You can experience a bit of Manchester’s past this weekend, by visiting the archaeological excavations on the former car park on Dantzic Street, north of Miller Street.
This will be the site of the new headquarters building for The Co-operative. However, for the last nine weeks, in advance of building work commencing, a team of archaeologists have been exploring the history of the site.
The dig is coming to an end and there will be an open day on the site this Saturday, 10th October between 10.00 am – 4.00 pm to show the public what they have found. Oxford Archaeology has been doing the digging and will presumably be on hand to talk about their excavation and its finds.
What the archaeologists have uncovered in the dig are small back-to-back houses where the workers and their families would have lived, notably in tiny houses with single leaf brick walls.
To add a bit of colour to your visit, you could refer to my favourite Manchester guide book; The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels written in 1844.
Engels came to Manchester in 1842 to work as a textile merchant. He visited the working class districts where he was horrified at the living conditions of ordinary people and indignant that their fellow human beings (those with the money) could tolerate allowing such suffering to continue. I wonder what the mid-1840s David Cameron equivalent would have made of it?
“In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of a covered passage, a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement.”
When I do my guided tours I ask visitors to picture the opening sequence of Slumdog Millionaire, when the boys are at the latrines in Mumbai. I then tell them that that is what it was like here in Manchester 150 years ago which, judging by Engels’ descriptions, is not an exaggeration.
Specifically about the area where on Saturday you can witness the archaeological dig Engels noted that landlords rented the houses to the working people and the land around the houses to “pork-raisers”.
The people lived side-by-side with the pigs. “The atmosphere is utterly corrupted by putrefying animal and vegetable substances… [with] … “a piggery repeated at every 20 paces.”
One of the other factors that he noted for this area was the cramped conditions with one family, and sometimes more than one family to each room, including the cellar.
“If anyone wishes to see how little space a human being can move on, how little air – and such air! – he can breathe, how little of civilization he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither.”
There are lots of other gems in Engels’ book – the description of the area where Spinningfields now stands, for example.
Engels’ observations on the conditions of the working class in Manchester, and the factors affecting them, led to the development of the political theory espoused in The Communist Manifesto, written with Karl Marx. Some of the research for this book was undertaken in the Reading Room at Chetham’s Library – where you can sit at the same table used by Engels and Marx today.
Engels subsequently spent another 20 years living and working in Manchester.