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The Ancoats Skylark
The forgotten story of a Manchester songbird that inspired a poet
The Ancoats Skylark is a poem written by the Victorian writer William Axon in 1894 that told the story of a Government inspector’s real-life visit to a school in the district.
In the classroom, the inspector was shocked by the apparent ignorance of the “Ancuts” children about the world beyond the cobbled streets where they lived.
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He asked the boys if they had ever seen a lark, a common country bird which could be found singing high above the fields just outside the world’s first industrial city.
But the inspector was caught by surprise when one boy's hand shot up into the air: “Sir, I’ve seen a lark, and heard him loudly sing.”
His jaw agape, the inspector asked the lad to tell him where he had seen it.
“T’was in a wooden cage, that hung outside the Cotton Tree,” the boy replied with typically dry Mancunian wit, to howls of laugher from his classmates.
The inspector concluded that the “poor caged boy”, like the bird he had seen, was trapped in Ancoats – unable to escape the poverty which surrounded him like metal bars.
Axon’s poem though, unlike the original tale narrated by the inspector, found something vital and affirming about life in the great working class districts of Victorian Manchester.
“The boy is blithe, and strong in heart,” it says. “The bird ne’er fails in song.”
Humour and beauty could always be found in spite of the harsh living conditions – even if it did involve a songbird caged up outside the Cotton Tree pub in Great Ancoats Street.
Mapping the Manchester diaspora
Earlier in the summer I asked readers which parts of Greater Manchester they moved to after the old houses were knocked down in Ancoats, Collyhurst and Miles Platting.
I’ve started to create a map showing the locations. It shows that families were sent to all four corners of the compass. If you’re reading this on the email newsletter, you might want to look at the version on my website, which you can find here.
It shows really why people across the region consider themselves to be Mancunians. I’d like to add more areas and wondered if you could help.
What was the experience of moving out of Manchester like for you? If you’d like to share you thoughts with other readers who have already commented, then visit this link. If you could also say which area you moved to, I’ll add new places to the map.
In a few weeks, I’m hoping to write about how parts of Ancoats came to be demolished and it’d be great to add some personal stories from those of you who went through that.
September history highlights
Manchester historian Neil Buttery is presenting a talk at Manchester Central Library on 13 September on the rise and fall of one of Britain's most influential cookery writers, who also wrote the first trade directory of the city in the 1772. Raffald reputedly had sixteen daughters, wrote a book on midwifery and was apparently an effective exorcist of evil spirits.
As part of Chorlton Book Festival, historian Andrew Simpson will lead a walk on 17 September along Beech Road as it would have been in 1845. He'll be inviting festival goers to meet the people, explore the houses and discover a mix of sad, gruesome and a few happy stories about one of Chorlton's best known streets.
A family-friendly festival in Manchester's historic medieval quarter (around Chetham’s College) returns for its second year on 23-24 September. It features historic tours, live music, film screenings, workshops, and medieval entertainment including jesters and stilt walkers, plus historical re-enactment from Historia Normannis.
I’ve been away from the newsletter for most of the summer to catch up on some much-needed family time after what had been a hectic few months.
I hope you haven’t lost patience with me, or missed the newsletter too much. I should have some good news soon about a couple of projects I’m working on.
Thanks as always for your support.
If you want to chat or ask me a question about family history research, don’t forget to subscribe and join chat group, which you can access via the Substack app.
P.S: Did you know that the old Manchester name for a skylark is a ladrock.
To name something, you have to see it first and people must have seen them and heard their song in the fields around the River Medlock, despite what the Ancoats school inspector thought.
Have a great weekend.