In 1904, Thomas R. Marr produced a map of Manchester using a colour-coded key to indicate where Manchester’s slums were located. The city centre was awash with a sea of blue, illustrating the multitude of factories and warehouses which filled Manchester at the turn of the twentieth century. Surrounding these warehouses was a large band of black and brown – the location of Manchester’s slums, which spread as far out as Miles Platting, Collyhurst and Hulme. Moving away from the industrial life of the city centre, the colour of Marr’s map brightened, changing to a sunny yellow. The yellow indicated the prosperity of Victoria Park, a world away from the squalor of the city and the slums.
Over the past year, I have taken a particular interest in the North Manchester slums as my own family lived there until the end of WW2. They survived on what little money my Great Grandfather and his eldest sons could bring home from their work at London Road Station (now known as Piccadilly Station). But who were those residing in these slums?
In the 1830s, around 11% of Manchester’s population were living in cellar dwellings, and although these were closed thirty years later, poverty in Manchester continued to rise. A quick scan of the census records from nineteenth century Manchester reveals that many of the slum dwellers worked on the railways or in the factories, evidently seeking out cheap housing within close proximity to their workplace. However, this led to a huge infant mortality rate, as condensed housing on top of the poor water supply only encouraged the spread of fatal diseases, such as cholera in the 1830s and tuberculosis in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Of course, the slums no longer exist, having been demolished following WW1 in Britain’s attempt to build “Homes Fit for Heroes”. During the interwar years, new estates began to be built in the leafy suburb of Wythenshawe, advertised as modern, safe homes for Manchester’s growing families, with a bathtub and hot running water.
However, did this make life better for the former slum dwellers? Wythenshawe’s new residents were warned that they would face eviction if their “slum habits” continued on the estate. Furthermore, whilst Wythenshawe was abounded with modern housing, it lacked key local amenities. Oral history accounts record how the women of Wythenshawe had to walk miles to their nearest shop or bus stop. Therefore, the former slum dwellers’ lives were not vastly improved, and in many ways they were abandoned.
The slums may have been a breeding ground for poverty, but nevertheless an active working-class community flourished within them which became a legacy of Manchester class activism and the fight for change.