Preserved in Time: A Snapshot of Moss Side in the Archive of Daniel Meadows

Moss Side, Manchester, spring of 1972. On a sunny day, a group of children gather round an old barber’s shop, set into a row of single-storey Victorian buildings. They jostle for space as they peer at photographs on display in the window. The eldest among them holds up a toddler on their hip—perhaps a sibling, relation, or friend—to better see the photographs. To their left, outside the shop next door, stands a rack of second-hand clothes for sale. To the right is Jimmy Thomson’s Tattoo Parlour. Three teenage girls stand outside the tattoo shop, watching the flurry of activity. [1]

Moss Side covers just 1.84 square kilometres of Manchester, pushing up against Hulme to the north and Whalley Range to the south. [2]. In the 1950s, this neighbourhood became home to a small but growing Caribbean population, early arrivals of what is now known as the Windrush Generation. In the 1950s and 60s, many Caribbean people chose to move to Manchester where they knew others, family or friends, or if they had been stationed in nearby Lancashire during the war. Settling in and around Moss Side, a Caribbean community soon laid down roots in the neighbourhood. [3]. In the 1950s, Caribbean people made up the second-largest ethnic group in Manchester after white British people and by 1981 there were over 6,000 people from the Caribbean living in the city. These people came predominantly from Jamaica, but there were other from countries such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and what was then known as the West Indies Associated States. [4].

Moss Side has long been stigmatised as an ‘inner-city problem area.’ [5]. In 1981, protests against racist and aggressive policing tactics in Moss Side turned into violent clashes lasting two nights, further consolidating the view of the neighbourhood as a site of violence and crime. This followed similar events in Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth, caused by high unemployment, poor housing provision, a lack of investment, and racial tensions. [6]. However, photographs of Moss Side held in the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections show a very different story. Taken almost a decade before the disturbances of 1981, but twenty years after the first arrivals from the Caribbean, they are a window into the daily life of this deprived, but neighbourly area.

The shop described above, around which the children gathered to peek at photographs in the window, was the Free Photographic Shop, which had been set up by a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic called Daniel Meadows. Hailing from rural Gloucestershire, Meadows came to Manchester in 1970 and lived in Moss Side. In January 1972 he rented a barbershop at 79b Greame Street, converting it into a photographic studio in which local people could have their picture taken free of charge. Once developed, Meadows’ subjects received a copy of their photograph to keep. [7]. The studio was open for two months during which time Meadows photographed over 200 people, despite the shop being open only one day per week. [8].

The Free Photographic Shop at 79b Greame Street, MS. Meadows 46

The Archive of Daniel Meadows, held at the Bodleian Libraries’ Special Collections, contains a box of three folders and an album of photographs and anecdotes recorded in and around the Free Photographic Shop. In these photographs, Meadows captures the everyday life of a community threatened by planned ‘slum clearances’ and redevelopment. Meadows wrote that,

with the demolition of the terraced houses, the population will be dispersed since many of the tenants will not be able to afford the increase in rent necessitated by a move into a new council flat… a clost-knit [sic] community will be split up. I feel that as a photography student who lives in the area it is my job to make a record of a way of life which is to be destroyed. [9].

Meadows’ photographs of this multiracial community in Moss Side are startlingly evocative. Children with cheeky grins; babies and toddlers accompanied by their mothers; straight-faced elders, and a man who Meadows identifies as Jazz Cole, laughing charismatically at the camera. Many of the photographs are accompanied by captions and anecdotes, giving us an insight into the inner lives of Meadows’ subjects.

Paul left, Michael centre, and Ian right. MS. Meadows 46

In one folder, we meet Paul, a boy with a happy, toothy smile. He is accompanied by his brother, Ian and friend, Matthew. We learn that Paul’s mother has gone to stay with relatives in America. He also has relations in Jamaica and Walsall. He is just ten years old and likes books, so Meadows offers him the books that were left behind in the shop by the previous tenant. Paul tells us that he ate porridge for breakfast that morning. ‘Whenever Paul cooks the porridge, he somehow manages to burn it and his Dad calls him careless. But this morning Paul’s Dad cooked the porridge and burnt it, so Paul called HIM careless. Mmmmmmmm…,’ wrote Meadows. [10].

Later, we are joined by Dave and Angela, siblings, who come into the shop to look through some of the books with Paul. We learn that they live with their two brothers, Mark and Junior, and their Mum and Dad. Angela, aged 8, has a bible with her that she found whilst ‘hunting’ in the basement of a derelict house. She reappears again on Sunday evening, having snuck into the shop—which is now operating as a darkroom—to read her bible whilst Meadows develops his films. [11]. Meadows was clear in his intention to photograph anybody who asked, no matter how boisterous they may be: ‘Tomorrow evening around 5 o’clock I will round the corner from Alexandra Road with a whole crowd of kids at my heels all yelling for their free picture. None must go away disappointed.’ [12].

Keep turning the pages and you will come across a child with a doll; young Black girls hugging each other and smiling nervously at the camera; chubby-faced toddlers in their winter coats; a mother and her young child standing next to a box of shoes outside the second-hand clothes shop. Angela and Dave continue to crop up. Dave smiling from under his crooked fringe holding a box of ice creams, or lounging in the doorway of the shop with a group of other boys, Angela kneeling outside playing with a dog.

In the newspapers from the time, Moss Side was discussed using pathologizing language. Meadows carefully saved clippings of some of these articles: In March 1972, The Sunday Times described Moss Side as ‘the bottom rung in the ladder,’ and in September, The Times described the area as ‘rotting’ and ‘gangrenous.’ [13]. Though The Guardian ran a more forgiving feature of the Nello James Centre, a community education centre in Moss Side set up by members of the Caribbean community, the area was still described as a ‘ghetto’ in contrast to Whalley Range’s ‘declining gentility’. [14]. Yet, Meadows’ photographs from the same year show a very different story: the story of a community that, whilst imperfect, was full of life. In some photographs, worn-out clothes and DIY haircuts hint at financial struggle, but for the most part, the Moss Side residents appear smartly dressed and animated.

Moss Side, Manchester, 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

It isn’t just Meadows’ photos that indicate how close-knit this community was. Former residents from the 1970s have recalled a time before the redevelopment when Moss Side was friendly, multicultural, and well-integrated, before its reputation for crime had taken hold. [15] A bit of research also tells us that the community didn’t passively accept their lot. For recent arrivals from the Caribbean, buying a house in which to create a little enclave that felt ‘like home’ and raise their children was a way of finding security in an unfamiliar environment. Likewise, churches and community centres provided support for many years to come. [16]. The Nello James Centre, mentioned above, was run by the community for the community, serving as an education centre, a legal advice centre, a printing workshop and a social centre, among other things. [17]. Historical scholarship also demonstrates significant political activism in Moss Side. Organisations such as the Moss Side People’s Association provided a platform for residents to discuss improvements to the area. Tenant organisations, including the Moss Side group of Manchester and Salford Housing Action (MASHA) were well-attended, even electing a Housing Action Group member to the local council. [18]. A sustained campaign by MASHA resulted in Manchester City Council abandoning slum clearance across the city in 1975, in favour of house improvement, though some of Meadows’ photographs show the devastation of slum clearances that had already begun three years prior. [19].

Moss Side, Manchester, 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

Some of the outcomes of Moss Side’s community activism are also visible in Meadows’ photographs. His archive contains two images of Alexandra Park Carnival. Though community processions through the neighbourhood had taken place in 1970 and ‘71, the year 1972 was the first time that the carnival took place in Alexandra Park. [20]. The carnival was organised by the West Indian community of South Manchester, including Locita Brandy, the chairperson of Manchester Alexandra Park Association, in collaboration with members of the Leeward Island People Association. [21]. Though only two photographs of the carnival can be found in Meadows’ archive, they provide a rare glimpse into the early years of the festival, before it became the Manchester Caribbean Carnival, as it is known today.

Exhibition of prints from the Free Photographic Shop at Alexandra Park Carnival, 29 May 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

Daniel Meadows’ photographs from in and around the Free Photographic Shop at 79b Greame Street show more than just the faces of Moss Side in the early 1970s. They show a community at a critical juncture, following the arrival of the Windrush Generation in Manchester, but before planned clearances and redevelopment of the neighbourhood. They give us a look into a way of life that was under threat, and are a powerful illustration of the humanity of a community and residential area that is so often stigmatised.

Group portrait at a christening. Moss Side, Manchester, 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

This blog post was written by Kasturi Pindar, postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, during her archives internship in Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries.

[1] Daniel Meadows, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Meadows 46.

[2] Penny Fraser, ‘Social and spatial relationships and the ‘problem’ inner-city: Moss-Side in Manchester’, Critical Social Policy 49 (1996), p.55.

[3] Jo Stanley, ‘Mangoes to Moss Side: Caribbean Migration to Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s’, Manchester Region History Review 16 (2003), p. 43.

[4] Ibid., p. 41.

[5] Fraser, ‘Social and spatial relationships’, p. 52

[6] Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre & Education Trust, ‘Rearranging the kaleidoscope’?: Looking back at the 1981 Moss Side ‘disturbances’’. [Accessed 15 Aug 2023].

[7] MS. Meadows 46.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Henry Law, ‘What Manchester Thinks Today…’, The Sunday Times, March 19 1972. MS Meadows 46; Pat Healy, ‘Bangladesh-type emergency aid urged by Shelter for people in rotting inner city areas’, The Times, September 18 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

[14] Martin Walker, ‘Nello, come in: Martin Walker on a Moss Side community centre’, The Guardian, June 1 1972. MS. Meadows 46.

[15] Dominic Callaghan & Rumeana Jahangir, ‘Photos from 1970s show life in Manchester’s Moss Side’, BBC News (2017). [Accessed 24 Aug 2023].

[16] Stanley, ‘Mangoes to Moss Side’, p. 45.

[17] Walker, ‘Nello, come in’.

[18] Peter Shapely, ‘Tenants Arise! Consumerism, Tenants and the Challenge to Council Authority in Manchester, 1968-92’, Social History 31/1 (2006), p. 69.

[19] Ibid., p. 71.

[20] Eva Gewitz-O’Reilly, ‘The Beginnings of Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival’, History@Manchester (2020). [Accessed 15 Aug 2023].

[21] Ibid.

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