by N. D. Wright.
Anthony Burgess, the famous Manchester writer once said: ‘It’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.’ So, with this in mind, I would like to share some of the major achievements of my home city, Manchester.
From a group of guys in a pub forming the first football league to a Nobel prize winner splitting the atom, this once sleepy and inconsequential northern English town – with a population of only three thousand in the middle-ages – gradually became a dynamic city of remarkable ‘firsts’ – not least, the world’s first industrialised city, leading the Industrial Revolution with technological innovations and extensive textile manufacturing.
In this article (a two-part series), we will explore the first five (of ten) amazing facts from Manchester’s wide-ranging and revolutionary history.
1. The first free public library
In 1653, Britain’s first free public reference library opened in Manchester. Financed by the Mancunian wealthy textile merchant Humphrey Chetham, it is actually the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, being in continuous use since its opening.
The Library building itself dates from 1421, having previously been a church, a college, and even a prison and ammunitions store during the English Civil War. The library began to acquire its impressive collection in 1655 and today is home to over 100,000 books, assorted documents and manuscripts, the majority of which were published before 1851.
Chetham’s was also where political philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held meetings when Marx came to Manchester in 1845 (Engels’s father owned a textiles factory here). Meetings which ultimately led to their collaboration on The Communist Manifesto.
2. The Industrial Revolution
Almost every aspect of modern life has been shaped by the period we call the Industrial Revolution (from the mid-18th to mid-19th century). And it is said to have all started with the opening of the Manchester Bridgewater Canal in Castlefield in July 1761.
For the first time in human history, hand production was replaced by mechanised factory processes. This resulted in a dramatic rise in trade and business, marking a gradual but major improvement in general standard of living, culminating in the vast material wealth and technology we see today.
Nicknamed “Cottonopolis” for its major role in the textile industry, Manchester was largely responsible for catapulting us into technological modernity, lifting an unprecedented number of people out of poverty across the world.
Since the 1960s, Manchester has established itself as a global musical landmark with such world-beating pop-rock bands as Herman’s Hermits, 10cc, Joy Division, The Smiths, Oasis, and Take That, but back in the Victorian era it was all about classical music and, not the pop song, but the symphony. And Manchester is home to The Hallé, the UK’s first symphony orchestra, and the fourth oldest in the world.
In May 1857, the German pianist and conductor Charles Hallé founded the orchestra for a five-month season of performances at the UK’s (and possibly the world’s) largest ever fine-art exhibition, the Art Treasures Exhibition of Great Britain, also held in Manchester.
Over a century and a half later, the orchestra and choir are still going strong, performing regularly across the UK, not least at Manchester’s Bridgewater hall where they have been resident since 1996.
Today, Vegetarianism is often promoted by doctors as well as taken up as trendy by glamourous celebrities. However, more than 200 years ago it was almost unheard of when a Christian preacher in Salford, Reverend William Cowherd, began encouraging his congregation to become opt for a meat-free diet. As such, Reverend Cowherd is now recognised as one of the early key figures in the West to advocate the theory of vegetarianism.
In his small chapel – ironically named The Beefsteak – Cowherd preached a sermon on January 18th, 1809, in which he asked his congregation to refrain from eating meat. This eventually culminated in the founding of the Vegetarian Society in 1847, also in Manchester, which over the last century has included such notable and varied members as the writer George Bernard Shaw, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and legendary pop star Paul McCartney.
5. The Football League
Travel most anywhere in the world, mention the city of Manchester, and you are bound to hear someone say ‘Manchester United!’. This is hardly surprising since United is the world’s most successful and widely supported football club, (with a brand valued at around $1.2 billion). But a lesser-known and just as impressive fact is that on 17th April 1888, Manchester gave birth to the world’s very first professional football league.
At a meeting at the Royal Hotel, Piccadilly, the competition was created, with the first match season beginning in September comprising twelve clubs from across Northern and Central England – Ironically, not including the city’s most famous side, Manchester United, otherwise known as ‘the red devils’, who were then only a small local team by the name of Newton Heath LYR Football Club (they didn’t adopt the name Manchester United until 1902 when a new version of the club had been established).
United’s home ground, Old Trafford football stadium, remains one of Manchester’s most visited tourist attractions with millions each year either attending football matches or one of the organised tours of the stadium.