This talk covered the more recent past, how the urban poor lived in the nineteenth century. Mike Nevell began by explaining that there is plenty of documentary evidence of living conditions by contemporary social commentators – such as Frederich Engels, Mrs Gaskell and Charles Dickens. So does archaeology confirm or contradict their comments?
Most of the worst slums were cleared in the twentieth century, but from the 1990s there has been a great deal of redevelopment in central Manchester and Salford which has allowed rescue digs to recover much of the earlier history, especially at the main sites of Angel Meadows, Ancoats and Islington. Manchester had become the ‘cotton metropolis’, and especially from the 1820s, the population mushroomed, until 70,000 people occupied the core area. Life expectation was low, as low as 19 years for a poor textile worker, compared with 36 for the middle classes. Contemporary Ordnance Survey maps show the city hardly expanded in area: instead more and more people crammed into the same space. In the 1830s, after two cholera outbreaks, Manchester Corporation made some attempt to regulate conditions, and in 1844 ‘back-to-back’ houses were banned, followed by a ban on cellar dwellings in 1853: but these measures only applied to new buildings.
So what can archaeology tell us that Engels didn’t? Mike explained that excavation uncovers the physical remains of buildings, foundations and ground-floor plans. These show how the density of building increased as back yards were filled in with more dwellings, and court houses appeared, often in multiple occupancy, with the only open space between them alleys often just a metre wide.
Then comes evidence of drainage and sanitation, where previously there had been little or no provision. Earth closets were added in the narrow alleys. Some buildings had soak-aways, but no drains. The floors of the worst houses were just clay, so flooding was frequent. The earth-closets were emptied, but often only a few times a year (with the night soil being taken away to be spread as fertiliser on south Lancashire and Cheshire’s fields.
The quality of buildings varied. The best used good bricks, had tiled floors, staircases and decent fire places. The worst used poor quality brick, had earth floors, and just a ladder to the upper storeys. In some places earlier cottages survived, such as the eighteenth century weavers’ cottages of Liverpool Road – which were well built, but in the nineteenth century became subdivided, with one home now housing four families.
Recently there have been excavations of cemeteries, such as that of Cross Street Chapel, containing over 300 bodies. Study of the remains shows the prevalence of diseases such as rickets and TB, as well as changes in bones due to the stresses of heavy labouring .
So the archaeology of these sites reveals the extreme over-crowding, the lack of fresh air and ventilation, and the truly appalling sanitary conditions that these workers lived in. We were left wondering how anyone survived at all in these slum conditions. Mike added that of course what applied to Manchester was equally true of all our nineteenth century industrial towns, including Preston.
This was an excellent ‘eye-opening’ account, giving us all plenty of ‘food for thought’. These were definitely not ‘the Good Old Days’!
Text by Mavis Shannon
Photo of excavation at Angel Meadow, Manchester, Mike Nevell
Posted by Wendy Ferneyhough
(Photo of 1820s back to backs in Ancoats under excavation: cover photo, Mike Nevell)