A more perfectly ugly spot you shall not find between sunrise and sunset. Fancy a street, one side of which is all mills, huge square piles of mills, with six, seven and eight tiers of foul and blackened windows, the grimiest, sootiest, filthiest lumps of masonry in all Manchester…
This was Union Street in Ancoats in 1849, as described by journalist Angus Reach in the Morning Chronicle. By then, as part of Manchester’s burgeoning industrialisation, Ancoats, just east of the city centre, had grown rapidly from an unremarkable hamlet into a booming industrial district.
Its network of canals, steam-belching cotton mills and crowded streets of workers’ housing were met with degrees of wonder, shock and horror by observers from far and wide. Manchester was the world’s first industrial city, and Ancoats was its beating heart.
I can’t help but marvel at the contrast between Angus Reach’s reaction to Ancoats and its most recent write-ups. These days, Ancoats is repeatedly hailed as Manchester’s hippest neighbourhood, having been ranked among the UK’s top 20 coolest places to live. Whether or not you believe the hype, Ancoats is certainly getting a lot of attention.
But behind its loft apartments, craft beer and hipster beards lies an intriguing industrial past. I delved into our collection to see what it could reveal about Ancoats’ remarkable story and its ongoing transformation. Here are some of my favourite finds.
This 18th-century woman’s shoe was discovered hidden in the roof space of Murrays’ Mills by archaeologists surveying the old Ancoats cotton factory. We don’t know who it belonged to, but we think it was probably put there deliberately during the mill’s construction.
Centuries ago, many people believed that shoes concealed within buildings could protect occupiers and bring good luck. Perhaps the shoe was hidden by the entrepreneurial Murray brothers who set up the mill in 1797.
Their factory, along with neighbours McConnel and Kennedy, became part of a huge cotton-spinning complex that transformed Ancoats. Take a look today and you’ll find the towering, brick-built buildings of Murrays’ Mills being renovated into trendy apartments.
Cotton spinning wasn’t Ancoats’ only industry. Its textile mills attracted engineers, whose expertise was needed to provide the power and machinery for Ancoats’ cotton factories.
The Peel & Williams iron foundry on Pollard Street, on the banks of the Ashton Canal, shown in this detailed pen and ink drawing from the museum’s archive, manufactured steam engines and boilers. John Hetherington & Sons also set up on Pollard Street, making textile machinery. The works’ proximity to the canal was no accident; Ancoats’ network of canal branches, developed in the early 19th century, was a huge draw to manufacturers, who needed to bring large quantities of bulky raw materials to their factories, then ship out their finished goods for sale.
This delicate dish from the museum’s collection was made at Percival Vickers glassworks on Jersey Street in Ancoats in 1896. When the dish was produced, there were no fewer than nine glassworks in Ancoats, churning out glassware of every description, from decorative pressed glass pieces like this one, to bottles for local drinks manufacturers and a huge range of industrial glassware needed by Manchester’s chemical firms.
Archaeologists excavating 19th-century workers’ housing on Loom Street in Ancoats found this wood and bone domino, perhaps used in games by long-gone Ancoats dwellers. Many of the people who flocked to Manchester for work settled in Ancoats, where densely packed streets of workers’ cottages sat alongside towering cotton mills.
The area became notorious for its overcrowded, badly built housing. In 1831, when cholera swept through Manchester, the Board of Health found that over half of Ancoats’ houses had no plumbing. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that living conditions in Ancoats began to improve. Victoria Square tenements, still standing today, were built in Ancoats in 1896 after slum clearances, becoming Manchester’s ever first municipal housing.
Here’s an industry you might be surprised to discover has an Ancoats connection. This photograph from our archive shows men constructing barrel pianos in the Ancoats workshop of Domenico Antonelli & Sons. Born in Italy, Domenico Antonelli brought his business to Ancoats in 1895.
When this photograph was taken in 1906, there were over 2,000 Italians living in Ancoats, forming a community which became known as ‘Ancoats Little Italy’. As well as barrel pianos, Italians brought ice cream to Ancoats’ streets, producing ices, as well as wafers and cones, for sale across Manchester.
This First World War biplane, an Avro 504K, on display at the Science Museum, has Ancoats roots. Its makers A.V. Roe & Co. set up the world’s first aircraft factory in the basement of Brownsfield Mill on Great Ancoats Street in 1910. Design and development of A.V. Roe’s earliest aircraft took place there, although the demand for their pioneering flying machines soon called for larger premises. Nevertheless, Urban Splash, which is now transforming Brownsfield Mill into apartments, has named the development ‘Avro Lofts’, in a nod to its brief but significant aviation connection.
You might be wondering what a giant model bar of soap has to do with Ancoats. This unusual object from the collection came from Sankeys, a nightclub which was housed in Beehive Mill, Ancoats.
The soap was made for the nightclub as a nod to the building’s former use. Beehive Mill was originally built as a cotton mill in 1824 before it became a soapworks. When Sankeys moved in in 1994, it became a haven for Manchester’s dance music fanatics, establishing itself as a legendary part of the city’s music scene before finally closing its doors in 2017.
Manchester’s industrial decline hit Ancoats hard. By the 1960s, its cotton spinning industry had all but disappeared and compulsory housing clearances broke up tight-knit communities. Things started to look up when Ancoats was made a conservation area in 1989, and although the area’s regeneration hasn’t been without controversy (historic buildings have been lost and the affordability of many new developments is questionable), its ongoing revival is arguably as remarkable as its industrial transformation.
In 2018, that ‘perfectly ugly spot’ was named by Time Out the 13th coolest neighbourhood in the world, ranking ahead of Enmore in Sydney, New York’s West Village and the City Bowl District in Cape Town. The question is, what should the museum be collecting to represent the Ancoats of today? I think I’ll go and ponder this over a craft beer in one of Ancoats’ hipster hangouts and find out what the locals think…