Moston Brook – Then and Now

Moston Brook is a 3.7 mile long tributary of the River Irk, and my family have lived close to it for four generations.

My mother grew up in a house built on top of one of the brook’s many culverts. After number 2 Culvert Street was scheduled for demolition, the family moved to a road off Church Lane in Moston, where the brook then still ran above ground.

When I was 9 we moved from my grandparent’s house to New Moston and a couple of minutes walk took you to the Brook. Where it ran under Broadway, I was fascinated to find sprinklers spraying water on slag heaps. Our belief was that they prevented the re-ignition of smouldering coal from a fire in the disused Moston pit. Although the tale seems to be apocryphal, it does illustrate the brook’s close connection to the area’s industrial history.

From its beginning in Chadderton/Failsworth, Moston or Morris Brook flows through Moston, Harpurhey and Collyhurst before reaching the River Irk.

Due to the coal and coke waste from industrial processes nearby, the stretch of water running alongside Church Lane was known as the Black Brook. In the terrible winter of 1947, local people picked waste coke/coal from the Black Brook to supplement their fuel ration. So much culverting had taken place that the scavengers didn’t realise the water was the Moston Brook.

Manufacturers who were at the forefront of industrialisation were quick to realise the brook’s potential. Some of the first industries to exploit it as a water supply were dyers and finishers of textiles, closely followed by coal and clay extraction.

The names of terraced streets springing up around the brook, soon began to reflect aspects of the industries nearby. For instance, Turkey Lane was named for the first colour fast, true red dye used on yarn and cloth. Angel Delaunay wasone of the pioneers who developed Turkey red dye in England. Delaunay’s Road in Blackley bears his name to this day.

It was inevitable that mills, pits and ‘diggies’ would utilize the brook as a means of disposal for the waste they created.

A late 18th century gazetteer described Collyhurst as ‘picturesque, with wooded slopes running down to the River Irk’. The brook ran through this pastoral idyll, but soon it would be changed by the Turkey Red dye, bleach from cotton finishing and black from the logwood rasping mills.

By 1838, the gazetteer’s wooded slopes had been replaced by the courts and alleys inhabited by a population of 38,000. These dwellings were mostly hastily built without access to a clean water supply or any regard for the disposal of sewage. As a result, the unculverted sections of the Brook became a repository for all manner of organic material. This cocktail of industrial waste and domestic refuse was carried by the brook until it merged with the toxic effluent discharged into the Irk by tanneries, boneyards, gas and ammonia works.

Conditions for the poor in Manchester were at their very worst when the 1832 cholera pandemic swept the world. Medical science was more inclined to attribute cholera to bad air (sometimes called miasma) than poor sanitation. It was only later that bacteria in untreated sewage was discovered to be the real culprit. Unsurprisingly, the deadly disease visited many families living in Collyhurst’s overcrowded courts bordering the Irk.

Henry Gaulter, a Manchester doctor, embarked on a mission to discover how cholera was spread. Disregarding the personal danger, the doctor set out to inspect the streets and houses of the very poorest. He entered their homes with questions about their previous illnesses, their occupations and the food they ate.

Even though the cause of cholera eluded Dr. Gaulter, his researches have left us a unique eye witness account of the depravation and hardship Manchester’s workers endured in their everyday life. Of the township itself, Gaulter reported, ‘In the greater part of Manchester there are no sewers at all. And, where they do exist, they are so small and badly constructed that instead of contributing to the purification of the town, they become themselves nuisances of the worst description’.

Soap and offal boiling , as well as the dressing of hides, were classed as ‘nuisances’ in bye-laws. However the authorities did little or nothing to prevent the waste from such processes being discharged into the river, along with untreated sewage.

One of the most infamous outbreaks of disease occurred in Allen’s Court which, due to its high death rate, became known as Cholera Court. According to Dr. Gaulter, Allen’s Court was populated by ‘decent and reputable silk weavers’. Regardless of their respectability, he described where they lived as ‘..a tripe boiler’s works are on one side of the court. A catgut manufactory on the other: in front is the Irk flowing close under the houses, dyed and defiled by impurities of every kind.… A sewer runs above ground…. A bone boiler has his place a little higher up, and it was said that he had just thrown several tons of rotten salmon into the river’.

Conditions in and around the brook were much improved in the 120 years since the cholera epidemic. Nevertheless, we kids were told you could catch ‘the fever’ from playing near the brook. For 30 years we lived in a house on Belgrave Road where the Brook ran along the boundary of the back garden. During that time, the ‘white stuff’ was grassed over and the slag heaps disappeared. But my children grew up never knowing what colour the brook would run from one day to the next.

Today, this once unlovely repository of industrial waste has been transformed. It is now a woodland corridor providing a haven for wildlife, as well as flower and tree species. And the formerly toxic River Irk described by Henry Gaulter, once again supports fish.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the people whose amazing vision and hard work has created an amenity providing so much pleasure for those of us who have discovered its delights.

June 2022

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Street Life: Oh no it isn’t!

Pantomime has proved to be one of the most enduring forms of entertainment for all classes and every age group. There must be something innate about it, because within minutes of the curtain rising on their first theatre visit, the tiniest tot will be calling out “it’s behind you”, like a veteran.

Over the years, small innovations may have crept in, but woe betide companies who ignore sacred panto traditions. One is that the (good) fairy comes on stage from the right, while the (evil) villain always enters from the left. Other conventions are that cross-dressing is mandatory, the dame’s voluminous union jack bloomers must be exhibited at every possible opportunity, and topical or local jokes get the biggest laughs.

Even the wardrobe department has traditions to maintain. Costumes for the finale must be so outrageously fabulous they command rapturous applause when, two by two, the cast enters. Goodies take their bows, hand in hand with baddies, to show that all ill will has been put aside for another year.

Oldham Coliseum pantomime Cinderella 2018.

Panto has proved to be a money spinner, so companies are prepared to push the boat out with costumes, scenery and special effects.

Live animals and local dance troupes go down well, but perhaps the real favourite are the ‘skin roles’ which don’t really exist outside pantomime. An actor named George Conquest built a career around playing animals in panto. The most ambitious of his costumes was an octopus 28 foot wide. Skin roles didn’t seem to do an actor’s career any harm either. Henry Irving once played the wolf in Red Riding Hood, while Charlie Chaplin was the front of a pantomime horse in Stockport.

Panto has enriched the language with words and phrases everyone recognises. Cinderella is shorthand for a drudge, or something unvalued. And we are warned not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The name of an inferior brand of green tea called Widow Twankey would no doubt have disappeared unremarked if it hadn’t been immortalised by Pantomime.

I never went to a lavishly produced extravaganza at a large theatre. I regret not seeing Norman Evans, the ultimate dame in my opinion, when he appeared at the Palace theatre, Manchester in 1952. But that year, without being aware of it, I was taking a tiny part in local panto history.

Queen’s Park Hippodrome on Turkey Lane was our nearest theatre. By the time I was old enough to go, saucy French variety acts had become its normal bill of fare. However, in 1952, there was one last pantomime before the theatre closed altogether, and I was there.

Buttons had us singing along to ‘you push the damper in and pull the damper out and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same’, so I guess it was Cinderella. I was only 5, and my clearest memory is of the long, cold walk home up Church Lane afterwards.

With the exception of that one visit to the Hippodrome, all my childhood pantomime recollections are of amateur productions at St. John’s church hall. What we really loved about it was that, with the exception of the name, nothing ever seemed to change.

Year after year, the pianist’s ‘victory roll’ hair style stayed the same, the Sunday school superintendent played the dame, and the kids you went to school with, were the ‘village folk’.

Sunday school benches formed the front three rows, and they were exclusively for children. Adults were accommodated on chairs behind them.

Our move to New Moston meant I left St. John’s Sunday school when I was nine. That was the minimum age to audition, so 1956’s panto would have been my first.

As a painfully shy, ungainly child, any part I got would have been entirely due to regular Sunday attendance rather than talent.

Despite being devastated at missing my chance to participate, I still looked forward to going to the pantomime as usual. When the curtains opened on the ‘village square’, I was horrified to see that amongst the ‘villagers’, there was a girl from my class at Lily Lane.

She didn’t go to Sunday school in my time, so must have joined just before the audition. How was it that a part, that should rightfully have been mine, went to this interloper?

It might be over sixty years, VH, but don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet…

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My Wild City: North Manchester Nature Network

How lucky are we? Parks, lakes, woodland and open fields all right on our doorstep. Some are well known, busy with visitors whilst others are quiet little pockets of nature.

They’re all part of a special project that Russell Hedley of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been working on since April.

“Funded by Cadent Foundation, it will engage members of the public to volunteer and help protect nature at existing Sites of Biological Importance between Bailey’s Wood and Moston Brook. Community groups and schools will also be involved.”

Meet Russ Hedley, nature encyclopedia on legs, and utterly charming

In addition to Bailey’s Wood and Moston Brook the other ‘sites’ are Boggart Hole Clough, Broadhurst Clough and The Fairway Nature Reserve.

Russ has been working with a group of volunteers who meet up each week and has also organised nature themed events throughout the summer. It’s a year-long project…

“…connecting people to wildlife, tackling isolation and loneliness and increasing nature’s diversity”.

Here are some examples of what’s been going on…

Balsam Bashing: Balsam is not an ugly plant by any means, the problem is, it’s invasive and prolific. That means it doesn’t really belong here, has no insect predators to control it so it spreads like mad. It prevents other plants from flourishing and the environment as a whole suffers. There’s a ‘window’ for getting rid of it so any time prior to the seed pods appearing is fine. After that, attempts to destroy it are more likely to aid its spread.

The root system is small for such a large plant so you just pull up and pile up (out of sight preferrably) and let it rot down.

Bashing the balsam in Boggart Hole Clough

Rhododendron is also an invasive species. It’s trickier to remove so it’s cut back and the branches woven into low hedges rather than left in a pile. The hedges provide the perfect habitat for small mammals and insects.

Sapling removal: At a time when tree planting is actively encouraged you may wonder why sapling removal is important. It depends on where the saplings are. We created a clearing near the pond on Broadhurst Clough to prevent them overtaking it and giving smaller plants access to light.

Wild flower planting:  Hundreds of wild flowers have been planted across all the sites to increase diversity and encourage insects to spread from one site to another. Planting a few in your own garden would help too.

Bat Walks: Russ led several of these towards the end of summer. I went on one and it was AMAZING. Bats are fascinating creatures and most of the time you wouldn’t know they were there. The UK has 18 species, which is a lot! They’re excellent pollinators and can eat around 3,000 insects a night. Their numbers have been in decline though so the more we learn about how they thrive the better we can help them.

Fungi walks: Led by Fungi expert Dave Winnard. What can I say? The man is a legend. We were truly entertained and even managed to find some mushrooms in the unusually dry tracts of the Fairway Nature Reserve. This is Manchester: It rains, except when you want it to. I haven’t stopped spotting mushrooms ever since though and, I quote, “they are one of the primary pillars of the food web…playing a critical role keeping forests and fields healthy”. Some have rather dubious properties – or so I understand!

In addition to these, Russ has also led Wildlife and Wellbeing Sessions at the NEPHRA centre, bug hunts, nature walks, litter picks, dinosaur trails, bioblitz events and he’s got plans for more activities over the coming months.

The project ends next spring so there are still lots of opportunities to get involved. Keep an eye out on Social media.

If you fancy volunteering contact Russ at for details. You learn something new every time, meet fantastic people with a shared interest and give nature a helping hand.

Making small changes to your garden can help nature too. Think ‘insect friendly’ when you’re buying plants or have a veg patch. Leave a bit of lawn ‘unmown’ for a while, have a corner with a few old logs in or make a small pond – an old washing up bowl will do. The diversity will provide lots of wonderful habitats for natures little beasties.

Or, take a walk around our local countryside and just enjoy the green space.

Here are some links to keep an eye on: Moston Brook Friends Group and Forever Harpuhey and Moston on Facebook, The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Memories of Boggart Hole Clough on Facebook.

David Winnard’s Discover the Wild website is definitely worth a look at and the iNaturalist uk app is brilliant for recording the wildlife you see.

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