Building Secrets: Manchester's Forgotten Slums

A new project has repaired, photographed and shared forgotten maps of Manchester’s slums.

By Manchester's Finest | 21 April 2020

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For all of people’s complaining nowadays about the state of the roads, the expense of housing and just how dirty the city can get – none of this really compares to just how disgusting the city was during the Industrial Revolution.

As thousands upon thousands flocked to the city for work, vast swathes of the city gave way to working-class slums, including “all Salford and Hulme, an important part of Pendleton and Chorlton, two-thirds of Ardwick and certain small areas of Cheetham Hill and Broughton.”

One of the most notorious slum areas was located around the Red Bank area of the city, which is now where the Green Quarter is located. In particular the area around Angel Meadows has been described as “the vilest and most dangerous slum of the Industrial Revolution.”

The University of Manchester Library / CC

Straddling the River Irk, the slums were described in disgustingly accurate detail by Frederick Engels for his book ‘The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844‘.

Now, I know that Engels can divide opinion (just look at the comments in our article on his statue at First Street) and many may argue that any negative description of working-class areas in the city served to fulfil his political aims and ideals – but a new restoration of maps and reports from the University of Manchester goes a long way to proving what he said to be the truth.

Or as close as we’re going to ever get anyway.

The restored maps were bound into reports by the city’s Medical Officer of Health at the time, reports that provide grim and detailed statistical records of the cause of death, occupation, age and sex of individuals in each sanitary district, along with their address and the date of death.

It all makes for almost macabre reading, and when projected alongside descriptions from Engels during his visit to ‘Old Town’ down on the River Irk – a much clearer picture of the sheer level of destitution in Manchester’s slums emerges.

A quick look in the restored ‘Report on the Health of the City of Manchester, 1880‘ and you can see that death rates in the city in 1877 stood at 27.79% – an absolutely whopping figure considering that in 2018 the highest death rate in the world was in South Africa and stood at 17.23%.

Of these deaths the main causes were “Diseases of the Lungs” and “Whooping Cough” – owing to the poor quality of the air in the city and the disastrously poor housing in often extreme winters.

Engels noted that along the river bank there were “a chaotic group of little, one-storied, one-roomed cabins. Most of them have earth floors, and working, living and sleeping all take place in the one room. In such a hole, barely six feet long and five feet wide, I saw two beds – and what beds and bedding!

In addition to this, filth and poor sanitation added to exceptionally high levels of mortality from typhus, typhoid and diarrhea, owing to “a degree of dirt and revolting filth, the like of which is not to be found elsewhere.

The river itself presented “the spectacle of a series of the most revolting blackish-green puddles of slime from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gases constantly rise and create a stench which is unbearable.

In his closing description of the area, Engels told how “the shameful lay-out of the Old Town has made it impossible for the wretched inhabitants to enjoy cleanliness, fresh air, and good health.

“And such a district of at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants lies in the very centre of the second city in the most important factory town in the world.

The new maps and reports help provide a level of detail of the city centre area and manages to bridge an almost 50-year gap between found surveys in the 1850s and later in a 1904 map of housing condition in Manchester and Salford by campaigner Thomas R. Marr.

Geographer Dr Martin Dodge who worked with experts from the University highlights how the “maps are a unique sanitary survey for Manchester, which will be a valuable resource for researchers to better understand the social conditions in the city in the late 1800s”.

The University of Manchester Library / CC

During a time when the living and working conditions of the lower classes was a sizzling topic throughout society, these largely ignored reports and maps could have been better utilised to influence and improve the physical living conditions and wellbeing of Manchester’s citizens – a movement which was sluggish to say the least.

As was the case throughout the industrialised world, wealthy factory owners and political big wigs were getting rich entirely off the back of the working classes and their destitution.

It wasn’t until large political uprisings throughout Europe in the beginning of the 20th Century and after the First World War that things started to change for the better. Although to be fair, it was still sluggish.

The digitised maps and reports are available to view online here.