The People’s River: adapting community projects and uncovering hidden histories during lockdown

By Charlie Booth, Community Engagement Manager. Manchester Histories

The People’s River project is a community-led project that explores the hidden histories of people who live and work alongside the River Irk in Manchester today, and their relationship to it throughout history. The project is inspired by the life and works of Friedrich Engels and marked the two hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2020.

The journey to the project began in 2019 when Manchester Histories were approached by Manchester City Council and Wupperverband, a water management organisation in Wuppertal, Germany, also the birthplace of Friedrich, to partner on a new photography project that would connect the two cities together.

We decided to focus on the River Irk – as it was a traditionally overlooked industrial river but one that provided vivid depictions of life in Engels seminal text The Condition of the Working Class in England.

In The Condition of the Working Class, Engels walks to the River Irk to record a view “characteristic for the whole district”. He wrote:  

“At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse which it deposits on the lower right bank. In dry weather, an extended series of the most revolting brackish green pools of slime remain standing on this bank, out of whose depth bubbles of miasmatic gases constantly rise and give forth a stench that is unbearable even on the bridge forty of fifty feet above the level of the water.”

However, like many projects planned for 2020 we had to adapt to a new way of working remotely due to social distancing and repeated national lockdowns. Accepting that there were some elements of the programme that would need to change permanently and some which would need to be delayed until the situation changed.

The People’s River Toolkit Front Cover

The first challenge of the project was how to connect with communities who were isolated with little or no access to the internet. As a solution to this we produced a printed Engels’ toolkit, that was distributed to community partners across North Manchester. People could also request a hard copy to have posted to them or to download the toolkit digitally via the Manchester Histories website. The activity sheets covered Engel’s early life, his relationship to the River Irk and the seminal text The Condition of the Working Class in England.

In late summer 2020 it looked optimistic that we could deliver some small but in person workshops, so we commissioned artist Liz Wewiora, a socially engaged photographer to work with community groups in Angel Meadow, Collyhurst and Harpurhey. Liz was the perfect fit for the role as she had experience of working collaboratively with groups in North Manchester and had recently completed a project called Ferry Folk which looked at the Mersey ferry crossing in Liverpool.

The aim of the workshops was to co-produce content for a series of public exhibitions that would share what the River looked like today, compared with the past and what hidden histories could be revealed by the people who lived alongside it. Liz began research by going on a walking tour with historian Jonathan Schofield exploring notable historic moments near the River in the Irk Valley and learning about the global significance of this little explored natural landmark in Greater Manchester.

Image taken by Liz Wewiora during a research trip with Jonathan Schofield, Manchester Histories and Manchester City Council to the River Irk in 2020

Liz then began working with our lead community partners in North Manchester through a series of 19 outdoor socially distanced photo walks and online Zoom workshops. For those people who were isolating and with little access to the internet, Liz made creative packs that could be posted out with accompanying phone calls.

The workshops were promoted through the Friends of Angel Meadow Facebook group, Northwards Housing, HMG Paints Ltd and the Many Hands craft collective made up of residents from across Collyhurst, Ancoats and Miles platting.

Images taken by Immy Llewyln and Liz Wewiora of photo walks and workshops with members of the walking group from No. 93 Wellbeing Centre

The No. 93 Wellbeing Centre (formerly Harpurhey Wellbeing Centre), part of Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust, was a community partner for the People’s River project.

The community centre has been in the heart of Harpurhey for many years and is an important place for the whole community.

Liz began working with the centre by joining their weekly walking club where a group of local residents met to walk around Queens Park, which is close to the River Irk.

Cyanotype Print by Louie

After spending time with the group and chatting about their interest, Liz introduced them to using disposable cameras to capture their own images. This was done by self-guided photography challenges that focused on the nature they encountered during their walks.  The group then decided together that they would like to turn these photographs in to cyanotypes reflecting the tones of the River Irk itself.

Photographs by Margaret of her husband receiving a community award

Through the No. 93 Wellbeing Centre, Liz was also able to connect with local Harpurhey resident Margaret who shared with Liz her collection of family photographs, and an archive of newspaper clippings that told the stories about activism in the area. Liz was also able to interview Margaret and learn lots about her and her husband’s history and how things have changed in the area over time.

Photograph taken by a series of photographs by Ged from Many Hands

As this framework of workshops was working well Liz repeated the approach with a group that she has worked with on numerous projects before, the Many Hands Craft Collective group. Firstly, introducing the subject of Engels through a Zoom call and then leading a photo walk along the River Irk whilst chatting informally about the history of the area. This was followed by a zoom workshop where the group were able to edit and sequence the photographs that they would want to feature in their final exhibitions.


Part of the series ‘The Glorious Reds of Angel Meadows’ by Liz Long (Local resident and Member of Friends of Angel Meadow)

In November, we entered a second national lockdown and although activities with No. 93 Wellbeing Centre could continue as they are a support group, other workshops had to move online. The three workshops planned with Friends of Angel Meadow were all delivered on Zoom including an evening photography class teaching some tips for getting the best from your camera phone and how to create a compelling photo story. The group were then encouraged to visit the river independently and capture the Irk before sharing their photos with the group online. A few members even walked the entire length of the Irk from its source to where it disappears underground at Victoria station.

Accompanying these photography sessions with Friends of Angel Meadow Manchester Histories invited, Jonathan Schofield, to deliver two online talks which were versions of walking tours he would normally deliver in person. The first was an introductory history of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx and the second talk focused on the past and present of the Irk Valley. These were very popular talks and on dark November evenings we had over 80 people tuning in from home to hear about the history of the area.

John Newton, aged 18 from the HMG Paints Ltd archive
John Newton and the Newtons 2007 (cropped) from the HMG Paints Ltd archive

Our fourth community partner for The People’s River was employees past and present from HMG Paints Ltd, who have had a factory on the banks of the River Irk for over 90 years. Plans to deliver workshops were tricky with social distancing restrictions but Liz was still able to visit the factory a few times and interview a couple of staff including the Managing Director, John Falder. Liz was also able to look through the archive at the factory and unearth some brilliant photographs of employees over the years, uncovering stories of exceptional hard work and a sense of community with multiple generations in the same family working for the manufacturers.

We are in the process of looking through and reflecting on all the stories shared with us and the photographs of the River Irk that have been captured. We are planning on revealing all the content gathered through a series of public exhibitions in Spring/Summer 2021.

To find out more or for updates please subscribe to the Manchester Histories newsletter here or visit www.manchesterhistories.co.uk

Follow us on Twitter @mcrhistfest and to keep up to date with developments in The People’s River project search for #thepeoplesriver

People’s River has been funded by Manchester City Council through their Neighbourhood Investment Fund and Economic Regeneration Fund.

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