Seasonal Archaeology: Ancoats at Night

McConnel & Kennedy and Murrays Mills (left) with the Rochdale Canal to the right, Ancoats, February 2022.

Ancoats on a dark, wet, late winter Manchester evening. The pavements glisten with the recent rain. Passers-by hurry head down to the latest fashionable bars and restaurants in the district, disappearing downstairs to vaulted, bare-bricked, dining areas. The line of the Rochdale Canal shimmers in the black night, the waters reflecting some of the lights from the mill windows lining this restored monument of the Georgian industrial revolution. I’m here to lead a group of architecture students around the shock industrial suburb of the shock industrial city of the 19th century, in the gloom of a February evening. The atmosphere is damp, but the sounds bustling, a dim echo of the industrial hive that this suburb once was: Manchester’s very own northern power-house, now converted, conserved, and consumed as a desirable middleclass suburban area of shopping, restaurants, and loft apartments.

But it wasn’t always like this. Until the 1770s Ancoats was a rural area on the north-eastern side of the town of Manchester. In the last quarter of the 18th century the population of Manchester expanded at an unprecedented rate, helped by an upsurge in the cotton textile industry in which the town was involved as both a manufacturing and a commercial centre. Ancoats played a key part in this process of growth as the town’s first industrial suburb, with land here being given over to the construction of workers’ housing and factories. The starting point for the urban development of Ancoats is said to have been in 1775 when part of the Great Croft between Ancoats Lane and Newton Lane (the present Great Ancoats Street and Oldham Road) was sold to Thomas Boond [sic], a bricklayer, by George and Henry Cornwall Legh, members of the Cheshire gentry. By the 1790s map evidence shows that a grid-iron of streets had been laid out between Great Ancoats Street and Oldham Road. Property not only lined those main thoroughfares but had also begun to be built in the streets behind. At this date development was densest in an area which lay closest to Great Ancoats Street and Oldham Road. Elsewhere building was more scattered, with some blocks of the grid-iron still vacant. By 1801 there were 11,039 people, a seventh of Manchester’s population, living in the new industrial suburb.

There were also over 12 cotton spinning textile mills using steam power to supplement or run directly cotton spinning machinery. The high price of land meant these new steam-powered mills were built on the fringes of the growing town. Ancoats in the 1790s was ideal. The high technical capital cost was off-set by building large multi-storeyed manufacturing units using the latest technology to increase the rate of production to spin high value yarn products. The only first generation of steam-powered cotton mill to survive as a standing structure in Manchester is Murrays Mill, built 1798-1806, sited along the northern bank of the Rochdale Canal in Ancoats. Brothers Adam and George Murray were part of a wave of Scottish textile entrepreneurs who moved to Manchester in the 1780s and 1790s.

During the early 19th century the industrialisation of Ancoats continued unabated, with glass works and engineering companies joining the textile mills, and this process attracted workers from both the rural hinterland of Lancashire and also from areas further afield, notably Ireland. By 1851 nearly every piece of land in Ancoats had been built upon and in that year its population numbered 55,983, people living amongst the factories and canals. The 1848 large-scale Ordnance Survey map for Ancoats shows a large number of cellar dwellings, back-to-back houses, and court housing squeezed between the mills of the area. For contemporary observers Ancoats’ urbanisation was dramatic even by Manchester’s standards, as were the consequences in terms of living conditions. In the early 1840s Frederick Engels visited Ancoats as part of his investigation into the conditions of the working classes in Britain. During this visit he considered the construction of the workers’ houses in the area around Jersey Street and commented that ‘…on closer examination, it becomes evident that the walls of these cottages are as thin as it is possible to make them. The outer walls, those of the cellar, which bear the weight of the ground-floor and roof, are one whole brick thick at most…’ (Engels F, 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England). Extensive archaeological excavation in the first two decades of the 21st century have confirmed most of what Engels saw. This work was ahead of the large building schemes, the multi-storey apartment blocks which at night shine out across Ancoats in 2022 just as the 30 plus mills did in the 19th century.

Many of the 19th century mills in this industrial suburb were converted into apartments with basement retail areas in the early 21st century. Yet, for the majority of houses still standing in Ancoats in the 1930s, their fate was not conversion or replacement but demolition. This took place after the Second World War, when the remaining late 18th and 19th century houses in Ancoats were demolished as slums, and their sites left vacant, or used as car parks, awaiting the re-invention of the suburb in the early 21st century. But in the early evening of a wet dark February, you can still sense the ghost of the workers and their factory cathedrals to manufacturing progress.

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