Social history of Manchester - a personal perspective

Billington Pix

Our history defines us

I love history, and especially social history. It's so annoying when the Who Do You Think You Are programme connects to a royal line. We know all of that already; it's the detail of the personal lives that makes it all interesting.

That said, I have previously written about King Henry VIII's influence in the local area of Southwark, about how his ownership of a fabulous Tudor palace opposite Borough Tube Station led to the creation of a Royal Mint. This added significantly to the development (and subsequent decline) of the local area. There is a cause and effect relationship between power and the people, which is what I like to look into.

I'm also keen to document historical evidence of social history that I find on the streets. This is from an aesthetic point of view as well as the historical significance. In particularly I love photographing bricks. Slightly odd, I know, but the humble brick is what collaborates to generate integrity and longevity of a building, although this can be undermined by economics, war or social decay.

It's the decisions made by monarchs and prime ministers that can impact the lives of local people. Just like the decisions made by Boris Johnson with regards to Covid-19 can have a huge effect on all our lives in the UK. Tempted as I am, I won't comment on that!

Historically the poor were the most likely to suffer from decisions made at the top of the tree. Also, the poor were the least likely to be properly documented. The Irish Famine of the 1840s and the UK policies around that is the main reason why I live in the UK today. If I go back only 4 generations I find my family living in Kings County, Ireland, or Offaly as it is known today.

Learning about the Industrial Revolution

When I was a boy at school I learned about the Industrial Revolution. How it was a great change for the country and led to huge migration from the cottage industry of the countryside to the mills of what subsequently developed into the major cities of the UK. Many also came across the Irish sea to escape the Potato Famine and found work in the industrial north.

At the same time we would often travel to Manchester to visit my grandmothers in Oldham and Stockport. I always remember staring out of the car window, as we took the Mancunian Way, at the red brick chimneys of the old mills that dotted the landscape. They stood plentiful, but decaying. These buildings were the signifiers of a time of huge growth and manufacture that the local area underwent during that same Industrial Revolution.

I also learned at school about the social impact to the UK during the 1800s; about how so many people moved to the mill towns to seek work. Many were exploited by the mill owners and paid very little, living in cramped, filthy conditions and working massively long hours.

My Grandma, Doris, used to talk about Stotts Mill where she started work, aged 14, as a weaver. I loved the stories of her mill days, where she worked alongside her mother in the weaving shed. This would have been the 1920s. She was deaf in one ear, owing to the noise of the mill, but used her lip-reading skills to get by in general conversation. She had a wonderful habit of finishing the end of your sentences. Her family had been based around Chadderton for generations. It wasn't until years later that I realised that this was probably centuries.

My Nana, Elsie, lived in Bredbury, Stockport, near to her sister. Nellie, my great aunt. The two sisters were very close. Elsie's husband, Bill, had died in the early 1970s when I was very young, so I never knew him. He represents my paternal line. When I started to look at my family history I discovered that this line of the family came from Hulme or Chorlton upon Medlock.

My Nana married in black

I knew that my Nana had other brothers, but they were long dead. Neither she or Nellie spoke much about them. I also remember a family story about my Nana marrying in black. It was a funny story which she later embellished to say that she and Auntie Nellie travelled together on the tram to St Aloysius Church in Ardwick for the wedding to my grandfather. There were no photographs taken, and no choir. It was a very simple affair. This would have been in 1936.

So, there was already a mystery around where the other brothers were for the wedding. Why did they not attend? I've never really been able to get to the bottom of this story, although I do have some theories. 

One such theory is around the religion. My Grandfather, Bill, was Catholic of Irish descendants. My Nana was Protestant, so it would have been a mixed faith marriage. There is another family story about Bill being excommunicated by the local priest who came around to the house after the war asking for money. Bill had seen the poverty in Italy whilst he was serving and when once he gave some coins to a person who was begging on the street, this person had rushed into the church to donate the money rather than buying food. These of course are stories that might well have been embellished over time, but it is hard to tell.

It emerged that Elsie was also not very happy with the constraints imposed on her by the Catholic Church for her wedding and out of rebellion she had worn the black outfit and cut back on all the attendees. Perhaps also she had argued with her brothers, which had cut her off from them for the rest of their and her lives. She later regretted losing touch with them.

Billington Street

Later family research into my paternal line located many documents from St Wilfrid's Church in Hulme going back to the 1850s. There were many births, marriages and deaths, which helped me to piece together the family members. I also realised how large the family was, which was odd as nobody had ever talked much about the Irish Catholic side, other than Nana's wedding story.

These records also revealed places of birth, which is where I discovered that my 3 times great grandfather Edward and Ann Bain had brought their young family across from Kings Country some time between 1848 and 1850. They must have passed through Liverpool, although I have never found any records from there. Then almost immediately they settled in the Chorlton-Upon-Medlock area and lived in a number of different houses over the years in Billington Street. It is this street after which Billington Pix is named in their honour.

What is so interesting to me, as well as deeply moving, is that those descriptions of the poor and destitute living in the slums of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution applied to my family. Edward and Ann Bain and their five children (Mary, William, Patrick, Ann Ellen and Edward) lived in that very same poverty in this Manchester suburb, that I had learned about as a child. The worst area was dubbed Little Ireland because so many of the Irish settlers ended up there. Thankfully this had started to improve a little by time by family arrived in the vicinity. The area remained a slum until the 1960s.

Little Ireland was a terrible place to live. It resided just south of what is now the Oxford Road Railway Station. In fact the building of the railway bridge was the start of the demolition process that ended up socially cleansing the area. The area was low lying and surrounded on three sides by the curve of the River Medlock. Most of the factories at the time would deposit their waste directly into the river, which had a habit of flooding these crammed properties. Many people lived in the cellars and would be inundated on a regular basis by the filthy water. Outside the air would be toxic from the smoke billowing out of the many mill chimneys. What a place to be! Here is a link to a great blog about how awful Little Ireland really was.

Old map from 1850s showing Billington Street parallel with Cambridge StreetEdward's son William Bain didn't live to be very long. He worked in the same area at the Macintosh Mill on Cambridge Street where he was a rubber worker. Aged 26 he sadly died of bronchitis (one can only imagine how he caught that), leaving behind his wife Eleanor and their 18 month year old son, Thomas Stephen Bain, who was my great grandfather.

Billington Street has since been bulldozed over. It is currently a car park along Cambridge Street. It can still be seen, though, on this map from the 1850s. It is slightly further south than the cluster of houses in the low lying flood area, but conditions must have been dire.

What is your family legacy?

St Wilfrid's Church is still around. In fact it is now a Grade II listed building as it was designed by the architect Pugin and is quite beautiful inside. It is currently a commercial centre.

This is what my family experienced during the first twenty years of their settlement in England. They kept their Irish roots and stuck together to get by. Elsie must have experienced this strong bonding when she joined the family in 1936. By this time Doris was still working at Stotts Mill (she was there for twenty years), but later became a dinner lady.

My roots are definitely in Manchester, but also in Ireland. It was government policy during the Irish Famine to continue to import potatoes from Ireland despite the fact that thousands there were starving to death because of the blight. My family emigrated across the Irish Sea for a reason, and that was probably it. 

How does that compare with your family legacy? I'd love to hear your family stories that have been passed down the generations, or research that you have undertaken. Let's us know by adding to the comments below.

If you enjoyed ready this blog take a look at my photo art which is centred around my interest in social history, architecture and decay. These are mostly produced as greeting cards which can be sent or enjoyed for yourself. 

Please add to the discussion around this blog post in the comments below, share this post of social media, and do please sign up for the newsletter for more blog posts and other exciting news.

Finally, I just wanted to bring your attention to some awesome Manchester themed t-shirts that we have for sale. They are designed by BillingtonPix and based around the different Manchester neighbourhoods. Find your favourite Manchester neighbourhood, and also, let us know if there is one that is missing that you would like us to create for you.

Chorlton Manchester vintage sunset t-shirt by BillingtonPix


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