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Ski Club City Walk — November 2022 History of Ancoats — Manchester Northern Quarter

Reporter: Caro Brown

The meeting point for this year’s walk, ably organised as ever by Barry Lewis and led by the stalwart SCoM tour guide Ed Glinert, was Band On The Wall, a music venue on Swan Street. The outside is decorated with a floral mural — a far cry from the slums that covered the area in the Industrial Revolution when the population expanded due to the influx of migrant workers, predominantly Irish, to work in the local factories. The name dates back to the 1930s, when the enterprising landlord of the time erected a high stage on the end wall for bands to play on, so bands were, literally, playing on the wall!

Setting off, the next port of call was the old Daily Express building on Great Ancoats Street — a futurist Art Deco Grade II* listed building built in 1939, one of three commissioned for the Daily Express, the other two being in London and Glasgow. It was the only one designed by Sir Owen Williams who was the engineer for all three and was the site of one of the greatest scoops in newspaper history when the Editor of the day, Stanley Blenkinsop, was given a tip-off as to who the Yorkshire Ripper was. A caller rang the office to say it was his neighbour, Peter Sutcliffe, and left Sutcliffe’s phone number. Blenkinsop rang it and spoke at length to the police officer who answered before being asked for his ID — and an Exclusive was in the bag.

We moved on to Little Italy, the area of Ancoats where Italians who fled Italy in the 19th century to escape the political and economic situation there came and settled, hence the name. They found work in the cotton mills and booming industrial workplaces of Manchester and brought their culture and heritage with them. There are a number of Italianate churches in the area, including St Michael’s, now a venue used by the Hallé for various activities and the site of one significant influence on local culture. In 1902 one Louis Rocca, a first-generation Mancunian of Italian parents, attended a meeting of Newton Heath sports club held here. The local football team had just been rescued from financial difficulties and was looking for a new name to go with its change of strip from green and gold to red and white. Rocca claims that it was he who suggested that, rather than Manchester Central (too industrial) or Manchester Celtic (too Scottish), Manchester United would be a better option. Who knew?!

Next stop, Victoria Square. As part of the slum clearances in the 1890’s, the Manchester Corporation built the first municipal tenement block, the Victoria Square flats, in 1894. It is a very imposing Grade II listed building today but was originally built with only one toilet for every two flats. A few years later and directly opposite, the Corporation built two rows of houses down Sanitary Street — a step up as each with its own toilet and sink. Now (unsurprisingly) renamed Anita Street, it is a reminder of the quality of buildings put up in place of the slums that originally covered the area.

A stone’s throw down the road is St Peter’s — another Italianate former church that currently provides a home for the Hallé’s rehearsals and recordings, its choirs and Youth Orchestra, as well as a space for education workshops and small performances. Hallé St Peter’s opens onto Cutting Room square, the centre of the local Italian ice cream industry, with its ice plant building that used to store — yes, ice! The origins of the ice cream cone and wafers can be traced back to Ancoats when an enterprising ice cream maker came up with the ingenious solution after the customary sharing of glass licking dishes for serving ice cream was banned for hygiene reasons in the 1890s, threatening the very survival of the industry.

Round the corner from Hallé St Peter’s are School Court and Radium Street. The school no longer exists and Radium Street, formerly German Street, was renamed at the end of WW1. The New Zealander Ernest Rutherford experimented with Radium at Manchester University and so German Street became Radium Street. Many other references to Germany across the country were also removed at the time in accordance with prevailing public sentiment.

One block south is Cottonfield Wharf on New Union Street, a development of 302 apartments overlooking New Islington marina, off the Rochdale Canal, and once an area of heavy industry. There was a time when it was fashionable to name areas after districts in London and other places in the UK, hence New York, New Jersey, New Brunswick — and New Islington.

Just north of the canal from the marina is Bengal Street, a street notorious in the 1880s for pitched battles between rival gangs of youths known as scuttlers, with the gang local to Bengal Street known as the Bengal Tigers. Because of its history it later became the scene of a staged battle between fans of Manchester United and Manchester City.

At the north end of Bengal Street is Murrays’ Mill, one of the oldest surviving steam powered cotton mills in the country, now converted into apartments. In its heyday as a working mill it survived attacks by the Luddites, an early 19th-century labour movement of trained artisan weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of mechanized looms and knitting frames, worked by unskilled machine operators, that were robbing them of their livelihood.

Heading back towards Great Ancoats Street along the canal we stopped in Royal Mill, another cotton mill, renamed after a visit by King George VI. Here we heard about Robert Owen, a Welshman and founding father of the Co-operative movement. After working as manager in several cotton mills in Manchester he bought his own mills in New Lanark, Scotland, which is where his reputation as a social engineer began. He believed that in the right environment people would be rational, good, and humane. He also saw education as a vital part of this process. In his mills he changed the practice of children as young as 5 working 16-hour days, introduced a minimum age of 10 and provided nursery and infant schools for the under 10s. He also provided a secondary school for his older child employees, banned physical punishment in the mills and schools and set up a co-operative shop which sold quality goods at a reasonable cost. One of Owen’s mantras ran ‘Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours sleep’ at a time when mill hands were labouring some twelve hours a day. Very progressive!

Crossing Great Ancoats Street we saw the site at Brownsfield Mill, now an apartment block, where AV Roe founded Avro, the aircraft manufacturer, in 1910 — a company that went on to design and build the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers, to name but two of their aircraft.

Our last stop, just as the rain set in, was outside the Greater Manchester Police Museum on Newton Street and, unusually for Ed, a sad end to the tour. Here we heard how Italian immigrants in the area were rounded up at the outbreak of WW2 and sent to internment camps around the UK or sent abroad. Many of these people had British citizenship but were still treated as possible enemy agents and interned for the duration. Tragically in July 1940, one ship, the SS Arandora Star, was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic en route to Canada with the loss of over 800 lives…

To round off the tour we had lunch at Giorgio’s, and very good it was too!

Many thanks to Ed for yet another fascinating journey round the streets, canals and alleys of Manchester.

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