to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and then all of a sudden these Manchester legends came along and it was a completely different set up,” said John.

“People were travelling from all over to come here.

“It was an exciting time.

“I’ve seen too many [celebrities] to mention.

“The footballers, the actors, if they’re going shopping or I’m cleaning a jewellers or a restaurant.

“At one time you used to see them just walking around but not in this day and age.”

Although he’s spotted just about every famous Manc of the past 50 years, John’s favourite encounter was with a more exotic star, the Italian actress Sophia Loren.

“It was in the Arndale, I think she opened a WH Smiths!” said John.

John once met Sophia Loren at the Arndale (Image: Joel Goodman)

“I got in the shop and waited to see her. She just looked wonderful.”

His dad Bernard is still alive at 92-years-old and didn’t hang up his squeegee until he was 75, so John sees no reason he can’t carry on for another ten years himself.

As a local boy with a gentle manner and intimate knowledge of Manchester’s streets, it’s hard to think of a better ambassador for our city.

Which is a good job as John is often called into action as an unofficial tour guide.

“When I first started you might hear a Scottish accent or a Welsh accent, now there’s that many different nationalities,” he said.

“I’m listening to different languages every day while I’m working.

“They come and ask me for directions, there’s so many different visitors, I love that.

John commutes from Wythenshawe (Image: Joel Goodman)

“It’s just in me, it’s the way I was brought up, it’s the way I talk the way I act… it’s just nice to be nice to people isn’t it.

“We could do with that a bit more.”

Asked what he’s loved most about his job, John has no hesitation – the people.

“Manchester is top, it really is,” said John.

“We’re here for everybody, no matter who you are.

“We get together and get things sorted and I think that’s wonderful, I really do.”

Having spoken to the M.E.N. for more than an hour, John began to worry that his loyal customers might be wondering where he’d got to.

Given he’s a bit fragile these days, they understandably feel protective of him.

So with a cheerful wave goodbye, Johnny Ladders picked up his bucket and cloth once more, and shuffled off into the sunshine for another day’s work cleaning Manchester’s windows.

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