From 19th century mills to 21st century luxury apartments
Fredrich Engels described 19th century working class housing in Great Ancoats Street as ‘ruinous’ rows of ‘back-to-backs’ amongst the towering mill buildings. In the 20th century, industry declined and housing deteriorated further into slums amongst the derelict factories. But 21st century Great Ancoats Street is rising again above the rubble, with many of the great mills converted into apartments and offices. What would Engels think of this gentrified urban living space? What are the stories behind the new Ancoats ‘urban village’?
Great Ancoats Street, Manchester
Click each image to find maps, pictures and stories from Great Ancoats Street.
Great Ancoats Street, Manchester in the 19th century
Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, investigated the social effects of the Industrial Revolution, focusing on two kinds of street. The first was where the workers and urban poor lived and the second was the thoroughfare, bringing middle-class commuters into the town centre, bypassing and shielding from view the poverty that lay around them.
Great Ancoats Street was the first kind of street. In his famous book, published in 1845, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, Engels lamented the ‘vast number of ruinous houses’ on Great Ancoats Street, which housed those who worked in ‘the largest mills of Manchester’.
‘Cottonopolis’ as Manchester became known, was the ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution, particularly for the workers who suffered its alienating effects.
Vast mills tower above the workers' houses
The vast mill complex was completed in 1806 by George and Adam Murray. Each day over a thousand men, women and children arrived before 7.00 am to work in Murray’s Mills, Union Street. Late arrivals were locked out, and lost a day’s wages.
The mills comprised two steam-powered cotton-spinning mills and they continued to spin cotton until the late 1950s.Visit the Heritage Works website to find out more about the history of the mills.
The first industrial developments: factories and housing
Many of the mill complexes date from the late 18th and early 19th century, representing some of the earliest factories in the world. Ancoats became known as the world’s first industrial suburb. This map shows the mills of Ancoats, separated by a grid pattern of streets housing the workers and described by Engels, 1845, in 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'.
'The streets are unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead. . . ventilation is impeded by the bad confused method of building. . . '
Finding detailed information from plans
This map is from a set of 24 detailed plans of Manchester produced by Joseph Adshead in1851 to a scale of 80 inches to 1 ft. It shows part of Great Ancoats Street.
William Fairbairn’s engineering works is in the centre with Barr and Turnbull’s cotton mill and machine works on either side of Wharf Street. As well as coal yards and offices, there are two taverns, The Grapes and The Ostrich. The layout of 'back-to-back' housing is clearly shown and it's easy to imagine how grimy and crowded the area would be for the urban working classes.
Cramped conditions for the working classes
Friedrich Engels worked as a clerk in Manchester during the 1840s, and investigated the devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution on the working class. This illustration is taken from his book, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, 1845.
‘Under the name Ancoats, stand the largest mills of Manchester lining the canals, colossal six and seven-storied buildings towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers.’
Working class housing: the 'back-to-backs'
This sketch illustrates the layout of working class housing in areas like Ancoats. The first, most expensive row of houses had a back door and yard. Behind these lay a narrow alley and then two rows of ‘back-to-back’ houses. The third row faced a street, while the cheapest middle-row houses faced onto the alley.
‘Ancoats, built chiefly since the sudden growth of manufacture, contains a vast number of ruinous houses, most of them being, in fact, in the last stages of inhabitableness.’
Friedrich Engel’s ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, 1845.
Factories, mills and working class housing
This Ordnance Survey map of 1894 shows where Great Ancoats Street crosses the Manchester Ashton-under-Lyne Canal. The canal formed a vital transport link between the Ancoats mills and port of Liverpool via the Manchester Ship Canal, opened in 1894.
Many street names reflect the industrial activity of the area: Wharf Street, Store Street, Mill Street, Canal Street, Spinner Street, Factory Street and Aqueduct Street. The map clearly illustrates how this first urban development placed workers’ housing close to the mills and factories.
Map reproduced with permission from Cassini Historical Maps
Great Ancoats Street, Manchester in the 20th century
Great Ancoats Street has always been defined by buildings of industry. In the 19th century, huge cotton mills dominated until their decline in the 1930s although some, such as Murrays’ Mills on Union Street, continued spinning cotton into the 1950s. In 1910, AV Roe began manufacturing aircraft in his factory on the corner of Great Ancoats Street and Binns Place. Later in the 20th century, the newspaper industry came to Great Ancoats Street when the Daily Express opened its famous black glass building in 1939.
Nothing, however, could compensate for the loss of the mills and as these fell into disrepair, Ancoats fell victim to the mass clearance of terraced homes in the 1960s. Behind the great buildings of industry on Great Ancoats Street, lay the grid streets of ‘back-to-back’ housing whose inhabitants, no longer finding work on their doorsteps, were rehoused to the north and east of the city.
Italian ice cream in Ancoats
Many Italian families migrated to Manchester in the late 19th century. They settled in the parish of St. Michael’s, a Roman Catholic church in Ancoats.
Bernardo Scapaticci was the founder of Ben's Ices, established in 1898. The family still sell ice cream on Market Street, Manchester city centre today.
Visit Ancoats Little Italy to find out about the Italian communities in Ancoats, and the stories behind their ice-cream!
From cotton mill to flying machines
Brownfield Mill was a cotton-spinning mill until 1910, when it became one of the earliest aircraft factories in the world. The mill is Grade II listed and contains the oldest surviving mill chimney in Manchester.
AV Roe and Co. Ltd. (Avro) was the first company in the world to be set up for the sole purpose of designing and manufacturing flying machines. Avro established its factory there.
Express networks: rise and fall of the printed newspaper
Newspapers became one of Great Ancoats Street major 20th century industries when the Daily Express opened its iconic black glass building there in 1939. It soon became a well-known Manchester landmark, and still survives today.
In the late 1980s, the arrival of modern printing technology meant the closure of the newspaper printing industry in Great Ancoats Street. Now known as ‘Express Networks 1’ the building has been converted into flats.
Visit New East Manchester to find out about the redevelopment plans.
Demise of the Italian ice-cream factories
One of the side effects of the 1960s slum clearance was the destruction of the Italian community which had thrived in Ancoats since the end of the 19th century. With them, went the ice cream factories of the ‘20s and ‘30s, yet another of the varied range of Great Ancoats Street industries.
Visit Ancoats Little Italy to find out about the Italian communities in Ancoats, and the stories behind their ice-cream!
The boundary between rich and poor
This map shows Great Ancoats Street as the boundary between the wealthy city centre to its front and the poorer streets behind it.
Ancoats was the first suburb to combine the places of work, the large mills and factories, with the houses where the workers lived. This approach to workers’ housing was copied throughout the north of England, Scotland and many parts of mainland Europe.
Visit Heritage Works to find more information and images from the developers.
Great Ancoats Street, Manchester in the 21st century
If Engels were to revisit Great Ancoats Street today, he would be surprised to see the industrial mills converted into modern apartments as part of the urban regeneration of the area since the early 1990s. Ancoats has become less an industrial suburb mixing industry and housing and more of a gentrified urban living space.
But, is it all change and no continuity since Engel’s time? Although Great Ancoats street is no longer the site of industrial capitalism which produced the extremes of deprivation found in Engels’ life-time, it still borders the most multiply deprived areas in the UK.
Manchester remains a divided city.
Royal Mills: from cotton mills to stylish flats
Royal Mills was a complex of four mills, built between 1818 and 1913, on the side of the Rochdale Canal. There was cotton spinning at Royal Mills until 1959.
Today, after an extensive programme of regeneration, this Grade II listed mill is home to offices, businesses and stylish, new apartments.
Visit ING Real Estate for a visual history of Royal Mills.
Changing roles for our city canals
The Manchester canals have been integrated into new developments in Ancoats.
Once a bustling industrial thoroughfare, the canals are now a popular retreat for families and groups of friends to enjoy a relaxing holiday cruising in a narrowboat. The industrial heritage of the mills and warehouses is transformed into the leisure industry of the 21st century.
Visit Pennine Waterways for more pictures along the Ashton Canal.
Measures of deprivation
‘If you’re looking for a cool, urban place to live right on the edge of the city centre then Ancoats is for you.’ The award-winning developments in east Manchester include ‘thoughtfully designed living spaces’. In stark contrast, this map from the Index of Deprivation survey for Manchester shows parts of Ancoats and Clayton amongst the top 5% of most multiply deprived wards in Britain. Despite all the recent regeneration, some parts are amongst the top 1% of multiply deprived wards.
Ancoats Urban Village: Murray's Mills
The award-winning Murray’s Mills regeneration project has transformed the disused multi-storey cotton spinning mills bordering Great Ancoats Street, Union Street and the Rochdale Canal. Also known as Ancoats Urban Village, it comprises 110 apartments, a hotel, restaurants, cafes and 48,000 sq. ft. of commercial office space.
Compare this image with the watercolour of the mill complex in the 19th century.
What has changed, and does anything remain the same, for the people who live and work in the Ancoats area?
More stories behind the streets
The Secret History of Our Streets: Share your diaries Community contribution Credit: R P C Franklyn Limited
Help us to build a picture of the secret history of streets around the UK by contributing to our diaries. Read more: The Secret History of Our Streets: Share your diaries
Arnold Circus, London: social housing for the 'deserving poor' Featuring: Activity Credit: Rodney Burton via geograph under Creative Commons license
From the tenants of the first council housing estate, built on the Old Nichol in the 19th century, we trace the... Launch now: Arnold Circus, London: social housing for the 'deserving poor'
Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin, Ireland: from speculative landowners to multi-tenanted tenements Featuring: Activity Credit: G&T Crampton Limited Archive
The story of Upper Buckingham Street, from its initial layout in 1788 to the present day, reflects the ups and downs... Launch now: Upper Buckingham Street, Dublin, Ireland: from speculative landowners to multi-tenanted tenements
Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change Featuring: Activity Credit: Sheffield Local Studies Library
What stories does Park Hill hold? From 19th century industrial squalor to iconic 'streets in the sky' in the 1960s,... Launch now: Park Hill, Sheffield: continuity and change
Dumbarton Road, Partick, Glasgow: from tenements to riverside apartments Featuring: Activity Credit: Hilary Mooney
We look back at the social history shaped by a ten-fold rise in population from 5,000 in 1850 to over 55,000 by 1901,... Launch now: Dumbarton Road, Partick, Glasgow: from tenements to riverside apartments
City Road, Cardiff: suburban thoroughfare Featuring: Activity Credit: Cardiff Central Watch under Creative Commons license
Known as Castle Road in the 19th century, we trace the changing character and communities of City Road, re-named in... Launch now: City Road, Cardiff: suburban thoroughfare
Where do you live? One answer may be your home postal address but what are the secrets behind your postcode? How has... Launch now: The stories behind our streets
OU and the BBC
The Secret History of our Streets: Get your free booklet 'A tourist's guide to our secret streets' Credit: The Open University
Download your free 16-page booklet, with folding historic map from Charles Booth and fascinating stories behind the... Read more: The Secret History of our Streets: Get your free booklet 'A tourist's guide to our secret streets'
Six streets - apparently unremarkable, but each one with a lot to tell us about how life and London has changed in... Read more: OU on the BBC: The Secret History Of Our Streets: London