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

“Once let the lowest classes cease to receive the large number of recruits from the higher grades of the working class who fall into vice, crime, pauperism, chiefly through the dullness and miserableness of the life of our towns, and the community would be able to break up its criminal and pauper class.”

 -Thomas Horsfall, 1884

Why labor?

Thomas Horsfall was a member of the Manchester upper class and was an active member in the cultural movements during the time. He was influenced by artists such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and John Ruskin, who spoke to the fear many held that Manchester was beyond repair. These accounts shaped his approach to perceiving and solving the problems in the world’s first industrial city. Thomas Horsfall’s imagination of the city of Manchester during the Industrial Revolution was one of poverty and crudeness; tainted by an air of hopelessness; but one which could be transformed by art.  Many had lost faith in the recovery of Manchester’s ability to restore any form of culture due to the industrialization of the city. John Ruskin, in response to Thomas Horsfall’s The Study of Beauty, while supporting his ideals, argued that “until smoke, filth, and overwork are put an end to, all other measures are merely palliative.” (Ruskin, 264)


Horsfall, while inspired by the work of these individuals, had a very different perspective on his role within the city. As the son of a wealthy industrialist, he saw the working classes as victims of the rapid industrialization of Manchester, and felt obliged to bring his own understanding of culture to these people. Horsfall saw the arts as redemptive, and as a way to create positive change in an individual's life. Thomas Horsfall created the Ancoats Art Museum, pictured in the above image taken in the late nineteenth century, as a way to bring the transformative nature of art to the people.  In order to bring this element to the people; Thomas Horsfall created the Ancoats Art museum, pictured in the above image taken in the late nineteenth century. Thomas Horsfall imagined the working classes trapped in a life of ugliness and neglect, thrusting them into a life reliant on alcohol and opium.  The purpose of this museum for Horsfall was to create a life for the people of Manchester which found pleasure in art, rather than substances. He accomplished this by providing training and exposure to new forms of artwork and living conditions. Horsfall hoped this would provide them with what was considered a more refined life, and provide them with some form of beauty in their life.  


Horsfall saw the working class in Manchester “far more ignorant of the wonderfulness and beauty of the earth, and more ignorant, too, of great and interesting human lives, than it is possible to suppose that any large class of people ever were in pre-factory days.” He believed that his museum could address this what he considered to be a deficiency in the life of the average laborer. According to Horsfall, “art represents, the sciences examine, things unknown and therefore uninteresting to him: knowing no beautiful forms, no beautiful colours, he is at a great disadvantage if he seek to earn his living by any of the kinds of work the products of which to be valuable must be beautiful.”

1914 42.jpg

Joseph Pennell, The Great Incline, 1900.

Critique of Urban Manchester Life

During the Industrial Revolution, the working classes of Manchester experienced rapid change in their living conditions. Horsfall concurred with much of the discourse of the deserving and undeserving poor. He believed that the deserving poor were forced to live and work in these conditions within increasingly industrialized Manchester were often victims to conditions outside of control, in particular the type of labor they were able to perform. He aimed to provide some form of aid to those who he considered to be worthy of his assistance.


Increased industrialization in the wake of the Industrial Revolution created a landscape similar to the picture provided, which had a significant impact on the labor force and their living conditions. The labor force in Manchester was largely still British male laborers. However, the Industrial Revolution’s need for more laborers enabled new labor groups to begin to fill the workplace. This included women, who moved outside of the typical familial work, and immigrants from across Europe, in particular Ireland. With this increase, of labor force and industrial labor, the working poor suffered a horrible standard of living, with long work days, poor working conditions, and limited access to any form of what was considered “higher” culture. Thomas Horsfall saw this lack of meaningful engagement a guarantee for low quality of society, and wanted to supply the individual with access to beauty through education during a period of poverty that was more worrisome to Horsfall than previous eras as the poverty was not just financial, but an educational and moral poverty as well. Art and its glimpses of nature inaccessible to those living in Ancoats served to “both to the beauty of the earth and to human feeling and thought' (Horsfall 1910: 14) that he hoped would resuscitate the lost beauty of nature to the working class.


A dedicated philanthropist, Horsfall sought the bettering of the working class through his art gallery, through which he hoped to show nature to those who never had seen it before, believing that in the face of growing industrialization and capitalism over the value of the person, art could be used “to show the better side of human nature…[and] a sense of hopefulness, a feeling that things must be right at bottom.” Horsfall’s public art gallery brought together people all classes, educating those who did not receive the formal education of the elites; his goal was a museum for the masses, and creating in a sense a model of domestic space for the working class. Through the creation of the Manchester Art Museum, he hoped to return Manchester’s growing industrialized workers to the true good and beauty in the natural world, and thus reform society by focusing on the lives of the poor through consciously bringing to light, and making visible the grime that they lived in.


Machester City Art Gallery, Victorian Woman in front of a Chocolate Store, approximately 1900.

Who was he trying to reach?

Through his work, he hoped to better these conditions for the working poor. Horsfall believed that “though the conditions under which a great part of the inhabitants of large towns live are most unfavorable to the acquisition of love of natural beauty, the feeling and thought which such beauty excites happily do exist in some degree in most of them, and in very many they may be strengthened by the help of art.” For Horsfall, Manchester, notably the Ancoats, was incapable of producing beauty according to his understanding. He aspired to foster a love of beauty, Horsfall established his museum, which was largely a representation of the Ruskian movements of the time, and was approved by Ruskin. It sought to connect art, social reform, and education in a way accessible to the working man, putting particular emphasis on the importance of art as a tool for education. The museum was aimed at the working class person, including men, women, and children, seeking to provide and small and inclusive opportunity for the everyday person to experience art and begin to learn from it.

Sweet Peas 1918.884.1.jpg

Helen Allingham RWS, Sweet Peas, 1880.


How to reach such an ignored population?

Horsfall interpreted the Art galleries which were previously available, as hostile to the working classes, so Horsfall worked in very specific ways to combat this feeling. Horsfall was an active member in the fight for local galleries funded by the city, however, he saw a gap between this gallery and the working man. For Horsfall, art could not serve simply as a luxury, but as a tool. Through significant personal investment, Horsfall established a museum in the Ancoats region, which was the home to many different factories and job locations, and served as the hub for the Industrial Revolution, housing most of the laborers. 


This museum featured specific traits which were aimed at the betterment of the average person. Crucially, each picture was given a label with a brief explanation of the object. For example, this image was labeled as sweet peas, so an individual which may not know of sweet peas could give context to the object. If the subject was not common, it was provided a connection to an item that the working class may be familiar with, to increase understanding of the items. Horsfall did not include any an picture that was not significant to larger cultural themes. The goal of the museum was to provide a knowledge base for the individual. In order to continue to strengthen this knowledge base, many lectures were given and small handbooks were sold in the museum. The museum featured a Model Workmen’s Room and Model Dwellings’ Sitting Room to encourage better living conditions, and many classes in activities such as woodwork and painting to encourage artistic expression. The museum also offered music, lectures, and entertainment to provide relief to the working class, now growing in demographic. It was Horsfall’s intent to provide a space for education and art for the working class outside their substandard housing. Finally, and most controversially, the museum was opened on Sundays, to provide a “day of recreative rest for the largest possible number” and there was “no way in which [the museum could] more efficiently help do this.”

Connection to Women and Irish Immigrants

During the Industrial 19th century, the city of Manchester saw a significant change in their labor force, in particular the influx of women and immigrants. Horsfall in his work wanted to create a space for education, to make individuals more cultured, or more English. The immigrant population was key to this mission, as they represented the “uncultured” working class and a population which did not reflect English values. Further, the immigrant population, largely Irish, but also Polish and Italian, were the largest population in the Manchester Ancoats and other low income areas which Thomas Horsfall sought to reach. Their presence in the area made them key to Horsfall’s mission, despite little mention of immigrants directly. In addition to the increased presence of immigrant laborers, women laborers were now a part of the labor pool, subjects of Horsfall's mission. Horsfall's desire for the preservation of beauty and respectability applied to the poor working women of the Industrial Revolution who he catered to through specific rooms in his museum set aside for women of different classes to mingle, in the hope that the middle and upper class women would become models for poorer women to emulate. 


Written by Virginia Doherty and Britani Letcher