ANGEL MEADOW - MY FAMILY’S HISTORY
Many people seek their family tree in the hope of proving they are descended from royalty or nobility. I was looking for connections to rebels, radicals and heretics. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Chappells descend from the French Huguenots, a group of Calvinist French Protestants, dating back to the 16th Century. They were persecuted by the Catholics many times. Most notably in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1567. My forbears dled across the Chanel to escape such persecutions.
Over the British years the family worked in the Canal Navigation business. Some Chappells were reputed to have caused trouble in Leeds and got barred from the city for life. Exactly what they did wrong is unclear.
Later, the family moved into cotton in a big way. My great Grandfather, (named Arthur, like all the first sons who followed him), was a Huguenot and worked in the family Fustian business. (Fustians are thick twilled cotton cloth dyed in dark colours). My Great Grandfather then committed a terrible act of heresy when he converted to the arch enemy creed of Catholicism, much to the disgust of his family who virtually disowned him. My Great Grandparents (Arthur Chappell, and Katie Walsh,) were believed to have been the last couple married at St. Williams Church. in Angel Meadow, before its demolition. They moved to a dwelling at Ludgate Hill, In the first house from the top, near to a sweet shop. Could there have been a hereditary gene passed down four generations to me, influencing my own rebellion against a religious upbringing?
From family history, let’s move to Humanist research in Local history. I believe most areas will have some association with radical freethought. It's something we ought to seek documentation about. One day researchers might look for Humanist elements in Mancunian history and stumble on references to us Manchester Humanists. It's a sobering thought.
My family’s links to Angel Meadow ran for three generations. The area is mentioned in the classic novel, The Manchester Man, and Angel Meadow, despite its cosy, religious name, was known as ‘The Place Of Terror’.
The Meadow was a vast open space until the 1800’s when the railway lines from Manchester’s chief stations marked its boundaries. Before then it may have been a vast plague pit for the regions' Black Death victims. The Meadow quickly became a large slum, where vandalism, mugging, murders, drunken brawls, and prostitution were common. Teachers at the famous ‘Ragged School’ (now preserved as a delightful museum) needed police escorts as late as 1853.
Manchester Statistics Society records give the transcript of a talk by Rev. J. E. Mercle, who discovered that in 1897 (the time of his presentation) Angel Meadow housed 192,000 people, compared to 26,350 people living in Manchester itself, nearby. This was in an area little over one square mile in size. Increasing railway, warehouse and slum clearance programming was actually reducing the population by this time.
Charles Dickens briefly worked at the Meadow’s Cheryble warehouse. He had the sense to leave, but the slum conditions may have influenced his novel Hard Times.
There were two distinct classes of people living in this overcrowded hell hole. There were old established trustworthy families who were regarded as the salt of the parish. Then there were the drunken migrant settlers of the industrial revolution, dreaming of work in the big city of Manchester, but left brawling, fighting, drinking and indulging in 'unrestrained licentious womanising' in the grinding poverty of the slum trap zone. Mercle pulled no punches in comparing the meadow to "a Serborian bog in sore need of draining’.
The 1881 census showed 1,091 inhabited dwellings (91 uninhabited with 1,023 of them having less than five rooms, that were all unsanitary and infested with vermin. A band of volunteer rescue workers are on record as declaring the slum worse than anything they had seen in London’s Whitechapel district.
Mercle’s report was extremely damming for its time. He describes the situation at one house thus:
"By combined neglected landlord and tenant, reduced to so filthy a condition that the doctor refused (and small blame to him) to enter it when summoned to visit father ill with dysentery. State of floor indescribable. Food thrown indiscriminately into baby’s cradle as bread basket. Baby generally lying in said cradle, utterly neglected. Man removed to hospital, died, practically poisoned in his home."
Things improved gradually, but not spectacularly. That my family survived there at all is remarkable.
The grim River Irk has a habit of flooding through the Meadow, and a baby was once found on the flood waters floating contented and Moses like in its basket. (City News 9th April 1921).
Many reports give mention to the rats of Angel Meadow, which, attracted by the cheese cellars at Hanging Ditch nearby, would migrate in wildebeest like droves across the meadow after dark.
On October 20th 1960, conditions hadn’t improved. A lorry driver told the Manchester Evening News that he dreaded making deliveries to the tannery yards in the Meadow, (at Shudehill). He was never actually assaulted because, in his own words, he ‘Never stared at anyone. I was too frightened to.’
Things have improved since then, though the Meadow still fails to live up to its name. It’s church graveyard stones have been levelled and often serve as a football pitch. Hardly a worthy memorial for the dead of any urban parish, especially as relatives and ancestors of myself may be among them.
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