During first part of the 19th century Cheetham Hill was a pleasant and genteel place in which to live. There were some fine large houses which suited the wealthier merchants and it was this which saved Cheetham Hill from the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Although they were happy enough to make their money from the mills and the 'white slaves' who worked in them, the merchants, and the men who bankrolled their money, certainly didn't want the millscapes, or the chemical pollution from the bleachers and dyers of Harpurhey, on their doorstep.
As late as 1850 there were tea gardens in Cheetwood Village (which was part of Cheetham) where the air was 'sweet with the perfume of roses, pinks, carnations, mignonette...in midsummer the smell of new mown hay...in the orchards, currant and gooseberry trees...pear and apple trees...' This was in stark contrast to Ancoats, where the black smoke was so thick that the sun never shone through properly, and the stench from the low lying river site of Chorlton Mills or the dye works of Harpurhey.
However, during the latter half of the 19th century, things began to change. The main cause was the demand for housing from people coming to work in the ever expanding millscapes. Hundreds of small terraced houses were built on what had been former meadow land. A journalist of the time wrote that '...open countryside of the 1820s was a solid mass of bricks and mortar by the 1870s...'
The Jewish population of Manchester, with their tailoring skills and business acumen, also congregated in Cheetham because of its proximity to the heart of the textile manufacturing business. However problems of long hours, low pay and overcrowding affected the tailoring workshops in much the same way as the cotton mills which led the House of Lords to produce a series of reports during the 1890s on what had become known as the 'sweating system'.
A reporter from The Lancet highlighted these problems in 1888 ('Manchester...the sinister side' Jones, S. 1997)
"...nine persons were busily engaged sorting rags. They receive six shillings a week [£17 in 2002]...and are...dressed in tatters...fragments of dirty old clothes [were] sorted, the better pieces torn off...creating a cloud of dust. In the yard there was one closet, locked up, the key being kept by the tailor above, so the rag sorters had no closet...by the side of the closed closet door...there was a rusty broken iron urinal...a heap of faecal matter and pools of urine in indentures of the black earth..."
The same reporter continues:
"... above one of the tailor's workshops is a cloth cap manufactury where forty, sometimes fifty, persons, for the most part young girls, are employed. These all use a single closet placed unded the stairs, on the same level as the tailor's workshop...only separated by a single partition...during the summer the tailors are invaded by evil odours or an overpowering smell of disinfectants..."
The cloth cap manufactory may have been Nathan Hope's Cloth Cap Factory which was once housed on Derby Street near Strangeways prison. The factory started production in the 1850s when cloth caps were very popular. A mostly Jewish workforce was employed under stringent conditions. If a worker broke a needle it had to paid for from their wages (Manchester Jewish Museum).
Almost opposite the cloth cap factory was the first warehouse set up by Mr Marks and Mr Spencer. Michael Marks was a Jewish immigrant; Tom Spencer was English; and together they became a household name for quality clothing at affordable prices. Initially Michael Marks ran a penny bazarr in Leeds, before opening his first shop at 20 Cheetham Hill Road in 1893, and legend says that Mr Marks' slogan was 'don't ask the price' it's a penny' because he did not know enough English to barter (Manchester Jewish Museum).
Cloth warehouses were built in the Strangeways area of Cheetham which borders Ancoats and is the closest part of Cheetham to Manchester City Centre. Cheetham remains a textile centre, although today (2003) the majority of the textile workers are Asian rather than Jewish, and the warehouses, the 'remnants of the rag trade', sell textiles at factory prices to the public.
There is a strange and sad little tale from the Cheetham of Cottonopolis times. A house in Cheetham, the location of which is no longer known, was said to be 'haunted by a child's cries and a mournful whistling...' (Peter Underwood, 1971). A detailed search of the house 'revealed copies of newspapers dated from 1922 and a pencilled musical score wrapped in cotton calico sheeting and hidden in the chimney breast...' The musical score was similar to the whistled tune. Later, what appeared to be the bones of a baby were discovered hidden beneath the kitchen floor. The heartache which lay behind these discoveries can only be imagined, but it is probably safe to say that the finds were the remains of a Cottonopolis tragedy of the type that was played out in so many homes during the Industrial Revolution.
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