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Manchester’s history of rebellion

This article is over 15 years, 4 months old
The anti-war march in Manchester this Saturday will add to the city’s radical history. Ed Mynott and Esme Choonara look back on some of those events, many of which took place close to the route of this weekend’s march
Issue 2019
The Peterloo massacre
The Peterloo massacre


There is a myth that the abolition of the British slave trade came about because of pressure from enlightened liberal individuals such as William Wilberforce.

In reality, impetus for abolition came firstly from slave revolts, and also from a mass working class movement in Britain.

Much of Manchester’s wealth as a city was funded by the slave trade, yet thousands of workers in the city expressed their solidarity with those enslaved by the British.

The wave of radical agitation against the slave trade that swept Britain in the 1790s started in Manchester, with the first large scale use of petitioning as a political weapon.

In 1792, some 20,000 people in Manchester, which had a population of under 75,000 at the time, signed a petition supporting the abolition of slavery.

Frederick Engels

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The office in which Frederick Engels, the long time collaborator of Karl Marx, used to work is now the first floor of up-market department store Kendals.

Engels was sent to Manchester from Germany in 1842 to be trained in business. His father hoped that his son’s foolish romantic radicalism would be knocked out of him.

Instead, the young Engels made contact with the working class movement and collected material for his book “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, published in 1845.

Engels began to collaborate with Marx and together they developed their political views. Engels’ time in Manchester led him to put the stress on the power of the working class, encouraging Marx to shift his emphasis from the study of radical philosophy to “political economy”.

As revolutionary agitators, both Marx and Engels played an active part in the German revolution of 1848. After the defeat of the revolution, Engels – who had appeared on a wanted poster and risked serious danger if he was caught – moved back to Manchester in 1850.

He went back to work in the firm of Engels and Ermen for the next 20 years in order to earn money to support Marx and his family while Marx was writing his great work, Capital.

Engels hated working at the firm. He called the businessmen he worked with “the philistines”. He was delighted to retire in 1869 and left Manchester for London in 1870 where he began writing his own books again and taking part in the growing international socialist movement.

Little Ireland

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Form the early 19th century this area was mainly inhabited by Irish immigrant workers. It was one of the many districts of Manchester described by Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”.

Factories pumping pollution into the air surrounded the district. The streets were full of rubbish and offal, and 4,000 people lived in 200 back to back cottages with 20 people per house and one toilet for every 120 people.

Engels did not blame workers for these squalid conditions – he saw the collective power of the working class as the hope for the future and capable of overthrowing capitalism.

For that reason he dedicated his book “to the working classes of Great Britain”. He was scathing about the capitalists who he blamed for the miserable living conditions of the poor.

Peterloo Massacre

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On 16 August 1819, 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field – the area now surrounding the G-Mex where the

Labour conference is being held.

They were there to demonstrate for political reform, essentially the right to vote, and to hear radical leader Henry Hunt. The radical movement was becoming increasingly a mass working class movement.

At Peterloo, the property owners decided to go on the offensive. They sent in the yeomanry – made up of landowners, mill owners and shopkeepers, on horseback with cutlasses to disperse the crowd.

At the same time a regular cavalry unit and an artillery unit were sent in. Eleven people were murdered and around 400 maimed or injured.

The event was named the “Peterloo” Massacre in an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo.

Peterloo was a crucial episode in the education of the working class movement. It was an early example of what landowners and industrialists were prepared to do to break the movement.

Chartism – Ernest Jones’s law firm

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Chartism was the great working class movement for political representation and rights that swept Britain in the mid-19th century.

Ernest Jones was the deputy editor of the Chartist’s newspaper, the Northern Star. Funded by workers’ contributions, the Northern Star reached a circulation of 50,000 in 1839 – rivalling the Times.

Jones played a leading role in a wave of unrest in 1848. He was arrested and imprisoned for “sedition” and spent two years in solitary confinement under barbaric conditions, but this didn’t break his commitment to the struggle.

In 1867 Jones was one of the barristers who unsuccessfully defended the Manchester Martyrs.

These were three Irish republicans who were framed and executed for the murder of a police sergeant.

When he died in 1869, around 80,000 people lined the route of his funeral procession through the centre of Manchester.

The day before the funeral, Engels wrote, “The fellow really is a loss… Here in Manchester there is no one who can take his place with the workers.”

Lincoln’s statue

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On Brazenose Street is the statue of former US president Abraham Lincoln. It was erected in 1986 to commemorate the support received by the North in the American Civil War of 1861–1865 from workers in Britain, especially in Lancashire.

Written on the base of the statue is a message of support from a public meeting in Manchester at the time and Lincoln’s note of thanks.

Many British workers at the time supported the North in the fight against slavery.

It was also an issue of class as most of the British establishment were openly sympathetic to the Confederate slave owners of the South.

Suffragettes – Free Trade Hall

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Women in the mills around Manchester had a long tradition of organisation and radical politics. This was the backdrop to the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the home of the Pankhurst family in Manchester in 1903.

The role of the organisation was to target the government in the fight for women’s right to vote. Two years later, in October 1905, Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal shadow foreign secretary spoke at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.

As he was speaking Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, two members of the WSPU, stood up and unfurled banners saying “Votes for Women”. They demanded to know what a Liberal government would do for the emancipation of women.

They were evicted from the hall and then arrested when they tried to hold a meeting outside. They refused to pay fines and went to prison, Annie for three days and Christabel, who had allegedly spat at a police officer, for seven days.

Support for the women poured in, including from Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. The arrests sparked an explosion of direct action and agitation across the country.

This was the beginning of the movement that became known as the suffragettes.

Pan African congress

In 1945 over 100 delegates and observers attended a Pan African congress in Chorlton Town Hall in the south of Manchester.

The conference was part of an upsurge of post Second World War anti-colonial activity.

Delegates from across Africa, the West Indies and from organisations of Africans in Britain attended the congress. It also attracted far more trade union representatives than previous conferences.

One of the organisers was Ras Makonnen, who studied at Manchester University and raised funds for the movement through a chain of African restaurants in the city.

He said that the congress was held in Manchester because, “You could say that we had a right there, because of the age-old connections between cotton, slavery and the building up of such cities in England.”

Many young Africans who would go on to become the leaders of independent African nations were present.

They included the future president of Malawi Hastings Banda, the future president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah who went on to become the prime minister of Ghana.

Gardner’s engineers strike

Engineers in Manchester were at the centre of strikes and occupations in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1980, 2,400 workers at Gardner’s diesel engine factory in Eccles voted to occupy the factory. After seven weeks they defeated management’s plans to sack 590 workers.

2003 – anti-war protest

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Some 3,000 school students brought Manchester to a standstill when they blocked the junction at Oxford Road as the US and Britain invaded Iraq

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