Thomas Coglan Horsfall and Manchester Art Museum and University Settlement

The first settlement to be established outside London, and an extension of its parent institution at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, Manchester University Settlement was nevertheless, explains Stuart Eagles, deeply rooted in the specific political and cultural history of Ancoats. It, and Manchester Art Museum, owed much to the work of Thomas Coglan Horsfall (pictured below).

contents: introduction · ruskinian origins of ancoats art museum · the establishment of the art museum in ancoats · a new university settlement · marriage · decline and separation · references · about the writer · acknowledgements · how to cite this piece

Manchester University Settlement was the first settlement to be established in Britain outside London (in 1895). It was:

Founded in the hope that it may become common ground on which men and women of various classes may meet in goodwill, sympathy and friendship, that the residents may learn something of the conditions of an industrial neighbourhood and share its interests, and endeavour to live among their neighbours a simple and religious life. (Rose and Woods 1995: 13)

In this piece we explore its development, and that of the Manchester Art Museum, as well as comment on the pivotal contribution of Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932).

The Ruskinian origins of the Art Museum in Ancoats

Thomas Horsfall- Whitworth Art Gallery - all rights reservedThe Manchester University Settlement was from its earliest days inextricably bound up with the Art Museum in Ancoats established by Thomas Coglan Horsfall. Horsfall, a man the later Warden of Toynbee Hall, J. J. Mallon, called ‘a civic saint’, was the son of a wealthy Manchester-based cotton (spinning and carding) manufacturer (Stocks 1956: vii). Though he was a partner in his father’s Bridgewater Street business from the 1870s, he had been remote from its central activities as the result of poor health, and remained largely free to pursue philanthropic endeavours.

The most significant of these was his Art Museum, established as a direct response to the art and social critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900). In 1918, Thomas Horsfall explained in a letter to a Manchester Councillor that the museum had been specifically ‘formed for the purpose of giving effect to Ruskin’s teaching’ (quoted Harrison 1985: 121). To love beauty was to reaffirm a true Christian faith, and Horsfall’s commitment to a belief in the personal and wider social benefits of appreciating beauty through art also reflected his sense of personal indebtedness to Ruskin. It was from Ruskin that he derived his strong commitment to civic duty, and it was no accident that when he wrote, ‘men in my position have almost the same duties as officers have towards the soldiers they lead’ that it echoed Ruskin’s appeal in his seminal work on political economy, Unto This Last (1860, 1862), to the ‘captains’ of industry to lead by example (quoted Harrison 1985: 121). Art, extended to the poorest members of the community, became a social mission. ‘Art owes its high value to us’, Horsfall wrote, ‘to its relation both to the beauty of the earth and to human feeling and thought’ (Horsfall 1910: 14).

Thomas Horsfall and John Ruskin corresponded extensively and publicly, and Ruskin gave Horsfall’s project his approval, despite a lifetime’s hostility to Manchester, the city which had come to symbolise everything that Ruskin deplored. His hostility arose, not merely with regard to modern industrial society, but specifically about the economic system of laissez faire, the so-called ‘Manchester school’ of economics, which underpinned it. When Ruskin referred to Manchester as ‘the greatest Mercantile City in England’ he implied no compliment (Ruskin 1903-1912: 29.519). ‘I perceive that Manchester can produce no good art and no good literature,’ he wrote in Fors Clavigera (1871-1884), his monthly letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain, adding for good measure, though not as any kind of personal insult to Horsfall himself, that ‘it is falling off even in the quality of its cotton’ (Ruskin 1903-12: 29.224).

In his introduction to Thomas Horsfall’s The Study of Beauty (1883), Ruskin implored him to spend his ‘artistic benevolence on less recusant ground’ (Ruskin 1903-12: 34.429). Ruskin had counselled that ‘until smoke, filth, and overwork are put an end to, all other measures are merely palliative,’ yet despite such caveats, the general tone of Ruskin’s letters to Horsfall reveal that beneath the hostility was a supporting faith in the justice of attempting such a project (Ruskin 1903-12: 37.624). ‘The future of England may be, for aught I know, redeemable,’ Ruskin admitted, nevertheless insisting, ‘but she must first recognize her state as needing redemption’ (Ruskin 1903-12: 29.592).

Horsfall passionately believed in the redemptive power of art, and as with the ideal St. George’s Museum, the small space Ruskin had set aside for the edification of working men in Walkley, Sheffield, as part of his utopianist Guild of St. George, Horsfall’s Art Museum would be small, selective, educational, and specifically targeted at the working man, although Horsfall also felt that the greatest potential art possessed for engendering social progress and spiritual enlightenment rested with the young. Parties of local children, including school-based groups from every district in Manchester were welcomed to the Art Museum, and a sense of missionary zeal lay behind the concept of a schools’ picture loans collection. In 1890, 45 sets of 12 pictures were circulated in loan exhibitions to schools, mainly funded with £1000 from Horsfall himself, in a project which resembled the work of the Art for Schools Association, founded in 1883, of which Ruskin was President. Horsfall obtained an amendment to the Education Code, after a meeting in 1894, which permitted schoolchildren for the first time to visit museums, art galleries, historic buildings and botanical gardens in school hours as part of their education.

Thomas Horsfall believed sincerely that the Christian Church could help effect progressive social reforms. In promoting the Manchester branch of the Church Reform Union, which was based around a belief in the power of action and the unity of Christians in serving God’s will whilst simultaneously disparaging dogmatic debate, Horsfall said: ‘we find that what we have habitually done has had far more power to determine what we believe than the beliefs with which we started life have had to determine our actions’ (Manchester City News, 4 December 1880). For Horsfall, social engagement was not merely an expression of his Christian faith, it helped to sustain it.

The establishment of the Art Museum in Ancoats

The Art Museum Committee was formed in December 1877, with the support and involvement of the Manchester Literary Club, the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association, of which Thomas Horsfall had long been a member, the Manchester Statistical Society, local branches of the Sunday Society, the Ancoats Recreation Committee, and, from 1879, the Ruskin Society. Owens College and the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts were also involved, and support came from the Manchester Guardian in the shape of journalists W. T. Arnold and C. P. Scott.

Despite a general air of moral support, the local and national depression was partly responsible for a lack of funding for Horsfall’s Art Museum project, and the delays this caused were compounded by difficult negotiations with Manchester Corporation. Although rooms were initially taken for the Art Museum at a new gallery in Queen’s Park, in north Manchester, relations between the Art Museum Committee and the Parks Committee broke down, and the former seat of the Mosley family at Ancoats Hall on the western bank of the River Medlock was not eventually secured until 1886, when it became the Museum’s home. Ancoats, in Manchester’s East End, consisted of cramped back-to-back jerry-built housing, with a densely-packed, largely immigrant population all competing for a gasp of the industrially-polluted air that swirled around the cotton mills, iron foundries, coal wharves and slaughter houses, squeezing through the tight alleyways and narrow canals. Like Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, the Art Museum at Ancoats stood as a cultural beacon on the edge of the dirtiest, dreariest neighbourhood.


Manchester Art Museum, Ancoats Hall

The socialist, Charles Rowley (1839-1933), had earlier worked in Ancoats, both through the Ancoats Recreation Scheme and from 1889 the Ancoats Brotherhood, advocating a cleaner physical environment and greater access for all to things of beauty in an attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the poor. Extension lectures at Ancoats in the 1880s attracted much attention, with 500-900 men attending on Sunday afternoons to hear some of the country’s leading speakers. Rowley’s group also co-ordinated concerts and excursions. The wealthy engineer, Francis Crossley, had also established a missionary hall nearby.

When the Art Museum opened, its rooms, variously dedicated to painting, sculpture, architecture and domestic arts, together attempted to provide a chronological narrative of art, with detailed notes, labels and accompanying pamphlets and, not infrequently, personal guidance, all underlining a sense of historical development. John Ruskin himself provided some copies of Turner, and a copy of Holman Hunt’s The Triumph of the Innocents (1876-1887), framed by C. R. Ashbee’s Toynbee Hall-based Guild of Handicraft, once hung in the gallery. Alan Crawford has written:

It is hard to imagine an object more strongly associated with the vanished late Victorian ideal of social reform through art than this, with its reproduction from Holman Hunt, its quotation from Ruskin, made in London’s East End by reformed craftsmen to bring light and culture to the poor of Manchester. (Crawford 1981: not paginated)

It is a symbolic representation of Horsfall’s Ruskinian mission, linking art, Ruskin, social reform and the university settlements.

The Museum was essentially a Ruskinian experiment, with many of its most ardent supporters sharing Thomas Horsfall’s enthusiasm both for John Ruskin and for civic engagement. These included the prodigious local author, journalist and deputy chief librarian, W. E. A. Axon (1846-1913), the solicitor, Methodist, journalist, local councillor, and extension lecturer, John Ernest Phythian (1858-1935) and the later Principal of Dalton College, Manchester, John W. Graham (1859-1932), the Quaker.

The Museum boasted a Model Workmen’s Room and Model Dwellings’ Sitting Room, which spawned craft classes in woodwork and drawing, and paintings of nearby beauty spots breathed an albeit short life into an associated rambling club. Free music, lectures and entertainments on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons proved popular, as did children’s concerts and

Last Updated on