Ancoats - A Brief Introduction

This will not be a comprehensive history of the Ancoats district of Manchester.  My aim is to document what is going on there today and to watch it over the coming years.  This introduction is my attempt to explain what you can see in Ancoats today, what was there before and what is on the way.  The image below shows Ancoats in the 1940s.  As you can see it was a densly packed industrial and residential area.

The area is much changed especially the area known as New Islington, between the Rochdale Canal and the Ashton Canal.  When you leave Manchester's Northern Quarter today and cross Great Ancoats Street you enter Ancoats.  Today it is an extensive brownsfield development site, in which you will find restored historic buildings beside modern residential houses and flats.  In every direction you will see building work ranging from demolition to restoration to construction.

In the 18th Century Ancoats had a distinctly rural appearance but the arrival of the canals and the industrial revolution transformed the area.  Frederick Engles in his book "The Condition of the Working Class in England", published in 1845, said of Ancoats, "In ...Ancoats, stand the largest mills of Manchester lining the canals, colossal six and seven-storied buildings towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers.

The population of the district consists, therefore, chiefly of mill-hands, and in the worst streets, of hand-weavers. The streets nearest the heart of the town are the oldest, and consequently the worst; they are, however, paved, and supplied with drains."

The industrial activity attracted immigrants to Manchester and those who came from Italy settled in large numbers in Ancoats.  It became known as Little Italy although the fact is that it was also home to people from Ireland and Poland.  There is still a pub called "The Shamrock"

and one of the buildings being redeveloped is the Ice Plant evidence of the fact that once 70 ice cream barrow businesses thrived in Little Italy.

In the Pevsner Guide to the architecture of Manchester there is an entry about the remains of the former Ancoats Police and Fire Station. 

It describes it as a, "forceful, even monumental, design ... something more akin to a stronghold was required in this notoriously lawless area.  In 1960 many of the slum houses were cleared and between the Rochdale and Ashton Canals a new estate known as the Cardroom Estate was created.  It has been said of the Cardroom that "There were no through roads and many of the homes did not face streets, there was little definition between public and private space and the area was difficult to police. Many people moved away and those who stayed felt increasingly marginalised - shops had insufficient custom to stay open, pubs closed and the final blow was the closure of the primary school due to lack of numbers. ....Cardroom became a sink estate, people moved in with track records of anti-social behaviour and began to take the area down with them."  It became, "An estate where people lock themselves in after dark, where the nearest shop is 15 minutes walk away, where the open spaces belonged to the joyrider.  An estate where the police wouldn’t go, where catalogue shops wouldn’t deliver, where taxis wouldn’t drop off."

So what changed?  Ancoats is today in the midst of a massive re-envigoration that proposes to save the best of the past while creating a vibrant mixed use community.  The accusation has been leveled that what is happening is that Ancoats is being gentrified for the Yuppies and people point to the fact that one portion of it has been renamed New Islington, which they see as an obvious connection to the Islington of Tony Blair and the London Middle Class. 

Whether or not this is true remains to be seen but the New Islington slur is in fact unfounded because back in the 1800s that was what the area was called.

Broadly there are two redeveloment areas within Ancoats.  From Great Ancoats Street on the west with Oldham Road and the Rochdale Canal marking its northern and southern boundaries is the Ancoats Urban Village.  Between the Rochdale Canal and the Ashton Canal, where the former Cardroom Estate stood is New Islington.

Ancoats Urban Village

The image below shows this area in the 1940s.

Today the Ancoats Urban Village contains the iconic Express Building, the terraced houses on George Leigh Street, the former George Leigh Street School, the Victoria Square Flats, St Peter's Church, The Ice Plant, Sarah Village

and the magnificent restored mills.

New Islington

The photograph below focuses in on the area south of the Rochdale Canal as it was in the 1940s.  Most of the buildings are gone.  The numbers on the map identify some of the important locations.

1.  The Lock Keeper's Cottage, still there
2.  Ancoat's Dispensary - derelict but being redeveloped
3.  Islington Wharf - location of the new Isis tower.
4.  The location of the new Health Centre

Today a functional but ugly retail park runs along the length of Great Ancoats Street to Old Mill Street.  From there to the Ashton Canal stands the first stage of the development of Islington Wharf, a spectacular residential block of sandstone, copper and glass that dominates the site.

Old Mill Street itself is marked by a row of rust coloured and very distinctive street lights above what will be a wide pedestrianized promenade. 

A series of sculpted metal plaques are embedded in the roadway.

To the north of the street the old estate has been swept away and a new canal and wharves have been created as a water park around which a new community will be built. 

On the far side of it stands Islington Square an exotic looking group of terrace houses built around a block of internal gardens. 

On the side of one of the new wharves there are plans to build a residential complex known as Tutti Frutti, a clear homage to the areas ice-cream history as well as a reflection of what the concept entails.  A series of individual lots will be sold privately and on each lot the owners will design their own home which will be tied into the one next to it creating a terrace.  This concept has been used already in Holland. 

South of Old Mill Street the old Ancoats Dispensary sits in a derelict state but it is to be incorporated into an ultra-modern residential complex designed by Ian Simpson, Architects, the creators of Urbis and the Betham Tower.  Behind the dispensary work is ongoing on Chips a unique residential block made up of three curved elements stacked one on top of the other and resembling a stack of chips.  The special cladding on the building has in it words that remind people of the areas history. 

The New Islington development includes a new health centre and includes plans for outdoor recreation, a large food retail shop and a primary school.

Work continues in Ancoats and the area is very much a building site.  How it will fair in the time of economic uncertainty is unclear, whether all of the grand plans will come to fruition is still to be seen, whether this new community functions better than its predecessors only time will tell.