Manchester 1857, a city of art lovers

A city of hardship

Manchester in 1857 had no sewerage system or clean water supply. This resulted in a high death rate mainly due to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Terrible overcrowding meant infections like tuberculosis spread rapidly and consequently, life was often short and grim for the poor. It took the city corporation twenty years to improve life expectancy by building many miles of sewers and setting up a clean water supply.

Facts of Life and Death in Manchester

  • Life expectancy in Manchester was just 26 years, the lowest of any UK city.
  • Up to 250 people would share a ‘privvy’, a pit in the ground used as a toilet.
  • Families of up to 12 people occupied single rooms in damp, chilly, back–to-back houses.
  • 10.6 % of children died before their fifth birthday.
  • In 1851, only 32% of 5 –14 year olds went to school - this was the 4th lowest percentage in the country.

A city of trade

By 1855 there were 1,724 cotton warehouses in Manchester compared to only 95 cotton mills, as trade replaced cotton production as the city’s main source of wealth. Manufacturing was by then mainly based in nearby towns.

Innovations in engineering and the development of the railways and telegraphy helped the cotton industry to grow rapidly. Manchester also introduced radical ways of working, like night shift production, with some gas-lit mills operating 24 hours a day.


Louis Haghe, Sir Thomas Fairbairn handing over the address to the Prince Consort in the Art Treasure

Louis Haghe, Sir Thomas Fairbairn handing over the address to the Prince Consort in the Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester in May 1857, 1857. (detail)
© Manchester City Galleries

A city of art lovers

Art Treasures of the United Kingdom attracted more than 1.3 million visitors over a five month run. They came from every section of society, from royalty to mill and factory workers. These workers visited in their thousands, some at the expense of their employers. Titus Salt paid for 2,500 workers from his Saltaire Mills to travel to Manchester for the exhibition on three special trains.

The poor had limited access to education and almost no chance to improve their lot in life. The exhibition was intended to be enriching for all, but the show's educational ambitions were undermined by the unlabelled exhibits, which for many visitors remained an enigma.

Charles Dickens, who visited the exhibition, wrote:

“The care for the common people is admirable...but they want more amusement, and particularly something in motion, though it were only a twisting fountain. The thing is too still after their lives of machinery; the art flows over their heads in consequence.”

Dickens was not the only famous visitor. Others included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Gaskell and Friedrich Engels.

Engels wrote to Karl Marx about the exhibition:

“Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition…”