Before Angel Meadow became Victorian Britain’s ‘Hell on Earth’, it was a picture of heaven. For hundreds of years, nothing but farmers’ fields covered the hillside that formed the slope of Angel Street. Before the clanking of mill machinery filled the air with thunder, the only sound that could be heard was the melody of skylarks.
Anyone standing at the top of that hillside until the late eighteenth century would have gazed down upon tree-lined lanes and a dusky-coloured Irk, which teemed with trout and eels. Ancient hedgerows, including one that marked the future track of Angel Street, provided a haven for wildlife.
The view across the river was unobstructed by slum housing or factory chimneys. A Victorian writer named Benjamin Redfern said this ‘heavenly landscape’ had ‘one of the most beautiful views of vale and river, hill and woodland’.
But all that changed when Angel Meadow became a slum. Friedrich Engels wrote in 1845 how people were now living in ‘cattle sheds for human beings’ and how the Irk was now ‘coal black’ and ‘foul smelling’.
He wrote: “In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge 40 or 50 feet above the surface.”