Countdown to Manchester Day

Posted on June 9, 2010

MEN looks ahead to Manchester Day – 20 June 2010

“Rummage through Manchester history and you are constantly reminded of a maverick spirit, a city with its own ideas of doing things. 

The face we show to the world has often been defiant and unconventional, be it the 50,000 disenfranchised souls gathering in St Peter’s Field in 1819 demanding electoral reform, the mass trespassers marching onto Kinder Scout in 1932 to assert the right to walk on open country or the barmy hedonism of Madchester demanding merely the right to party.

As Britain’s second city, Manchester has had an impatience, a bloody-mindedness, a radicalism which has sometimes rubbed others up the wrong way. When the city’s grand Victorian neo-gothic town hall was completed in 1877, who better to cut the ribbon than Queen Victoria herself? The invitation went out, but Her Majesty declined. Two years earlier, Manchester Corporation had commissioned a statue of Oliver Cromwell to stand opposite Exchange Railway Station. Victoria was not amused by the idea of arriving in Manchester beneath the gaze of the man who had unseated the monarchy two centuries previously.

We can trace Manchester’s history back to Roman times. The conquerors established a fort at Castlefield in 79AD and a civilian settlement grew up around it. The name of this place, Mamucium, meant breast-shaped hill, referring to the sandstone ridge on which it stood between the Irwell and Medlock rivers. The Romans left in 411AD and subsequent centuries saw a succession of invaders until 923 when Manchester came under the dominion of the West Saxon kings.

Fast forward a few hundred years and the English Civil War saw cannon fire down Deansgate in the Siege of Manchester in 1642 – the city remaining loyal to the Roundhead cause and refusing to hand over its gunpowder stocks to the Royalist forces.

Fast forward again and we come to a defining moment in Manchester’s history – Peterloo. Mancunian bolshieness has its roots deep in history, and by the end of the 18th century, there were those in the burgeoning disenfranchised urban population agitating for a minimum wage and other rights.

There was a food riot at the Manchester Exchange, machine-breaking Luddites trying in vain to stop the industrial revolution, and virulent opposition to the Corn Laws, which placed import tariffs on grain and so raised the cost of food.

So when Henry “Orator” Hunt went to speak about parliamentary reform in St Peter’s Field on August 16 1819, it proved the biggest meeting England had ever seen, with 50,000 coming from far and wide. In the melee following magistrates’ order to arrest Hunt, 15 people died as cavalrymen charged, hacking at people with their swords.

Typically, it was Manchester where another battle for the vote was launched in 1905. When Christabel Pankhurst spat at the policeman remonstrating with her for raising a banner at a Liberal party meeting in the Free Trade Hall, it was the start of the suffragettes’ campaign.

So Manchester was never short of passion and radical ideas. It was just up the road in Rochdale, for instance, that the principles of the co-operative movement were founded in 1844. It was here, not London, that the Manchester Guardian became, under the long editorship of the legendary CP Scott, the beacon of liberal thought among the national press.

Manchester can boast the oldest public library in Britain in Chetham’s, founded in 1653. Here was where Karl Marx worked at a desk with Friedrich Engels, whose Condition of the Working Class in England took his observations on grinding poverty in Manchester and turned them into a seminal work on social reform.

Industry begat culture in Manchester. The widow of textile tycoon John Rylands set up a library in his name on Deansgate in 1900, home to 2,000 year old papyrus, illuminated medieval manuscripts and a Gutenberg Bible. Likewise, the great engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth gave his cash and name to Whitworth Art Gallery.

It was the pioneer spirit of a city conscious of its own worth that gave us the rise of Granada as a TV programme-making capital, just as it fuelled Tony Wilson’s belief, when he founded Factory Records, that the music business could be done somewhere other than London.

The late great Wilson was fond of mentioning the wordsmiths Shaun Ryder and WB Yeats in the same breath. Perhaps he might also mischievously have juggled comparisons between the ecstasy-fuelled cultural explosion surrounding the Hacienda and the predilections of perhaps Manchester’s greatest literary son Thomas De Quincey (1785 -1859), whose lifestyle was summed up in his best-known work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

Wilson knew that Manchester could confidently straddle archaic divisions between “high” and “low” culture.

The Hallé Orchestra, founded in Manchester by Charles Hallé in 1858, is the oldest permanent professional symphony orchestra in Britain, its home now the Bridgewater Hall – one of the most strikingly designed concert halls and among the best acoustics of any in Britain. The Manchester Camerata and BBC Philharmonic Orchestra also call Manchester home.

Read this article and others about Manchester Day on the MEN website