From the Ashton Reporter - 9 March 1901

St James', Gorton
St James', Gorton

"It is difficult for anyone visiting the place at the present day to imagine that at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, Gorton was quite a pretty, rural district; that trees, flowers and birds were plentiful; that lanes bordered by green banks and hedgerows led past cottages which were surrounded by neat and attractive gardens.

"Now huge works, thousands of houses, streets, alleys, slums have obscured the fields. It is only with the greatest care that trees are enabled to live. The Gortonian of this present day has to journey several miles before he can look upon county such as his grandfather had at his own door.

"In the year 1801, the number of houses in Gorton (including West Gorton and Longsight) was 202 and the population 1,127. Now we hear of more than 1,500 houses being built in one year within the boundaries of the present township alone. The population in the year 1891 was 30,000 and as there has been such enormous developments over the last decade, it may be safely estimated that the census this year will show more than 50,000.

"One need hardly say that as the human inhabitants have increased in numbers, the feathered, the finned and the furred inhabitants have diminished. Such birds as water-hens, coots, woodcocks, lapwings, snipes and even partridges were common in this district one hundred years ago. Owls because of their usefulness in destroying mice and other pests received some degree of protection from the people.

"There were numerous pits which swarmed with Prussian carp, tench, dace, perch and other fish. The Gorton Brook now an inky stream from which most people turn away their eyes - if not their noses - in disgust was then a clear sparkling rivulet alive with fish of many varieties. Cloughs and dells marked its course and added beauty to the landscape. The inhabitants of the brook, like many other fish, may be said to have 'drawn the line' at tanyard refuse, dye and other matter, and have left no descendants in their old haunts.

"As regards vegetation, we are told that'venerable trees filled every hedgerow and overhung the lanes'. Acorns were so plentiful that 'in the autumn the farmers used to turn their pigs into the field to feed upon them'. Hazel and filbert nuts were found in large quantities in the cloughs and meadows; blackberries in every hedgerow: wild strawberries in the more secluded places; bullrushes and water lilies in many of the ponds. Bluebells, foxgloves, ferns, gorse, wild carrot, hemp, agrimony, watercress and dozens of other varieties of plants were found in this now smoke-blighted district.

Brookfield Church, Gorton
Brookfield Unitarian Churh, Gorton

"The people seemed to have been engaged chiefly in spinning and weaving at their homes and in agricultural pursuits. Their amusements were usually of a lively kind. During the first part of the nineteenth century, bull, bear and badger baiting were the chief soures of excitement at the 'Wakes'. In the year 1804, it is recorded that bear and badger baits were held on the vacant land opposite the Black Horse in Far lane, also a bear bait under Fox Fold and bull baits at the George and Dragon. At the Wakes of the year 1829, no fewer than five bull baits were held in or near the village, viz -- At the Plough Inn, the old Chapel House (previouslu known as the Geoge and Dragon) the Lamb Tavern,Marchington's. Abbey Hey and the Bull's Head and a bear bait was held at the Black Horse.

"The last bull-baited in the district was known as 'Young Fury', son of 'Old Fury'. In the year 1834, he was baited at Abbey Hey, and in a field adjoining the Baptist Schoolroom, Gorton. These were his last appearances. In the following year, an Act of Parliament was passed prohibiting the the baiting of animals. Other forms of 'Wakes amusement', such as horse, donkey. pig, wheelbarrow and sack races, climbing matches and thick porridge-eating for prizes lasted until more recent years.

"The roar of the bull has given way almost equally agonising roar of the steam organ. What might be termed the chief business of the 'wakes' formerly was the "Rush-bearing''. It is perhaps hardly necessary to explain that this was not connected in any way with the result of exciting bulls. The term 'Rush bearing referred to a procession of villagers headed by a cart containing rushes, which were destined to cover the bottoms of the pews and the aisles of the church for the coming twelve months. The ceremony was livened by band playing and Morris dancing.

"It is not generally known outside Gorton that a racecourse was formed here in 1884, but the meetings have now been discontinued many years. In referring to the amusements of Gorton district, one could hardly fail to mention that great source of attraction during the last half century - the Belle Vue Gardens - but being of such wide repute the place needs no description here.

"Turning to more serious matters, the causes of most of the changes which have occurred, the industries of the neighbourhood, we find the first large works erected was the factory now owned by Messrs Rylands. It was opened by Messrs Wm and Aaron Lees in the year 1825. The occasion was celebrated by a grand procession round the village and a supper at the Plough Inn.

"Thirteen years later the making of the first railway through Gorton -- the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway -- was commenced. Since then, the erection of the Engineering Works as to which it may almost be said that the hands employed in each are numbered by the thousand has rapidly followed. The increase of business has been shown to some extent in the recent agitation for an improved postal service. In the year 1834, letters arrived by foot post from Manchester only once a day, viz, at half past four in the afternoon, and were despatched only at seven o'clock each morning.

Sacred Heart, Gorton
Sacred Heart RC Church, Gorton

"Road communication, both within the district and with other parts, is rather poor, except Hyde-road. Intersected and almost bounded by the canal and the railways, blocked by the huge works, and hampered by the windings of the old lanes, improvement in this respect is both difficult and expensive.

"It may be asked, 'What has Gorton gained, what has it lost, during the last century?' Fifty thousand people are supported where one thousand were supported before. Along with increase of population, however has come increase of dirt, impure atmosphere, tumble down dwellings, want of sunlight and freedom, disease. As one passes the more confined parts, the gloomy question arises to mind: 'Is life worth living among such surroundings?'

"And yet Gorton is naturally a healthy district. It stands higher than Manchester. The air would be bracing if artificial impurities were removed; the death rate might be almost as low as any in the kingdom. Situated at one corner of our great city, there are open fields on two sides. Only the people living at the edge for the time being enjoy anything like a pure atmosphere. Considering the knowledge as to the laws of health gained during the nineteenth century, it seems almost incredible that field after field should be so closely covered with houses.

"Are the people to wait generation after generation in such places, say, until they obtain 'free trade for land' or help in some way from the Government before they attempt to improve their home surroundings? Cannot something be done in the meantime, either by co-operation or by private enterprise, to reduce the grievances? Many people in Gorton would be glad to pay a little extra rent or incur other expense if they could only have little gardens attached to their homes.

"As an instance, there are ten little houses situated within about half a mile from the District Council offices. The tenants are plain working people. There are plenty of better houses in the district, but these have little gardens back and front. When one of the tenants is about to leave (and this seldom happens), there are dozens of applicants for the premises. Moreover, the incoming tenant has to pay the out-goer a sum of £14 or more, not so much for the value to him of any fowl-house or other erections which the latter might leave as for the mere privilege of succeeding to the tenancy. If the applicant has not the required amount, he manages by scraping, borrowing, or paying by installments to meet this demand.

"Land about Gorton, excepting upon the main road, is still comparatively cheap. Supposing a large plot were purchased, either on the Denton or the Levenshulme side, and cottages were built. If in addition to the usual backyard space, a strip of ground -- say, only ten or twelve yards by five -- were allowed for each dwelling, an extra rent of one shilling or eighteen pemce per week would be readily obtained. This would cover the chief rent and other expenses, and probably leave a good margin of profit.

"The difference to the community between extension of the district by some such method as this and extension by the present system of crowding houses row against row it would be difficult to estimate. The tenants as a body would take more interest and pride in their homes; the public houses would be less attractive; the children would be happier' the whole district would be healthier and pleasanter.

"The allotment system, which has been tried in a small way in Gorton, although in some respects a great boon, has many disadvantages. The chief of these is that the plots ground are, as a rule away from the homes of the holders. Public recreation grounds placed here and there lessen, but cannot nullify the evil effects which arise from crowding houses in the greater part of a district.

"To live a few miles away from the place of work and travel by rail each day is not always attractive to people whose hours of labour are long, of recreation short. Such a solution of the difficulty seems almost superfluous where, as in Gorton, the work is carried on comparatively near near to open country and house rents are moderate. Moreover, it does not follow that because people travel a few miles that they will get healthier homes. Many of the little places outside are copying the large towns. Houses are built in cramped positions; the inhabitants shut out from light and air; no gardens.

"The great blot is spreading by way of smaller blots. Whilst much thought is given to the condition of the heart of the city, the tips of the lungs are in danger of being overlooked."

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