Manchester has been described as the ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution and if you lived in Ancoats it was, indeed, pretty shocking. Ancoats was the world’s first industrial suburb – factories and workshops cheek by jowl with mean terraces of back-to-back working-class housing and courts.
In 1889, a report by Dr John Thresh on 36 acres lying off Oldham Rd detailed 25 streets, many less than 17ft wide, and housing, mostly over 70 years old. The area contained over 50 courts; one third of houses were back-to-back. A death rate of over 80 per 1000 led to his dry statistical conclusion that ‘3000 to 4000 people [were] dying annually here in Manchester from remediable causes’. (1)
The City Council declared it an ‘Unhealthy Area’ and determined to clear and rebuild. A total of 1250 people were displaced and 239 dwellings demolished.
Manchester City Council had been established in 1838. Its first efforts to tackle slum housing came under the terms of a local Police Act in 1844 – the upper classes who dominated local government then viewed the problem as one, primarily, of public order – which banned the construction of new back-to-backs, opened up some of the worst courts and stipulated the provision of more WCs.
In 1867, the Manchester Waterworks and Improvement Act went further by giving the Corporation power to declare individual properties unfit and enforce improvement. One year later the city appointed its first Medical Officer of Health, John Leigh.
Leigh’s efforts to improve working-class housing were strengthened in 1885 when the Council set up an Unhealthy Dwellings Committee to tackle the problem of the courts. The clearance on Oldham Road followed.
In its place, the City Council erected its first municipal housing. Firstly, and most imposingly, came the Victoria Square Dwellings (unofficially known as the Labourers’ Dwellings or colloquially as just ‘the Dwellings’). Completed in 1894, from a design by Henry Spalding who had built similar blocks for the London County Council, the Dwellings comprised 237 double tenements and 48 single – 522 rooms in all, built to accommodate 825 persons.
The building was a five-storey, red-brick quadrangle, plain but for its front façade – with a ground floor of shops – which boasted Queen Anne detailing of terracotta, oriel windows and gables. A contemporary description states: (1)
Each tenement is provided with a well-ventilated food store and coal locker; dust shoots are provided in convenient positions in the back wall; one WC and sink is provided for every two dwellings, which is a disadvantage; and automatic or ‘penny-in-the-slot ‘ gas meters are supplied to each dwelling.
Communal laundry facilities and drying rooms were provided in each of the corner towers.
A similar 135-room, five-storey block, Granville Place, was built in Pollard Street though it was even more austere in design.
As a result of their relatively high rents (Thompson describes Victoria Square as being ‘occupied by a good class of tenants’), neither block was fully occupied in their early years. Stung by this failure, the City Council would build only one other block before 1914 – a 64-tenement building on Rochdale Road, opened in 1904. (2)
The Pollard Street block has since been demolished but the Victoria Square Dwellings survive and may be, as claimed, the oldest municipal housing still in occupation. By 1931, a local housing group concluded that, ‘though much below modern standards’, the tenements were: (3)
amongst the best in Manchester. The tenants we saw were respectable working people; where they had adequate accommodation they appeared happy, and many had lived there for periods extending up to thirty years.
By the 1970s, as standards became yet more demanding, demolition was proposed but, since receiving Grade II listing in 1988, the flats have been extensively refurbished and converted into old people’s dwellings, managed by Northward Housing. It’s an attractive redesign, featuring 163 modern one- and two-bed flats, and good use of a venerable but problematic building. (4)
Despite the initial unpopularity of the blocks, the Council had not yet given up on tenements and a series of so-called ‘tenement houses’ were constructed in the same area, largely completed by 1897. The most beguiling of these is the Sanitary Street development – two rows of two-storey tenement terraces, either side of a 36 feet-wide thoroughfare, with two ground-floor and two first-floor tenements sharing a common entrance.
This was basic accommodation but each flat possessed its own sink and WC (though not yet a bath or hot water) and a shared backyard. The street – renamed Anita Street in the sixties when ‘Sanitary’ became less a badge of honour and more a taint of municipalism – remains solid and attractive housing, though much renovated of course.
Similar accommodation was provided in two other schemes in Chester Street and Pott Street.
But the Council’s most ambitious early scheme of tenement housing was George Leigh Street where 18 two-storey five-room cottages were built. These featured a third, attic, bedroom, allowing for the first time that girls and boys might sleep separately.
By 1899, the City Council claimed to have spent around £300,000 on working-class housing but debate was raging over what form that housing should take. That year the Council organised a three-day conference on ‘Sanitary Reform and Progress’. Some councillors were critical of the Dwellings and suggested that separate houses were: (5)
more in keeping with an Englishman’s idea of home that he should have a cottage to himself, and not occupy a portion of block dwelling rooms.
The reformers won out, aided by the economics at play. Land in inner Manchester was expensive – with a consequent impact on rents in schemes intended as self-supporting. At Oldham Road, the Council had paid over £5 a square yard; in the city’s newly-acquired suburbs, it could be bought for a little over 3p a square yard.
In 1904 the Council bought 238 acres on the new city boundary at Blackley for the sum of £35,643. It planned to build 203 two-bed and three-bed cottages, generally in short terraces but also including an experimental development of 22 semi-detached homes. Of the total, 171 included a bathroom.
The Council also set aside – as a further means of improving working-class health – 50 acres for allotments and would build a municipal tramway along Victoria Avenue to get the estate’s new inhabitants to work. Rents were set at between 6s 4d (31p) and 7s (35p) a week. (6)
In 1910, progressive Liberal members of the Corporation even proposed a £400,000 garden city development but that would be blocked and it took a new politics formed by the First World War to launch the Council on its most ambitious out-of-town development – in Wythenshawe – in 1926.
By 1914, an influential progressive politics existed in Manchester – the home of the Manchester Guardian, after all – which combined with a powerful civic pride. These were exemplified by TH Marr, the secretary of the wonderfully-named Citizens’ Association for the Improvement of the Unwholesome Dwellings and Surroundings of the People. (7)
Marr himself would be commissioned in 1906 to direct what was in many ways the Council’s most effective intervention into working-class housing. Up to 1906 around 500 houses were being reconditioned each year; after 1906 that figure rose to 2000. At this time, the Corporation paid £15 per house to owners of back-to-back homes who converted them to through houses.
By 1914 most of Manchester’s back-to-backs and courts had been cleared or renovated – the Council had demolished 27,000 slums and merged around 3000. (8) This was a record that placed it well ahead of most other industrial cities.
It’s worth mentioning one other manifestation of city pride. Ashton House, on Corporation Street, was the first purpose-built lodging house designed for women, opened in 1901. City Architect HR Price created an arts and crafts building of genuine quality, both in design and materials, housing in separate cubicles 222 of Manchester’s poorest inhabitants. It remains a monument to early social reform though, now Grade II listed, it is currently providing hotel and hostel accommodation to visitors to Manchester.
Much of the city’s early municipal housing was, by current standards, basic but this is a record of growing ambition and earnest endeavour. By 1914, a Manchester principle – the construction of houses rather than high-rise flats or tenements – had been established that would hold good for all but a brief period in the sixties when the ambitious redevelopment of Hulme was undertaken. That didn’t turn out so well and will be the subject of a future post.
(1) Quoted in Jacqueline Roberts, ‘”A densely populated and unlovely tract”: The Residential Development of Ancoats‘, Manchester Region History Review, Vol. VII, 1993
(2) Quotation from W Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903) and additional detail from John J. Parkinson-Bailey, Manchester: An Architectural History (2000)
(3) Hulme Housing Association Re-housing Sub-Committee Preliminary Report, included in GA Wheale, Citizen Participation in the Rehabilitation of Housing in Moss Side East, Manchester, University of Manchester PhD, 1979
(4) Kim Wiltshire, ‘Victoria Square: a History’ (2008)
(5) Cited in Peter Shapely, The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture (2007)
(6) W Thompson, The Housing Handbook (1903) and Housing Up-To-Date (1907)
(7) Marr’s book, published in 1904, Housing Conditions in Salford and Manchester, contains a searing description of contemporary slum housing in the region and a rousing call to action.
(8) Shapely, The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture
(9) English Heritage, Ashton House
Early photographs are taken from Thompson, The Housing Handbook.