As one Manchester writer said of the world’s first industrial suburb
“It holds a place in his history for being the first residential district of the modern world which was intended for the occupation solely of one class, what was to become the new urban working class.”
The origins of its name go back to the 13th century as “Elnecoy” meaning lonely cottages could well be the derivation of the name that we know today as Ancoats, Cotes being a derivative from the Anglo Saxon word Cots, a cottage.
It’s earliest reference goes back to that time when Robert Greslet, the fifth baron of Manchester, gave to Ralph de Ancotes two Oxgangs of land (around 26 acres) for a rent of six shillings and eightpence a year.
Up to the middle of the eighteenth century, the area was open land stretching North of Manchester, the only building of any note was Ancoats Hall, original seat of the Byrom family, later purchased by the Mosley’s
The land’s potential was being recognised by the 1770’s as the Industrial Revolution began in Manchester, the Cheshire Legh’s one of the families that saw the opportunity, selling to a bricklayer Thomas Bond.
The canals came to Ancoats by the end of the century, the Ashton Canal in 1799, the Rochdale Canal the following year and a series of arteries off the waterways would provide the district with ready made transport to and from the newly emerging mills.
Steam Driven Mills
The names of Adam and George Murray, James McConnell and John Kennedy became synonymous with Ancoats, all three originating from New Galloway in Southern Scotland.
Richard Arkwright had introduced the first mill with steam power to the town in 1782 in Miller St, Shudehill, the building survived until the 1940 blitz and Peter Drinkwater was to install the first steam engine to power Cotton machinery in Auburn St in Piccadilly in 1790.
McConnell and Kennedy in partnership opened their first steam powered mill in Ancoats on Union street in 1797, the new steam power driving spinning mules over eight floors by means of the Boulton and Watt steam engine.
The following year the Murray Brothers began to develop the the Murray’s Mills complex completed in 1804, comprises Old Mill, New Mill, two engine rooms, an admin block and an intriguing link to the Rochdale canal. At its height it employed over 1,300 workers, the biggest employer in Ancoats.
Other mills followed, Pollards, B & W Sandford, Gallimore & Johnson and later Fairbairn and Co, as well as other industries, chemicals, foundries, supplying the machinery for many of the mills, glassmaking, as well as many ancillary trades.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the population of Ancoats was around fifty thousand.
Read more about the mills
By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had been written about and studied, none more so than by Engels in his study of the condition of the working class in England first published in German in 1845. Engels described Manchester as the classic home of English Industry and the Masterpiece of the Industrial Revolution.
Even before Engels the rapid industrialisation and living conditions had attracted attention.The Rev John Clayton writing of “wretched habitations, cottages noisesome and infectious” and “bespeaks a love of filth”
The Times in 1819 described in horrified terms as the St Giles of Manchester and even before the arrival of Engels, two important surveys were undertaken by Manchester’s doctors.
Dr James Kay, in the 1830’s, described streets “untraversed by sewers, houses ill soughed often ill ventilated, unprovoked with privies, streets that are narrow, unpaved and worn into deep ruts becoming the common receptacles of mud, refuse and disgusting ordure” and “houses want of furniture, whole families accommodated in a single bed and damp cellars”
Another study In 1842 described the cellar conditions as dark and very damp, the floor not more than seven feet high and with an area of 12 sq yards containing nine individuals
One tenant had given shelter the previous night to a homeless mother with two children, the younger dying during the night and laid out on a board suspended from the roof.
Engels would write around the same time:
“In the last-mentioned broad district included 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. The population of the district consists, therefore, chiefly of mill-hands, and in the worst streets, of hand-weavers. The streets nearest the heart of the town are the oldest, and consequently the worst; they are, however, paved, and supplied with drains. Among them I include those nearest to and parallel with Oldham Road and Great Ancoats Street.”
Out of darkness
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Charles Rowley was to deliver a cultural revolution to the area, bringing Ancoats to the attention of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Ford Madox Brown, cajoling his friends to come to Ancoats to lecture the people and putting into practice his belief that “the teaching power of art and music would civilise the inhabitants of roughdom.”
The building of the New Islington Hall and the establishment of The Ancoats Recreation Committee and Brotherhood would see one of the first attempts in Manchester to bring culture to the urban masses
Today Ancoats has been transformed and there is little evidence of its industrial past. Once planned as being the site of the Olympic village had Manchester won its attempt to host the 1992 Games, the last five-teen years have seen much of the old buildings. stripped away to be replaced with flats and office accommodation.
At its heart now is a modern plaza centred on the church of St Peter’s, originally built back in 1859 which now houses the rehearsal space for the Halle orchestra while the former Murray Mills is now a prestigious residential site.