Uncovering Manchester’s Industrial Past (Part 6) – Workers’ Housing at Middlewood Locks

View of the early to mid-19th century half-cellar of the workers’ house fronting on to Middlewood Street with brick floors and two rooms separated by the remains of a partition wall which was one brick wide © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
View looking towards Oldfield Road showing the floors that were resurfaced with grey sandstone flagstones in the late 19th and 20th centuries © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022
The basements of two conjoined early 19th century workers’ houses built along Oldfield Road. The central room of one of the houses contained the remains of a water heater or wash boiler which had been inserted at a later date © Copyright ARS Ltd 2022

In the 18th century, southeast Lancashire was predominantly an agricultural area of isolated settlements and market towns, with the growing town of Manchester at its centre. Salford was one of these market towns. It was established in the 13th century by a fording point on the River Irwell at the eastern end of Chapel Street. By the 18th century the town’s economy was dominated by textile production. Textile goods were being made in workshops attached to numerous domestic dwellings, while bleaching was taking place at ‘bleach crofts’ backing onto the River Irwell.

The opening of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal in 1795 from the River Irwell provided a means of transporting coal to Salford from the collieries situated to the north in the Irwell Valley. With the rapid rise in factory production in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Salford’s growth in population was dramatic. Clusters of purpose-built textile mills, engineering works and breweries became established to the west of the River Irwell, with adjacent areas of housing for workers being built rapidly from the late 18th century onwards.

Industrial workers’ housing in Salford

The massive influx of people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to work in Salford’s mills put pressure on the existing supply of housing. By the early 1830s, unregulated building of housing by property speculators – on any available land to the rear of the properties that lined Salford’s main streets – resulted in most of the available space between the works and factories in Salford’s historic core being infilled with workers’ housing. Cellars were also occupied. Many of the houses that were lived in were overcrowded, poorly lit and unventilated.

Former farmland heading towards Pendleton and Ordsall was being bought up for housing from the 1890s onwards. Most late 18th and early 19th century buildings have been demolished but there are places recently subjected to modern development where below-ground remains of these buildings have been subject to archaeological excavation.

Middlewood Locks

In Autumn 2015, Archaeological Research Services Ltd undertook excavations at the site of Scarborough Group International’s 25-acre regeneration project at Middlewood Locks, located to the north of Middlewood Street and east of Oldfield Road. The Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal was constructed across the northern part of the site in the 1790s. The Liverpool to Manchester Railway, the world’s first inter-city passenger railway, was opened in 1830 and ran immediately to the south of the site. By 1900, a series of properties had been built along Oldfield Road. To the south of the canal rows of workers’ housing were built in the early 19th century. While there were no surviving remains of any of the late 18th century housing fronting Oldfield Road, the archaeological excavations did reveal reasonably well-preserved examples of two different types of early to mid-19th century housing fronting on to Middlewood Street and Oldfield Road respectively.

The first set of houses to be excavated included the walls of a half-cellar with two rooms of equal size (c.4.4m x 3.3m) with brick floors, separated by the remains of a partition wall which was one brick wide. In the corner of one of the rooms was a brick-built, rectangular structure interpreted as the remains of a coal cellar/storage for the 19th century workers’ housing. This appears to be a house at the upper end of the quality scale for workers’ housing, with a domestic workshop and storage basement. The building was partially demolished in the early 20th century.

The well-preserved remains of the basements associated with two conjoined, early 19th century workers’ houses built along Oldfield Road were also uncovered. Both houses were three rooms deep. They had both been redesigned in the late 19th century and then again in the 20th century. The first house appeared to have initially comprised two rooms with brick floor surfaces. Later, a third room was added to the back and the floors were resurfaced with grey sandstone flagstones. The area of the rooms varied in size from between c.4.8m and c.2.8m in length, averaging c.3.9m in width. A flight of stairs provided the original access to the basement, and each room was interconnected. The central room contained an iron basin placed on a stack of red bricks adjacent to a fireplace, interpreted as the remains of a water heater or wash boiler, which had been inserted at a later date, along with a capped drain set into the stone slab floor. The three rooms in the other house had also been redesigned at a later date. The two main rooms were converted into a single room, a fireplace and a cast-iron drain were added, and the floor surfaces were laid with grey sandstone flagstones.

Building regulations were introduced in Salford in the 1860s in an attempt to improve standards of living. The archaeological remains of the workers’ housing at Middlewood Locks show numerous periods of redesign, which included installing more effective drains and adding fireplaces, showing how people attempted to improve their living conditions from the late 19th century onwards.

> If you missed it, see part 5 of our series (“Hell on Earth” in Angel Meadow) here.

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