1980s >> 1984 >> no-954-february-1984

Mancunian Monument

The traditional music-hall vision of Manchester, as a perpetually rainy city where the skyline is dominated by cotton mill chimneys and heavy neo-gothic architecture, is becoming less true as the larger mills of Ancoats are one by one being demolished. The city centre, however, retains its nineteenth century aspect, as the buildings raised to house the financial side of the cotton trade are now occupied by banks and estate agents. One exception to this, a building which keeps to its original use, is the Town Hall in Albert Square, a huge gothic edifice constructed primarily to house the machinery of local government but also as a monument to Mancunian capitalism’s wealth and power.

The source of this wealth and power was the cotton industry, which settled in South East Lancashire in the eighteenth century, in a climate ideal for processing cotton. By 1850 the industry had become centralised in Lancashire and was functionally divided between the northern weaving area and the richer southern spinning districts. Manchester’s role in this was twofold, as a fine spinning town and as the major market for yarn and piece goods. Because the cotton industry at this time depended heavily on its export trade the Mancunian capitalists shed their eighteenth century mercantilist preferences in favour of laissez faire and the Anti-Corn Law League, to such effect that a famous building — the Free Trade Hall — was dedicated to their fervent economic gospel.

In 1780, Manchester’s population was 40,000, a figure which increased by over 100,000 during the next fifty years (A. Briggs, Victorian Cities, 1975, Chapter 3). This development brought with it enormous squalor, which impressed even some contemporary apologists for capitalism but which the local government, feudal in style, was unable to ease, even supposing it had shown any will to do so. Fear of proletarian radicalism and a desire for local autonomy led to the local capitalists incorporating Manchester as a borough in 1838, a move supported by the Whig national government which saw municipal boroughs as a safeguard against Chartism.

The new elite successfully defeated Chartism but the squalor which is a natural accompaniment to capitalism festered on. A severe slump in the early 1860s (wrongly attributed to the American Civil War) exposed the local authorities’ inability to cope with such typical problems of capitalism. They were successful, however, in blaming this onto a lack of office space in the then Town Hall in King Street and thus it was decided to build a new town hall, on the grounds that this would enable a more effective administration of Manchester’s wedge of British capitalism.

The second Manchester Town Hall was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, whose plan was chosen principally for the amount of office space it allowed. The original estimated cost of £250,000 was over-spent at least four-fold in the nine years that it took to construct the edifice, as the borough decided that their new administrative centre should also be a monument to themselves and to the glory of industrial capitalism which they personified. Proudly, they allowed Waterhouse to add many decorative extras.

The local dignitaries decided that it would be fitting to open so impressive a pile only with a spectacular ceremony spread over three days in September 1877. They at first hoped that Queen Victoria would perform the opening rites but she refused, either as a result of pressure from her Tory ministers at Westminster, who disliked “liberal” Manchester or because if her own antipathy towards the then mayor, Abel Heywood, who had been a chartist. (At the time the press largely favoured the first reason but it is obvious from contemporary broadsheets and recollections of the event that Victoria’s non-appearance was the result of her opposition to Chartism. In 1877, as today, the press were ready to suppress a story which could damage the royal figureheads of capitalism.)

A most depressing aspect of the opening ceremonies was the role of the working class. On the first two days they assumed the part of onlookers, cheering their masters who were being honoured in the ceremonies. Finally, on the third day they clamoured impatiently to be allowed to participate in a trade societies’ procession, rigidly controlled by the bourgeoisie, and so were able to offer their slaves’ contribution to the lauding of their masters and of the system which condemned them to squalor.

This happened in spite of a general air of industrial unrest. Mancunian joiners had been on strike for four months before the Town Hall opening and a wage cut imposed on the spinners in Bolton had precipitated a strike by 10,000 of them. Thus, many of those who gave homage to the bourgeoisie on those days were in direct and open dispute with them over their very lives.

It was also known how vastly expensive the new building was (only the police force had more spent on it during the 1870s). It was also common knowledge that deep and widespread deprivation existed in the city, especially in Ancoats and Ardwick. Yet there was little uneasiness expressed at the all-too-obvious contrast between opulence and squalor, even among the working class crowded into the slums and herded each day to their exploitation in the mills.

This—to any class-conscious person—illogical behaviour was the norm as the late nineteenth century saw a great rise in what is known as civic culture — the attempt by a local elite to smother class awareness with provincial loyalties — the success of which may be measured by the fact that the working class are often so eager to honour their exploiters.

Nowadays, provincial or civic loyalties still make good copy for the media, which exhorts to attend the Manchester Show, to cheer for City or United or to get concerned with the latest real-life drama among the cast of Coronation Street. In the same way, national loyalties are promoted through pictures of the Prince and Princess of Wales on the ski slopes or by assuming that we will all cheer our local “hero” from the Falklands. The intention of all this is to create a false identity between employers and employed, helped on with mixtures of local and national chauvinism. In Manchester, as elsewhere, the working class co-operate in their own deception, which may enable them to temporarily forget such acute social problems as poverty, nowadays often harshened by unemployment; currently 16 per cent of the population of the North West, and 20 per cent of adult males there, are out of work (Employment Gazette, 1983). It may also help blot out the dreadful housing conditions in the horrific Hulme Crescents, in the crumbling Fort Berwick or one of the many decaying and vandalised estates. The popular ignoring of such symptoms of capitalism’s inability to provide properly for its people is an obstacle to workers seeing through the falsehoods of capitalist ideology to the true cause of their problems.

The process of smothering class consciousness with local or national chauvinism has been going on for a long time now. It has been very successful and has become smooth and sophisticated in its operation but can only last as long as the working class fail to question their relationship with their exploiting class local, civic, national and world wide.

John Critchfield

Leave a Reply