The Alderley Sandhills Project

Eleanor Casella

How did men, women and children of ordinary English rural working-class households maintain and improve their conditions of everyday life from the late 17th to the mid-20 century?  This project explicitly focused on the domestic and residential sides of the Industrial Revolution, reflecting a new interest in the collection and conservation of 19th and 20th century archaeological assemblages.

Casella Strip 1

The Hagg Cottages of Alderley Edge

Alderley Edge is a natural rocky outcrop with views across both Greater Manchester and the Cheshire plain.  Archaeological evidence demonstrates the region was mined for copper deposits during both the Bronze age and Romano-British periods.  During the 1850s, a series of Italianate “Villas” were constructed at Alderley Edge, and sold to the newly-wealthy mill barons desperate to escape the dank urban grime of industrial Manchester.  At the same time, an early rail line linked central Manchester to the growing service town, making Alderley Edge one of the first commuter suburbs of Great Britain.  From the 1780s to the 1890s, the Edge was extensively mined for copper, lead and cobalt deposits.  Thus, from the 18th century, the region supported a complex mix of agricultural, industrial and service based economic activities.

Parish records indicate that the main cottage was built during the 1740s in a local architectural style known as the Stanley type cottage (Figure 1). This was a two-storey brick Georgian structure, characterized by chimneys on each end and a central entrance gable. Around the Alderley region, these Stanley type cottages were constructed for tenant farmers by the local squire as an estate improvement.  The date of construction and original function of the second building was unknown – although excavations revealed an unexpected pipe-stem date of c.1650-1670 that suggested a possible late 17th century origin.

During the early 19th century the cottages were internally subdivided, and leased to four separate households of workers from the Alderley Edge Mining Company.  By the turn of the 20th century, mining activity in the area had completely ceased, and the occupants of the cottages, the Barrow, Ellam, Perrin, and Barber families, all worked in the service economy of Alderley Edge village.  Living members of these families were enthusiastic project participants (Figure 2), their childhood memories of early 20th-century life at the Sandhills providing an intriguing oral history collection now archived at Manchester Museum.  The cottages were occupied until right after the Second World War, and were demolished during the early 1950s.

Casella Strip 2

The Alderley Sandhills Project

Following geophysical and topographic surveys of the Sandhills site, four excavation trenches were opened during the summer 2003 field season.  Areas A and B were originally two 10×10 metre open area trenches, positioned over structural remains of Hagg Cottages. With the Hagg Cottages constructed and occupied as a reflection of socio-economic continuity, the structures themselves reflected the durability of community presence within the landscape.

As a result, the economic flexibility required of working-class inhabitants became materially expressed through sequential vernacular additions, adjustments, and adaptations of the built environment (Figure 3).  Excavations at the Sandhills site revealed structural remains of a brick lean-to addition on the southern side of the 1740s Georgian-style “Stanley cottage”.  This extension was floored with a patchwork of mid-Victorian era black and red stoneware “quarry” tiles.  With the mid-19th century establishment of railroad distribution networks, locally produced building materials, including the excavated sandstone flagged floors of the “Stanley” cottage, became gradually replaced by decorative architectural ceramics manufactured by the industrial potteries of the English midlands.  Since access to the vernacular extension was gained through a kitchen, we interpreted it as a mid- to late- 19th century elaboration of domestic workspace added to the original 18th century cottage — probably related to the diversification of income-generating activities undertaken by household members.

Oral histories related to the southern cottage in Area B demonstrated similar patterns of continual architectural additions, recycling, and reuse.  The immediate exterior space around the cottage was particularly adaptable for income-generating activities.  When questioned about the location of the front door during a site tour, Mrs. Edna Younger instead related her mother’s use of the area for laundry processing (Figure 4).  Contributing to the family income by taking-in laundry from local elite households, her mother had positioned her washtub and mangle next to the exterior drain, thereby adapting the paved courtyard as an extension of her workplace.  Mrs. Younger could not remember the location of the front door; as a child, she had always used the kitchen entrance at the side of the cottage.  Her memory illuminated a crucial point regarding working-class settlements: the fluidity between domestic spaces and work-related spaces.  These residential sites operated as places of production as much as much as places of consumption.  By interpreting the Hagg Cottages as representations of a flexible strategy for socio-economic survival, the Alderley Sandhills Project has produced new perspectives on the durability of occupation, material culture and socio-economic status in the working-class worlds of rural England over the recent Industrial to Post-Industrial transition. A final report on results of the Alderley Sandhills Project will be published through Manchester University Press during early 2008.

Undertaken in partnership with the Manchester Museum, and funded by English Heritage through the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, the Alderley Sandhills Project was created to examine how the men, women and children of ordinary English rural working-class households struggled to maintain and improve their conditions of everyday life from the late 17th to mid 20th centuries.  This was the first project to be funded by English Heritage to explicitly focus on the domestic and residential sides of the Industrial Revolution, and reflected a new interest in the collection and conservation of 19th and 20th century archaeological assemblages (Figures 5 to 7).

Now entering its final stages of analysis and publication, the project has been published as Casella, E. C. and S. K. Croucher 2010. The Alderley Sandhills Project: An archaeology of community life in (post)-industrial England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.