From the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, which galvanised the campaign for extending the vote, to Free Trade and the birth of the Trade Union movement, Greater Manchester’s political history has helped shape the world.

In the 1840s, Friedrich Engels observations of the poor during his time in Manchester led to the creation of The Condition of the Working Class in England, and he worked with Karl Marx at Chetham’s Library, where you can still see their desk.

In 1844 a group of weavers in Rochdale helped establish the modern co-operative movement and in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union, dubbed by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes, who helped win the vote for women.


A massacre in Manchester that helped reshape the UK’s political history

The Peterloo Massacre occurred at St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws. By the beginning of 1819, the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the relative lack of suffrage in Northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism. In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.

Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

Historian Robert Poole has called the Peterloo Massacre one of the defining moments of its age and 200 years on the city marked its bicentenary on 16 August 2019 with a mass outdoor event on the site of St Peter’s Field – now largely occupied by Manchester Central Convention Centre. A commemorative plinth by artist Jeremy Deller was also unveiled.


A political movement with strong roots in Manchester that demanded reform of the political system

Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1858. It took its name from the People's Charter of 1838 and was a national protest movement, with particular strongholds of support in Northern England, the East Midlands, the Staffordshire Potteries, the Black Country, and the South Wales Valleys.

Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842, and 1848, when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons.

Chartism was launched in 1838 with a huge meeting was held in, Kersal near Salford on 24 September 1838 with speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of manhood suffrage, Joseph Rayner Stephens declared that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question".

The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime;
  2. The Secret Ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote;
  3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament, thereby enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor;
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament, thereby enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country;
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones;
  6. Annual Parliament Elections, thereby presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

Marx and Engels

Industrial conditions in Manchester helped inspire the two thinkers behind The Communist Manifesto.

In 1842, his parents sent the 22-year-old Engels to Manchester, England, a manufacturing centre. He was to work in Weaste in the offices of Ermen and Engels' Victoria Mill, which made sewing threads. Engels' father thought that working at the Manchester firm might make his son reconsider some of his liberal opinions. 

In Manchester, Engels met Mary Burns, a fierce young working woman with radical opinions. They began a relationship that lasted 20 years until her death in 1863.. Burns guided Engels through Manchester and Salford, showing him the worst districts for his research.

While in Manchester between October and November 1843, Engels wrote his first economic work, entitled "Outline of a Critique of Political Economy." Engels sent the article to Paris, where Marx published it in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher in 1844.

While observing the slums of Manchester in close detail, Engels took notes of its horrors, notably child labour, the despoiled environment, and overworked and impoverished labourers. He sent a trilogy of articles to Marx. These were published in the Rheinische Zeitung and then in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, chronicling the conditions among the working class in Manchester. He later collected these articles for his influential first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). Written between September 1844 and March 1845, the book was published in German in 1845. In the book, Engels described the "grim future of capitalism and the industrial age", noting the details of the squalor in which the working people lived. The book was published in English in 1887.

In the Summer of 1845 Marx and Engels studied together at Chetham’s Library in Manchester, which is now the oldest public library still open in the UK. You can still see the desk where the studied.

Manchester Liberalism

A political movement born in Manchester dedicated to Free Trade and less government control

Manchester Liberalism is a political, economic, and social movement of the 19th century that originated in Manchester. Led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, it won a wide hearing for its argument that free trade would lead to a more equitable society, making essential products available to all.

Its most famous activity was the Anti-Corn Law League that called for repeal of the Corn Laws that kept food prices high. It expounded the social and economic implications of free trade and laissez faire.

The Manchester School took the theories of economic liberalism advocated by classical economists such as Adam Smith and made them the basis for government policy. The School also promoted pacifism, anti-slavery, freedom of the press and separation of church and state.

The Suffragettes  

A direct-action political movement that helped win women the right to vote in the UK

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, who was born in Moss Side, Manchester, established the Women's Social and Political Union, dubbed by The Daily Mail as the Suffragettes. An all-women suffrage advocacy organisation dedicated to "deeds, not words", it became known for physical confrontations: its members smashed windows and assaulted police officers.

In 1905 two Suffragettes, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, disrupted a Liberal Party meeting at the Free Trade Hall and became the first Suffragettes to be arrested.

The Suffragettes fought for women’s right to vote up until 1914 when the First World War broke out. They then ceased most activity to focus on the war effort.

On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications as well as men over 21 – before this not all British men were enfranchised. About 8.4 million women gained the vote which they first cast on 14 December 1918.

In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was also passed, allowing women to be elected into parliament. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.

On 14 December 2018, 100 years on from the first opportunity that some women had the chance to vote, a mass event in St Peter’s Square saw a new statue of Emmeline Pankhurst unveiled.

The Modern Co-operative Movement

In 1844 the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established the Rochdale Principles, which are still followed by co-operatives around the world.

In 1844 the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers set out the Rochdale Principles; a set of principles which are followed by co-operative movements around the world.

They are:

  • Voluntary and open membership;
  • Anti-discrimination;
  • Motivations and rewards;
  • Democratic member control;
  • Member economic participation;
  • Democratic control;
  • Limitations on member compensation and appropriate use of surpluses;
  • Autonomy and independence;
  • Education, training, and information;
  • Cooperation among cooperatives;
  • Concern for community.

The original Rochdale Principles were officially adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in 1937. Updated versions of the principles were adopted by the ICA in 1966 as the Co-operative Principles and in 1995 as part of the Statement on the Co-operative Identity.

As of 2012, the number of memberships in cooperatives reached one billion and the turnover of the largest 300 co-operatives in the world reached £1.5 trillion.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum is located in Rochdale, a 13-minute train journey from Manchester City Centre.




Leave a Reply