A Walk Around Ancoats

We're in our last few days in Manchester. The three of us are moving to Dobcross in Saddleworth this Saturday. While this is exciting for lots of reasons, I'm also going to be sad to leave central Manchester behind, so today I took G for a walk around Ancoats, which I've never properly explored despite living nearby all this time.

It's often said that Ancoats was the world's first industrial suburb. This strikes me a nice way of saying it was a poverty-ridden hellhole where lots of factory workers too poor to go anywhere else lived and died, because it was near the mills where they had jobs. However, the first building you see when you walk towards Ancoats from the Northern Quarter isn't an old mill, but this art deco masterpiece:

It's the old Daily Express building. Built in the 1930s by that newspaper's owner Lord Beaverbrook, back when the Express was the best-selling paper in the country. It was a genuinely great paper back then too, but if you've read the Express in the last ten years you'll know that isn't the case anymore. It was so successful in those days that Beaverbrook built three of these office/palaces, with the others on Fleet Street and in Glasgow. Which perhaps suggests he was either too rich for his own good, or a bit mad. Probably both. The building still looks gorgeous though (the Express moved out in the 80s, it's offices now).

Round the back of the old Express building is Cotton Street. Next to Cotton Street is Loom Street. Can you see a pattern developing here? The sign above is on the side of a small knitwear factory, which still appears to be churning out jumpers just as merchants have been doing in Ancoats for a couple of centuries. There aren't many businesses like that left in the area though.

I'd read a little bit about the history of Ancoats before setting out. During the 19th century heydey of the cotton industry, it was, unsurprisingly, full of migrant workers. Initially these were mostly Irish. In 1867, there were so many Irish workers around that the Fenian prisoners sprung from a police van by the Manchester Martyrs managed to hide in Ancoats following their escape, even though they were the most wanted men in the country.

But over time the Irish influence in Ancoats gave way to immigration from Italy, turning the area into, yes, Manchester's own Little Italy. I know, I was surprised too, but this excellent site has a wealth of information about it. Cutting a long story short, the Italian community thrived until Italy ended up on the other side in the Second World War, and all Italian nationals living in Britain were interned on the Isle of Man. By the time they came back to Manchester, a mixture of slum clearances and new suburbs dispersed the Italian families throughout the city.

Anyway, as I wandered around today I was hoping to spot some sign of the area's Italian past, but the only thing left seems to be this Catholic church:

Those banners relate to a campaign to save it, so presumably it's either closed already or is under threat. The pictures are of the most recent Whit Sunday walk, which Italians in Manchester still do every year. At this point G was fast asleep, and I thought to myself that an Italian coffee, or even better an Italian ice-cream, would really hit the spot, but sadly there's nothing like that available in Ancoats anymore. That's despite what the 'inspirational' graffiti on the construction site billboards says:

The only answer to this is, "no, it isn't." That's not to say Ancoats might not become vibrant and desirable one day, or that there's no point in trying to improve the area, but a bit of realism would be more welcome than nonsense like this.

Having said that, the amount of work that's already taken place demonstrates the council and other quangos are clearly keen to make it better. There's already a new public square, called the Cutting Room, complete with murals of the overgrown land which was cleared to make way for it:

However, even though it's a public space, there weren't actually any members of the public around to enjoy it, except for a couple of skateboarders. Admittedly it was a cold day in January, but the old maxim 'if you build it, they will come' hasn't worked here yet.

There are now a fair amount of flats in some of the old mill buildings, but with no shops or pubs or anything like that actually in Ancoats, it's difficult to see why any of the residents would bother hanging around these still rather bleak-looking streets, when the Northern Quarter and central Manchester are just a short walk away.

The Cutting Room square is overlooked by another church, this one Anglican, and very definitely not a church anymore. Like several of the mill buildings in the area, it's been saved from decay in recent years but remains empty, although there's apparently a plan to turn it into a museum of embroidery:

A museum is the sort of attraction that might encourage people to spend a bit of time in the area, which is the only way to get other businesses into Ancoats, which in turn will make it a much more pleasant place to spend time. Unfortunately, despite all the repair work which has obviously gone into many buildings, there are still an awful lot that look pretty decrepit:

I've no idea who Barrow, Hope and Co. were, and neither does Google, so I imagine it's quite some time since they went out of business.

I suppose one of the problems Manchester has when it comes to these wonderful old mills is that, well, there are just so many of them. In most cities an apartment complex in such a building would really stand out, making it a very desirable address. But here the supply of epic Victorian brick structures far outweighs the demand to live in them, let alone the developers' ability to convert them all.

As an example, here's just a small part of the Murrays' Mills complex:

The buildings were saved from ruin in the 90s, and look fantastic (that's the Rochdale Canal at the end of the street, the Murrays even had their own bit of the canal routed into the building on the left). The building on the right now has some flats in it, a bit of office space and even a couple of furniture shops on the canal-front. The building on the left, and it's far bigger than this photo suggests, still appears to be completely empty.

And that's the situation for Ancoats in general. Until more people live, work and spend more of their time in the area, it's not genuinely going to become 'vibrant and desirable' like the PR guff says. Not much of that is going to happen until the recession's over and developers have big money to invest once again.

I hope the improvements to Ancoats continue though, because there's nowhere quite like it anywhere else in the UK. Its rich industrial and social history is (at least partly) told by all the wonderful buildings which still survive, the sort of buildings demolished in other areas. Maybe when G's a bit older I can bring her back, and we can see how much things have changed.


Dad Who Writes said...

Loved this - we were in Manchester (first time in a long time for me) a while back and saw a little of this. Great pictures and commentary.

Richard said...

Thank you!