Thursday, 13 October 2016

In the midst of great wealth ....Span Court and St John's Street

I have been drawn back to Span Court.

It was a collection of six back to back houses in a partially enclosed court off Artillery Street which runs from Byrom Street to Longworth Street behind Deansgate.

They were one up one down with a cellar and did not rate an entry in the street directories which is not unsurprising given that those who lived here were on very modest means and some on the very margins of poverty.

In 1851 in those six houses lived a total of thirty-three people who made their living from the bottom end of the economic pile including six power loom weavers, a cooper, dress maker as well as an errand boy, a hawker and a pauper.

It is very easy to become blasé at the conditions in Span Court, after all historical empathy only goes so far, but this was living at the precarious end.  I rather think that Ann Cass aged 73 who described herself as a pauper had never had an easy life, and now she and her two daughters in their 30s were reliant on their combined wages as power loom weavers and what they got from Annie Harrison, their 38 year old lodger who was a band box maker.

Nor were they alone in taking in lodgers other families in the court were also doing the same and in most cases having to find space in what was at best two rooms and may even have been less, because the majority of  our houses were sublet.  Of the six, five had two families living in them as clearly defined and separate households.  Now these properties did have cellars and there were plenty of people living in the cellars of houses across the city according to the 1851 census.  But usually the enumerator recorded those who lived in the cellars.   But in this case no such records were made, ** which rather suggests that families and their lodgers were living in just one of the two rooms in each of the houses.

And in the case of John and Catherine Pussy it meant finding space for their five children ranging in ages from 20 down to three as well as their 19 year old lodger in what I guess was one room given that the house was shared with another family of four.

Span Court has gone but Artillery Street is still there and you have to walk it to get some idea of how narrow the street was and then try to picture the 83 people who lived mainly in the three courts off it or the 96 who lived on Longworth Street which ran from Artillery Street to St John Street.  The whole census patch amounts to ten streets and their small courts, most not much wider than Artillery Street and bounded by Deansgate and Byrom Street in which crowded a total of 497 people.

But it would be wrong to run away with the idea that this was just a collection of humble streets housing the least well off.  True the majority as the graph below shows  made their living from unskilled or factory work but there were also artisans, shop keepers small businessmen. And almost acting as an island of wealth was St John Street, then as now a place of fine late 18th and early 19th century houses whose residents included accountants, a silk manufacturer and a retired calico engraver and printer.

And it is this last “calico engraver” who I want to finish with as a contrast to Span Court.  James Holt had set up the family business sometime at the beginning of the 19th century had bought and maybe built his double fronted property on St John Street and in the fullness of time retired to Chorlton, leaving his son to run the business and retain in the family home in the heart of Manchester off Deansgate.  This was John Holt who would later in the 1850s move himself to our township.

But the family never gave up their interest in the area surrounding their town home and so by 1912 they owned seven of the fine houses on St John Street as well as shops cottages and a beer shop on the surrounding streets as well as land and the fine estate of Beech House in Chorlton.*

We have rather come to be conditioned by the rich living in gated communities set apart from the less well off and our wealthy families were no different.  Samuel Brooks had established his own estate which would be developed for the well off on the edge of Chorlton, and in the late 1830s Victoria Park Company was set up to “erect a number of dwelling houses of respectable appearance and condition, with gardens and pleasure grounds attached, with proper rules and regulations against damage an nuisances.”**

But the residents of the houses on the north side of St John’s Street backed on to Span Court while the Holt’s own fine house was not only beside a timber yard but its rear windows overlooked a coal yard and the densely packed court of Holt’s Place which consisted of ten small back to back properties.

So Span Court and the poor were never that far from the rich of St John’s Street which I suppose is an interesting take on that much quoted phrase, “the poor are always with us.”

Pictures;Span Court, J.Ryder, 1965, m00212, Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, detail from 1842-44 OS map of Manchester & Salford, Digital Archives,, other pictures from the collection of Andrew Simpson

*Camp Street, Holt Place, James Place, Longworth Street, Severn Street, Byrom Street, Great John Street, Gillow Street, Lower Byrom Street, Charles Street, Peel Street and City Road

** A Short Account of the Victoria Park Manchester, Manchester Corporation, 1937

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