Standing in the quaint parlour of a 19th-century villa in Manchester, I’m suddenly painfully aware of my scruffiness.
I’m tugging at yet another loose thread on the sleeve of my yellow jumper, briefly wishing I’d put more effort into getting dressed this morning. Alas, my battered Converse look much greyer than their purchase day, and my second-day hair has been thrown up hastily into a pony.
It’s not that the room is particularly elegant (quaint would be a better description), nor that the company we’re sharing it with is robed in their Sunday finest earlier. In fact, the only piece of true finery I can see is the faded purple, white, and green silk sash draped across the crocheted lace tablecloth of the small oak table.
Instead, my bashfulness is due entirely to the knowledge that within the four walls of this quaint, nondescript room, one of the most important movements of the 20th century first began to stir: the Women’s Suffragette movement.
Here, in what is now Manchester’s Pankhurst Centre, Moss Side-born Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Frustrated by a lack of progress and disillusioned with the more polite tactics of other moderate women’s vote groups, they were dedicated to practical activism (“deeds not words”) to secure the vote.
As a 21st century Australian female who grew up in the knowledge that voting equality was my right, not a privilege, it seems incomprehensible that a mere 100 years ago, that same right was believed a truly dangerous threat to the social fabric of the United Kingdom. Yet against unwavering opposition, this small group of brave and progressive Mancunian women took up arms (metaphorically and literally) to radically and militantly challenge the status quo of their time. Finally, years after the rest of the west, every woman in the UK was granted their right in 1928.
That uncompromising, radical spirit of the Suffragettes is the very same spirit that we keep discovering around every red-brick corner of the super-grungy-very-cool city today. It’s a spirit, we’re told, which has only grown stronger in the wake of the Ariana Grande concert bombing in May.
It’s hardly surprising either. So often, it’s the cities that sprout hastily from fields, nourished by machine grease and a burgeoning working class where true grit and spirit blossom – and Manchester was the queen bee of the Industrial Revolution’s hive. The exploding textiles and cotton industry transformed it from pretty little market town to “Cottonopolis”, the world’s first booming industrial city. In 1835, visitor Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the city:
“The footsteps of a busy crowd, the crunching wheels of machinery, the shriek of steam from boilers, the regular beat of the looms, the heavy rumble of carts, those are the noises from which you can never escape in the sombre half-light of these streets.”
While the soundtrack we hear in today’s Manchester is punctuated more by the chatter of cutlery in trendy eateries and the whoosh of spray cans painting life into the streets than it is by crunching machinery and shrieking boilers, for two hundred years this city has fostered the voices of those struggling for democracy and inclusion within its boundaries, the UK, and beyond.
From the Peterloo massacre, a cavalry-led charge on peaceful pro-democracy protestors in 1819 that left 15 dead, sprang the Chartist movement seeking equal men’s right and parliamentary reform, and the Manchester Guardian newspaper. For over two hundred years, the city has seen cotton boycotts and protests for equality, depressions and recessions, race riots and police clashes. Today, in the same grungy red-brick streets that also birthed The Smiths, Joy Division, Oasis, and the notorious Hacienda Club, we can feel that even in dark days, this is a city that’s always been fired by a different kind of spirit.
In 1996, the heart of the city lay in tatters after a 3,300lb IRA bomb flattened it. When May’s bombing left a country’s heart in tatters, hundreds of painted Worker Bees sprang up in droves around the city. It’s now July and they’re still there, swarming shop windows and painted on the sides of buildings. A symbol of a hardworking, defiant city that bands together when times are tough. A city that knows what it means to rebuild yourself from the ground up.
The week after the attack, we watched Mancunian poet Tony Walsh (aka Longfella) as he read ‘This is the Place’ on TV, finding words for a city when it could find none of its own:
“They’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat, all the dreamers and schemers who still teem through these streets. Because this is a place that has been through some hard times: oppressions, recessions, depressions, and dark times. But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit. Northern grit, Northern wit, and Greater Manchester’s lyrics.”
No one we meet in Manchester seems to be dwelling on recent events. There’s no anger, and as far as we can see, no hint of resentment. Restaurants are heaving, the nightlife is vibrant, and locals go about their days with their heads high.
We can hear the Mancunian pride in every conversation, feel Manchester’s spirit in every encounter. On the odd occasion, we venture a question about recent events, we’re more often met with a shrug and a simple, “we’re Manchester. We’re strong”. This is a city that’s always celebrated its diversity; there are hundreds of languages spoken and rich cultures and religions that have always co-existed peacefully.
And now, a few months after watching the vigil on TV, while standing in the parlour of the Pankhurst Centre, this symbolic place of defiance and pride, of deeds and not words – I think of Tony Walsh and his words again. And I finally understand exactly what he meant when he said: “This is the place that has helped shape the world”.
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We were hosted in Manchester by Visit Manchester as part of the #WorkerBeeWeekender campaign. A big thank you to the team for making our stay memorable. As always, all views are our own.
Check out #WorkerBeeWeekender, and #ComeTogetherManchester on Twitter or Instagram.