The Vault Regulars

Monday, March 23, 2015

Revisiting the Irk

The walk we did last week that followed the River Irk into Manchester posed quite a few questions for me. Even though the areas it passes through are not pretty it has to be taken into consideration that this is due in many respects to it’s past history.
I decided last Thursday to go back and with more time on my hands try and understand why the Irk was one of the most polluted rivers not just in Manchester but the world.

The valley of the Irk during the 19th century and early 20th century was a very busy industrial area with many companies using the water of the Irk in such industries as tanning, bleaching and dyeing,  many mills, the Gas Works and of course the waste products from surrounding homes used to empty into it.
There were thousands of people working alongside it’s banks whereas today there maybe just a few hundred. Obviously, with the efforts of the rivers authority and Manchester city council the waters are greatly improved.

A few things that were on my mind included where does the Irk join the Irwell? Where does it disappear to once it hits Manchester centre? What was the large multi coloured contraption above the disused railway bridge? What was the steel drum opposite HMG paints?

As i was in the centre of Manchester i decided to start there and find out the answers to my first questions.
Where does the Irk flow through the Centre and where does it join the Irwell.

After much searching i found the outlet.
The confluence of the River Irk and the River Irwell below the aptly named Hunts Bank.The arched bridge is over Gt Ducie St. and was built in 1844. 
Victoria train station is the older building behind.

In years gone by the Irk was an open river through Manchester. This was before all the industrialisation and the building of Chethams hospital.(Now gone) which used to be where the building is in the above photograph, far right. Now part of Chethams music school and the train station.
There is still one of the old streets to be found called Walkers Croft but it is again part of Chethams and passes under Victoria Station.
Walkers Croft
This area used to be a cemetery for cholera victims and also the dead from the Victorian workhouses. Many bodies have been found and the remains transferred to Southern Cemetery.
An excerpt from the first OS map of Manchester dated 1849 and shows the River Irk still open.

Whilst i was in this area it was difficult to miss the massive works that are being undertaken at Victoria Arches. These are made from the Red Sandstone quarried in Manchester and i will come to this a little later.
 Victoria’s arches.
The new scene at the old Victoria bus station and in keeping has used red stone seating.
Victoria’s new pedestrian walkway.
So back to the Irk. The underground culverting goes between Chethams Music school and turns north before the Football museum, here there is a water feature which represents the course of the Irk. It then goes underneath Victoria rail station and finally leaves or joins the culvert depending on which way you are walking, after Ducie Rd Bridge.
Underneath the bridge is a large weir, seen in the image below.
The River Irk as it enters the culvert under Manchester City Centre.
The building behind the weir is quite interesting with its huge brick arches. I cannot find out much about this building although some old maps show it could be a tannery. A tannery is also mentioned in the book A Manchester Man by Mrs G.L.Banks.
An interesting look into the culverting can be found here. Click.
Continuing a few yards up river this area was known as Scotland. The bridge below was Scotland Bridge.
Scotland Bridge
The link to Scotland goes back to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It seems that this area was where the army was billeted on its march south to Derby where they ran out of porridge. 
The army recruited 300 Manchester Folk many poor and homeless and formed the Manchester Regiment.
A pub of that name existed until the late 1990’s but has been demolished. Other signs of this event, even down to street names and map references cannot be found. For some reason it has all disappeared.

The next 100yds of the Irk were difficult of access. I did try but was beaten back by fences, high grass and No Access signs etc. I had to walk along Dantzic Street until i came to a pedestrian bridge at Roger Street.
Roger Street Union Bridge. Listed.
Looking at the state of the bridge i would say it is obvious why its only foot traffic now.

So having found the Irk flowing into the Irwell and where the Irk disappeared underground, it now left me to find out what the large coloured structure was that we saw on the previous walk.
Image below.

I found myself in a strange area called St Catherines. I say strange because allegedly it is part of the Irk Valley development program. Well they have put a board up and also tarmaced a path that stretches about 50 yds and ends abruptly with no real meaning of why its there. The area is overgrown, strewn with litter, unmanaged coppices, burnt out cars and everything in between. 
Just reading a paragraph from the message board.
Significant investment will result in major environmental improvements across a previously neglected landscape etc.
The Irk Valley project aims to provide safe and comfortable countryside links etc.

I think somebody ran off with the funds. This area is an absolute disgrace.
On my way to finding out what the colourful structure was i actually felt quite unsafe and not comfortable at all. But i endeavoured to find out it was a storage facility for fairground rides.
If you got that from the photograph dear readers then well done.
The safe and comfortable St Catherines. I think not.
Fairground ride storage from the disused railway bridge.
The disused Impossible railway bridge. Once part of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway.
The footbridge was made famous by LS Lowry’s Collyhurst Footbridge painting. 2 images below.

The real footsteps.

 A view looking west into the city along the old railway route.
A view looking east towards the new Metrolink sheds.
Back down onto banks of the Irk and on Collyhurst road was another weir. The Irk then meanders through the grounds of HMG paints and of course i could only see the route through the fencing. Crossing over the road to have a look again at the rotating barrel i found the name Steel-Shaw on it. I checked it out on Google but to no avail. 
The bearings supporting it are quite large and so the weight it held must have been considerable. Exactly what the stone trough is for at the side is a bit of a mystery apart from i guess it was where they emptied the liquid when the process was finished. I expect the waste went straight into the Irk.
A mystery drum. * We have an answer. See end of post.
I asked a number of people who came out of HMG paints and a couple of dog walkers but no one had any idea of what it was.
Whilst checking google i found that many years ago on this site was the Yew Tree dye works and maybe it had something to do with that industry rather than paint mixing as i had presumed earlier.

Behind the drum is Sandhills, another Irk Valley project. Today this area is empty and brown land. During the 2nd World War this area was full of homes and workplaces and very badly damaged during the bombing campaign. The road through the area was Fitzgeorge Street.
In years way before the war this area was a quarry and produced fine red sandstone that was used all over Manchester including the Victoria arches seen earlier, the Roman fort at Castlefield and St Ann’s Church in the centre of town. Now if only they had built Piccadilly gardens with it we might not have ended up with the awful mess we have now.
Some remnants of the stone quarrying can still be found with a bit of searching in the Sandhills area.

The weir adjacent to HMG Paints factory

 The tiled bridge entrance to Sandhills and what once was Fitzgeorge Street.
 The remnants of Sandhills quarry stone.

Fitzgeorge Street during the 2nd World War. The tiled wall of the bridge can still be seen on the Sandhills entrance image above. The chimney was from a chemical works.

I had a good afternoon wandering around the lower reaches of the Irk and it is a fascinating area. It would be better if the Irk Valley project made a bit of headway as anything they seem to have done is now being taken back by nature and will be lost. There is lots of social and industrial archeology to explore and i am sure i will do some more digging another time.
There is a terrific video on THIS web page that does show how bad this area used to be.

* The Answer.  The Mystery Drum. (Thanks to Jo Fraser from the Irk and Medlock Valley’s groundworks)
Dear Alan, thanks for your email. I gave HMG a call and they explained that the iron drum is a ball mill, previously used in the manufacture of paint - resins and solvents were put inside together with pebbles to grind and mix the paint. Apparently these were used up to 5 years ago but have now been replaced with more efficient bead mills. As you may know, HMG is a long established company (85+ years) although it was previously sited over the road on Fitzgeorge Street within what is now Sandhills geeenspace, but there has been a dye works and other manufacturing works on the current site since at least 1794 (William Green's map) - the University of Manchester has published lots of old maps online which allow you to look at areas in detail. 

Visitors to Manchester's former industrial river valleys are steadily increasing - the former power station ash tip at Clayton Vale in the Medlock Valley is attracting many more local visitors as well as national and international visitors from as far afield as Japan, Malaysia and will host participants from the Society for Ecological Restoration's World Conference later this year. The Irk Valley is less developed for visitors yet but has been showcased by Jonathan Schofield (writer and city centre guide) on the Manchester Confidential website 

I agree that St Catherine's is in need of attention, unfortunately this winter a significant proportion of the trees on site have suffered severe damage by rabbits eating the bark so it is likely that many will have to be felled in the near future for safety reasons, resulting in the site being more open. 

In the Irk Valley, some projects just completed or currently in progress are:
  • Connecting Collyhurst - Groundwork leading on a project to encourage local use, funded by BIG Local lottery
  • Remediation of former gas works waste tip  at Harpurhey Reservoirs
  • £26m investment in improving water quality in the lower Irk/River Irwell by United Utilities
  • Access Improvements to riverside land adjacent to Sainsbury's, nr Heaton Park
  • Site improvements and mass bulb planting at Bowker Bank Woods Crumpsall
  • Biodiversity improvements at Broadhurst Clough, Moston
  • Restoration of the lake at Boggart Hole Clough funded by Clean City
  • Wild Trout Trust surveyof Blackley section of River Irk to identify opportunities to improve the river for fish and wildlife
  • Improvements to St Michael's Flags linked with development of Coop headquarters

Although investments were made to bring Lower Irk sites up to a basic standard around the Millennium, Manchester City Council has plans for large scale future investment and regeneration; this is already underway in Collyhurst and is expected to follow over a 10-15 year period in the Lower Irk Valley, necessitating parallel investment in the greenspace to provide for the significant increase in population.
The Collyhurst and the Lower Irk Valley site measures 135 hectares and includes a large number of development opportunities owned by the Council and Network Rail which provide significant potential to redefine a large and under utilised area to meet the city’s economic objectives for future growth.
The area has benefited from a very significant pipeline of committed investment that will completely reposition the northern part of the city centre, ensuring that it plays a key role in the future success of the City Region economy.
Initiatives currently being driven forward in the area at Strangeways, Greengate, Victoria Station and NOMA (the Co-Op estate) will, over the next ten to fifteen years, transform this part of the city creating new office space, new public space, new retail development and new homes.
The vision for Collyhurst and the Lower Irk Valley over the next 10-15 years is to create a sustainable, low carbon community that will provide over 2,000 new homes, the refurbishment of over 1000 existing properties, improved retail and public services provision, new employment opportunities, enhanced transport and pedestrian routes together with open space and local environment improvements. The redevelopment is also expected to contribute to the city’s aspiration to become a world top 20 digital city by 2020.

I hope this email answers your queries, please get back in touch if you have further questions. 

With regards, 
Jo Fraser
Irk and Medlock Valley Programme Coordinator
Manchester City Council
c/o Groundwork Manchester Salford, Stockport, Tameside & Trafford
Timber Wharf
42-50 Worsley Street
M15 4LD


  1. Very interesting Alan. As you say, the video is terrific, those poor people! How well off most of us are today!

    1. Thanks. I agree about the video it's very moving. We are so lucky today.

  2. A good and interesting read - well done with the research.

    1. Thanks JJ. I forgot to mention . Another QC check on This and That and the Ape. Well someone has to do it.

  3. A fascinating study of social and industrial history. Well done on your research.

    1. Cheers Dawn. It was an enjoyable excursion and surprising just how far you walk when searching things out.

  4. Hi Alan, just catching up with my reading I've discovered this and your previous entry. I'm really impressed with your research. Well done. More interesting than many 'more scenic' outings. I will insert links to my more superficial entry, which I'm glad contributed to this further nugget.

  5. Btw, I bet HMG know about that 'paint mixer'. I like the 'porridge' story. In the '90s a number of old hostelries disappeared overnight to be replaced by new office blocks; I suspect that may have been the fate of the Manchester Regiment'. (More research needed!)

    1. Thanks Martin. I have enjoyed looking into an area I knew little about. Considering this areas wealth of social history and industrial past, Manchester should capitalise on it and bring it out for visitors. It would be great to see one of the old houses rebuilt, to see a steam hammer and a smelter in pride of place instead of in a museum.
      There is so much here the area is shouting out on deaf ears.

  6. I was presented by my wife the book "Manchester Man" and was completely facinated by its references to the IRK and Manchester in the early 18 hundreds. I remember walking close to the IRK in the 1950's in close proximity to Dantzic Street it was even then a filthy stretch of water bubbling with off white soapy suds. When I am next in Manchester I will take a further look and perhaps follow the route taken by Alan as I am fascinated with this area having worked years ago in the old CIS building 109 Corporation street which is now an apartment block. Thank you for your excellent research.
    Les Fielding

    1. Thanks Leslie. I had a wonderful time exploring the area and it's always a bonus to get good comments, so thanks for that. You will find much has changed. Manchester Man is a real eye opener isn't it. A fascinating book. Have fun with your walk when you do it.


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