Beside a busy street in Manchester, archaeologists dig away as cars and buses rumble along the highway beyond. They are uncovering relics from a time when one of Britain’s biggest cities was just a small market town. But what secrets have they discovered buried beneath the earth?
In 2015 U.K. construction company Mulbury City entered a planning application for a site in Manchester’s popular Northern Quarter district. They hoped to build a skyscraper reaching 14 stories in places, with 134 separate apartments, a 6,000-square-foot area for offices and a shared roof terrace.
In order to gain permission to build their development, though, the company was required to bring in a team of architects to investigate the location. The experts were duly called in, and excavations on the site at the junction between Great Ancoats Street and Port Street began.
But though site developer James Alderson didn’t expect the archaeologists to uncover much of interest, he was in for a surprise. That’s because buried beneath the site of his future development were the remains of a 200-year-old pub.
Historians have since identified the building as the Astley Arms, a pub that opened in 1821. When the first drinkers came through the doors, King George IV was on the British throne, and Manchester’s streets would have been illuminated by nothing more powerful than gaslights.
According to local records, the Astley Arms remained in operation for more than a hundred years. In 1840, moreover, landlord Thomas Inglesent changed the name to the Paganini Tavern, although the pub was back trading as the Astley Arms by the following decade.
After that, the Manchester brewery Cornbrook took over the pub until it called last orders for good in 1928. And the reasons behind the closure of the Astley Arms remain a mystery. Local government records, meanwhile, show that some work was actually done on the abandoned building in 1986 – but it was demolished not long after.
Before Alderson and Mulbury City moved in, then, the site of the former Astley Arms was little more than a wasteland. But thanks to the work of senior archaeologist Aidan Turner and his team, a fascinating part of Manchester’s history is being revealed.
As well as uncovering the old walls and foundations from the pub, a whole host of artifacts have been discovered at the site. They offer a unique insight into what day-to-day life would have been like in a real 19th century tavern.
For example, old clay tobacco pipes have been uncovered, offering clues to the bad habits of the pub’s former patrons. The team has also found receptacles commonly used with quills, suggesting that perhaps some of them must have been of a literary bent.
Keys, old English coins and clay bottles were also among the artifacts retrieved from the site. There was even a set of blue and white crockery emblazoned with the name Thomas Evans – proprietor of the Astley Arms in 1821. Turner believes that it would have been specially commissioned for the pub.
Of course, a pub isn’t a pub without a fully stocked bar – and the archaeologists weren’t disappointed in that respect. Amazingly, they discovered around 20 glass bottles in the former pub – some of which still held brandy.
“We opened the cork on a few and you can still smell [the brandy],” Alderson told the Manchester Evening News in September 2016. “It really takes you back to the time when people would have been outside of the pub drinking.”
Some of the pottery found at the site is thought to date all the way back to the early 1800s, during the period that the Industrial Revolution transformed Manchester from an insignificant market town into a bustling metropolis with global significance. The bottles, meanwhile, are believed to date closer to the 20th century.
And the booze and trinkets left behind when the Astley Arms closed its doors weren’t the only things discovered at the site. Archaeologists also found an ancient bank vault, not to mention the remnants of several residential buildings.
The discovery of Evans’ name on the pottery has also allowed Turner and his team to add a more modern twist to the story. Using what little information they had, in fact, they were able to track down members of the former proprietor’s family still living today.
“It’s brilliant because you can suddenly connect it to local people in the area,” Turner told the Manchester Evening News. “We looked online about his family history and one of his descendants now lives in Texas.”
The archaeologists remained on the site for two weeks before Norman Redhead of the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service was called in to make a record of the finds. Redhead was previously involved in the Dig Greater Manchester project, which encouraged members of the local community to get involved in excavations covering everything from medieval buildings to industrial mills.
For Alderson, meanwhile, the excavation has provided an invaluable insight into the history of the land on which he plans to build. “It’s amazing knowing there’s so much history at this site,” he told the Manchester Evening News, “and it’s really exciting.”
Still, despite the relics uncovered by the archaeologists, plans to develop the site are continuing apace, with completion of the new high-rise building set for the end of 2017. Meanwhile, some of the finds are headed for Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, where they will be on show to the public – although there’s no word yet whether or not the centuries-old brandy will be among them.