This is a text version of a heritage trail, based on a route around the Rochdale and Ashton Canals in Ancoats, Manchester. Eventually this will be available as a mobile app, audio download and printable route. First it would help us if you could try the route and give us some feedback, suggest additions or changes etc.
The aim is to encourage people to walk the area, enjoy the canals and feel a sense of the many layers of history, and the people who have lived and worked here.
Ancoats has undergone so much demolition and redevelopment in those two hundred years, a lot of its heritage is not visible. Ancoats, once built from the clay of the fields, powered by the rivers and canals, rises and falls from the earth over and over again.
This trail is therefore a trail based in the earth of Ancoats – an underground Ancoats trail. This theme was selected by members of the Ancoats Canal Project at their AGM.
STARTING POINT: Lock 2, lock keeper’s cottage, Ashton Canal towpath.
BRICKS OF ANCOATS
In the locks, bridges and the old mill buildings you will see millions of bricks on your heritage walk today.
The colour of the materials used to build the canal changes along its route. If you were walking around Todmorden and Hebden Bridge, you would see sand coloured stone. Here in Ancoats, the mills and bridges are all of red and orange brick. The reason for this lies beneath your feet.
Very, very deep below where you’re walking are ancient red mudstones, siltstones and sandstones. But the solid rock here in Ancoats is buried by a thick covering of clay, brought by the glaciers that covered this area in the last ice age.
In the age of canal building, it was very difficult to transport building materials. That was the very reason they wanted canals of course. So the building materials were all local – in Todmorden it was stone and here it was clay dug from the fields and fired into bricks.
As you walk the canal, you might notice the materials changing, and even in one bridge or lock you may well see bricks of different colours.
From here, you can see the old Islington branch canal, now just a stub, disused.
Walk east, along the towpath, towards the Chips Building.
On the right you can see large brick Vulcan Mills on Pollard Street. Beneath the grass area will be the remains of more canal branches and the foundations of the iron works that used to be there. They made machinery used in the mills.
Pass under the Caruther Street bridge and walk towards the next, Beswick Street bridge. Take the steps up onto the bridge. Cross the road and look over onto the canal.
POINT 2: POOLEY’S MILLS, BRICKFIELDS.
On the left hand side of the canal stood one of the earliest mills – Pooley’s Mill, built in 1826. At that time, this area was open land. On the right was one of the brickfields where clay was dug out and bricks fired on site. These will have been used in many buildings and structures around the area. What has become of those bricks we will never know. Many will have been reduced to rubble when mills like Pooley’s were demolished in recent decades. Archaeologists have a great interest in what is left below the surface. They have dug here at Pooley’s Mill site and on the grassy area you passed on the right of the canal, when the new metro link tunnel was built, looking at what remains of early industrial buildings.
Turn left and walk along Beswick Street, over Bradford Road and continue down Butler Street.
Now there is modern, low rise suburban housing. A map of housing conditions in 1904 shows this area to be densely packed and designated as ‘slum housing’, with many more small streets, alleys and courts.
If you could turn the clock back a hundred more years, to 1804, you’d have been walking on a track between two hedgerows, with farm fields on either side.
Turn into Woodward Street on your left and walk through the parkland towards the Rochdale Canal towpath.
POINT 3: FULMER DRIVE AND SHOOTER’S BROOK
The bumps in the grass you see are the remains of Fulmer Drive, modern terraced houses with gardens, demolished in 2008 and the land earmarked for part of the Miles Platting redevelopment.
In 1904 you would have been able to see a short section of the river called Shooter’s Brook, flowing out from under Butler Street, between Woodward Street and the canal, down into central Manchester. The river was slowly diverted underground over the course of the 19th century and by WWI had disappeared from view.
Take the towpath left towards town. Pass under the Union Street bridge.
POINT 4: TUNNEL INTO MURRAY’S MILLS
Across the canal you may be able to see the bricked up opening to Murray’s Mills canal tunnel. This rather small entrance led under the street and under the mill into the central courtyard where there was a canal basin. It was the means to get coal, raw cotton and other materials into the mill complex and spun cotton back out and onto the main canal.
Walk up the new footbridge.
POINT 5: PAINTING OF COTTON FACTORIES, UNION STREET
This view of the mills in front of you was painted by Samuel Austin, some time before 1830. It shows the New Islington side of the canal as still undeveloped, possibly still grass, in comparison to the Redhill Street side.
Cross the canal by metal footbridge and emerge in front of Bengal Street. Traffic comes along here. Cross the road to the pavement on the other side.
The canal tunnel runs beneath your feet, under Murray’s Mills, the building in front of you and to the left.
Walk left past the front of Murray’s Mills
POINT 6: PAINTINGS OF McConnell’s Mills
The mills along here are one of the most often depicted views of Manchester. This watercolour painting dates from around 1820. It depicts mud banks along the canal. If these were visible at this time, they are certainly well hidden now, by brick and stone.
At seven and eight stories, these were some of the tallest buildings in the city in the early 19th century. When this image was painted, open fields would still have been close by, but in the area immediately behind these mills, crowded streets of slum housing would already have taken shape.
This drawing of McConnell and Company Mills from 1913 shows how much larger and more impressive the mill complexes have become. They’ve actually been rebuilt and added to often since the first mill was built in 1797.
All of this tall and impressive brickwork has risen from the earth under your feet, dug from local brick fields and fired nearby, and probably brought by canal to the building site.
Turn right down Murray Street till you get to the archway into Murray’s Mills.
POINT 7: Murray’s Mills arch – Tomb of Adam Murray plaque.
Most mill buildings have large archways, doors and other openings for deliveries of raw materials and fuel and to allow workers in and out. You might notice that there are no doors or gateways into Murray’s Mills as you walk round the building. Except, half way along Murray Street you will see the single arched gateway through which thousands of workers had to pass each day. The only other way in was underground – the canal tunnel you saw from the other bank of the canal. Now sealed.
Through the gate you can see on the right, mounted on the wall, part of the tomb of Adam Murray, one of the brothers who founded this mill complex and who died in 1818. It was mounted here as part of restoration work in the early 2000s.
Continue up Murray Street to Jersey Street and turn right. Behind Murray’s Mills.
POINT 8: CELLAR DWELLINGS
Something else underground here in Ancoats was people and their few belongings. So called cellar dwellings were cellar rooms where, till they were made illegal in a bye-law of 1853, whole families would sleep. Jersey Street and many of the streets round here housed mill workers in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Many had unpaved roads, little access to water or toilet facilities in the early days of manufacturing development.
The worst housing was either demolished and replaced over the course of the 19th century, or converted to two-up, two-down terraces or industrial buildings. Many of these survived till the late 20th century. This means some of these cellars may still exist, beneath present day buildings.
Turn right down Bengal Street and cross the canal again by the footbridge, entering the New Islington development.
This canal basin is a new one, while several old canal arms and basins have been infilled. Continue down the quayside till you see a footbridge crossing the basin.
POINT 9: New Islington Mill and Shooter’s Brook
Here the Shooter’s Brook River used to flow where you’re standing, right through the ‘island’ of New Islington, between the canals. The river was extremely important in the development of Ancoats as the world’s first industrial suburb. It water was used to power the earliest mills.
One of these early mills is shown as a cluster of buildings, straddling the river, on maps from the early 19th century. This is probably what was referred to as the New Islington Mill. The remains of its foundations may well lie beneath your feet, but this patch of land has been redeveloped many times since then.
Keep walking till you get to Old Mill Street. Turn right, crossing the new canal arm and keep walking past Vesta Street on the other side. You will see on the other side of the road a canal bridge.
POINT 10: ISLINGTON BRANCH CANAL
On the other side of that bridge wall is what is left if the old Islington canal arm. On the right hand side of the road, where there is now a low brick boundary would have been another matching wall, because the canal arm continued to the edge of the modern building and cut diagonally along the wall of that building, where cars now park. It then cut right through the modern canal basin of New Islington, where you just walked (the green line on the image to the right).
This is one of many bridges which still pass over non-existent canals. There are other characteristic metal bridge sides on Jersey Street and on Pollard Street, across the other side of the Ashton canal.
If you walk down Vesta Street, you will arrive back where you started, by the lock keeper’s cottage on the Ashton Canal.