Uncovering Manchester’s Industrial Past (Part 4) – Workers’ Housing

View of one of the two-roomed cellar dwellings in a row of early 19th century back-to-back houses. The remails of a raised, secondary brick floor can be seen in one room which was installed in the late 19th century © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
Remains of a flagged passageway in the foreground which provided external access to the cellar dwelling © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
View showing that internal partition walls of the cellar dwellings were one brick wide. A small red-brick structure was added to the outer wall which probably served as a light well enabling some natural light to enter into the underground room © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022

The rapidly growing number of textile mills and iron foundries in Manchester during the late 18th and early 19th century required an expanding workforce. Manchester’s population growth in the first half of the 19th century was phenomenal. For example, while London’s population doubled during this time, Manchester’s trebled in size. Migrants were drawn to work in Manchester from the surrounding area and further afield, notably from Ireland, from the late 18th century onwards.

Industrial workers’ housing in Manchester

In the late 18th century the housing available for workers was typically three-storey dwellings with a cellar and an attic lit by long windows which were used as workshops. A few examples of these houses still survive in the Northern Quarter and Castlefield. Soon the number of residential houses was exceeded by the size of the workforce. Consequently, the open land around Manchester was sold by the estate owners to speculators who then marked out plots that were sold to builders. Late 18th and early 19th century maps of Manchester indicate the creation of many small alleys and blind courtyards, with plots of land subdivided into rows. Over the 50-year period from the 1790s to the 1840s, Manchester was a ‘boom town’ leading to the creation of the world’ first industrial city.

Very few of the houses were built by the factory owners. The vast majority were erected by third-party property speculators resulting in unregulated and unplanned urban expansion, with blocks of housing built at differing angles following the alignment only of intervening streets. The lack of regulation led to piecemeal development of streets of mainly back-to-back and blind-back houses, often only a single room wide and deep with windows found only on their front walls, without any form of water supply or sanitation. Many of these houses also included cellar dwellings, often accessed via staircase from the street level or, in some cases, by a trapdoor from the ground level of the building. Back-to-back houses required relatively low material costs with speculative developments potentially providing high returns, thereby maximising the return on land.

By the mid-19th century gaps between earlier housing were being infilled. Houses were also split and cellars were let separately for the poorest members of the community. Thus, while Manchester’s population was increasing dramatically, its physical area at this time remained constant. By 1845, the peak of overcrowding of the new industrial city, there were notorious slum areas with unsanitary housing, for example in Ancoats, Angel Meadow and Lower Deansgate. While Manchester had become one of the world’s great cities, it had also become one of the most unhealthy places to live in.

Ancoats: the world’s first industrial suburb

Ancoats was largely fields until development began in the late 1780s. By 1815 it had the most cotton mills and largest number of households of any district in Manchester. It is recognised as the first residential district of the modern world, specifically intended for occupation by the new urban working class.

Today, although there are limited remains of early workers’ housing surviving above ground, archaeological excavations as part of the urban regeneration of East Manchester have uncovered the foundations and floor surfaces of late 18th and 19th century dwellings.

Milliners Wharf, Ancoats

Archaeological Research Services Ltd undertook excavations in spring 2014 in advance of construction of an apartment block at Milliners Wharf, immediately beside New Islington Metrolink tram stop. In one part of the site the cellar dwellings of a set of back-to-back workers’ housing built by the 1820s was revealed. The houses were built two rooms deep between two streets, i.e. typical back-to-back houses. The internal brick partition walls were one brick wide, with the largest room measured 4.4m by 3.7m. The rooms contained different floor surfaces: one room contained only a beaten clay surface with the other having a brick floor. The cellars would have been accessed via a flagged passageway, as a doorway was identified which led from the passageway into the cellar.

These cellar dwellings are suggestive of two-roomed dwellings, one at the front of the structure and one at the back. Initially, the buildings were erected without any form of water supply or sanitation. At a later date, a raised, secondary brick floor was installed, into which a sandstone drain cover for an underlying ceramic drain pipe that was cut through the internal partition wall was set. A small red-brick structure was built within the outer wall that served as a light-well in order to allow some natural light to enter into the underground room.

Census data for the dates between 1841 and 1881 show that the dwellings were occupied generally by a family unit, usually with a number of lodgers, often a second family unit. It was not uncommon for 12 or 13 people to occupy one dwelling, and so conditions must have been cramped and somewhat unsanitary. Occupations stated for the heads of the household living at the dwellings include labourers, dyers, strikers, house keepers, spinners, brewers, weavers, painters and salt hawkers, all trades which offer limited economic prospect. A cotton mill, an iron mill and a brewery were all situated in neighbouring streets. People residing in the houses were predominantly working nearby. Many of the families came from Ireland, with at least two other families originating from Malta and the East Indies.

Keep checking our website for more pieces uncovering Manchester’s industrial past – part 5 coming soon!

> If you missed it, see part 3 of our series (involving the city’s iron works) here.

> See part 5 (Angel Meadow – hell on earth) here.

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