Last week, as I walked along the banks of the River Irwell, on a still dank January afternoon, the sound of a digger echoed across the water. I realised that the last industrial chimney in central Salford had just vanished from the skyline, with no fuss at all.
The most impressive thing, of course, said Ferber, were all the chimneys that towered above the plain and the flat maze of housing, as far as the eye could see. Almost every one of those chimneys, he said, has now been demolished or taken out of use. But at that time there were still thousands of them, side by side, belching out smoke by day and night.
I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.
Should I feel post-industrial nostalgia at losing the last of inner-city Salford’s once ubiquitous chimneys? Coming from south county Dublin, which heavy industry never touched, I find it impossible to mourn for a time when soot, sulphur and lung disease reigned, and where the trees and wildflowers that are now vigorously colonising the riverbank were nowhere to be found.
She had lived among her bricks and mortar and smoke with the yearnings of a little Dryad underlying all her pleasures. In the Square real trees and flowers and thick green ferns and grass seemed joys so impossible. She walked about slowly. “Pretending” with all her power. She bent down and looked the weeds in their faces and touched them tenderly. They were such poor things, but in some places they grew quite thickly together and covered the ugly barrenness of the earth with a coarse, simple greenery which represented vaguely to her mind something which was quite beautiful.
[Frances Hodgson Burnett, The One I knew the best of all, ( New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1893), p. 256: describing Salford’s Islington Square at the height of the industrial revolution, in her inimitably sentimental fashion.]
Yesterday, (on a guided tour rather than in a fit of solitary flaneurie), I descended into the vast vaults beneath Manchester, walking along a canal over a Roman road, under an eighteenth-century bridge, fourteen metres under the streets of Manchester. The Manchester and Salford Junction canal, following the track of Roman Camp Street, was thrown together in the late eighteenth century to compete with the Bridgewater canal, whose tolls were too expensive for Manchester’s rapacious merchants. Forty years later, the canal was rendered obsolete by the railway, and Manchester Central station cut off its path. A vast network of warehouses was built over the canal, and goods were hoisted up through chimney-like brick shafts from the underground waters to the trains above. Yet more ambitious lords of industry dug out the Ship Canal to bring ocean-going liners into Manchester and cut out the duties being paid at Liverpool Port, and soon even the underground remains of the canal ceased to be used. Forty years later, the warehouse was decommissioned, central Manchester was bombed, and soon thereafter both the mighty Ship Canal and Grand Central station were also obsolescent and left to decay.
It was early the following year, if I remember correctly, that I ventured further out of the city, in a southwesterly direction, beyond St George and Ordsall, along the bank of the canal across which, from my window, I could see the Great Northern Railway Company depot. It was a bright radiant day, and the water, a gleaming black in its embankment of massive masonry blocks, reflected the white clouds that scudded across the sky. It was so strangely silent that (as I now think I remember) I could hear sighs in the abandoned depots and warehouses…
Such furious labour, such vast structures erected in so small an amount of time, so many frail human bodies sucked in to haul canal boats and stack goods and build towering warehouses! As though a ferocious war had raged through Manchester for two centuries. It’s impossible, looking at the flashy casino and cinema now housed in the Great Northern depot, to imagine what it was like when the sky above was permanently black with soot and the mountains all about covered with cinders and dirt. I stood in a vast tunnel on the canal bed over the Roman Road, fourteen metres below the ground, and was told to look up: an eighteenth-century pack-horse bridge was still suspended over the concreted-over canal, and the groundwater is rising beneath it.[All other quotes from W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. by Michael Hulse (London: Harvill, 1996).]