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Angel Meadow: 'Hell upon Earth'

Archive image of women on Angel Street in Manchester
"The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester."

Friedrich Engels called it 'Hell upon Earth.' But what was Angel Meadow really like in Victorian Manchester? We delve into the history books to find out.

Three hundred years ago, Angel Meadow was a heavenly landscape with views over fields and hills. Indeed, the name conjures an image of some pastoral idyll.

By the mid-19th century however, thanks to Manchester's new industrial age, it had become one of the city's worst slums.

Angus Reach, a London-based journalist, visited Angel Meadow in 1849.

"The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, 'Angel-meadow.' It is full of cellars and 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.'

Friedrich Engels in the slums of Manchester
Such is the Old Town of Manchester.. and the frightful condition of this Hell upon Earth. Everything here arouses horror and indignation.
Friedrich Engels, writing in The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844

Bounded by Rochdale Road, Miller Street, Cheetham Hill Road, and Gould Street, Angel Meadow covered 33 acres on the edge of the city centre.

Its population of 20,000 to 30,000 was made up predominantly of destitute Irish who had fled the Great Famine to find work in industrial Manchester and now lived in squalid conditions in cellars beneath lodging houses.

Recalling one particular cellar he visited, Reach wrote:

"The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire and the heat and smells were oppressive... the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place."

'Skull'

The most infamous part of Angel Meadow was the former burial ground of St Michael's Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers.

Drawing of cellar in Manchester, 1938
1838: how the poor of Angel Meadow lived

Unpaved for 40 years, it was finally laid with flagstones and thereafter known as 'The Flags.' A resident of Rochdale Road described it thus:

"There was at one time a number of gravestones covering the remains of some dear lost ones, but these have been removed and a few are to be seen in some of the cottages... Very often are the bones of the dead exposed and carried away and a human skull has been kicked about for a football on the ground."

Friedrich Engels, socialist reformer and author of the The Communist Manifesto described Angel Meadow - an area he called the Old Town of Manchester - in his hugely influential book, 'The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.'

"Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world.

If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air -- and such air! -- he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither. True, this is the Old Town, and the people of Manchester emphasise the fact whenever any one mentions to them the frightful condition of this Hell upon Earth; but what does that prove? Everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch."

Quotes courtesy of The Gangs of Manchester by Andrew Davies and The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels (1844).




SEE ALSO
Digging up Manchester's 'Hell'
01 Sep 09 |  History

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