A Tour of Manchester – Past & Present

Manchester, my home city, and a place where I have studied and worked over the last 30 years or so, never fails to fascinate me. It is a remarkable and cosmopolitan city which boasts an eclectic mix of culture, business, education, and architecture, that is reflective of its considerable heritage. Indeed, when one thinks of the history of Manchester it is the ‘Industrial Revolution’ with its factories, working-class people and rapid urban development that comes to mind. However, this does not reveal the entirety of Manchester’s fascinating past which, in fact, dates from Roman times, when General Agricola established a garrison at Castlefield and who is recognized by a statue above the door of the city’s amazing town hall in Albert Square but is at the same time easily missed as you walk by. Medieval Manchester developed at the other end of Deansgate, around the site of the current Cathedral, and the Manor of Manchester, whose building survives and became famous through local merchant Humphrey Chetham, who used his wealth to create a Blue Coat school. After his death in 1653, his legacy created Chetham’s library, which today is one of the oldest English-speaking public libraries in the world and is certainly the oldest public library in Britain. For any visitor to the city, this is a must-see tourist attraction.

The Britannia Hotel, a former warehouse designed in an Italian Palazzo style. (Manchester in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

During the medieval and early modern era, textiles emerged as a basis for the local economy.  Flemish textile workers who were displaced due to war in continental Europe brought their skills in spinning and weaving to the region. This became a central feature of the local economy, though this was mainly in the woollen trade initially before cotton production took over. Manchester became the commercial heart of a network of towns, including Oldham, Rochdale, Bolton and so on, and country manufacturers and merchant began meeting in central Manchester to trade each week. From around the 1750s inventions in textile production and changes in work practices from domestic textile production to a factory-based system changed the face of the economy, in what became known as the Industrial Revolution. In 1729, the first cotton trading exchange was built, and successive exchange buildings and extensions have left us with an impressive legacy in the Manchester Royal Exchange building of today that houses the Royal Exchange Theatre Company and high-class shopping.

The Royal Exchange in late Victorian times. (Manchester in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Industrialisation and urbanization created a hierarchy in society comprising of a working class and a wealthy middle class and this distinction was keenly felt in Manchester. Working-class discontent, with their inability to vote and lack of a political voice led to discontent and ‘illegal’ political meetings, which ultimately escalated into one of the most notorious episodes in Manchester's history. The Peterloo Massacre occurred on 16 August 1819 when thousands gathered on St Peter’s field to hear radical speakers including ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt. The local magistrates dispatched the Manchester Yeomanry and an estimated eleven people died and several hundred were wounded, and it has left an indelible mark on the history of Manchester. In August 2019 the city commemorated this event, an event that was epitomized in Mike Leigh’s 2018 film.

During the 19th century, Manchester was the ‘shock city’ of its age and observers came from far and wide in awe of what they saw. One of these was the German businessman, Friedrich Engels, who came to Manchester to run the family business in the 1840s and he wrote his observations in the classic Conditions of the Working-Class in England, exposing the horrors of factory life. Yet, Manchester was a pioneering city. In 1830 the first railway from Manchester to Liverpool ran, departing from Liverpool Road Station, which is now the Science and Industry Museum. The first public library in Manchester opened in 1852 at Campfield. Manchester’s middle class were doing very nicely, and they used their wealth to foster cultural institutions. These included the Athenaeum, the Royal Institution, the Portico and the Literary and Philosophical Society. In 1857 the Art Treasures Exhibition was one of the grandest displays of art and industry that was ever seen in Britain.

The Pankhurst Centre on Nelson Street. (Manchester in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

As the 19th century came to a close, it was women who were demanding a political voice, and their fight for the right to vote went well into the 20th century before they had equal democratic rights as men. Here, it was mainly educated middle-class women, such as Manchester locals Lydia Becker, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, that fought this battle. War intervened in the Suffragette campaigns, but they did eventually obtain their goal.

Like many northern cities, post-war Manchester suffered economic decline that had, in fact, begun during the inter-war years as the city’s textiles and other industries declined. It was not until the 1970s that investment turned Manchester’s fortunes around, in a series of regeneration projects. The once Liverpool Road railway station became the Museum of Science and Industry in 1969. In the 1980s the Roman site at Castlefield became an urban heritage park, which included a reconstruction of the Roman fort. In 1984, the Jewish Museum opened. The Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic, opened in 1996. The Arndale Centre, constructed in the 1970s, remains a focal point of the city’s retailing district. This, alongside surrounding buildings and streets, were badly damaged as a result of the IRA bombing of 1996. The subsequent revival of this area transformed the city centre.

The Free Trade Hall, constructed in the 1850s. (Manchester in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

Manchester has been the home to a range of musical trends from the Hallé Orchestra to the Hacienda nightclub, where classical music sat alongside punk and new genre pop and rock music. The Hallé still exists, yet the Hacienda provided a brief moment in popular culture but whose legacy continues. Manchester is also a sporting city, and home to two of the most famous football clubs in the world and is also home to the Lancashire County cricket club. The success of the Commonwealth Games in 2002 also placed Manchester firmly on the sporting map as a place for athletics, where top-class facilities and elite athletes compete at the highest level. 

Today, Manchester is a flourishing cosmopolitan city, where older manufacturing industries have been largely replaced by a thriving service sector. My hope is that despite rapid modernisation the city retains its vibrant heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Deborah Woodman and Paul Rabbitts's book Manchester in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.