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How archaeologists unearthed my ancestor’s house
Tread carefully in Manchester’s streets. Only a thin crust of concrete separates you from a lost underworld
Whenever I would head into town before Angel Meadow was redeveloped, I’d park my car in the same spot.
It wasn’t that the car park was convenient for the Arndale Centre.
For me that anonymous piece of flat concrete surrounded by a green, chain-link fence was sacred ground.
It was where, 150 years earlier, my Irish forefather William Kirby had lived in a one-up-one-down house.
Thanks to old insurance maps and rent books, I knew exactly where in the oblong-shaped car park that house had stood.
I also knew that beneath the spot where I parked my car — secretly reclaiming the ground for a few precious hours — the house was still there.
It's the same with other surface car parks across central Manchester. Walk across them and you are stepping on a thin crust of concrete that separates you from a lost underworld.
Under your feet lie the carcasses of Victorian houses that were demolished in slum clearances as the city rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Blitz.
Only the foundations and the cellars remain. They were buried, like Egyptian tombs, beneath tons of earth and sealed shut — still silent and untouched as steel and glass skyscrapers are now being erected around them.
One night on my way to a Noel Gallagher gig at the Arena with my wife, I found my car park locked with a remarkable sign fastened to the fence: Archaeologists at Work.
I could hardly concentrate through the gig, just wanting to go back and peer through the fence, which I did for a long moment after Mr Gallagher had taken his encore.
In the gloom, I could see the archaeologists had already used a yellow digger to scrape away some of the floor to reveal the tops of the old cellars.
After listening to what must have seemed a strange story, the archaeologists invited me to return with my dad to clamber down into the holes they had finished digging.
As a family historian, you can spent years chasing pieces of paper in the archives trying to find out the conditions in which your ancestors lived. We were able to walk through the front door.
Together we stood there, on the cracked flagstones with cars passing on the street above our heads, and reached out and touched the still-sooty bricks of William’s fireplace. It was a moment the two of us will never forget.
His home, which had no running water, was next to a coal store which would silted up the windows with black dust. Two doors down was a pub, the St Michael’s Tavern, which was a know meeting place for conmen and counterfeiters.
Something struck me as we stood in the ground that I could never have learned from the archives.
The walls separating William’s house from next door were made from a single skin of roughly mortared bricks laid end to end. Every noise and the heat from the fire would have radiated straight through those paper-thin wall.
We could see that the cellar beneath the house, which was accessed through a dark passageway guarded by railings, had at one time been knocked through into the neighbouring house and badly bricked up again.
The archaeologists also discovered the privy in a back alley that William would have shared with a hundred other people. Their finds included metal hinges, door frames and, astonishingly, a key.
It was a moment that has led me on a journey of discovery that has lasted a decade — the time it has taken me to write a book and complete a PhD on living conditions in the district where William lived.
Only three of William Kirby’s seven children survived to adulthood. Evidence from a death certificate shows that his fifth child, also called William, died from convulsions brought on by a fever in Charter Street on 23 February, 1877. He was just two weeks old.
The bricks and mortar unearthed in the archaeological dig could say nothing of the depth of anguish that would have pervaded that same house that day.
But I could take you to the very spot in the new concrete wall of the new apartment block where William’s front door once stood.*
So tread carefully when you walk through town. Just beneath the surface, there are stories that are waiting to be told.
(* It’s opposite the front door of the student house on Dantzic Street if you are passing)
Ghost signs: Messages from Manchester’s past
I’m trying to find the locations of all the ghost signs in Manchester city centre, like this one in Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter.
See if you can spot it if you’re walking along the Shudehill end of the street.
Ghost signs are old painted adverts and signs that are also sometimes called ‘fading ads’ or ‘brickads’.
If you see one when you're walking through the city — there are a few in Ancoats and other parts — drop me a line at email@example.com with the details.
I'll include the best ones in a future newsletter.