Ancoats was a rural village outside Manchester until the late eighteenth century when landowners, realising the imminent arrival of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals, parcelled up their property and sold it for development, both for mills and factories.
Some of the mills were huge by contemporary standards, steam-powered and served by canal wharfs which also provided the condensing water necessary for the engines. Adam and George Murray’s Old Mill (1798) may have been the first eight-storey factory in the world.
The Murray brothers, along with their rivals James McConnel and John Kennedy, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, and used their expertise in building textile machinery to produce bigger and better equipment with which to spin cotton.
Ancoats’ population boomed from 11,039 in 1801 to 53,737 in 1861. In 1821 one-fifth of the total population of Manchester lived in Ancoats.
Though some respectable housing was built among the industries and slums, there was no attempt to provide for a bourgeois population. It was, by Jacqueline Roberts’ definition, “the first residential district of the modern world intended for occupation by one social class, the new urban working class”.
Title-deeds for such properties typically contained no restrictions on uses that would cause nuisance, and very few were provided with privies. Bathrooms and running hot water were, of course, unknown.
Foreign writers were appalled.
Léon Faucher (1803-1854) who visited England in 1843, published Études sur l’Angleterre (1845), in which he wrote of “the breathing of vast machines, sending forth fire and smoke through their tall chimneys, and offering up to the heavens, as it were in token of homage, the sighs of that Labour which God has imposed upon man”.
It can’t have been fun to live in Ancoats, despite the well-meaning efforts of philanthropists, who provided the Ardwick & Ancoats Dispensary (1828), later Ancoats Hospital, ragged schools and night shelters.
The life-expectancy of a Manchester labourer in 1842 was seventeen years.
In 1889 Dr John Thresh reported a death rate of over 80 per thousand, and commented, “3,000 to 4,000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes”.
This prompted the Manchester Labourers’ Dwellings Scheme of 1890, which led to the building of Victoria Square (Henry Spalding & Alfred W S Cross 1897), a five-storey block of one- and two-room walk-up flats with penny-in-the-slot gas meters, communal sinks and water-closets shared between two apartments and, in the turrets, laundries and drying rooms, Anita Street, originally Sanitary Street until the name was truncated to suit 1960s sensibilities, two-storey terraces of one-, two- and three-room flats, and George Leigh Street, which provided three-bedroom houses, intended for families with children of both sexes.
Only the better-off labourers could afford the rents.
Owners of back-to-back terraces were offered £15 per house to convert their premises to through houses, and by 1914 almost all of the city’s back-to-back houses had gone.
However, this was only a partial solution. A 1928 social-study group inspection report remarked, “the reconditioned house of the eighties is not to be tolerated today”. There were houses so dark that the gas-light had to be kept on all day, and such dampness that plaster would not hold wallpaper in place.
In the end, the only practical solution was to clear the housing wholesale. Victoria Square, Anita Street and George Leigh Street have been adapted to modern standards and look attractive. Some architecturally interesting buildings remain, and the canal-side locations are at last being developed for 21st-century work and living.
Gentrification is often derided, but it’s better than living in a slum.
The Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour includes a walking-tour of Ancoats. For further details, please click here.