Darnhill: A Little Corner of Manchester in Heywood

For centuries, Darn Hill was a rural farming area in the township of Heap. That changed dramatically in the 1960s, in the lingering aftermath of World War II. Manchester had suffered heavy bombing during that war, leaving it with a housing crisis. Manchester City Council’s solution was to buy land from neighbouring boroughs for the construction of new municipal housing outside the city boundaries, although the residents of these new estates would still pay rent and rates to MCC. By 1955 at least 68,000 houses in Manchester were unfit for human habitation, 600 were falling down per year, and there was a pressing need for 81,000 new houses.

171 acres of land in the west of Heywood, mainly home to fields and some farm buildings, had been identified in 1952 as a potential site for what was termed an ‘overspill development’. A request from Manchester Town Hall was made to Heywood councillors to allow them to use the land for construction. A subsequent public inquiry revealed many local objections to the new estate being built, including from the farmers from Darnhill Farm and Darnhill Cottage, who were concerned about losing their livelihoods. Despite this, in 1956 the Ministry of Housing and Local Government approved the compulsory purchase of 176 acres at Darnhill by the MCC.

The fields of Darn Hill, 1891. Darn Hill Farm is marked in red to the right. The Heap Bridge area is to the left.

The plan was to build 1,850 houses to accommodate 8,000 people. This included 1,236 two-storey houses, 594 flats, and 20 bungalows for old people.

Construction work on roads and a sewerage system finally began in the late 1950s, but a dispute between Manchester City Council and Lancashire County Council about the cost of sewerage pipes led to delays and the erection of houses did not commence until 1962. The first six houses, near the Heys Lane area, were ready for occupation in March 1962. The first family moved in soon after, but most of the area was still a massive and muddy construction site.

The erection of nine 13-storey blocks of flats, at a cost of £1,641,016, was approved in 1963, with the first structure being completed by the end of that year. These were the first British flats built by the French-developed Sectra system, and were considered to be rather roomy and chic compared to the cramped conditions of Manchester's slums. The splendid British Pathe film below shows work underway on the Darnhill flats in 1963.


A further 357 houses were also completed at Darnhill by the end of 1963, on streets named after Scottish places. About 5,000 people eventually moved there, mostly from Collyhurst and Miles Platting. Other Manchester overspill estates were situated at Gamesley, Hattersley, Haughton Green, Langley, and Whitefield. They were built between 1954 and 1976 and between them contained about 35,000 new council houses and flats.

Other parts of Heywood were also transformed under the Slum Clearance Programme in the late 1950s, after a report showed that 1,266 of the 8,314 permanent properties in the town were unfit for human habitation. In places like Heady Hill, whole streets of dilapidated houses were demolished to make way for new homes. The plan was to build 400 new properties near Bury New Road and Bury Old Road. Angel Meadow became the subject of a Heywood Corporation compulsory purchase order in 1957, and 5½ acres were cleared, affecting 440 residents living in the area. Council flats were later built there.


A range of new community facilities were built to support the new housing at Darnhill. These included shops, schools, churches, a library and a community centre. The first school there was Darnhill County Primary (originally called Heap County Primary) which originally had just three pupils. Our Lady & St Paul's Infant and Junior School opened in April 1963, and St Margaret's C.E. Junior School opened in January 1964. Two churches also opened, St Margaret's and Our Lady & St Paul's. A secondary school called Sutherland High opened in 1966. This later became Heywood Community High School and closed in 2010. New pubs such as the Criterion and the Highlander also opened.

While the estate soon developed a strong sense of community, there were still the kind of problems usually associated with lower socio-economic areas and by the 1990s some of the tower blocks were unoccupied and covered in graffiti. There was also widespread dissatisfaction with how the Manchester City Council ran the estate, and in 1998 over 90% of the local residents voted in favour of transferring the management of Darnhill to the Guinness Trust, an affordable housing provider. This led to some quick changes, most notably with the demolition of the tower blocks.

Less than 40 years earlier, these flats had been considered state-of-the-art buildings and a huge improvement in living space for the families who had moved to them from Manchester slums.

There are now well over 1,400 properties on the estate comprising mostly 2-3 bedroom houses, 1-2 bedroom flats and 1 bedroom bungalows. 1,035 are owned by Guinness Trust, 350 were sold under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, the remainder new homes built by the Guinness Trust and private developers.


Population booms in Heywood

The construction of the Darnhill estate was the third time that the population of Heywood grew sharply after an influx of 'outsiders'. The first was in the early 19th century, when thousands arrived from depressed country areas to work in the thriving new cotton mills. These people were not always made welcome by the locals, although many modern Heywoodites can probably trace their family history back to these arrivals. During the mid-19th century there was also a significant influx of Irish people escaping the turmoils in their own country. In fact, between 1780 and 1880, the population of Heywood grew from 2,000 people to just over 22,000. 

That number climbed steadily to over 26,000 by the 1920s, but fell after the collapse of the cotton industry. In 1960 it had declined to 24,000, but the opening of Darnhill saw it climb again to 30,000 by 1980. The town had a population of around 28,000 in the 2011 census.

4 comments:

  1. Darn Hill was at the time a Godsend for the working class people of Manchester. My own parents moved from Blackley into a damp prefab in Heywood in the early 1950s, thankfully being rehoused to Hopwood later. My grandma moved from Blackley into a nice warm flat on Darn Hill in the early 60s. Other members of the family moved from appalling slum conditions in Ancoats and Collyhurst to Darn Hill and Langley. At the time they provided a great social need.

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    1. Yes, I think it is being forgotten just how much parts of urban Britain were falling apart after WW2. Lots of Victorian areas were just crumbling, if they hadn't been bombed. Somewhere on the Facebook page I've linked to galleries of Manchester slums in the 60s, and they were almost Dickensian.

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  2. This is where I grew up our family lived in argyle st and my nan lived across the road this was about 1968 it was a lovely place to live with a real sense of community and I also went to Our Lady & St Paul's school funny I live just a few miles now from where I grew up

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    1. Thanks mc, I grew up on the Back o th Moss and it had that sense of community too. Felt like everybody was more or less in the same boat.

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