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.
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.
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.
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.
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.