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. As a current resident of this area, these blog posts are my reflections on the current transformation and ‘gentrification’ of Ancoats. This is part two 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.
In the previous post, I started my reflective walk through Ancoats and had got as far as Hallé St Peter’s. Before arriving at Hallé St Peter’s, I had walked past some noisy exotic pet birds breaking the quiet of Anita Street, Victoria Square and George Leigh Street. I had also stopped to appreciate a rare patch of overgrown and wild land next door to the Smith’s Arms Pub, which in turn is next door to Hallé St Peter’s.
To the right of Hallé St Peter’s is the Cutting Room Square and Blossom Street, previously an area mainly taken up by housing.
Sean, a local business owner, evocatively summarised his experience of the changing face of the area saying “the area was buzzing when the mills were at their peak, however in the 80’s it was deserted and you could have bought the whole area for nothing. Yet now we’re sitting on a goldmine, because developers don’t want us here, they want our land”. The Cutting Room Square is now surrounded by new development in the from of apartment buildings, with cafes, bars and restaurants starting to fill the ground floor commercial units in the hope that a burgeoning food and drink scene will emerge within Ancoats. The square itself is watched over by five giant monoliths, each containing an enlarged photograph by local artist Dan Dubowitz, with the imposing mills of Jersey Street and Murray Street beyond. This morning the square is empty apart from a few people walking through, there is the sound of people chatting, cutlery tinkling on plates with only the occasional distant car horn breaking the relative tranquillity.
On leaving Cutting Room Square and working my way towards the Jersey and Murray Street mills, I can see yet more silent machinery and plots of land on the cusp of being redeveloped. One of which will be an eight-storey car park that will loom over the Cutting Room Square. On reaching the Jersey Street and Murray Street Mills, it once again strikes me how quiet it is.
It is in fact too quiet, an eerie reminder of how these buildings in their hey day would have been a cacophony of noises, smells and people. The Murray Mill complex, built in 1806, was particularly iconic as it was associated with the development of the steam-driven spinning mule. The spinning mule was a machine used to spin cotton and other fibres into a yarn. Murray’s Mills were and are vast buildings that once housed steam-powered machinery, were lit by gas lighting and at their peak employed around 1,300 adults and children. However, from the 1930s onwards there was a steady decline in the cotton industry – due to the high cost of British cotton after the First World War and the increase in production elsewhere in the world – and so the Cottonopolis that once was Ancoats gradually plodded into obscurity. Today the mills are once again a hive of activity during the working week as they are busily being restored and renovated into 124 flats by the developer Manchester Life.
After the slum clearances during the 1960’s, Ancoats was beginning to be abandoned, like some kind of urban wasteland, however, it had the potential as an inner city suburb to provide an easy commute for those working in the city centre. The solution was the Smithfield Gardens Estate and the Cardroom Estate.
These two estates were built as an attempt by the City Council to reinvigorate some of the core areas of the city centre through housing development in the 1970s and 80s. The Smithfield Garden Estate was named in relation to its proximity to the Smithfield Market that was in the area of Ancoats that is now referred to as the Northern Quarter. Today the redbrick of the Smithfield Garden Estate huddles together, now a kind of social pariah amongst the independent bars and restaurants of the Northern Quarter.
The Cardroom estate was nostalgically named after the card room in cotton mills, which housed the carding machines. The carding machine combed the cotton fibres, so that they were aligned in order to make a strong thread when they were spun. However, the success of the Estate was rather short-lived. It is still a highly contested topic as to why the benign period of the estate did not last. However, whatever the cause, drug dealers and gangs started to move into the estate and the construction of a nearby retail park that separated the estate from Great Ancoats Street and the rest of Manchester only added fuel to the fire. The estate’s notorious reputation made it increasingly harder to let out the properties and the Cardroom became a last resort place to rehouse difficult tenants. Today as I make my way from the Murray Mill complex and along the canal side of Redhill Street, any sign of the Cardroom Estate appears to have been swept away and replaced with a water park called New Islington Marina.
Unsurprisingly, I am met with the sight of yet more development, again by Manchester Life on the left and across the marina on the former site of St. Jude’s C of E primary school is the soon to be completed grey façade of the New Islington Free School building.
In the next and final post about Ancoats, I follow the water from New Islington Marina to Islington Wharf. This in turn gives me a chance to enjoy the colourful barges, local bird communities and reflect on the surrounding old (some of which is no longer in existence), new and yet to be built architecture.
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. The oral histories themselves can be listened to at Central Library.
This blog was written and researched by Katie Mills, Graduate Student, The University of Manchester, Archaeology Department.