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From Mills to Apartments in Manchester

The city of Manchester is currently undergoing immense changes, with the appearance of multiple brand new high rise buildings – not for nothing does the media like to refer to it as “Manctopia” or “Manc-hattan”. I suppose that such changes are inevitable, and it is by no means a purely recent phenomenon, as it has reinvented itself many times since its first intense development in the late 18th century in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the textile industry.

The rise of capitalism here is in contrast to the earliest planting of the seeds of communism, and Manchester’s significance as a focus of social and political unrest, and many of the huge mill buildings now fulfil a very different purpose from that for which they were originally intended. That they continue to generate fortunes for their owners is not in question, only by another method, having been converted into apartments. It is also fair to say that this has saved many such buildings from falling into neglect and decay, which is to be applauded.

However, I cannot help but wonder what echoes of the past might somehow lie deep within the carefully cleaned brickwork and rust free cast iron columns ; it may be a foolish fantasy but I do believe that it is not only the preserve of ancient and lovingly maintained buildings to somehow hold onto the historic and intangible vibrations of all that has occurred within their walls. And if I accept this, then it must also be true that any other building has the ability to do the same, whether it is a house or a factory.

Crusader Mill is just one such example, built in 1830 to cash in on the boom in textile production, using newly developed steam power powered by cheap local coal, an expanding canal network for ease of transportation, and a readily available workforce of men, women and children who could be constrained to work at the speed of machinery and easily replaced. Long hours and workplace-generated respiratory disease, together with poor pay and little concern for shopfloor safety were the order of the day. The passing of the Factory Act in 1833 which appointed government inspectors to oversee such mills, and forbade the employment of children under the age of 9 (although after that age they could legally work a 9 hour shift) must have been a sore trial to the original owners.

As with most things that experience a sudden period of extremely profitable growth, there came a gradual decline of the textile industry, and many of the huge buildings were subdivided into smaller units for a range of small businesses, notably knitwear and clothing manufacturers.

On the corner of Crusader Mill, there used to exist an attractive if weathered group of signage advertising a number of such businesses which had their premises there. They have all gone now, and the mill is a highly desirable (and expensive) complex of apartments, where comfortable surroundings and the promise of a sense of ”community” have replaced the endless noise of machinery and the soul crushing drudgery of hard physical labour. I do wonder if it retains even the very faintest echo of all those years ago, or if its current inhabitants ever experience the slightest sense of its working past beyond admiring the handsome exposed brickwork.

And what has become of Imperial Knitwear, Shukran Fashions and the Khalil Brothers, the former knitwear manufacturers who once occupied part of this building? Did they manage to find an alternative location, or have they fallen victim to new global market forces? Their signs have vanished now, the last tangible evidence of the working life of Crusader Mill, together with their redundant 061 dialling codes.

On a slightly more positive note, during a very rainy visit to Manchester last week, I was happy to find a little piece of overlooked history on China Lane in the city centre; a battered sign not unlike those previously mentioned, advertising “Xtra Style Fashions”, a wholesaler with a similarly redundant phone number. It’s just possible that the busy knitwear manufacturers of Crusader Mill created some of their stock. I like to think so, at least, and hope that the sign, vandalised and much the worse for wear, will stay around for a while.

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