Angel Meadow – from hell hole to tranquility

On the immediate north east side of Manchester’s city centre, off the A664 inner ring road and just a stone’s throw from Victoria Station, is Angel Meadow, a small public park occupying an area of about seven-and-a-half acres. With its open green spaces, trees and pleasant pathways it provides a lovely quiet oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city centre but it wasn’t always so nice – back in the 18th/19th century it was part of a larger area of the same name but known to many as ‘hell on earth’.
Three hundred years ago Angel Meadow was an affluent suburb of just less than one square mile, divided into three hedge-lined fields where rows of cottages were spaced out and many smart houses were built for merchants, artisans and tradesmen, but as Manchester grew larger Angel Meadow fell out of favour when those who could afford it moved further afield. By 1770 the city’s population had doubled to 100,000, the large old merchants’ houses were let out to lodgers while builders operating without planning restrictions built poor quality houses in every available space, and in spite of the name conjuring up an image of a heavenly landscape nothing could have been further from the truth.
In 1782 Richard Arkwright’s cotton mill, the first of its kind, was built in Angel Meadow, followed by workshops, a dye works, two iron foundries and a rope works which were all opened to service the new cotton industry, and within a few years the River Irk, which ran through the area, had more mills along its banks than any other river of the same length in England. Thanks to Manchester’s new industrial age and the need to house a great many destitute Irish who had fled the Great Famine in Ireland to find work in the city Angel Meadow very quickly became run down, neglected and grossly overcrowded, and by the mid 19th century it had become one of the city’s worst slums.
Looking round the modern area today it’s hard to imagine what it was like two centuries ago with its rows of dingy back-to-back terraces and damp lodging houses which had once been elegant Georgian properties. Up to 30,000 people were packed into the dense and unsanitary slum housing where families struggling to make ends meet lived alongside criminals, gangs, vagrants and prostitutes. Homes were so cramped and dirty that new arrivals to the dingy lodging houses of Angel Meadow often had no choice but to remove their clothes to keep them free from lice and sleep naked among strangers in rooms where cockroaches were welcomed because they ate the bed bugs.
An attic room in a lodging house – photo from Manchester Libraries
Covered passageways led to dismal inner courtyards; backyard piggeries, slaughterhouses, bone yards, catgut factories and piles of dung released a potent cocktail of obnoxious aromas into the air and very often the alleys and back streets would be ankle deep in rotting rubbish and offal. Rickety stairs led to windowless attics where some lodgers slept on temporary beds, known as ‘shake downs’, on the floor and many people ended up living in cellars. Some of these were up to 15ft below ground level and if a home was unfortunate enough to be located next to a privy (an outside toilet) waste would frequently run down the walls. The cramped conditions, dangerously dirty dwellings and an abundance of rats led to diseases being rife, which in turn led to a high mortality rate with many of the deaths being babies and young children.
A back alley in Angel Meadow – photo from Manchester Libraries
When St. Michael and All Angels Church was built in 1788 the adjacent land was designated as a parochial burial ground, used for the interment of those who had no family place of burial or were too poor to afford a proper funeral, and the number of bodies buried there was so high it became Manchester’s largest cemetery at the time. It’s been estimated that in the 28-year period from 1788 around 40,000 bodies were interred there, all victims of sickness and extreme poverty and most buried in mass graves where coffins were piled next to and on top of each other, as many as possible until a pit was filled, then it was closed up, covered with earth and another pit dug next to it.
St. Michael’s church, Angel Meadow – photo from Manchester Libraries
The burial ground was closed in 1816 but as social and living conditions in Angel Meadow became worse over the years some of the poorer people resorted to digging up the cemetery and selling the soil as fertilizer to nearby farmers. Gravestones were removed and used to repair holes in house walls, exposed bones were collected and sold to the local glue factory, human skulls were kicked around in impromptu games of football and some slum dwellers used the cemetery as a dumping ground for ashes, offal and rotten shellfish. The situation became so bad that following a government-led investigation into the levels of squalor in the area the Burial Act of 1855 was passed requiring redundant graveyards to be covered with flagstones. This led to the burial ground becoming known as St. Michael’s Flags, and it’s this burial ground which is now Angel Meadow park.
From time to time over the years several improvements were made to St. Michael’s church, including the removal of the galleries and the three-decker pulpit, and the provision of a new roof, though when the Rev Jowitt Wilson was appointed rector in 1913 he arrived to find the main church door without a handle, cats and kittens in the organ and the church itself heavily in debt. Nevertheless, in his 14 years there he did tremendous work including opening the tower prayer room for daily prayer, persuading the parks committee to turn the surrounding churchyard into a garden and building a rectory. Sadly falling attendances meant the closure of St. Michael’s in 1930 and the site was sold on condition that the building was demolished, with the work finally being carried out in 1935.
The Angel Meadow area was eventually recommended for demolition under the 1930 Slum Clearance Act but it was World War Two which had the biggest impact on removing most of the slum housing – the area was heavily bombed and many homes were destroyed, though some families did continue to live there until the final slum clearances in the 1960s. Fast forward through the years since then to more recent times and the turn of the Millennium saw the regeneration of many of the old red brick factories and warehouses. The building of modern new apartments gradually brought residents back to the Angel Meadow area and St. Michael’s Flags was awarded a National Lottery Heritage grant to regenerate the neglected and overgrown space for the benefit of the new residential community.
In 2004 the Friends of Angel Meadow was formed to campaign for the continued redevelopment of the park and to research the history of the area. Over £200,000 was raised through grants and match funding, which was spent on re-landscaping the park, erecting four solar-powered street lights and an arched entrance way, installing street furniture including seating and bins, and planting trees and wildflowers, while a local heritage grant paid for the design and installation of six history boards and the publication of an information booklet. In 2006 the park was given Green Flag Award status which it has retained ever since, then in 2015 the Co-operative Group, whose newly built headquarters are nearby, funded a significant programme of work to improve the overall look of the park and rebuild its front entrance.
The Co-operative Group headquarters known as One Angel Square, close to Angel Meadow
I visited Angel Meadow in early June this year while on a quest to find a particular floral art installation which was part of the Manchester Flower Show, though I knew nothing of the park’s dark, sad secret at the time. I didn’t stay there long as I had other places to go to but in spite of nearby ongoing construction work which is part of a massive regeneration programme it was still a very quiet, peaceful and attractive place to spend some time. The surrounding modern area is now known as the Green Quarter and though the hell hole of the original Angel Meadow has long since disappeared its name lives on in the tranquility of this lovely little park.

28 thoughts on “Angel Meadow – from hell hole to tranquility

  1. Who could guess that beautiful park had such an awful history. It made me feel queasy reading about it. The dreadful conditions of the time don’t bear thinking about and those poor poor people having to live like that.

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    1. Living in these modern times with our cosy houses and all mod cons it’s impossible to believe that such conditions existed. I couldn’t imagine ever having to live like that in such a place but I suppose those who did just accepted it for what it was at the time as they could afford nothing better. Thank goodness those times have long since passed.

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  2. Thanks for that Eunice. I’ve visted the area several times after reading the book “Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum” which I’d strongly recommend. Your description brought vivid pictures of the desolation of the place. The book describes how scary it was as well, with fights and murders commonplace – the police would not dare go into the area as they would be instantly attacked if they did.

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  3. I only found out about the book while I was researching Angel Meadow for this post so I’ve sent for it as a Christmas present to myself – I’m glad you can recommend it, it sounds really fascinating. If I’d written about everything I’ve found out this post would be a book in itself. I now know there are certain features of the park and the area which I was unaware of therefore didn’t photograph, but I fully intend going back next spring/summer to explore at length for a possible second blog post.

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  4. Not somewhere I will ever visit, so I have to ask if the dreadful things which happened in this area have left an imprint on the place? How does it “feel” now?

    Another of your superb posts Eunice, well done, xx

    .

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  5. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed reading even if the details are rather dreadful. I didn’t know about the park’s rather macabre history when I went there and I didn’t read the history boards at the time so it just felt like any other normal park. I fully intend to go back next year armed with the details of some of the things in the area which I missed so whether it will feel any different now I know about it remains to be seen.

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    1. It’s impossible to believe that people lived like that back then but the sad fact is that they did, and couldn’t afford to do otherwise. Average life expectancy then was 28 years, so very young compared to these days.

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  6. Fascinating piece of research Eunice, I had never heard of that area. You are becoming a Manchester aficionado.
    With all the Covid-19 problems, I don’t get down to Manchester as often as I used to, even though I have a son living in Stretford.

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    1. I’d never heard of the area either until the park was mentioned on the internet in connection with the Manchester Flower Show. It’s a very attractive park and definitely deserves another visit. I don’t know what made me decide to research the history of the area but it’s proved to be a fascinating and enlightening experience – time consuming too but I’ve enjoyed the process 🙂

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  7. An amazing, but ever so sad story & I’m glad you wrote about it. My paternal grandmother came from Manchester to live here in Australia when she was a child, so may have been aware of the area. I also couldn’t help but find some of the dates significant to us as well……..1770, the date Captain Cook discovered Australia & 1788 the year we were settled by the English, all so far from what was happening in poverty ravaged towns in England. The park looks lovely now & hopefully will stay a beautiful space & the story always be known. Thanks for sharing, take care & hugs.

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  8. I’m glad you like the post Susan and it’s interesting to know that your paternal grandmother came from Manchester – she would probably have been the right age to be aware of the Angel Meadow area. The park is lovely now though it’s hard to believe that there are probably hundreds of bodies still buried deep beneath it.

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    1. Neither had I until I started delving into it. I actually found out far more than I could ever write in just one blog post – the research has proved to be very interesting so there may very well be another blog post sometime next year.

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  9. An excellent post Eunice, and one that is right up my street so to speak. Local history like this is something I’ve always enjoyed reading about. I just wish some people would read accounts like this before they talk about white privilege. It looks very different now though I’m pleased to see 🙂

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  10. I’m glad you enjoyed the post Malc, I’ve enjoyed researching and writing it. I’ve only really become interested in local history over the last few years, mainly to write various posts on this blog, but I find it increasingly fascinating – I just wish the ‘generic’ history I learned in school had been as interesting.

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    1. Living in these modern times as we do it seems unbelievable that people back then lived in such dreadful conditions, especially when much of the success of today’s industries stems from those very people who worked for a pittance in the mills of the Industrial Revolution. You’re right, we really don’t know we’re born.

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  11. I’m glad you like the post, doing the research for it has proved to be quite time consuming but also extremely interesting. I’d never heard of a three-decker pulpit until I was researching the history of another church a while ago, they would have been quite ornate at the time but I doubt many will exist now.

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  12. That is such an interesting post! From the look of the place now, no one would guess that it was once such a poverty stricken and dangerous place. It certainly makes me think about What is the history of the house I live in? Kind of scary to find out sometimes…..x

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  13. The park is really nice and I had no idea of its rather gruesome history when I went there. Finding out about it makes me wonder just how many people who go there know just what lies beneath their feet. Some of the buildings that were there back then still exist, though they have been brought up to date, so I’m looking forward to going back in better weather and taking some photos round the general area to compare what it’s like now.

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  14. It sounds awful doesn’t it, compared to the way we live these days, although I think maybe today’s kids should have all their various forms of technology and home comforts taken away and be made to live like that for a while then they might appreciate what they’ve got, as most of them really don’t know how lucky they are.

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  15. What a sad history. I’m glad that the area has been researched and information boards provided so that visitors to the area are aware of what happened there over the centuries, those people deserve to have their stories told. It looks a beautiful and tranquil place now, let’s hope those who have gone before can finally rest in peace.

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  16. The park is a lovely place now and an absolute world away from the mass burial ground it once was. I’ve learned so much while accumulating the information for this post but I need to go back to get more photos for another post so I’ll be doing that next spring.

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