Archaeologists at ‘Big Dig’ hope to uncover Rochdale’s Anglo-Saxon history

Date published: 30 July 2021

A large-scale archaeological dig will soon come to an end in Rochdale town centre, but what archaeologists have discovered so far has given a deeper insight into Rochdale’s working past.

Led by archaeologists from Salford University, a team arrived at Town Hall Square to dig deep into Rochdale’s history on 14 July with the hopes of uncovering possible 18th century remains beneath the ground.

During the two-week project - which is one of several public events being organised as part of the wider restoration of Rochdale Town Hall - residents of all ages have helped historians dig out the site, process, catalogue, and clean the finds, as well as finding out more about the history of the area.


Big Dig
The team have found the foundations of homes belonging to wool merchants from the 18th century


Known to have been a key part of the trans-Pennine textile trading route, the team have found the foundations of homes belonging to wool merchants from the 18th century beneath the surface between The Flying Horse Hotel and Rochdale Town Hall.

Joe Brooks, one of the archaeologists on site with nearly 15 years’ experience, said: “Packer Street was the main route from Yorkshire to Manchester, so people would come and bring wool up Packer Street to Saint Chad's Church steps and over to Manchester. That started in the medieval period.

“Over time as the industry developed, from the medieval period right through to the 19th century, the street got more and more built up and different buildings got knocked down for new ones to be developed. Then, in 1870, they built the town hall and just demolished the lot.

“The first thing we found was a glazed brick yard surface, which was probably associated with the town hall, possibly separating Packer Street from what were town hall gardens.

“Beneath that is what were all the old buildings on Packer Street before they were demolished. They are late 18th century to mid-19th century buildings.”

At this time in 1851, it is known that Rochdale residents had ‘cottage industries’ within their homes, working and spinning wool, making toffee, selling boots, plus a butchers and bakers, amongst other things in their houses to earn money.

An exciting find at the town centre site has been a practically perfect intact ginger beer bottle belonging to ‘S Casson’ of Rochdale. This was found where resident Samuel Casson, aged 20 in the 1851 census, once lived at 13 Packer Street with his family as a ginger beer brewer.


Big Dig
A ginger beer bottle found at the dig belonging to ‘S Casson’ of Rochdale


Mr Brooks continued: “Specifically, what we have found here are the outbuildings right at the back of the demolished properties where the toilets would have been. It’s been great to find them because not only do people drop things into toilets accidentally, but there were real problems with sanitation, so they were ordered to fill them in from the mid-19th century onwards. This means we get lovely pottery and glass out of them that have been stuck in time.”

Examples of domestic fine ware - giving insight into the locals that once lived in the Packer Street homes – have also been found at the dig, including an Old Mother Hubbard nursery rhyme plate, chinaware in a ‘classic Victorian willow pattern’, thimbles, hair clips, cutlery, vases, and jugs.


Big Dig
'Old Mother Hubbard' nursery rhyme plate found beneth Town Hall Square


Big Dig jug / vase
Jug / vase found at the Big Dig


“A base of what we think was a jug, vase, or bowl has been of particular interest,” said Graham Mottershead, Excavations Manager at Town Hall Square. “It is early 17th century, possibly pre-1650, which has been amazing to find as we don’t find many like this.

“Tobacco pipes, beer bottles, and a lot of remnants of shellfish have been discovered, all telling a little story of a pub of the past, where you can imagine residents enjoying a drink and some fresh seafood.

“As The Flying Horse Hotel [first opened in 1691] is actually older than the town hall, that is why this area has been of particular interest.”


Big Dig
A carved head of a tobacco pipe found at the Big Dig, archaeologists belive it resembles a soldier


Something that has sparked an interest in the archaeologists is the fact that none of the buildings beneath the surface have cellars/basements, making way for medieval Anglo-Saxon history to ‘hopefully be beneath’.

“The ‘take home’ is that none of these buildings seem to have cellars, so we will hopefully find medieval stuff beneath”, continued archaeologist Joe Brooks.

“There’s so much build up over time that we need to find where the natural layers are. The stone at the bottom is where the ground level would have been at the time they built the 19th century wall, and you can see it is built up over a metre in the time that the wall has been active, which is probably about 100 years.

“This is what we have got to go through before we get to the medieval stuff. The trouble is we only have one week left.”

The big dig concludes for the public this weekend on Saturday 31 July, after which timelapse footage of the dig will be available to view. Archaeologists will continue at the site for a further week.

However, residents are invited to a final talk and tour of the site from 11am – 2pm on Saturday (31 July) to see what the budding team of archaeologists, with the help of local volunteers, have discovered over the past two weeks.

The session this weekend is free, and you can drop in at any time. No booking is required.


None of the buildings beneath the surface have cellars/basements, making way for medieval Anglo-Saxon history to ‘hopefully be beneath’
None of the buildings beneath the surface have cellars/basements, making way for medieval Anglo-Saxon history to ‘hopefully be beneath’


In 2018, The National Lottery Heritage Fund approved a first stage application to support the restoration of Rochdale Town Hall, awarding the council £8.95 million in funding to further develop plans. This was followed by a second stage grant of £8.3 million – announced in 2020 - to restore many of the building’s historic features.

Plans for a town hall square include ‘dramatically improving’ the area around the building and creating a ‘high quality link’ with the already existing Memorial Gardens, part of a £3 million redesign.

The redevelopment is part of the wider £400 million regeneration of Rochdale town centre.

Councillor Phil Massey, assistant portfolio holder for economy, communications, and regeneration at Rochdale Borough Council, spoke about the wider restoration of Rochdale Town Hall: “The project is well underway, we’re now into phase 2 and everything so far is on time. Workers are uncovering little nuggets every step of the way, which is fantastic. You’ve got to expect a grand building like the town hall to have some surprises.

“Overall, the finished date is still scheduled to be some time in 2023, when we will have a wonderful Grade I listed building, undoubtedly our most prized asset.

“The Town Hall is 150 years old; it needed that regeneration lift. It’s had many uses over the years as a council space, as a meeting space, an events space, and I think it needed that local community element bringing back into it. We need a reason for residents to come and see the town hall, look around and really connect with the history of Rochdale, and that’s what this project aims to deliver.

“We will be able to show the building off properly, show off its history, show people around and then outside there’s going to be plenty more space for people to sit. It will be a fantastic open public space where children can run around, and families don’t have to worry about cars coming at them from all angles. We will be able to enjoy the space as a resident or visitor in ways that we haven’t been able to before.

“Community has been built all the way through the project; this Big Dig is the first community event that is happening to connect residents and local people with the space that is here. There will be a sequence of events all the way through the programme, for example opportunities for stained glass window activities.

“On top of that, we wanted to take local people and involve them in the project to learn new skills so there will be job opportunities, work opportunities and development opportunities on the back of what’s going on in the building as well.”

“There are lots of things happening and we have a really passionate team of people that are behind it and that are delivering the projects," finished Councillor Massey.

"We’re really happy with what is going on so far. It's exciting times.”

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