Manchester: a radical overview

So, what do we mean when we talk about radical Manchester? We’ve all heard ‘radical’ as a surfing cliché but Manchester is better known as radical in the progressive political sense. And over the years, Manchester has been pretty rad, dude.

“Radical: Advocating […] thorough or complete political or social change;”

Manchester itself was a radical development. People left the countryside hoping for a better life in the new industrialised cities. It was social change on a massive scale. Once they arrived, new ideas took hold and people demanded a say.

The Peoples History Museum (PHM) is the national museum of democracy and it’s right here in Manchester. Levellers, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Luddites, Peterloo protestors, Chartists, unions, civil rights movements and LGBT campaigners, they all demanded change and sometimes against terrible odds.

If social history bored you at school, PHM should be at the top of your list. Firstly, it’s a very cool, brilliantly thought-out visitor-friendly attraction. Secondly, it’s dedicated to the story of ordinary people and the organisations they created to make things better for everyone. It’s a story that belongs to us all.

The Vote

The funny thing about radical ideas, is that once they’re adopted, they don’t seem so radical anymore. Does it feel subversive that all men and women of a certain age can vote? That only happened in 1918 for men and 1928 for women. Not long before that, ‘universal suffrage’ was crazy talk.

Talking about suffrage, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were perhaps the best-known and most radical Suffragettes. Born and raised in Manchester, they were seen by some as terrorists but their “deeds, not words” strategy helped to achieve their goal of Votes for Women. Their former home is now The Pankhurst Centre, a museum and women’s community centre.

Shopping for change

Before the Rochdale Pioneers, working people of Rochdale had no choice but to spend their money on poor quality staple goods, dubiously measured out and often at artificially high prices. In 1844, Rochdale Pioneers changed all of that by opening their own shop on Toad Lane, Rochdale.

The ‘store’ was owned and run by its members and went on to become a model for the worldwide Co-operative movement. Thankfully, Toad Lane has survived and is now Rochdale Pioneers Museum. Who would’ve thought a shop could be radical?

Friends in deed

Of course, radical thinking can also be religious. Imagine rejecting the authority of The Church in the 1600s? No churches, no priests, no rituals? The Quakers did just that and pioneered the abolition of slavery, pacifism, social reform and even the evacuation of children from Nazi Germany.

Quakers have been active in Manchester since the 1600s and there has been a Friends Meeting House on Mount Street since 1795. They gave first aid there to victims of the Peterloo Massacre and they’re still busy today as a meeting place for all kinds of talks and events (no religion necessary).

Mightier than the sword

There’s something about Elizabeth Gaskell’s books that make perfect BBC period dramas. But Mrs. Gaskell was more than just a romantic novelist. She lived in Manchester in the 1850s and what she witnessed every day turned her into a social reformer. Chapters of her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, give as grim and heart-wrenching account of poverty in the industrial age as anything you’ll find by Marx or Engels.

By using Manchester as the backdrop, Gaskell helped to make social reform a national talking point. Now a fully restored historic attraction, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has a long list of famous visitors (Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens…). Time to add your name to the visitor book?

If the writings of Marx and Engels are of interest, you can get as close as close can be at Chetham’s Library. The revolutionary pair developed their ideas there in the 1840s. Marx and Engels have long gone but their favourite alcove, desk and even the books they borrowed are still there.

Throughout the history of radicalism, people have found a voice by producing their own pamphlets, placards, posters, articles and books. It’s easy for such things to be lost but thankfully, there are some people who had the foresight to collect them. The Working Class Movement Library started in the 1950s as the personal collection of Ruth and Eddie Frow. Today, it’s a lively, friendly reference library tracing more than 200 years of the working class movement.

Clubbing together

Social change was a big part of radicalism, but so was ‘self-betterment’. Most people didn’t have access to education so instead, they created all kinds of clubs and societies for pretty much every interest and hobby you can think of. Especially science, literature and the arts.

The Portico Library on Mosley Street was opened in 1806 and is still an independent library today. It also hosts exhibitions and events so be sure to check their calendar.

Mechanics Institutes were set up all over the country to provide mechanics (as in engineering) and chemistry classes for working men. The Mechanics Institute in Manchester dates back to 1824 and is the birthplace of the TUC. It’s a grade ll* listed building that still offers rooms for hire in uniquely historic surroundings.

Just getting together was considered dangerously radical once. But like-minded people were able to socialise in places like sports and social clubs. Thousands have closed and disappeared but some remain. The Miners Community Arts and Music Centre is a former a working men’s club in Moston. It was rescued from dereliction by volunteers and their idea was as radical as anything in the past – provide a safe place for local bands, artists and film-lovers. Keep an eye on Moston Small Cinema for special screening events.

Political football

Even Manchester United are rooted in the idea of working men forming their own club. It all started in 1878 by Newton Heath railway workers. A lot has changed since then. When Manchester United was bought by wealthy Americans in 2005, some fans had had enough of football as big business. They decided to start all over again and FC United of Manchester was born.

Now a fully-fledged team with a lovely home ground, FC United is affordably-priced, democratically-run and the largest fan-owned football club in the UK.

Exercising your rights

In 1932, around 500 ramblers (keen walkers, mostly from Manchester) set out for Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. So, what’s so radical about 500 people going for a walk? Well, they were trespassing. It was illegal, there were violent clashes with gamekeepers and five ramblers were imprisoned.

The Mass Trespass was the start of public access to the countryside and our right to roam. The Peak District is only an hour or outside Manchester, so grab your walking boots and follow in the ramblers’ footsteps.