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Digging up Manchester's 'Hell'

Archaeologist Chris Wild
'Life was very, very grim' - Chris Wild

It's hard to imagine a less appropriate name. Victorian Manchester knew it as 'Angel Meadow'. Friedrich Engels called it 'Hell upon Earth.'

The living conditions of the Manchester working classes in the 19th century were famously chronicled by Engels who was inspired to draw up The Communist Manifesto based on the appalling human degradations he witnessed here.

In the mid 1800s, tens of thousands of mill workers crowded into the filthy slum terraces and subdivided cellars that Engels described as 'cattle-sheds for human beings.'

Now, this dark chapter in Manchester's history is being slowly revealed in an archaeological dig beneath a car park on Miller Street - the exact location of the 'Hell' that was Angel Meadow.

archaeological artefacts
It's hoped the dig will reveal more about the lives of Manchester's poor

"We know very little about the people who lived here," said archaeologist Chris Wild who is leading the excavations.

"We've got documentary accounts from the 19th century from people like Engels... but no-one has examined the physical evidence.

"So we're testing the texts to see how well it ties up with reality."


Working in the shadow of the Co-operative's CIS Tower, his team is slowly piecing together the lives of Manchester's Victorian poor from household artefacts they have found such as glass bottles, broken crockery, rosary beads and a doll's head.

Importantly, they've revealed some of the dingy 10ft by 10ft cellars which, in the 1840s and 1850s, would probably have housed an entire family of three generations as well as a lodger. A yard with a pig which fed on rotting vegetables and human waste was a common addition.

19th century cellar uncovered in Manchester
The first cellar to be excavated at Angel Meadow. Discover the history of the area at:

And all this just a short distance from St Michael's Flags - today an urban park but back then, the burial site for the mass graves of 40,000 paupers.

"It's shocking," said Chris. "But it's good to get this across to the public. We think we're having a tough time now but go back 150 years in the same area and life really was very, very grim."

The Miller Street site is being assessed for its historical importance because it's the preferred location for The Co-operative Group's new headquarters.

Ruairidh Jackson of the The Co-operative said it was certainly hoped, in some way, to incorporate this element of Manchester's heritage in their plans.

"It's incredible to look at it and it really does bring it back to life," he said.

"For us, as a co-operative, the conditions that people were experiencing in the early industrial revolution are really important to us because that's where we came from as a movement."

Angel Meadow: a 'Hell upon Earth'
02 Sep 09 |  History


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