By Dean Kirby

Pen & Sword Books Ltd. 196 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1783-831-524

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In Benjamin Disraeli’s 1844 novel, Coningsby, there is a chance meeting between Coningsby and Sidonia. They talk about travel, and Coningsby wistfully expresses a desire to visit Athens to see the glories that were Greece. Sidonia responds by saying that he has been there, and dismisses Coningsby’s longings by adding: “Phantoms and Spectres. The Age of Ruins is past. Have you seen Manchester?”

There’s no doubt about the fact that, at the time Disraeli was writing, Manchester was indeed attracting attention from across Europe and America. Its rapid development as an industrial centre, with, in its case, particular emphasis on the cotton trade, meant that it was being seen as a forerunner of the industrialised future for British society, and for other countries. The old phrase about what Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow, had some meaning. The problem was that as the mills and factories opened they needed large numbers of workers to operate them. Manchester’s population quickly expanded to meet the demand for labour. People poured in from adjoining rural areas, and especially from Ireland where the Famines of the mid-19th Century had left thousands destitute.

People require accommodation and they also often inevitably gravitate towards parts of a town or city that can offer cheap lodgings, and perhaps already has an existing network of those from a similar background. The pleasant-sounding Angel Meadow (close to where the present-day Victoria Railway Station stands) had once been the home of members of Manchester’s business class, and many of its houses were quite large. But Dean Kirby records that the popularity of Angel Meadow “faded overnight,” as the centre of Manchester became dominated by factories. The middle-classes soon deserted Angel Meadow and moved out to what were then the suburbs of Ardwick Green and Broughton.

As the middle-classes left the working-classes, and those that Marx would have called the lumpenproletariat, took over. The houses were divided up and rooms rented out to single men and women, and to families. Even the cellars were seen as suitable for housing the ever-increasing hordes of men, women, and children, arriving in Manchester, attracted by the possibility of work, or in some cases, by the likelihood of opportunities for crime of one kind or another.  Overcrowding became a concern and sanitation, or the lack of it, caused health problems. New houses were built, after a fashion, but soon became slum properties. Angel Meadow almost immediately lost its reputation for gentility, and became notorious for its poverty and criminality.

Many of those gravitating to Angel Meadow were Irish and they often brought with them a proclivity  for drinking and fighting. Kirby doesn’t necessarily single out the Irish for special attention in that respect, but they crop up often enough in his narrative to acknowledge the fact of their waywardness. But the British residents of Angel Meadow could be just as violent or drunken. It’s perhaps significant that, when later in the 19th Century, Jewish and some other immigrants came to Red Bank, which was just across the River Irk from Angel Meadow, and suffered from some of the same problems with regard to deprivation in terms of housing and steady work, they were noticeably less inclined to drink heavily and fight each other.

There’s no doubt that a lot of the violence in Angel Meadow was caused by drink, and the area had numerous beer houses, drinking dens, and other places where anyone could seek oblivion. The quickest way out of Manchester was, as they said, through the pub door. And both men and women could be found in drunken stupors or brawling in the streets. The domestic violence practised against women was shocking in its familiarity and no-one, including sometimes the police, took much notice of it. One resident, when asked if he’d paid any attention to hearing a woman screaming as she was assaulted, replied: “I didn’t think it worthwhile to interfere. It’s such a common occurrence.” Even if the police got involved and took a man to court they found that the woman concerned was often reluctant to testify against him. They were fearful of what would happen later. Or of being cast adrift alone if they lost their man, no matter how brutal he was.

Angel Meadow was not a good place for a woman, whether alone or with a family to look after, and many turned to prostitution to earn enough money to get by on. Kirby notes that in Mrs Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton, one of her female characters who falls into prostitution after being abandoned by her lover, ends up in Nicholas Street, an actual location in Angel Meadow. And he refers to the 800 prostitutes believed to be operating in the Manchester area in 1894. Many were street-walkers, others worked in brothels, of which there were numerous in Angel Meadow. Kirby provides some figures for a couple of the streets: “Prostitutes operated from 46 out of 54 houses in Angel Street and 58 out of 79 houses in Charter Street.” Needless to say, sexual diseases were rife among both prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes were also involved in crime, and often used by gangs to lure prospective customers to a lonely spot where they could be beaten and robbed.

The lodging houses that proliferated in Angel Meadow attracted “a mixture of vagabonds, wayfarers, workmen and harvestmen who arrived and departed like swallows, following the seasons. Tradesmen, labourers and hawkers also occupied rooms.” But there were additionally better-educated men who had made a fateful slip that plunged them into the abyss that the Victorian middle-classes feared so much. A reporter who visited one lodging-house in Angel Meadow wrote: “In this very house are to be found broken down clergymen, demoralised doctors, shoeless solicitors, and penniless as well as briefless barristers.” Once in the abyss it was frequently difficult to climb out of it. The name Angel Meadow stuck and no respectable person wanted to be associated with it. 

Gangs were a feature of Angel Meadow, and a particular problem arose when “scuttlers” began to appear in the late 19th century. These were groups of young men and women who frequently wore distinctive dress, as described by Kirby: “Scuttlers wore tight-fitting punchers’ caps, loose jackets and white, black or brightly coloured silk scarves. They also adopted the flared trousers known as `bells` or `narrow-go-wides` worn by sailors.” And they had “narrow-tied, brass-tipped clogs and broad leather belts with brass buckles.” Both clogs and belts were useful implements in a fight. Their girls had “distinctive uniforms of black and grey shawls, short skirts, pink stockings and clogs. They did their hair in a knot with a low fringe.”  They also used their clogs as weapons.

The scuttlers roamed their respective areas, looking for opponents to fight and sometimes they invaded enemy territory. One night “the police were called to Holland Street near Angel Meadow following reports that 600 `roughs` were taking part in a pitched battle with belts and knives.” The first policemen to arrive on the scene were driven away and had to send for reinforcements. In the end they made just three arrests, and the officers had to force their way back to Goulden Street because the crowd was so hostile. If scuttlers were sent to prison they were greeted as heroes when they were released. The police did eventually reduce scuttler activity to a manageable level after middle-class people expressed concern at what they saw as an “epidemic” of violence among the young that was seemingly seeping into the city generally. And magistrates imposed stiffer sentences to deter others from indulging in scuttler activities.

The police battled endlessly to keep some sort of order in Angel Meadow and were often badly injured as they went about their duties. And there were others who, in different ways, attempted to turn people away from drink, crime, prostitution, and general loose living. Kirby mentions more than one churchman, both Catholic and Protestant, who was willing to go into Angel Meadow and make contact with the inhabitants of the hovels. The founders of the ragged schools struggled manfully to teach children to read and write. And in hard times, when unemployment rose, churches set up soup kitchens to give people at least some sort of minimum diet. There were few provisions for welfare of any kind, with only the dreaded workhouses offering relief. And they were a last resort and the homeless often preferred to sleep on the streets rather than be admitted to a workhouse. Kirby’s descriptions of what it took to get into one, and the conditions inside, make for grim reading.

Looking at the levels of violence (vast and vicious) that Kirby writes about it strikes me how little reference there is to the use of guns. They were, after all, relatively easy to obtain, though the cost may have been a deterrent factor. One of the few occasions when they played a significant role in Kirby’s account is when, in 1867, several Irishmen, Fenians as they were called, attempted to free some prisoners who had been suspected of plotting to attack public buildings in Manchester. These armed supporters of what was known as the Fenian Brotherhood attacked a police van and during the ensuing fighting shot and killed a police sergeant. The police then combed Irish areas of Manchester, including Angel Meadow, and arrested several suspects. Three were eventually sentenced to death for the murder of the policeman, and were hanged at “New Bailey Prison on the banks of the Irwell.”

Thousands gathered to watch the hangings, though Kirby says that there were few Irish among the crowds. Their priests had instructed them to stay away. It was perhaps as well. One of the men died immediately he dropped, but the other two required “assistance” from the executioner, and one seems to have lingered for some time before finally dying. Later in 1867 there was a procession to honour what had become known as the Fenian Martyrs. For many years Irish Republicans have come to Manchester to take part in a ceremony commemorating the three men at the monument erected in their honour in the graveyard at St Joseph’ Cemetery in Moston.  I recall being in a pub in Manchester many years ago when, at afternoon closing time, the landlord locked the door but allowed a group of Irishmen to continue drinking. For some reason I seemed to have been overlooked when other customers left, so I carried on drinking, too. It turned out that they had been over for the ceremony.

After years of investigations by journalists, churchmen, health inspectors, and others, plans got under way to do something about cleaning up the mess that was Angel Meadow. But not without opposition from those with an interest in keeping things as they were. A Councillor Ashmore, who sympathised with the landlords of the cellars that were rented out, claimed that people were much more comfortable in cellars than they would be in garrets. And, as proof that cellar living was healthy, he claimed to have known people who lived until they were 90 in such conditions.  And Alderman Boardman, chairman of the Sanitary Committee, was also a member of an organisation that opposed closure of the cellars. Kirby mentions that he “owned 20 cellars in Back Style Street, two in Style Street, and eight in old Mount Street.” I don’t know if among Boardman’s cellars was the one described by Kirby: “Sanitary inspectors found one 18ft-long cellar beneath Ludgate Street where the ceiling was just 3ft 3in high which was home to 18 men, women and children.”

Kirby’s brief is Angel Meadow as it existed in Victorian times, so he doesn’t do more than sketch in how it was gradually cleared in the 20th Century, and finally by a combination of housing improvement schemes in the 1930s and the Luftwaffe during the great air raid on Manchester in 1940. His account of the history of Angel Meadow, and its surrounding areas, is colourful and anecdotal as it works its readable way through the stories of poverty, violence, and the continual endeavours of priests, policemen, local politicians, sanitary inspectors, schoolteachers, and others, to tame the area. There are heroes and villains, and of course the thousands of ordinary people who passed through Angel Meadow, and in some cases survived to go on to better and certainly cleaner (in all its meanings) lives. Some of the tales that Kirby tells can break your heart unless you have a heart of stone, as I suspect some of those opposing reform had.

I’m reminded of the story that Engels told about meeting a Manchester businessman and speaking to him about all the problems in Angel Meadow and elsewhere. The man listened patiently until Engels had finished and then said, “And yet there is a great deal of money to be made here. Good day to you, sir.” Academic historians will, I hope, forgive me if I haven’t quite got the words right (I’m working from memory) but I believe the substance of what was said is there.

Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum is a vigorous book and is recommended to anyone with an interest in social history. It isn’t an academic work, and none the worse for it, but has a useful bibliography. And it’s written in good, tight prose.