Angus Bethune Reach, 1849

The lowest, most filthy, most wicked locality in Manchester… inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps, and in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, those unhappy wretches, the low Irish.

Going underground

Walk through any car park in Manchester city centre and you are stepping on a thin crust of concrete that separates you from a lost underworld. Down there beneath your feet lie the carcasses of Victorian houses that were demolished in slum clearances 70 years ago. Only the foundations and the cellars remain. They were buried, like tombs, beneath tons of earth and sealed shut.

In February, 2012, archaeologists peeled open a car park in Charter Street in Angel Meadow and helped me make a remarkable discovery – the home of my Victorian forefather. Old fire insurance maps, rate books and citizens’ rolls had already helped me to pinpoint William Kirby’s two-storey house at 112 Charter Street as one of the buildings they had unearthed.

William paid an extortionate rent of four shillings and nine pence to be lodged in a block of damp and overcrowded back-to-back houses with just two rooms measuring 10ft square, and with slate roofs and dank cellars. His house stood next to a coal store and was two doors from a pub, St Michael’s Tavern.

I was able to gain an insight into his terrible living conditions when I was invited to the Charter Street archaeological dig with my dad during the filming of historian Michael Wood’s BBC2 series, The Great British Story, which made reference to Angel Meadow.

We clambered down into the holes that had been excavated and were able to reach out and touch the still-sooty bricks of William’s fireplace in his partially uncovered home.

The walls separating the houses were the width of just half a brick, which meant William would have heard everything that was happening next door. The heat from his fire would have radiated straight through the wall.

We could see that the cellar beneath 112 Charter Street, which would have been accessed through a dark passageway guarded by railings, had been knocked through into the neighbouring house and later bricked up again. We could see where the flagstone floors in some of the cellars had been repaired. The archaeologists also discovered the privy that William would have shared with 100 other people. Their finds included metal hinges, door frames and, amazingly, a door key.

Only three of William Kirby’s seven children survived to adulthood. In fact, evidence from a death certificate shows that his fifth child, also called William, died at 112 Charter Street on 23 February, 1877. He was just two weeks old.

An overwhelmingly sadness crept over me as I stood looking at the ruins of the house and thinking about baby William. The bricks and mortar could tell nothing of the depth of anguish that would have pervaded that same house on that dreadful night 135 years ago.

So tread carefully when you walk through the streets of Manchester. The remains of dozens of other Victorian houses still lie beneath the few remaining car parks – a secret and shameful reminder of the city’s once hellish living conditions.

The journey begins

Welcome to the blog that accompanies my book Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum.

I became fascinated by Angel Meadow when I discovered that my Victorian forefather had been among the 30,000 impoverished souls who lived there. He was a farm labourer called William Kirby who fled the rugged west coast of Ireland following the Great Famine and was sucked into the whirlpool of Manchester’s vilest slum.

As I searched in the city’s archives for clues about his life, I began to drift off to Angel Meadow in my imagination. I descended into damp cellars, climbed rickety stairs into windowless attics, stumbled through backyard piggeries and came face to face with scarred and tattooed scuttlers in the slum’s smoke-filled beer houses.

I learned that Angel Meadow was a place where travellers slept naked with strangers in dingy lodging houses, where cockroaches were welcomed because they ate the bed bugs, where gangs of rats followed their leader from one factory to the next, and where skulls were kicked around in games of football among the unmarked graves of 40,000 paupers in the slum’s old cemetery.

Death and disease lurked in every nook and cranny of Angel Meadow and armies of thugs known as scuttlers roamed the streets and alleyways. Prostitution was rife and the low-lying slum was often shrouded in a thick fog that blocked out the sun and prevented the smell from the slum’s privies, boneyards and gasworks from escaping. Windows were fixed shut and it was useless to cry for help.

The more I read, the more astonished I became by my ancestor’s battle for survival that led, more than a century later, to my own existence in the city that his blood, sweat and tears had helped to create.

I knew the story of Angel Meadow had to be told….