In 2003, Oxford Archaeology North commenced a large-scale programme of archaeological study at A & G Murray’s Mill in Manchester, on behalf of the Ancoats Buildings Preservation Trust. The study formed an important element of a major scheme of repairs to the mill complex, which has been given Listed Buildings status (Grades II and II*) in recognition of its immense historic significance, not least for incorporating the only surviving eighteenth-century steam-powered cotton mill in Manchester. The project was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund in conjunction with the North West Regional Development Agency.

The mill complex was established by Adam and George Murray in 1798, and was one of the first in the world to have been designed to house steam-powered spinning mules. Within eight years, the Murrays had quadrupled the size of their premises. When completed in 1806, it was the largest complex of cotton-spinning mills in Manchester, housing an unprecedented number of spindles and providing employment for more than 1000 operatives. The Murrays concentrated on the production of finely spun cotton, rapidly gaining a reputation for producing the finest yarn available, and supplying national and international markets.

The Murrays chose to establish their factory on a green field site in the Ancoats area of Manchester, situated on the north-eastern fringe of the town. Within a few decades, Ancoats had been transformed from a rural backwater to a densely populated mixed industrial and residential area that was in itself larger than many towns in the surrounding region, yet it was unplanned and largely devoid of amenities and public buildings. It was also widely acknowledged as the manufacturing heart of Manchester, which itself was emerging as a global centre of the cotton industry. In many respects Ancoats represented a new type of townscape, comprising a dense concentration of steam-powered mills and associated factories that were interspersed with tracts of low-cost housing, intended for occupation by the burgeoning population. This manifestation of the urban factory system based on the application of steam power was to characterise numerous northern towns, if not the entire region, into the twentieth century.

A & G Murray remained in production for more than 150 years, spanning the entire era of the steam-powered textile factory, and the mill complex has survived into a post-industrial age as a monumental reminder of the crucial role played by the cotton-spinning industry to the expansion of Manchester.

The project allowed for a comprehensive archaeological investigation of the site, presenting an invaluable opportunity to carry out a detailed survey of an eighteenth-century cotton mill. The scope of archaeological works included research, analysis, survey, and targeted excavation of the mill complex, and was designed to inform decisions regarding the repair, management, and long-term sustainability of the buildings. It was also intended that the work would be published in order to disseminate the results obtained from one of the most detailed archaeological surveys of a steam-powered textile mill ever undertaken.