The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

Living in cities: the Manchester experience

Technical breakthroughs responsible for the growth of Manchester ('Cottonopolis'):

  • 1707: iron first smelted with coke (previously charcoal - used up the forests); moves iron production to places where coal and iron ore can be found together eg Ironbridge; makes possible the building of complex and reliable machinery.
  • Spinning machines driven by water wheels, especially Crompton's 'Mule' (1779) help to create the factory system. When steam engines begin to replace water power (from 1788) factories need to be built where there is coal available.
  • 1750's: cotton begins to be grown in the southern United States where slaves provide the labour. Manchester, already a centre for cloth production, has coal nearby and easy access through the port at Liverpool.

Manchester's growth was prodigious: 17,000 lived there in 1751, by 1840 nearly half a million. One tenth of these worked in its 900 plus mills. Children as young as eight were employed, their miseries graphically illustrated by campaigners for regulation. In contrast is this view provided by a Scottish professor of Chemistry called Andrew Ure. Ure thought that the sufferings of the factory children were being exaggerated. I have visited many factories both in Manchester and in the outlying districts, he wrote, and I never saw a single instance of corporal chastisement inflicted on a child, nor indeed did I ever see children in ill-humour. They always seemed to be cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in the light play of their muscles. It was delightful to observe the nimbleness with which they pieced together the broken ends as the mule carriage began to recede from the fixed roller-beam, and to see them at leisure, after a few seconds exercise of their tiny fingers, to amuse themselves in any attitude they chose till the stretch and winding-on were completed. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport, in which habit gave them a pleasing dexterity.

Large numbers of Irish immigrants kept wages in the factories low. According to the writer Thomas Carlyle, the Irish immigrant was the sorest evil this country had to bear; in his rags and laughing savagery he was prepared to take any work and be satisfied with wages that would buy him a few potatoes; for him even a pigsty was an acceptable dwelling. The Irish labourer, in squalor and unreason, in falsity and drunken violence, was a terrifying prophesy of what could happen to working men in England.

On the fringes of the rapidly expanding urban area minimal 'back to back' housing sprang up to meet the expanding demand. On the face of it this represented a substantial improvement. A closer inspection however, would reveal that the walls were only half a brick thick; forty years would be a very optimistic estimate of the lifespan of such housing. In the last ten years the decline was likely to be particularly rapid; by then a cottage would have sunk so low that only the Irish would consider living there and their usual practice was to use the remaining woodwork for fires. Such housing, coupled with non-existent drainage and tainted water supplies, surrounded by dung hills and stagnant ponds, was ideal for the spread of cholera. It was the terror inspired by the epidemic of this disease in 1832 that compelled the authorities in Manchester to take the first steps towards improvement... (John Clarke: 'The Price of Progress', p110)

The story of a Manchester street which has been the subject of detailed research - John Street in Irk Town - illustrates both the conditions under which people lived and the reality of the cholera threat. The first houses in John Street were built in 1826 to provide housing for workers in the nearby mills. It was a crowded low-lying district close to the river Irk into which flowed excrementitious matter? from all the surrounding areas, including ?the drainage from the gas works and filth of the pernicious character from bone works, tanneries, size manufacturies etc.? None of the houses had indoor privies: waste was simply dumped into the open sewer which ran past the end of the street. In 1844, Frederick Engels described Irk Town as a place where all the features of a city are lost. Single rows of houses or groups of streets stand here or there like little villages on the naked, not even grass-grown, soil. the houses, or rather cottages, are in bad order, never repaired, filthy, with damp unclean cellar dwellings; the lanes are neither paved nor supplied with sewers but harbour numerous colonies of swine, penned in in small yards or wandering unrestrained through the neighbourhood. A hundred years later the paintings of LS Lowry capture much the same effect.

Who lived in John Street? All the houses were rented and over a hundred years of occupation there were many owners. Almost all the landlords were local tradesmen or shopkeepers. The average tenancy was very short - less than two years - and many of the houses were in multiple occupation. In 1832 the Hannah family occupied the house closest to the open sewer. The parents were unemployed weavers and their six children were described as half-famished. Next door to them lived the Sharples: four adults and three children, half-starving and half naked, sleeping on the floor. All the children died in the cholera outbreak of that year.

Effective lobbying by Manchester's MP's ensured that the city was excluded from the provisions of Chadwick's 1848 Act and it was not until 1868 that a Medical Officer of Health was appointed. Even then his efforts to clean up the slums were vigorously opposed by the Manchester House Owners Guardian Association. It was not until 1911 that the houses in John Street were declared unfit for human habitation.

Illustration: John Street, Irk Town

John Street, Irk Town

Built between 1827 and 1835 to house textile workers the block shaded in consisted of 14 'back-to-back' houses. With no proper sanitation and an open sewer running nearby there were many cases of cholera in the district between 1830 and 1850. The 1861 census shows that there was an average of six people living in each of the houses, most of them of Irish decent. By 1871 the overcrowding had grown worse. One of the 4 houses with cellars had 19 occupants.