Manchester’s Little Ireland

Library for Educators
8 min readJan 17, 2023
Little Ireland region of Manchester. Manchester and Salford. Sheet 33, 1851

As you walk down Oxford Road station towards the university the pavement suddenly drops off to the righthand side. Just before the rail bridge a steep cobbled slope leads down to The Salisbury and The Thirsty Scholar.

Two hundred years ago this was the entrance to one of the 13 most notorious slums in Victorian Britain, perhaps, even, in the world: Little Ireland. At that time, Manchester’s population was expanding rapidly. New houses were erected. Rivers were polluted. Factories belched out smoke and filth. Many of Manchester’s poor lived in terrible conditions.

Some of the poorest and most marginalised of Manchester’s working classes were the residents of Little Ireland, who lived so close to the University’s current location two centuries ago. In this post we look at the way Irish Mancunians were characterised in xenophobic and prejudicial terms during the 19th Century and how they were blamed for the poor and unsanitary conditions of the industrialising city.

We will seek to understand how these hostile languages of difference operated. We will also discuss how to recover the submerged voices of the poor and marginalised in the Victorian period. As a result, we will develop an account of the way that elite urban reformers and social commentators depicted the Irish in Victorian Manchester, as well the attitudes, lifeworlds and forms of resistance of Irish Mancunians. We will get a chance to view maps, letters, books and other original documents from Victorian Manchester.

Background — The Irish in Manchester

Technological innovation in the late 18th and early 19th century completely transformed Manchester’s economy. Following the lapse of Sir Richard Arkrights’s patent in 1785, there was a boom in the mechanisation of the cotton and textile industry and as mills began to emerge across the city and surrounding landscape. Transport via newly constructed canals and railways became a catalyst for this growth and with it thousands of people seeking work.

Manchester’s population began to grow rapidly. In 1773 the city’s population was recorded at 22,400 but by 1851 it had grown to over 316,000. Amongst the people settling in Manchester, many had migrated from Ireland. However the flow of migrants was exacerbated by the Irish Famine (1845–49) which caused at least a million deaths and another million people to leave Ireland. In the decade of the 1840s, Manchester had the third highest population of Irish-born residents (behind London and Liverpool). In 1851, 15% of the population of Manchester was Irish-born.

*Link to texts relating to migration of Irish people and population figures*

Working and Living Conditions

1850 — Joseph Adshead, Township of Manchester no.6: Oxford Ward (part 1).Manchester and Salford. Sheet 33

The ‘Little Ireland’ district of Manchester was the smallest and most short lived of all the areas of Irish settlement in the city. Most of the residential housing was built in the early 1820s and by the late 1840s most of this had either been closed up or demolished. Moreover, it covered only about four acres and at the 1841 census had a total population of only 1510. Yet, it came to be seen as a typical Irish slum.

The Irish settled here as this was one of the districts where cheap accommodation was being built in the early 1820s. The area also had the advantage that a large number of unskilled employment openings were to be found in the surrounding factories and mills.

Residential housing consisted of unplanned, opportunistic, speculative building on the space available around and between the factories and mills. This area around the River Medlock was naturally low-lying, but the reinforcement of it’s banks to protect the factories from flooding raised the level of the river above that of the surrounding housing. This meant year-round high humidity, damp, and a inevitable vulnerability to flooding. By the 1840s, there were 13 factories surrounding the Little Ireland district, making it prone to smoke pollution.

In 1844 Friedrich Engels was visiting Manchester and his companion Mary Burns — a young Irish woman — showed him around the city, including the Little Ireland. Here he describes the district in The Conditions of the Working Class in England:

” In a rather deep hole, in the curve of the Medlock, and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments covered with buildings, stands 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 pavements; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among the standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia of these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall chimneys. 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… The race that lives in those ruinous cottages or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench…must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

→ *currently not digitised but would be very useful to have sections to link to.*

*is the language Engels using demonising Irish people here or is it supposed to be ‘highlighting’ their plight?

Anti-Irish attitudes

Throughout the UK, there were a widespread anti-Irish and anti-Catholic beliefs, which continued well into the 20th Century. And Manchester was similar no different in its treatment of Irish people living in the city.

This situation intensified in Manchester, as Irish-born residents were granted the same access to poor relief as English-born residents. In May 1847 there was 217 applications for relief from Little Ireland; 203 Irish applications and 14 English.

Need more source material for this section from Manchester Histories experts — particularly accounts from Irish people (which feels lacking from this piece)

The rapid growth of the cotton manufacture has attached hither operatives from every part of the kingdom, and Ireland has poured forth the destitute of her hordes to supply the constantly increasing demand for labour. This immigration been, in one important respect, a serious evil

Manchester Martyrs

In 1867 two high-profile American-Irish Fenians (people from various organisations who fought for Irish independence from Britain) Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy were arrested in Shudehill, Manchester, for loitering.

On 18 September 1867, Thomas J Kelly and Timothy Deasy were being moved to Belle Vue Prison in East Manchester. When their police convoy was driving down Hyde Road, it was ambushed by no fewer than 40 armed Fenians. They were there to solely rescue their two Kell and Deasy and were under strict instruction that none of the policemen should be harmed.

Belle Vue Prison, 1880

The police surrendered or fled and the Fenians established control of the road. However, when they struggled to gain access to the van holding Kelly and Deasy with crowbars, they shot the lock off the van, accidentally killing the unarmed policeman sat with them inside, Sergeant Charles Brett.

The public were incensed by the incident, and were enraged by the audacity of the Fenians acting so openly in England. The Conservative party who were in power held anti-Irish sentiment and many of the conservative press were baying for Irish blood. Heavy handed police raids of the Irish districts including Little Ireland produced 29 arrests. After a quick and procedurally dubious trial process, three of these men were eventually convicted of the murder of Sergeant Brett and condemned to death by hanging. The men cried “God save Ireland” from the dock after sentence was pronounced. A crowd of 8,000–10,000 people turned out to watch the hangings of those convicted of murder; William P. Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien.

However the hangings had quite the opposite effect and the three men became known as the “Manchester Martyrs” and became a public figure head for the cause of Irish nationalism in Ireland, Britain and America.

Demolition of Little Ireland

The reports of living conditions of the working classes by Kay-Shuttleworth and Engels sparked huge social changes. The Royal Commission into the Health of Towns was conducted in 1844 in the wake of yet another Cholera epidemic. The report discovered that in Manchester the average life expectancy of a ‘gentleman’ was 38 years old and just 17 years old for ‘labourers’. Crucially however the report discovered the links between sanitation and disease and the links to crowded housing slums.

Manchester led the way with social reform with its 1845 Sanitary Improvement Act, followed by the 1847 Manchester Corporation Waterworks Act and fundamentally the 1853 Local Act, which prohibited the use of cellar dwellings. In 1847 the houses of Little Ireland were whitewashed to prevent future outbreaks of disease.

One of the most significant changes to Little Ireland was the arrival of the railway, especially the opening of the Oxford Road Station in 1849, which cleared a vast area of houses and split Wakefield Road in two. In 1847 residents of part of Little Ireland were forcibly ejected from their homes by the railway company “disposed very much in gypsy fashion, with no covering, save the blue vault of heaven.” as the scene was described in the Manchester Times. The station was expanded in 1857 and rebuilt in 1874, each taking more and more land from the slums around it.

By the 1880s the area was devoid of any domestic housing and was entirely an industrial area and its former residents were scattered to other working class areas of Manchester such as Hulme and Ancoats.

Struggled for SC sources to go off for this. Again, is this possibly an ongoing issue with items not being digitised and material for writing? Should we be creating a digitisation process with the Imaging team?

Des Donnelly section?

(Unfortunately, John’s grandfather’s photograph is under copyright, so its digitisation re-publication is not possible at this stage.)

Does this pose wider issue to address when creating posts from these workshops?

Links

  • Any related special collections blogs
  • Any UoM-wide digital resources on topic
  • Any links to affiliated organisations (Working Class Movement Library etc.)?

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