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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Manchester

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From factories into flats

George Murray, 1834
© Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust
Beginning in 1798, the Murray brothers, Adam and George, developed the Murray's Mills complex which still stands today.

They are Manchester's oldest factories specifically designed to be steam powered. The complex, completed in 1804, comprises Old Mill, New Mill, two engine rooms, an admin block and an intriguing link to the Rochdale canal.

The Mills are an impressive feat of building. Built without foundations, the mills are held together with lime mortar, a flexible material that bends. Consequently, the buildings have cracked at all four corners. Despite one mill having had a storey removed, and both having undergone major structural alterations, they are still standing to this day. Currently registered as Grade II listed buildings they are now undergoing major renovations - to turn old decrepit factories into modern city flats.

Plan of Murrays' Mills
© Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust
The Murray brothers came, as did many industrialists at the time, from Scotland. Heralding from Kirkcudbrightshire, they came to Leigh as apprentice machinists along with their childhood friends, and later business rivals, James McConnell and John Kennedy. Both they and their friends saw Ancoats as a great opportunity and, with their machine maker knowledge, soon became a force to be reckoned with. At one point both the brothers and their friends owned mills which tended over 80,000 spindles each. At this time, 1811, few mills in Manchester had over 25,000, and most fewer than 10,000.

The brothers developed their complex over the road from their friends on the banks of the soon-to-be-built Rochdale canal. Although the basin, which sat in the centre of the complex, has now been filled in it still poses an interesting question for canal fanatics and historians - how the boats turned the 90-degree corner from the canal to the tunnel which joins the basin and canal, given that the canal is only 14ft wide and the boats were often 70ft long. A puzzle which the devlopers are looking into before opening up the central basin in the complex.

The mills as taken from the Rochdale canal
© Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust
The mill's internal structure was designed with steam, and strength, in mind. It was constructed using two rows of central cast iron columns, highly unusual at the time, as iron casting was still in its developmental stage. An example of this is the way the columns vary massively in thickness around the casting.

The two rows of columns were ripped out to make room for bigger, heavier machinery, courtesy of machine designer Richard Fairburn. The rows were replaced with just one central row - a move that later mills copied. With gaslights, cotton everywhere and wooden floors they were a potential fire hazard - indeed between 1798 and 1802 seven factories in Manchester burnt down.

The factory, like many of the time, was criticised for its worker's conditions. Murrays Mills did boast windows that employees could open and an entire extra room per floor, for workers' ablutions - a positive job perk in those days!

Once the biggest employer in Ancoats with 1215 employees in 1815 it diminished following the Murrays' death. By 1888 it was run by George Murray's grandsons and employed 500 workers.

Since then the complex has been a warehouse, a sweat shop, home to the homeless and the subject of a compulsory purchase order, all of which has led to its current state - a building site.

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