Walking a Revolution: Exploring Manchester’s Industrial Archaeology

Ancoats Mills along the Rochdale Canal

Ancoats Mills along the Rochdale Canal

The last ten days of October has become the home of the annual Manchester Science Festival. This ninth year was organised by the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, with support from a variety of partners, and the University of Salford contributed its largest set of events to date. As part of that contribution I was able to lead a group of not so hardy 29 time travellers along a walk through Manchester’s and Salford’s industrial revolution. The walk took us through some of the most dramatic urban industrial archaeology in Britain.

Although the start and end of the route encompasses some of the worst slums and overcrowding in both cities, these industrial domestic dwellings have nearly all gone. This means that archaeological excavation is the only way to recover such evidence. In the Islington area of Salford the excavation of slum housing in the shadow of the Catholic cathedral on Chapel Street has revealed the overcrowded infill- and backyard- properties, as well as courtyard housing and cellar dwellings. Above ground a fragmentary row of three properties from the 1820s on the eastern side of Old Hall Lane is the token symbol of these early structures.  How do you control such a rapidly growing urban population? One answer was to build Georgian Britain’s largest prison at New Bailey. Now just the arched brick revetments survive along the western bank of the River Irwell, though archaeology has revealed the massive foundations and intricate arrangement of prison cells, workshops and exercise areas.

Along Water Street on the eastern bank of the Irwell lies the 18th and early 19th century water fronts. Today the Mersey and Irwell Navigation quay, established at the bottom of Quay Street in 1736, is represented by the Victoria and Albert dock warehouses, and the first lock of the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal, a failed attempt from 1840 to by-pass the Bridgewater Canal terminus at Castlefield. The canal basin dates from 1763 and includes extensive engineering such as tunnelling and a substantial weir to cope with the waters of the River Medlock which fed the basin. It also boasts the site of Britain’s first two canal warehouses, both from 1770 (The Dukes and the Grocers). The Grocers’ survives in partially rebuilt form allowing the terracing into the sandstone bluff of Castlefeld, the internal pair of canal arms and the water-powered host system to be fully viewed.

Both waterfronts became overshadowed, literally, by the arrival of the railway in 1830. The Liverpool Road Station site – sometimes referred to as ‘the Stonehenge of the Industrial Revolution’ – is the first intercity passenger railway terminus. It marks the beginning of the main-line railways, demonstrating the popularity and commercial success of a new mass-transport system and in consequence the speeding up of the movement of people and ideas. It’s also a transitional building: no-one knew what a railway booking hall should look like, so this one appears like a Georgian townhouse from the outside and inside reflects contemporary coach and canal ticket office design. It also lacks a passenger platform – that wouldn’t be invented until 1836.

Lock 92 on the Rochdale canal, opened to Castlefield in 1805.

Lock 92 on the Rochdale canal, opened to Castlefield in 1805.

A walk along the Rochdale Canal from Castlefield to Ancoats takes the explorer through Manchester’s commercial and warehousing district. Tall buildings flanking the canal up to 10 stories high create a canyon-like feel. Amongst the cotton ’home’ and ‘overseas’ export warehouses (all elaborate front but plain rear) and the headquarters of Tootal Broadhurst & Lee and the Calico Printers Association (both on Oxford Street) are two gems. A 1900s coal-powered fire station for the city’s first electricity supply and the aborted stump of Manchester’s first skyscraper, designed in an Art Deco style by Fairhurst and Sellar, begun in 1929 and abandoned due to a financial crash in 1931. Another rare building is a 1900s clothe-making factory on Canal Street, which with its rows of small windows and lack of external ornamentation could easily be mistaken for an office building.

Our end point is the Industrial Suburb of Ancoats, developed from the 1790s around cotton spinning by steam. Manchester popularised the use of the steam engine in cotton mills and also the archetypal image of the Industrial Revolution factory; multi-storey, tall, thin, brick-built brooding monsters dominated by chimneys belching black smoke and home to hundreds of workers ruled by time and living in their shadow in back-to-back houses and cellar dwellings. By 1861 there were 53,737 people living in Ancoats and 54 cotton spinning mills. Most of the chimneys and housing have gone. However, Murrays Mills, built 1798-1806 and at one time the largest single cotton spinning factory complex in the world, still survives. The adjacent McConnel and Kennedy complex was the largest single firm in Manchester in 1836, employing 1500 people. It retains its lofty eight-storey block of 1818-20 with a steam engine flywheel still visible in the engine house from Redhill Street. Next door is the rebuilt Royal Mill block of 1912, the first electrically-powered cotton spinning mill in Manchester. This line of mills, on northern side of the Rochdale Canal, form a chronological history of Manchester textile mill innovation and design.

Worskhop dwellings from 1785-93 on Liverpool Road.

Worskhop dwellings from 1785-93 on Liverpool Road.

This tour through the heartland of Georgian and Victorian Manchester reveals the striking survival of some buildings, and the horrors of the Industrial Revolution represented by other sites. And to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the festival, and Manchester’s role as European city of science in 2016, next autumn I hope to look in more detail at the archaeology of the world’s first industrial city, which is of course Manchester.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Walking a Revolution: Exploring Manchester’s Industrial Archaeology

  1. It’s a revealing post, for which many thanks. There’s something extraordinary about the way in which landscapes, in particular city-scapes (right word?), constantly evolve. The reasons are obvious, but the change surprises nonetheless.

  2. Hello Mr Nevell.

    Fascinating reading, very very interesting especially the numbers of people who lived in the Ancoats area – 53,373. I work at a charity called the Mustard Tree which is based in the old ” Prestons Wholesalers ” building on Bengal Street and Oldham Road, in the Ancoats area, and in the basement of that building are some intriguing foundation structures that I am trying to find out the origin of.

    Re. the following ” A 1900s coal-powered fire station for the city’s first electricity supply and the aborted stump of Manchester’s first skyscraper, designed in an Art Deco style by Fairhurst and Sellar, begun in 1929 and abandoned due to a financial crash in 1931. Another rare building is a 1900s clothe-making factory on Canal Street, which with its rows of small windows and lack of external ornamentation could easily be mistaken for an office building. ”

    Do you know the name of said fire-station, and the skyscraper, as I would like to take a closer look please ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s