Manchester Mills in the Ancoats Conservation Area
From a position of depressing economic decline, Ancoats has become Manchester’s ‘des res’ place to live and do business. Its renaissance over the past 20 years is perhaps the ultimate story of heritage-led regeneration, at the core of which has been the renewal and reuse of its huge historic mills.
Where: Ancoats, Manchester
Years on register: Collectively from 1998–2015
Former hub of 'Cottonopolis'
Ancoats was once the hub of ‘Cottonopolis’, Manchester’s great cotton industry. Its growth started in the late 18th century, when it embraced and pioneered steam-powered technology, triggering an explosion in mill building and cotton production. Within 50 years Ancoats was transformed from a quintessentially rural landscape into one of the most densely developed industrial landscapes in the world.
The rapid expansion of mills attracted an ever-growing population. Ancoats had over 50,000 residents in the 1800s, mostly Irish and Italian immigrants. It was a thriving, cosmopolitan and bustling part of the city.
Massive decline and turning point
By the 1960s the area was in massive decline. The cotton industry had ceased spinning, mass clearance of terraced housing ensued and the population dispersed. Numerous mills had become ghosts of their former selves: neglected, abandoned and unloved.
A key turning point came in the late 1980s with the recognition of Ancoats’ historic significance. The Ancoats Conservation Area was designated and key buildings listed. But the threats remained. In 1998, Historic England placed six Grade II* listed mills on its inaugural Heritage at Risk Register. These were Doubling (Waulk) Mill, Murrays’ Mills complex (two of the three buildings), Royals Mills complex (two of the three buildings) and, on the opposite side of Great Ancoats Street, Brownsfield Mill.
Regeneration takes a long time, but the securing of funding for the shell repair of Murrays’ Mills in 2003 really was a turning point in the fortunes of Ancoats. Today we have a vibrant mixed-use area and those early investors and heritage advocates can be rightly proud of its shortlisting for the Academy of Urbanism’s Best Neighbourhood Award 2018.
Sharing out the task of transformation
Ancoats is now a popular and thriving district of Manchester, just a few minutes’ walk from Piccadilly Station. This transformation was made possible through a coalition of conservation and regeneration bodies - of which Historic England was part - that focused on both safeguarding and revitalising Ancoats’ past.
Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust paved the way by campaigning and delivering repairs to the enormous Murrays’ Mills complex, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Eastside Regeneration spearheaded community initiatives, such as security and housing quality. Ancoats Urban Village Company led on writing development briefs and securing private sector investment. The North West Development Agency used its compulsory Purchase Order powers to solve the problem of multiple and disparate ownership. Manchester City Council provide planning support and created a high-quality public realm.
How we made a difference
Historic England played its part through grant aid, research and advocacy. We were able to put conservation at the forefront of discussions about the future of the mills with the multiple partners involved. Working with partners such as the North West Development Agency, Eastside Regeneration and Manchester City Council, our development advice facilitated the successful integration of modern development with historic restoration.
All six mills on the 1998 Heritage at Risk Register have been successfully rescued. The last piece in the jigsaw – the mixed residential/office conversion works to Murrays’ Mills – is now on site. These former powerhouses of industry have been reinvented as 21st century powerhouses of growth, accommodating new homes and businesses. Their rebirth has stimulated a wider reawakening of Ancoats, with numerous other historic buildings brought back to life. Many independent businesses have based themselves in the area and the world leading Halle orchestra have created their home in the listed former Church of St Peter’s.
The economic renewal of the area has also given rise to new, eye-catching developments, continuing Ancoats’ deep-rooted tradition of inspiring architectural innovation. But it is its historic legacy, embodied most strikingly in its evocative redbrick mills, that gives the place soul and identity.
As an urban district of Manchester’s city centre, you can easily visit Ancoats on foot and by public transport. Enjoy the mix of old and new architecture, the layers of the city’s once-industrial history now a vibrant modern home to local residences, independent businesses and cultural venues.
Cutting Room Square is open public realm, overlooked by five monoliths designed by artist Dan Dubowitz. The Rochdale Canal forms the southern boundary of the conservation area, providing impressive views of both the Murrays’ and Royal Mills complexes.