Gent family in 19th Century Manchester

Chorlton on Medlock

In the 1841 census a number of our Gent family were living in Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester.  Jonathan (snr, born 1785) & Betty Gent who had been living in Whittle le Woods until at least 1827 were living in Mount Place, Chorlton on Medlock, George Gent was living with his wife of one year, Elizabeth, and their newly born son Joseph Shaw Gent as well as his 13 year old brother Jonathan Gent in Grey Street, Chorlton on Medlock.

Jonathan (snr) would have found a wealth of cotton mills in the Chorlton on Medlock area in which to find work as a reedmaker.  The Chorlton Mill complex was an important area for steam powered cotton mills and was situated to the west of Oxford Road.  An idea of the living conditions in the area is given by Friedrich Engles writing in 1844 –

“….the most horrible spot…lies on the Manchester side, immediately south-west of Oxford Road, and is known as Little Ireland. In a rather deep hole, in a curve of the Medlock and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments, covered with buildings, stand two groups of about two hundred cottages, built chiefly back to back, in which live about four thousand human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall factory chimneys…”  (more details of this area at the time can be seen on the website Spinning the Web)

Although the Gent families were living on the opposite side of Oxford Road it is probable that living conditions were similar in some aspects and may account for the fact that Jonathan (snr) died of a streptococcal bacterial infection after his fall.

Many surveys and reports were carried out in the 19th century and they all pointed to the same facts – that the workers who produced the wealth lived in desperate poverty.  They were poorly paid, worked often longer than 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.  They lived in ill ventilated damp dwellings infested with bugs.  Many worked in shifts and shared beds, indeed sometimes 12 people might share a bedroom and 100 houses might share one toilet or ‘privvy’.  This might be a deep hole under a wooden seat in the corner of a yard or a ‘midden’, a heap against a wall.  There was little health provision and therefore high infant mortality and a short life expectancy.

The main killer of children was diarrhoea through insect borne germs from middens, poor washing facilities, poor food hygiene and a poor diet.  Children’s wages were a tenth of those paid to adults and very young children could crawl beneath machinery while still in operation.  The result of this could be seen in the number of adults crippled with permanent stoops from prolonged crouching as a child.

With the opening of some hospitals after 1850 and some public health measures such as  relatively clean drinking water from Longendale reservoir there was a fast decline in infectious diseases such as cholera and also small pox, scarlet fever and other communicable diseases.  However, ordinary people would have to queue at street standpipes and carry heavy buckets to their houses.  There were still many endemic air borne diseases which plagued working people.  Tuberculosis killed most people in Manchester and the permanent pall of smoke from coal burning domestic fires, factory chimneys, acid rain and dust related diseases from cotton lint in the textile factories caused respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, influenza pneumonia and asthma.

The disposal of sewage was still a problem.  Ashpits and communal cesspits overflowed in rainy periods and often middens overflowed into cellars where workers lived.    The appointment of Manchester’s first Medical Officer of Health in 1868 who closed down most of the city’s cellar dwellings and provided new sewers and sewage treatment plants  improved conditions for the people.

The attitude of the Manchester middle classes in Victorian times was that the degradation of the poor was largely their own fault.  They were poor because they were lazy, they usually had criminal tendencies and God wished them to be poor.  The old, sick and infirm who were incapable of work, the ‘deserving’ poor, could always go into the workhouse.  To work hard, and acquire wealth was seen as a sign of virtue – it conformed to the natural order if the poor were bad and the rich were good!

Jonathan Gent (snr) died in January 1851 and the census of that year showed his widow Betty living with her son, Jonathan and grandson Joseph, at 3 Thomas Street, Chorlton on Medlock.  George Gent’s wife died on 3 July 1841 of complications after the birth of her son.  He remarried Sarah Ann Hilton in 1846 (when they were both living at different addresses in Hanover Street) and in the 1851 census they were living (without his son) with his mother in law at 28 Henry Street, Chorlton on Medlock.

He started his engineering business in 1847 and at some point in the 1850s as his business became successful he moved out of the Chorlton on Medlock area.


By the 1861 census Joseph Shaw Gent and his grandmother Betty Gent were living in a better area in Cotham Street, Strangeways.  The Trade Directories of 1863 show George also living in Cotham Street.

Victoria Works & Cotham Street c1920_smaller
The map above shows Cotham Street, Strangeways (red) and the Victoria Works of Kendall & Gent (green) – (click for enlarged view)

George Gent…

Joseph Shaw Gent…

Kendall & Gent…