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Manchester: Your city, your history
Manchester is your city and its story is yours to tell. So why not take part in the telling?
The story of Manchester’s role in the creation of the modern world is so well known it is easy to think the history of the city and its people has long been etched into stone.
It was the world’s first industrial city — the beating heart of a cotton empire that stretched around the globe. It was also the “shock city” of its age — the first to experience the social horrors that came with rapid urbanisation.
“All around the centre of wealth moans the dark tide of misery and wretchedness,” is how the Manchester City News described the working-class housing districts that stood only a short walk from Market Street in 1892.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, Manchester was a place where civilised man was “turned almost into a savage”. For Friedrich Engels, these streets were “Hell upon Earth”.
Angus Bethune Reach, an investigative journalist visiting in the 1840s, described how Angel Meadow was the worst of these districts. He said it was the “lowest, most filthy, most wicked locality in Manchester”.
Ancoats came a close second with “the most squalid looking streets, inhabited by swarms of the most squalid looking people” that Reach claimed he had ever seen.
But the history of a city is never set in stone, no matter how visceral the descriptions of those who came to write about it.
One problem with these accounts is that they were written by outsiders who brought with them their own biases and motives.
They also tended to suggest the streets and the people in them were all alike — filthy, often criminal and full of unthinking “caricatures of humanity” as one ragged school teacher supposedly described the poor folk in Angel Meadow’s lodging houses.
Assuming the teacher’s words were not made up by the journalist who wrote them down, let’s compare them with those of Mary Bertenshaw, who wrote about her own experience of living in an Angel Meadow lodging house owned by her parents.
“It used to be a great joy to me as I would be going down Red Bank, leaving Annie at the corner of Scotland trying to guess who, if anyone, had arrived home,” Mary wrote in her autobiography, Sunrise to Sunset.
“I knew a lot of them by their first names, like Esther, Little Ada and others by my parents’ conversations.
“Some days, if it had been wet, the house would be full when I arrived home. I would feel very important as each would say to me ‘Hello Mary’. In fact they were so friendly to me that I used to sit on a form to talk to them.”
Far from being caricatures of poverty and crime, the men and women who lodged in Mary’s house in St Michael’s Square were real people — warm, friendly, chatty and with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us.
Urban historians, archaeologists and geographers have been fighting a valiant rear-guard action against the old language of slumdom — carrying out painstaking research to show how one locality in Manchester differed from the next and trying to find people who can share handed-down knowledge of what life was really like.
It goes back to the 1980s and beyond, when a team of volunteers calling themselves the Manchester Early Dwellings Research Group would go round the streets, photographing and measuring the city’s original workers’ houses before they were demolished.
The Manchester Histories Festival and recent individual projects such as the excellent Bradford Pit Project, which told the story of east Manchester’s former mining community, have been key in bringing real Mancunian stories to life.
In this corner of the city too, there have been archaeological digs with open days attended by crowds of people, and public history events organised by the Friends of Angel Meadow.
So this newsletter brings, if not a call to action, an invitation to play your own role in seeking out and telling the history of this great city.
Research your family roots, meet up with your friends, organise community events, gather old photos, go out and measure things and record people’s memories before they are lost.
Manchester is your city after all and its story is yours to tell.
A postcard from Manchester: ‘Was at a concert last night’
I’ve become a collector of old postcards of Manchester — not just for the pictures on the front but for the stories they tell on the back.
Like a message in a bottle washing up on a beach, they are little windows into the lives and loves of people who passed only briefly through our city long ago.
The writer of this card, W, had spent a December day in 1904 on a business trip visiting the British Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Co, a huge US-owned factory in Trafford Park which later became Metropolitan Vickers.
There is still a Westinghouse Road in Trafford Park today.
After also taking in a concert, W promised Miss Henderson he would arrive home at their house near a remote crossroads in rural Perthshire, Scotland, at precisely 8.15pm the following day — the trains presumably being more reliable than they are today.
Join me for some Manchester history chat
Today I’m announcing a brand new addition to my Substack newsletter: the Once Upon a Time in Manchester subscriber chat.
This is a conversation space in the Substack app that I set up exclusively for my subscribers — kind of like a group chat or live hangout. I’ll post short prompts, thoughts, and updates that come my way, and you can jump into the discussion.
It’s also a place where you can share your own thoughts and family stories as well as asking me questions about family history or anything Manchester related.
To join our chat, you’ll need to download the Substack app, now available for both iOS and Android. Chats are sent via the app, not email, so turn on push notifications so you don’t miss conversation as it happens.
Don’t worry though if it’s not something you want to do. You’ll still receive your newsletter by email.
How to get chatting
Download the app by clicking this link or the button below. Substack Chat is now available on both iOS and Android.
Open the app and tap the Chat icon. It looks like two bubbles in the bottom bar, and you’ll see a row for my chat inside.
That’s it. Jump into my thread to say “hi”, and if you have any issues, check out Substack’s FAQ.