Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Walking the streets of Manchester in 1870 ......... part 3 ........testing the story of dark secrets and awful tragedies in Wood Street

Now it is very easy to fall into the trap of using newspaper reports to draw a picture of the past.

And so far that is what I have done in the new series on walking the streets of Manchester in 1870.

As everyone knows, just yards from the broad and affluent main thoroughfares of the city, was another world where unless you were very poor you dared not venture.

Wood Street was one of those.

It was and is a narrow street off Deansgate and is best known for the Wood Street Mission which sought to provide basic support for the very poor.

The charity was established in 1869 and is still going today.

Its activities included running a soup kitchen, a rescue society and home for neglected boys, and a night shelter for the homeless.  It handed over thousands of clogs and items of clothing each year, as well as hundreds of toys at Christmas.

Around the Mission poverty not only busied its self but was pretty much what defined the street, and those newspaper reports dug deep into the squalor and human misery.

There were five articles published by the Manchester Guardian from February to March 1870 and they ranged over the back streets of Deansgate, across to Angel Meadow and up Market Street and down to London Road.**

The descriptions of awful living conditions, drunkenness and prostitution are as shocking to day as they were nearly 150 years ago.

And the reports are essential reading for those wanting to know more about living conditions amongst the very poor and in particular as a backdrop to the growing movement to care for the legion of abandoned, destitute and abused children.

But nothing should be taken at face value, which meant trawling the records to test how far the vivid descriptions matched reality.

The starting point as ever were the street directories which list householders and with names you can search the census returns to find the families which in turn will offer up information on occupations, the numbers of people living in each house and the density of housing.

Wood Street, 1849
And that data can be matched with maps of the area, making it possible to follow our journalist along Wood Street.

Not that it is that simple, because in 1870 the entire residents of Wood Street were not worthy of inclusion in the street directory which meant looking instead for the nearest properties on Deansgate, and using the name of the householder to visit the census return for the area.

43-49 Wood Street, 1903
Happily it paid off and just over half of the twenty pages of the particular census return were for Wood Street.  In total there were 276 people living in forty four properties, many of which were in closed courts off Wood Street and accessed by dark narrow passages.***

Some of the courts had names like Smith’s Court, Bradley Court and Pilkington’s while others didn’t even rate a name.

Most of the properties were back to back and consisted of just two rooms and will have been in various states of repair.

And at random I fastened on the Ellis family who lived at number 3 Robinson’s Court which was at the western end of Wood Street hard by a Hide and Skin Yard.

The court was accessed through one of those narrow passages off Wood Street and in turn led off to another and unnamed court.

Robinson's Court, 1849
Robinson’s Court would have been dark, admitting little sunshine or fresh air and its occupants would have had daily to cope with the smell of the Hide and Skin Yard, just yards away.

Mr Thomas Ellis was a stone mason’s labourer, aged 33 from Manchester.

His wife Mary had been born in Dublin and was a silk winder.

Together with their four children they occupied the two rooms which made up number 3.

No photographs exist of their home but by exploring the rate books we know that they paid one shilling a week and that their landlord was John Highams who owned all six properties in the court.

33 & 35  Wood Street, 1903
A further search of the rate books will reveal the extent of Mr Higham’s property portfolio and by finding out just how much Mr Ellis earned it should be possible to judge how significant that shilling was to the family budget.

What is interesting about Wood Street is the number of lodging houses which according to the article were at the bottom end of the market with overcrowding being the norm and some verging on “vice shops.”****

I think it may be impossible now to ascertain how accurate was the journalist’s observation of “drunken women standing about the doorway, or coming in with some drunken man whom the gin shops of Deansgate have half maddened.”****

But I suspect the discovery of a group of women in another house is all too true.  “On the knees of the centre figure of this strange group lies a little month-old baby, dying-the last of twins.  It is miserably thin and the yellow skin shows the articulation of its frame.... the eyelids are drawn close down, and a long bony arm weakly and painfully raises itself.”****

One of the courts off Wood Street, 1903
We will never know the identity of any of the group or the final fate of the child, but a few days later the mother had taken refuge in the most debased of lodging houses.

Today Wood Street is still narrow, the Mission building is still there but as for the rest it has long ago vanished.

Location; Manchester, 1870

Pictures; Wood Street, 2007, from the collection of Andrew Simpson, numbers 43-49, 1904, m05386,numbers 33 &35, m05389, backs of numbers 33 & 35 m05391, A Bradburn courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, http://images.manchester.gov.uk/index.php?session=pass  and Wood Street, 1849, from Manchester & Salford OS, Digital Archives Association, http://digitalarchives.co.uk/

*Walking Manchester in 1870

**In the Slums, Manchester Guardian, March 3 1870

***Wood Street, from the 1871 census, Enu 2, 9-20, Deansgate, St Mary’s

****In the Slums, Manchester Guardian, March 3 1870

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