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By 1838, the gazetteer’s wooded slopes had been replaced by the courts and alleys inhabited by a population of 38,000.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: The Queen and I

We were not fortunate enough to have a television for the coronation, but we knew a family who did.

On the morning of the day itself, the wireless broadcast the news that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had ‘conquered’ Everest.

With my baby sister in her lemon matinee jacket, matching leggings and bonnet, mum, dad and I set off with the pram to walk through the flag- and bunting-bedecked streets towards Rochdale Road.

The friends of my parents who had the television kept a greengrocers shop. Not only was this my first experience of a television set, but also the first time I had been ‘behind the scenes’ of a shop.

It’s estimated that an average of 17 people watched each set on the day. That number certainly accords with my memory of the crowd of people squeezed into the shop’s little back parlour.

On the Queen’s insistence, cameras had been allowed into Westminster Abbey to film the ceremony. 200 microphones were set up in the Abbey and it’s said 3 million people lined the streets along the route. With all that build up, we were anticipating something very special.

We kids sat around on the floor for what seemed like an age while the set was ‘warming up’. The tiny screen showed people standing in the rain, or perhaps it was the ‘interference’ we later came to associate with Outside Broadcasts.

To fill the gaps when not much was happening, the plummy-voiced BBC commentators interviewed members of the public who thought it worth a night sleeping on the pavement to secure a good place for the procession. They also went on at great length about the headgear and robes of state we could expect the different ranks of nobility to be wearing.

It’s hardly surprising we youngsters (as well as some of the grown-ups) got a bit restive. Mary, the daughter of the house, was directed to ‘take us off somewhere’ to play. As it was raining outside, we ended up on the staircase, amusing ourselves as best we could, until mum announced it was time to get my sister home.

If it hadn’t been for the cinema newsreels, I might have gone through life with only the grainy grey images of a day which cost an estimated £157 million.

Of all the dignitaries attending the Abbey, it was Queen Salote of Tonga who stole the show. She rode in an open-topped carriage with the Sultan of Kelantan. The Queen was as large and imposing as the Sultan was diminutive. Someone asked “who is that man sitting opposite her?” – the answer (wrongly attributed to Noel Coward) came back as “her lunch”.

At the luncheon, what Queen Salote and the other guests were actually served was Coronation Chicken, a dish specially devised for the occasion.

More than 20 million viewers around the world were able to watch the coronation. With 750 commentators, broadcasting in 39 languages, it was truly an international spectacle.

RAF Canberras flew BBC film recordings across the Atlantic so CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) could put it out on 2nd June. The Canadian servicemen, fighting in Korea, might have missed out on the coronation, but they had an improvised celebration by sending up red, white and blue flares.

Australia didn’t then have a full-time TV service, but a Qantas airliner flew film of the coronation to Australia in a record-breaking time of 53 hours 28 minutes.

In London there was a fireworks display on Victoria Embankment, but because of the inclement weather many street parties were either called off or moved to church halls.

I’m wondering if the elaborate Britannia costume my mother made me was intended for a fancy dress competition at a party that never happened? I can’t think of any reason for the time and expense that went into it otherwise.

In coronation year, the GPO issued special edition postage stamps to satisfy the philatelists. For the ordinary souvenir hunter, there were commemorative crown (5 shillings or 25p) coins and medals which are probably still knocking around in their thousands.

Of all the coronation memorabilia, the one thing best forgotten is Dickie Valentine’s recording of ‘In a Golden Coach, There’s a Heart of Gold’, which reached number 7 in the charts. Those lyrics probably stripped the nation’s teeth of more enamel than all the sweets consumed since rationing ceased in February of that year.

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Street Life: Coronation Fever

One dinner time in 1952, I was going home from school down Bordale Avenue when I noticed all the houses had their curtains shut. Nana explained that it was because the king had died, and we had a new queen.

By the time Coronation fever really hit, I had moved up from reception to the middle infant class.

From that Easter, we spent many hours learning the significance of the arms on the royal standard, and exactly how the flags of the Saints George, Andrew and Patrick had been combined to make up the Union Jack flag. The rest of each afternoon was spent colouring in flags on pre-printed sheets of paper that were destined to decorate the school. Woe betide the child whose crayon strayed over any of the lines.

Each year on Empire Day (24th May) we paraded around the school yard singing ‘What is the meaning of Empire Day? Why do the cannons roar?’ – the answer still eludes me 70 years later.

For Coronation year, this Empire Day was decreed to be special, and we were instructed to wear fancy dress, or at least something red, white and blue. Sometime between Empire Day and 2nd June must have been when our school’s Coronation party took place.

Sugar came off ration in February 1953, so at last parties could include the cakes and jellies the nation’s children had been craving since 1939.

Growing up in the post war austerity years, I was unprepared for the lavish spread set out on trestle tables in the Infant’s hall. The most amazing thing of all was that every place had a bottle of what we called mineral, with a straw bobbing about in it. Fizzy drinks were so rare a treat in those days that I didn’t even realise they came in individual bottles.

Within two minutes of sitting down, there were a hundred or so kids, red in the face from sucking on the totally collapsed and useless paper straws. The daily school milk routine included straws, so could a teacher really have been ignorant of the fact that, if immersed in liquid for more than a couple of minutes, the paper turned into a flaccid soggy strip, unfit for purpose? I can think of one teacher who would have been highly amused that so many kids could be disappointed in one fell swoop.

As the Coronation drew nearer, every street vied to be the cleanest and best decorated. There was a street in Moston that had a mural depicting a large crown painted on the gable end of the terrace, I wish I could recall where it was located.

Flags, that hadn’t seen the light since VJ day, were dusted off and hung out along with miles of bunting. After a couple of fruitless searches, grandad located our large union jack, and set it up poking out of the transom in the box-room where I slept.

Judging by the amounts produced, the whole country must have been whipped up to fever pitch over Coronation memorabilia. 200 products out of the 750 submitted were chosen as official souvenirs. That didn’t deter manufacturers from turning out unofficial souvenirs by the million.

Some products were more tasteful than others, but only one merited a mention in the House of Commons. An MP asked why the nation’s sensibilities were being offended by red, white and blue pencils stamped ‘Made in Germany’.

My Coronation mug from the school party disappeared long since, but I still have a couple of commemorative crown (5 shilling) pieces. I have also kept a Sharp’s (the word for toffee) tin. Printed on the lid is a picture of the queen on horseback dressed in military uniform.

George VI’s untimely death meant his Silver Jubilee never took place. Amongst a host of souvenirs already created were toy replicas of a coach with figures of the king and queen. Undaunted by the setback, the manufacturers sold the coaches (minus the male figure) for £1 as a souvenir of the Coronation. The few that escaped the hacksaw now command a king’s ransom. Toy makers such as Dinky, Corgi and Britain’s also made models of the famous Windsor greys with the Coronation coach in tow.

It was inevitable the Platinum Jubilee would generate a rash of souvenirs. But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a Queen Elizabeth Barbie doll would be amongst them.

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