Earlier this year, Ancoats was named as one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world – described superlatively as a “damned magical” and “super-stylish” utopia of art, culture and greenery.
Of course, we’ve heard this all before. For the past five years, location guides and travel magazines have fallen over one another to heap praise on the regenerated eastern district of central Manchester – which has morphed into one of the busiest, buzziest, sought-after spaces in an incessantly evolving city.
Between the canalside balconies, independent art and critically-acclaimed restaurants (local eatery Mana won Manchester its first – and much-delayed – Michelin star in 2019), modern Ancoats has pretty much everything you could want in a neighbourhood. That’s often the headline. But it also has a fascinating history.
Before the skyscrapers, brunch plates and Michelin Stars, there were mill workers, ice cream carts and accordions.
Back in the 1800s, this part of Manchester was better known as “Little Italy“.
In December 2021, following a momentous effort by campaigners, a plaque was installed on George Leigh St to commemorate Ancoats’ heritage – in the same spot where the Manchester Italian Association was formed in 1888 (the Halle at St Michael’s building).
The plate has already delighted members of the Italian community in Manchester – several of whom have ancestors who grew up on the cobbled streets of Ancoats during its early years as an Italian quarter.
People from areas such as Lazio and Campagna increasingly emigrated to the UK throughout the 19th Century and many settled in Ancoats – which turned into a bustling miniature version of the villages they knew back home.
Residing in the parish of St Michael’s – a Roman Catholic church – many of the immigrants went to work in the local mills, with the community described as bringing character to what was at the time a “grim part of Manchester”. Old family traditions were brought across to Ancoats – with the residents holding feasts, dances, Whit Walks, and parties throughout the year.
When Italian street musicians weren’t entertaining the neighbourhood with barrel organs and dancing bears, other residents spent the long summer evenings serenading their neighbours with the accordion.
Some of the families who lived in the area also made their living in sweet treats – playing a trailblazing role in jump-starting the ice cream industry in Manchester.
Carts would bobble across the roads selling the dessert, although a ban was placed on the trade after the outbreak of the war due to rationing. Nonetheless, appetites for ice cream remained intact after 1945 – with manufacturers ramping up production and whizzing across town in new vehicles. An increase in competition even gave rise to turf disputes – a conflict which went down in history as “The Ice Cream Wars”.
Little Italy and its wider family also produced some of Manchester’s most famous personnel – including community leader and entrepreneur Domenico Antonelli (who was knighted by the Italian monarchy in 1932 for his business achievements).
Manchester’s own Sherlock Holmes, Jerome Caminada, also had links to the area. An “extraordinary” detective who prowled the streets of Victorian Manchester, Caminada’s intuition and talent for riddle-solving has written him into local legend – with the policeman best-known for donning a variety of disguises to catch the biggest crooks on Deansgate and beyond.
The rich, vibrant legacy of Ancoats has long been championed by members of the contemporary Italian-Manchester community. And now, anyone who passes by St Michael’s can appreciate the true heritage of the area.
One resident described it as “wonderful”, claiming that “this recognition is long overdue for the Italian immigrants who arrived in the city in the 1800s with nothing and helped shape the city’s history.”
For a deeper, closer look at the history of central Manchester’s Italian past, head over to the wonderful website for Ancoats Little Italy.