Excavating Engels

Chapel St excavations in 2012 showing the foundations of back-to-back housing with Salford Cathdral in the background.There is a terrific history series on BBC Radio 4 called the ‘Long View’. The premise is to take a contemporary issue in society and politics and to look at it from the point of view of a parallel case in the past. The publication this month of further summary data from the 2011 Census throws up just such a case study, with some interesting facts for the student of urban industrial archaeology in the Manchester region. According to the latest Census the City of Manchester has one of the highest percentages of people born abroad (25.2%), as well as those born abroad and resident for less than 10 years (15.8%), outside London. The city, along with the borough of Trafford, has some of the biggest Irish-born or origin populations in England and Wales; Bury and Salford have some of the greatest concentrations of Jewish populations; whilst the Polish population across the whole city region has grown dramatically over the last 10 years. This is against a rise in population for England and Wales of 3.7 million during the decade 2001 to 2011, the largest decennial growth recorded by the census since such records began in 1801. Manchester reflects this, with one of the largest percentage increases in population during this period, with a population over half a million, at 503,000 (up 19% from 423,000 in 2001), for the first time since 1971.1

These figures have a strong echo of the rapid social changes and high levels of immigration and social mobility seen during the early to middle decades of the 19th century, arguably the peak period of industrialisation in England and Wales. At the forefront of these changes was Manchester, the shock city of the age. Between 1801 and 1851 its population rocketed from around 75,000 to over 303,000, with hundreds of mills and ironworks providing factory work for a new industrial urban population. By 1841 the Manchester-Salford conurbation was the second largest urban area in the UK, behind London, and one of the largest city regions in Europe.

This rapid growth had some appalling consequences: overcrowding, disease, and early death being the most notorious. Industrial housing could often be found next door to industry. Excavations in 2002 on Hardman Street, off Deansgate in the centre of Manchester, revealed terraced housing and cellar dwellings adjacent to a felt hat makers (who used mercury and sulphuric acid in the their manufacturing processes), a steam-powered silk mill, and a soda works with its own boiler-house and well.2 No wonder some mid-19th century commentators such as General Napier described the city as the ‘entrance to hell’. Campaigners for better living conditions included the authors Mrs Gaskell, who used Manchester as the backdrop for her first novel, ‘Mary Barton’ (published in 1848), and Charles Dickens (1812-70), a frequent visitor to the city. Other social commentators, such as Frederick Engels, were more forensic in their descriptions, which are all the more shocking for their detail.

It is now possible to start testing, archaeologically, the comments of Engels and others on the state of Manchester’s housing. Since 2001 more than 17 areas of late 18th to early 20th century workers’ housing have been excavated across Manchester and central Salford, supported by the local archaeological planning officers who recognised at the end of the 1990s the international importance of Manchester as a newly industrialising city during this period. Within these sites three areas have strong associations with Engels: Ancoats and Angel Meadow in Manchester, and Islington in Salford. These were some of the most overcrowded areas of both cities, with more than 90 people per acre recorded living in these zones as late as the 1880s. They were also the areas with the highest level of Irish immigrant population. These are the areas which have seen the most extensive excavations with more than 200 properties investigated in just these three areas.

Whilst it’s still too soon to give a coherent archaeological account of the archaeology of poverty and squalor within the city region, it is now possible to assess which of the themes highlighted by Engels might be tested archaeological. Identifying immigrant communities through their material remains has so far proved virtually impossible, if we ignore the surviving Catholic churches in Ancoats and the Islington area of Salford, and perhaps is due in part to the way in which rubbish was systematically removed from the city to stop it chocking on its own filth. Likewise, direct evidence for disease has also been absence within these houses, although that might be recovered from privy deposits or from the bones of inhabitants should an opportunity arise to investigate a 19th century cemetery. But supporting evidence for these two subjects might also be inferred from two other Engels’ themes: lack of sanitation and poor ventilation. Finally, evidence for overcrowding can be recovered from the small, closely-packed, house forms excavated, and in the poorly-built nature of many of these properties. These points have been highlighted in the recent excavations on Chapel Street, Salford (see illustration), of the White Cross hamlet, the precursor to the industrial area of Islington. This was an area of densely-packed cellar dwellings, back-to-back housing, courts, alleyways, and terraced housing built during the period 1810-30. It was even briefly described by Engels himself: ‘The working men’s dwellings between Oldfield Road and Cross Lane, where a mass of courts and alleys are to be found in the worst possible state, vie with the dwellings of the Old Town in filth and overcrowding’.3 Yet we must be careful in letting the written sources lead the archaeology: the material remains of everyday living during this revolutionary period are evocative enough without recourse to the shocked writings of contemporary social commentators.

1) A word of caution here as the boundaries of census districts, and local authority units, tend to change regularly so direct comparison with the 19th century is always problematical.

2) Michael Nevell. 2008, Manchester: the Hidden History. History Press, Stroud.

3) Friederich Engels, The Condition of the working Class in England. Penguin classics 2009 edition, 100.

One thought on “Excavating Engels

  1. Excellent article.

    p.s. all the BBC Radio 4 programmes ‘The Long View’ are sitting on iTunes Podcasts ready to download.

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