Horsfall & Manchester


Artist Unknown, The Manchester Town Hall, 1918.

Thomas Coglan Horsfall was a well-known writer and town planner of the Victorian era in Manchester. He is known for founding the Manchester Art Museum, as part of an effort to bring knowledge, and the appreciation of nature and art to the masses. Ruskin’s ideas on nature and art had a significant influence on Horsfall’s writings. He shared with Ruskin the view that members of the upper classes have the responsibility to provide education and inspiration to the working classes. The Manchester Art Museum was built as part of his efforts to make art accessible to the working class and the Ancoats district of Manchester was chosen because its dense population was primarily comprised of factory workers and other members of the working classes. 


By time Thomas Horsfall began his writing career, Manchester already reached the point to being a city people largely written off as a black hole of industry. This was true to an extent; often times the working classes lived near their workplaces in utter squalor and the government did little to alleviate their hardships. In his writing, Horsfall by and large sought to help the working classes in ways the government would not, in this case, in the implementation of improved architecture and infrastructure. He called on the government to do its job to make the city a more aesthetic and healthy place to live using the model of German working class housing and demanded that the Church be the instrument through which this change occurred. 


This idealism pushed the boundaries of providing beauty and morality to the working classes. It is also important for those in twentifirst century to not overlook the presumptuous nature of Horsfall and his peers, especially because they made the assumption that those living  in industrial areas such as Ancoats had no culture of their own, moral or not. 


Artist Unknown, Manchester Art Museum/ Ancoats Hall, Manchester, 1900.


Leonard Brewer, Manchester Royal Exchange, 1914.

Horsfall thought the government of Manchester fell short in its responsibility to provide a healthy and safe place to live. People did not have access to natural beauty among the brick buildings and towering smokestacks that comprised Ancoats. This criticism of quality of life in Manchester was largely aimed at the government and in his 1895 paper read to the Manchester Statistical Society, Horsfall addresses these criticisms.


Horsfall defined quality of life largely based on the access people had to elements of natural beauty and moral recreation. In this document he lists the way the “small shops and public-houses, all smoke-begrimed” are “separated by a wide district of the town from all clean attractive country.” Horsfall thought the distance to be too great a barrier for many individuals in the working classes to pass through. He believed their lives were too difficult to simply leave behind for a day trip. This may have been true to an extent, but again it is a presuposition on Horsfall's part because he assumed those living in Ancoats were not making any attempts to seek out the things he saw to be invaluable to living a wholesome human experience. He also criticized the way the government had deficit knowledge of the city’s needs, again using Ancoats as an example of an area that the government allowed to slip through the cracks, particularly in contrast with the beautiful Ruskinian buildings found in the city center such as the Royal Exchange. In this paper, he describes an ideal Manchester as providing clean air, abundant space, wholesome recreation, and a low death-rate accross the entire population, regardless of socio-economic status. 


Artist Unknown, The Labour Home, Ancoats, 1893.

An infrastructural change that Horsfall strongly believed would alleviate these problems was preventable smoke from both factories and houses. THis would improve the health of the masses and also improve general cleanliness, all of which would lead to a trend toward wholesome recreation. In doing so, the entire city would express “Love and reverence for the Maker of the world and respect for human nature.” This direct line from his writing regarding the government of Manchester gets to the core reasoning behind his philosophy. He believed that as Christians and as moral beings, those members of government had a responsibility to not allow a single area of their city sink to the poor conditions experienced daily by the residents of Ancoats, offering yet another reason why it was the target of his social programs. 


Artist Unknown, Pollard Street, Ancoats, 1903. 

Horsfall believed that the Church of England fell short when it came to their duties concerning the lower class, especially when it concerned children. In a paper he read to the Manchester Christian Conference, Horsfall argued that "By simple historical lessons, by tales of food and heroic men and women of their own time as well as of those of past ages, children ought to be helped to realise now noble human nature can be." This highlights the role for the Church Horsfall envisioned, it would be an instrument of bringing truth, beauty, and morality to Ancoats. 


During this period, the Church of England held a great deal of power and influence within Parliament and the town councils responsible for making decisions and changes concerning the working classes. Horsfall thought this was important because his "Art Museum [had] been struggling since 1877 to reveal the beauty of the world and has received very little help from the town-Council." Therefore, Horsfall thought the Church needed to play a greater role to both directly fill this void and to persuade the government to create a better life for those of these disenfranchised members of society.


Horsfall calls the Church to question the quality of life for the lower classes, stating "Very little examination of the life of the community will convince an enquirer that, unless the Church takes a large part in it, the work cannot be done." He calls its members to compare the ways they themselves are living with those living in areas such as Ancoats, especially in terms of their access to nature, beauty, morality, and truth. Additionally, he calls into question the complete lack of education for children concerning beauty and nature. There were no accessible parks or playgrounds with which children can interact.


Horsfall’s main objective was to inspire the Church to live up to what he believed was their spiritual duties.  He wanted the beauty of the world that the upper class and clergy enjoyed to be spread to the lower masses.


How can the Church and its followers be considered Christian, when their actions do not match their words? They did nothing to prevent or end the misery of the working classes and create a better standard of living for them and their families. 


Artist Unknown, St. Peter’s Church, Manchester, 1850.

The physical condition of the dwellings in which inhabitants of working class communities lived in Manchester was another source of criticism for Horsfall, and also reason that Ancoats was epicenter of his work. He believed that the model of the Manchester Town Council was a very favourable example of the best kind of Town Council that an English town can have,” but it “has no chance whatever of putting an end to the two kinds of overcrowding which are destroying the health of the inhabitants of the town." Horsfall was remarkably advanced in terms of the way he thought about and wrote about the way people lived, and his targetting of Ancoats was in part due to the row houses that compacted people into uncfortable and unhealthy degrees of density. 

Pott Street.jpeg

Artist Unknown, Ancoats Pott Street Tenements, 1900. 

Horsfall's writing on this subject is eloquent and pointed, and best expressed in his own words: "Unless a great change of system is made, we must watch, as patiently as we can, the continuance of the processes now in active operation: the degeneration of a great part of the population of towns under the influence of slums; and the creation on the outskirts of towns of such slums or semi-slums as we see growing in Gorton, Harpurhey, and Salford. That the result of the maintenance of the existing system will be the destruction of the best qualities of our race seems to me to be certain." 


Horsfall understood that a civilization is only as advanced as the way that its poorest members live, and this is reflected in the criticism above. While he may have been prone to hyperbole, his concerns were genuine and he truly sought to implement change in a practical way. He used the empirical evidence of German housing because "dwellings are well-planned, well-built, well-drained and answered, and surrounded with an amount of open space which ensure that air and light shall not be cut off by neighboring buildings." Horsfall believed that the conditions in which people live must reflect their humanity and allow them to fully express it in their culture. While the working class may not have agreed with what constitutes moral recreation, they certainly would have enjoyed being tenants of the housing style Horsfall highlights as the ideal. Horsfall saw Ancoats as the opposite of the ideal, and as such he yearned for its improvement to elevate the quality of life of every community member.


Written by Scott Kim, and Chelsey Ramlochan, and Billy Rehbock 



Horsfall & Manchester