During the 1770s Lady Minshull found herself alone, the sole remaining survivor of the family, having lost her husband and only child prematurely. When she was sixty she fell in love with a good looking 'toy-boy' and married him against the advice of her friends. He proceeded to spend her fortune and vandalised the Estate by selling it off piecemeal in the 1780s as the cotton mill 'boom' was about to begin. By the 1790s industrial development of Chorlton was under way. In 1801 the population was just 675 but it multiplied over thirty times within thirty years as a result of the advent of the mills.
The Chorlton Mills complex was bounded by Cambridge Street, Oxford Road, Chester Street and the River Medlock; an area to the south and south-west of the present (2003) Oxford Road railway station. To the south west of Oxford Road, the River Medlock, which passes underneath the road just south of the railway station, curves round as though it were the bottom of a large 'ox-bow'.
Tucked into the 'ox-bow' was the notoriously squalid area of Little Ireland where Irish immigrants and refugees scraped a poverty stricken living as best they could: '... a horde of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps and in the puddles. In short, the whole rookery furnishes such a hateful and repulsive spectacle as can hardly be equalled in the worst court on the Irk...' (Engels, Friedrich. 1844).
Friedrich Engels wrote at length of Little Ireland and Chorlton Mills
"....the most horrible spot...lies on the Manchester side, immediately south-west of Oxford Road, and is known as Little Ireland. In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments, covered with buildings, stand two groups of about two hundred cottages, built chiefly back to back, in which live about four thousand human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys..."
The Chorlton Mills Complex however was an important early mill complex, ranking in importance with that of Ancoats. Chorlton Mills also became some of the earliest mills to use steam rather than water power. The earliest mill in Chorlton was built in 1795 on Hulme Street, but the most well known of the Chorlton Mills was Charles Macintosh's Mill. In 1823 Mackintosh developed a process to waterproof cloth using by-products from gas manufacture and used it to make waterproof clothing. Another mill of note was the Oxford Road Twist Mill owned and built by Samuel Marsland. Adjacent to this mill stood a mill tenanted by Robert Owen who would later campaign so vigorously for a reduction in the hours of children working in the mills. Chorlton New Mill, built for Hugh Birley in 1814, is probably the earliest surviving example of a fire proof mill in Manchester. During the late 1840s the Marsland Mills became a sugar refinery with a kiln for making charcoal on Chester Street.
However, the low-lying land and the proximity of the mills to the river and dwellings had a disastrous effect on local living conditions:
'...a portion of low, swampy ground, liable to be frequently inundated, and to constant exhalation, is included between a high bank over which the Oxford Road passes, and a bend of the river Medlock, where its course is impeded by a weir. This unhealthy spot lies so low that the chimneys of its houses, some of them three stories high, are little above the level of the road. About two hundred of these habitations are crowded together in an extremely narrow space, and they are chiefly inhabited by the lowest Irish. Many of these houses have also cellars, whose floor is scarcely elevated above the level of the water flowing in the Medlock. The soughs are destroyed, or out of repair; and these narrow abodes are in consequence always damp, and are frequently flooded to the depth of several inches, because the surface water can find no exit...it is surrounded on every side by some of the largest factories of the town, whose chimneys vomit forth dense clouds of smoke, which hang heavily over this insalubrious region...' (Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, c1830s)
'...for each one hundred and twenty persons, one usually inaccessible privy is provided; and that in spite of all the preachings of the physicians, in spite of the excitement into which the cholera epidemic plunged the sanitary police by reason of the condition of Little Ireland, in spite of everything, in this year of grace 1844, it is in almost the same state as in 1831!' (Friedrich Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England. Leipzig, 1845)
Further reading: Clark, Sylvia. Chorlton Mills and their neighbours. (Oxford University Press, 1978. Reprinted from Industrial Archaeology Review, Vol. II Number 3, 1978)
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