Before the 18th century, Manchester was effectively a market town with a few surrounding satellite villages, however during the industrial revolution Manchester’s cotton industry began to thrive, overtaking London to become the leading ‘Cottonopolis’. The area of Ancoats was transformed from a sleepy village on the edge of Manchester with fields and sheep grazing into a turbulent industrial hub of imposing mills with housing and related facilities and businesses crammed into the gaps. By 1851, the population of Ancoats was 53,737. The living conditions of Ancoats residents attracted horrified and repulsed reactions from many wealthy and educated observers, most notably the Marxist philosopher Friedrich Engels. Since the time of Engels commentary on the working class of Manchester there have been various attempts to ‘rescue’ the area of Ancoats, including the current spate of redevelopment and rapid urban regeneration going on the area. As a current resident of this area, these blog posts are my reflections on the current transformation and ‘gentrification’ of Ancoats. This is part one of three blogs that chart my observations whilst on a leisurely observational stroll through the area. The blog posts are also inspired by the recorded oral histories of previous Ancoats residents that are part of the Archives+ sound archives collection.
You can listen to the oral histories on Soundcloud and walk the routes on Historypin.
Over the years the area has evolved and been transformed into many different states from booming Industrial hive, to decaying post-industry wasteland, to area of social housing with a backdrop of ruinous mills, to it’s current state of rapid gentrification and development. It is a rather rare warm Sunday lunchtime in July and there is the smell of rain – from an earlier heavy shower – now evaporating from the pavement. The sounds of exotic birds whistling out of an open window on Anita Street break the quiet of Victoria
Square and Sherratt Street. Built in 1889, Victoria Square was the first example of municipal housing in Manchester and was followed shortly after with the adjacent model housing in Anita Street (formerly known as Sanitary Street) and George Leigh Street, all three still exist in their original forms today. Throughout the area there is now ample evidence of developers and building sites, however their machines are quiet today. It always strikes me how this area that is so close to the bustle of town and was previously such a noisy, crowded, smelly, but vibrant industrial hub can be so quiet.
After leaving the exotic birds to their singing, I am faced with the new Residenza housing project on George Leigh Street. The old George Leigh Street School and the half-built
houses next door are currently hidden by scaffolding and are safely wrapped in plastic to keep out the weather. The aim of this development is to combine historical sensitivity with high-end urban regeneration. The name ‘Residenza’ hints at the areas previous nickname of ‘Little Italy’, which was due to the Italian immigrants that made Ancoats their home after arriving in the 1800s to work in the cotton industry. The area also attracted a lot of Irish and Polish immigrants during this time.
On the left of the Rezidenza Project, there are two rather wild patches of land that are waiting to be redeveloped. However, whilst they wait they are a rare haven in this
developer’s paradise for wildlife, especially butterflies. Amongst the wildflowers and shrubs there is the Smiths Arms Pub, which has its origins in the 1700s, now boarded up and looking like it has seen better days, yet still retaining a certain charm. The only other shell of a pub in the area is the Edinburgh Castle just down the road on Blossom Street. For an area that used to have a local on every corner the area is now sadly lacking, despite the current trend for craft ales that have allowed pubs like the Marble Arch, The Angel Pub and the Port Street Beer House to flourish. It is so far unclear what will happen to the Smiths Arms Pub although there are plans to replace it with 199 apartments and in an area where this is laissez faire, I suspect it will not be a happy ending.
However, just down the road from the Smiths Arms Pub there is a building that has definitely had a happy ending and that is Hallé St Peter’s. The building was built in 1859, out of brick rather than traditional stone and originally served the Anglican congregation of Ancoats. By 1860, St. Peters had attracted around 14,000 members to its parish and was originally designed to seat around 1,350 people, although this was greatly reduced in the early 1900’s to 300 people. However, by the 1950s, the population of Ancoats was in decline and consequently so was the amounts of regular churchgoers, therefore the congregations of St. Peter’s and the nearby St. James Church were combined, meaning that St. Peter’s for a short period become known locally as ‘St Peter’s and Little Jimmies’. Unfortunately, the size of the congregation gradually became unsustainable again and St.Peters Church closed its doors to the population of Ancoats just shortly after its centenary in 1960. What followed was twenty-five years of mixed use, including a space for prop storage by the university and a knitting factory, but ultimately St. Peters was left to decay and fell victim to routine vandalism. However, in 1997 the Ancoats Building Preservation Trust (ABPT) obtained St Peter’s Church on a long lease from Manchester City Council and through a series of partnerships and funding bodies they were able to fully
repair and restore the building by 2006.
After plans by the Embroiders Guild to turn the deconsecrated church into an international centre for embroidery were abandoned, the Hallé Orchestra were able to raise the funds to complete the internal restoration and convert the space for use by the orchestra. St. Peters is now used as a rehearsal and small performance space. However, on this rather sleepy Sunday morning the orchestra is silent, the only noise in the area is coming from the nearby cafes and restaurants.
In my next post, I continue to stroll through Ancoats passing by the Cutting Room Square and Blossom Street which are next to Hallé St. Peters. I then reflect on the changing uses of the Jersey Street and Murray Street mills, before considering the ‘gentrified’ facelift that the area previously known as the Cardroom Estate and now known as New Islington Marina is also currently going through.
If you are interested in knowing a bit more about some of the oral histories that inspired the ‘Our Ancoats’ blog posts then check out the Archives+ Historypin site.
This blog was written and researched by Katie Mills, Graduate Student, The University of Manchester, Archaeology Department.