The Making of Post-War Manchester

The Deansgate Dig, Liverpool Road, Manchester, 1972. This was the site of the first excavation of industrial-era workers' housing in the city.

The Deansgate Dig, Liverpool Road, Manchester, 1972. This was the site of the first excavation of industrial-era workers’ housing in the city.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at a symposium on the changing urban landscape of mid-20th century Manchester. This was held in my old office building at Manchester University: Humanities Bridgeford Street – or the architecture building as it was in my day. So it was with more than passing interest that I returned to a building which had been my professional home for a decade.

The aim of the day was to discuss the changing social and physical development of the city during the three decades from 1945. The 12 presentations considered topics as varied as ‘smokeless zones’, health care, and the large-scale built projects of the era such as the Mancunian Way and the University expansion, in relation to civic plans, infrastructural initiatives, local and national government policies, technological innovation, and the wider fiscal climate. This was an era when Manchester was going through one of its periodic re-inventions.

Many of these subjects are topics that since 2000 have become the focus of research for a variety of archaeologists (historical as well as industrial archaeologists)1 under the broad heading of contemporary archaeological studies. I, however, was the only archaeologist at this particular symposium. The other speakers included cultural, migration, and urban historians, medical historians, geographers, architects, and planners. These formed an interesting multi-disciplinary group who discussed a variety of models, theories, and techniques on the changing Manchester of the period 1945 to 1974.

My own talk took an archaeological perspective on the decline of the traditional industries within Manchester (textiles, engineering and transport) and the impact of new commercial developments on the city townscape: such as the Shambles shopping centre which led to the moving by 1.7m of the city’s only surviving timber-framed building and the Arndale shopping centre which was part of the demolition of the centre of the city between Market Street and Shudehill which saw the loss of a number of historic buildings.

After a brief boom in cotton production in the 1950s Manchester’s most iconic industry rapidly declined in the face of overseas competition, although textile production as a whole managed to survive by diversifying into artificial fibres and clothes production. Engineering during this period completed its shift away from eastern Manchester into the Trafford Park Industrial Estate, its decline hastened by the demise of the steam locomotive and the associated railway engineering works in Gorton. These three decades also saw the complete abandonment of the Rochdale Canal, for over 150 years an east-west artery for raw materials through the city centre, along with its wharves and nearly three miles of private canal arms. Only the Bridgewater Canal survived as a working monument of the industrial revolution, although it was re-invented as a tourist canal in the later 1970s.

Yet this period also saw the beginnings of interest in Manchester’s industrial past. Three events were important in this awakening. The first of these was the city’s very first industrial archaeology dig. This was undertaken in 1960 by Prof Tomlinson of Manchester University on the site of the canal warehouse – the Grocers’ – in the Castlefield canal basin.2 Secondly, the first modern community archaeology event, the Deansgate Dig, occurred in 1972. This brought together university students and adult volunteers to excavate for the first time a large section of the Roman vicus, or settlement, in front of the northern gateway of the Roman Fort, off Liverpool Road in Manchester. Whilst looking for the settlement Prof Barri Jones, the excavation leader, insisted on excavating the workers’ housing of the 1800s and 1820s that overlay the Roman remains – the first time this had been done in the city.3 Finally, interest in Manchester’s industrial archaeology coalesced in the mid-1970s around the campaign to save the Liverpool Road Railway Station site, the Manchester terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Opened in 1830 as part of the World’s first intercity passenger railway, its life as a passenger station was short, being superceded by Oxford Road Station in 1849, but it continued as a goods depot until it closed in September 1975, with the key buildings of the 1830s still intact.4 It was finally purchased by the GMC in 1978 and was opened in 1984 as the home of the North Western Science and Industry Museum – now the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

These three projects were instrumental in beginning in the revival of the Castlefield area of the city, which after 1945 had become run down as the traditional industries disappeared, and dominated by vacant plots of land and empty buildings. The area became the first Urban Heritage Park in Britain in 1982, and was an early example of the added value of heritage-led regeneration in an industrial city, a legacy the City is still exploiting.

1) For instance CHAT – the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology Theory group established in 2003: www.contemporary-hist-arch.ac.uk

2) Tomlinson V I, 1961, ‘Early warehouses on Manchester waterways’, Transactions of the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society 71, 129-51.

3) Jones G D B & Grealey S, 1974, Roman Manchester. Altrincham: Manchester excavation Committee.

4) Fitzgerald R S, 1980, Liverpool Road Station, Manchester: An Historical and Architectural Survey. Manchester: Manchester University Press in association with the RCHM and GMC.

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One thought on “The Making of Post-War Manchester

  1. Very interesting reading. Although not a native of Manchester, I visit often and this information helps add a bit of history and character to areas I normally view through train windows .

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