History lesson.

Susie Stubbs

Visiting Manchester? Want to find out more about what makes Manchester (and Mancunians) tick? Look no further than our potted guide to Manchester past and present. Susie Stubbs and Jonathan Schofield tell all.


Let’s set the scene. Manchester is a city with a past.

The (Manchester) Guardian once argued, ‘What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow’ while, more recently, Stuart Maconie wrote, ‘Manchester has fancied itself rotten for as long as anyone can remember’. The thing is, Manchester fancies itself for a reason. Well, three to be precise: industry, attitude and political reform.

It was Manchester that gave rise to socialism, the Co-Operative Movement and Free Trade; it was here that the Suffragettes began their campaigns; where Marx and Engels cooked up the Communist Manifesto. Manchester was also the original industrial city, outstripping London during the Industrial Revolution to become the largest centre of manufacturing in the world. Breathtakingly ambitious, this was a place where people came to make their names – and did, with no small measure of success.

This is not the kind of past that a city forgets. Go into any one of its public institutions – the Whitworth, Manchester Museum, Manchester Art Gallery – and you’ll find the evidence. The city’s painting, sculpture, photography and textiles collections are among the best in Britain. The Hallé Orchestra was the country’s first permanent, full-time orchestra and is still going strong. The site of the world’s first passenger railway now forms part of MOSI, the Museum of Science and Industry. In 2010, the People’s History Museum re-opened. A national museum dedicated to the history of working life in Britain, its archives reveal a city whose fight for socialism spread across the globe.

But before you write all this off as ‘just’ history, think on.

The Whitworth, whose textile and wallpaper archives are only rivalled by the V&A, is also one of the region’s leading centres of contemporary art. The Lowry, which holds the largest (and most varied) collection of work by L.S. Lowry in the world, also commissions new art and performance, as does its neighbour, Imperial War Museum North. And Manchester International Festival, inspired by the city’s industrial and musical past, is the world’s only festival made up entirely of new, commissioned art, performance, music and theatre.

‘Manchester has become a model of the post-industrial city, just as it was the model of the industrial city,’ says writer, broadcaster and historian, Jonathan Schofield. So while Manchester is a city that has a past, it’s also one that has its eyes on the future. The joy of visiting Manchester today is that, without too much effort, you get to experience a slice of both.

So now that we’ve got your attention, the historian Jonathan Schofield tells the story of this city of ours – and what sets Manchester apart from any other city in the world. Read on…

Power over nations

When Manchester Town Hall was officially opened in 1877, former Manchester MP John Bright spoke in the Great Hall. ‘[We are] standing in a district more wonderful in some respects than can be traced out on a map in any other Kingdom of the world,’ he said. ‘The population is extraordinary in its number, extraordinary for its interests and industries, for the amount of its wealth, for the amount of its wages, and for the power which it exercises on other nations.’ He wasn’t talking through his hat. At the time, Manchester was the centre of an industrial region larger than any other on the planet – a major commercial and mercantile player with a growing global reputation.


Bright’s speech reveals more about the city than its position in the world. It speaks of its character. Manchester has a tradition of truculent independence unlike that of any other UK city. It’s been around since the English Civil War, when Manchester supported Parliament rather than the King, it is part of the lyrics of the Smiths, the self-belief of Manchester United, it’s intrinsic to Christabel Pankhurst raising the ‘Votes for Women’ banner at the Free Trade Hall in 1905. It is a given.

Peter Saville, the city’s Creative Director, has said, ‘There’s a wilfulness about Manchester which is very condensed. There’s something historically, geographically and socially about the people that prepares you for something.’ Speaking of his time at Factory Records he recalls, ‘we didn’t think we were the best, we knew we were.’ But where does this attitude come from?

Big history

Here’s where. Manchester was the first city of the industrial age, home of the Peterloo Massacre, the birthplace of Western vegetarianism, the Trades Union Congress. This was the city where commentators first noted, 200 years ago, that factories and chimneys were bigger than palaces and churches. Here John Dalton developed the first atomic theory, and it’s where Ernest Rutherford split the atom. Manchester can lay claim through Sir Joseph Whitworth to refining precision engineering, and to the first true computer with the ‘Baby’ at Manchester University. The list of achievements goes on. You could include the country’s first permanent, full-time orchestra (the Hallé), which in turn arose from the biggest temporary art exhibition ever held, the Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  It’s hard to imagine us arriving where we are today without this city’s contribution.

The dawn of time and all that

So how did Manchester get to its moment of 19th century significance? It started off with the Romans, who brought roads, a fort and a name. Mamucium. A new wave of incomers, the Saxons, pitched up, moving the town centre up the old Roman road to an area they believed was easier to defend. The Vikings burnt it down. The Normans brought new Lords of the Manor. One of their descendents was Thomas de la Warre, part of the same family that would later give its name to the American state of Delaware. Textiles arrived by the 1300s, and Manchester reinforced its market town status to become a regional centre.. ‘Manchester cotton’ (wool and flax mixed together) was becoming prominent in London markets. Around 1600 the first true raw cotton was imported from Turkey.

Wam, bam industry man

The industrial cataclysm was coming. Cotton established its dominance, and technological advances accelerated the process: Kay had already invented the Flying Shuttle in 1733. Between 1760 and 1790, Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, Arkwright, the Water Frame and Crompton the Spinning Mule. They were all Lancashire men. Cheap coal arrived in Manchester with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal and the first steam mill fired up in 1783. In 1771, Manchester’s first bank opened. All in all, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire had, at the beginning of the 19th century, 89 steam engines in factories – and 32 of them were in Manchester mills. Location, coal, steam, innovation and experience were placing the town at the centre of a new world.

As a little caveat to all this glory, Manchester, it must be remembered, has also been a model of how not to do things for many visitors. Its growth in the first half of the 19th century was characterised by uncontrolled development. In 1835, visiting French writer, Alex de Tocqueville observed: ‘A sort of black smoke covers the city. Under this half-daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. The homes of the poor are scattered haphazard around the factories. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. In Manchester, civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.’ He wasn’t kidding. Estimates vary, but infant mortality hovered around 57%. While mill owners promenaded in newly built parks and libraries, their workers lived, worked and died in dire conditions. You can go to Angel Meadow in the northern end of the city centre today and stand over the cholera pits where thousands of bodies lie, victims of a water supply poisoned by industrial and human effluent.

After the World War

Manchester’s status as an industrial powerhouse was already under threat by 1945. By the 1980s it was history. The textile industry disappeared under the pressure of cheap imports, and heavy manufacturing, already stifled by  lack of enterprise and investment, declined further under Margaret Thatcher’s government. The result was that between 1970-1990, Manchester was in negative equity. There could be no investment because the place was handicapped by unemployment and the disappearance of the industries that had created it. By 1985, the population of 457,500 was 41% lower than its peak in 1931.

Attitude again

At its lowest point in the 1980s, the Council and key public and private sector leaders shook themselves and stirred. The city began to think in an expansionist way that its Victorian city fathers would have approved of, and over the past 20 years, Manchester has transformed itself. Whole new areas such The Quays, Castlefield, the Gay Village, the Northern Quarter, Spinningfields and SportCity have sprung up. Key moments in Manchester’s renaissance were its successive (if fruitless) Olympic bids, its triumphant hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the dreaming up of Manchester International Festival and the re-positioning of the University. There has been something else, too: Manchester rediscovered its can-do attitude.

As an interesting aside, in popular culture Manchester suffered no decline. Granada TV churned out successive hits between the 1960s and 1990s (such as Brideshead Revisited and Coronation Street), while the city’s music continued to resonate around the world (Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays to name a few). The Haҫienda changed the way people went clubbing. Peter Saville argues that Factory Records changed not just music but contemporary urban art and design. And Manchester United became the super-power of English football.

The bomb and beyond

We’ve left out the bomb. In 1996, the IRA exploded 1700kg of fertiliser and Semtex in the city centre, injuring dozens and causing half a billion pounds-worth of damage. It was a miracle nobody died. The bomb allowed much of the city centre to be re-built, but it was not (as some believe) the catalyst for the reborn Manchester. The city had already changed its mindset. All the bomb meant was that some streets got physically turned over, and for once Manchester did a proper bit of urban planning.

In 2012, the challenges remain, but there has been a vast improvement in city life. According to a recent report from MIDAS, the Manchester city region generates over £50 billion of GVA (Gross Value Added) and contributes 5% of the UK’s total economic output. The result of this resurgence has been the closing of a circle. Manchester has become a model of the post-industrial city, just as it was the model industrial city. It is now a European centre for conventions, conferences, classical and popular music, sport and academic endeavour. Its airport, the heir of Manchester Ship Canal, is an essay in progressive infrastructure provision.

As writer Jim McClellan wrote in Esquire Magazine a decade ago: ‘Manchester’s size makes the social processes more visible. You can see how things are developing. Where they might end up is another matter. Perhaps it’ll be the first place to show us whether our new cities work. Manchester, as Mancs love to tell you, has always been ahead of the game.’

Images (top to bottom): Northern Quarter pavement, The Manchester Museum and River Irwell (Susie Stubbs); Suffragettes, courtesy People’s History Museum; The ‘Baby’, courtesy The University of Manchester; Spinning Jenny, Quarry Bank Mill, courtesy National Trust; Media City at Salford Quays (SS); Aftermath of the bomb, courtesy MEN Media; Whitworth Art Gallery (SS).

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