BackReview: 'Ancoats Brotherhood', a talk by Professor Michael Rose

Ever wondered when art, music and literature first came to the world’s first industrial suburb of Ancoats? Michael Rose (respected Emeritus Professor, retired senior lecturer in economic history at the University of Manchester and visiting professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia) explained in his talk on the Ancoats Brotherhood that it was around the late 19th century.

It was apt that his talk on the Ancoats Brotherhood, presented by the Ancoats Dispensary Trust, was held in the dimly lit, atmospheric, rather characterful upstairs function room (including stage) in Gullivers - a Victorian pub on Oldham Street that would no doubt have welcomed members of the Ancoats Brotherhood over a century ago (along with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose rooting in Ancoats became the inspiration for their Communist Manifesto).

In this brief history of the Ancoats Brotherhood we learn that it was against the backdrop of human industry, dark satanic mills, radicalism and the filthy cesspit that much of Ancoats was throughout the 19th century, that philanthropist, art dealer and liberal councillor Charles Rowley founded the Ancoats Brotherhood in 1878 - with the aim bringing arts to the working-class.

With a brief introduction from Linda Carver (the Ancoats Dispensary Trust Co-ordinator) and by Julie McCarthy of the Ancoats-based charity 42nd Street, Professor Rose began with a potted history of Rowley’s formative years spent in his father’s picture making business, living in a radical household but later on becoming a liberal councillor with a significant interest in the arts and the influence of John Ruskin’s socialism. Professor Rose explained that Rowley must have been a very persuasive man, able to attract esteemed guests such as: Ford Maddox Brown, pre-Rhapaelite artist, whose murals embellish the Town Hall and whom lectured on Possible Aesthetics in Manchester; great thinker and Art and Crafts Movement leader William Morris who talked about Useful Work versus Useless Toil, arguing that art has the ability to increase enjoyment in life and the workplace; Irish poet Eva Gore-Booth, a friend of the Pankhurst family (a name synonymous with the struggle for women’s right to vote) who would read Percy Shelley’s romantic poetry; famous book illustrator and champion of workers’ rights, Walter Crane, who produced numerous designs for the Ancoats Brotherhood and who, like Rowley, believed social progress could be made through art and beauty. 

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who spoke on the Ten Commandments, once quipped 'Rowley was the only man who could induce any sane man to go to Manchester.' A colleague described Rowley as a 'romantic anti-capitalist,' adding 'no matter on what spot of the globe you may happen to be, you are never safe from a summons to come to Ancoats and speak for the Brotherhood.'

Rowley had around 2,000 paying members amongst the ranks of the Ancoats Brotherhood by the 1900s, bringing talks and concerts from military bands in Queen’s Park and St Michael’s Flags (now Angel Meadow). Later there were lectures, art exhibitions, reading groups, garden parties, summer rambles, dances, Whit Week cycling tours in France and Easter excursions to Paris. This was funded through a one shilling-a-year subscription. The more affluent in the community were encouraged to give more than this amount, with any surplus profits destined for use at the Ancoats Hospital.

Irony was certainly not lost on the talk and the venue as the new publican is none other than former Coronation Street star, Southampton-born Rupert Hill (who played Jamie Baldwin in the worlds longest-running soap opera) – a man synonymous with archetypal images of the north, metropolitan mythologies and quaint nostalgia: chimneys, cobbled streets, mills, welcoming Rover’s Return-type pubs and the honest working class folk. Alas, the whippet and the rain was nowhere to be seen on a night when we travelled through the annuls of history, to a time when Manchester really was the centre of the universe; when Mancunian radicals like Rowley, rather than reinforce the stereotypes that have hung to the damp rather than drenched coat tails or flares since Charles Macintosh first patented his waterproof cloth in Manchester in 1823, they instead strove beyond any class stereotypes to bring cultural enrichment to the slums.

After a closing Q&A session the packed audience, who had been enlightened by the talk for almost an hour, greeted Professor Rose with a rapturous applause. Looking around the diversity of the audience, spanning the generations, I’m sure Charles Rowley would have nodded in agreement with himself that he was right all the time - you really can bring beauty to the 'slums.' For at least one night, Ancoats again became the crucible for the merging of art, politics and industry. With the passion, commitment and effort of the Ancoats Dispensary Trust, 42nd Street, the likes of artistic incubators such as AWOL Studios, and the fabrication laboratory Fab Lab, as well as the New Islington Free School planning permanent residency, Ancoats Brotherhood could soon become a thriving hub in the not too distant future!