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.”
If anyone wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air – and such air – he can breathe, how little civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither.
The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy, and most wicked locality in Manchester… inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps, and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish’.
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….