The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844

Harbour Special, Tintagel Brewery

The New Town, known also as the Irish Town, stretches up a hill of clay, beyond the Old Town, between the river Irk and St. George’s Road. Here all the features of a city are lost.  The houses, or rather cottages, are in bad order, never repaired, filthy, with damp, unclean, cellar dwellings; the lanes are neither paved nor supplied with sewers, but harbour numerous colonies of swine, penned in small sties or yards, or wandering unrestrained through the neighbourhood. The mud in the street is so deep that there is never a chance, except in the driest weather, of walking without sinking into it ankle deep at every step. In the vicinity of St. George’s Road, the separate groups of buildings approach each other more closely, ending in a continuation of lanes, blind alleys, back yards and courts, which grow more and more crowded and irregular the nearer they approach the heart of the town.

The streets are often so narrow that a person can step from the window of one house into that of its opposite neighbour, while the houses are piled so high, storey upon storey, that the light can scarcely penetrate into the courts or alleys between them. True, the streets are often paved or supplied with gutters; but the filth, the bad order of the houses, and especially of the cellars remains the same.

Right and left, leading from the main street,  covered passages lead at every interval into numerous courts, and he who turns in thither gets into a filth and disgusting grime, the equal of which is not be found. In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass in and out of the court only by passing through pools of stagnant urine. On the bed posts, chickens roost at night, dogs and horses share the dwellings of human being, and the natural consequence is a shocking stench, with filth and swarms of vermin.  This is the first court on the Irk above Ducie Bridge- in case anyone should care to look into it. Below it on the river there are several tanneries which fill the whole neighbourhood with the stench of animal putrefaction. Below Ducie bridge the only entrance to most of the houses is by means of narrow, dirty stairs and over heaps of refuse, filth and offal.

The view  from the bridge, mercifully concealed from mortals of small stature by a low parapet, is characteristic of the whole district. At the bottom flows the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the right bank.  In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give firth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream.  But besides this, the stream itself is checked at intervals by high weirs, behind which slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries, bonemills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies.  Below the bridge you look upon the piles of debris, the refuse, filth and offal from the courts; here each house is packed close behind its neighbour and a piece of each is visible, all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window frames. The background is furnished by old barrack-like factory building.

But the most horrible spot (if I should describe all the separate spots in detail I should never come to an end) 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 places without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie amongst standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke from a dozen tall factory chimneys. In short, the whole rookery furnishes such a hateful and repulsive spectacle as can hardly be equalled in the worst court of the Irk.  The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors and rotten doorposts, or in dark, wet cellar, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race really must have reached the lowest stage of humanity.

Adapted from Frederick Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, George Allen and Unwin, 1943

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