For my first steampunk romance I wanted the setting to be gritty and industrialised. I wanted it to be brooding, uneasy, filled with cross-currents of tension. Victorian Manchester seemed an obvious choice. In the 19th century Manchester became known as ‘Cottonopolis’ as it rapidly became the centre for cotton and textile-processing. This rapid urbanisation went mostly unplanned, and resulted in untold human misery. Huge slums quickly developed, which were largely ignored by the more well-to-do populace because they were out of sight.
Outside visitors to the slums were often shocked at the conditions:
“On reaching them one meets with a degree of dirt and revolting filth, the like of which is not to be found elsewhere. The worst courts are leading down to the Irk, which contain unquestionably most dreadful dwellings I have ever seen. In one of these courts, just at the entrance where the covered passage ends, there is a privy without a door. This privy is so dirty that the inhabitants of the court can only enter or leave the court if they are prepared to wade through puddles of stale urine and excrement.”
The River Irk mentioned is one of several rivers that flowed through Manchester. Rivers and canals were used to transport raw materials to the city and goods for export to the rest of the world. The waterways were also heavily polluted by industry and the growing population.
‘Above the bridge are tanneries, bone mills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies.’
These places were definitely not for the faint-hearted, but they made for an intense, atmospheric background to my story.
To find out more about steampunk, Asher's Invention, and my writing process, check out my interview at Basia's Bookshelf.