Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

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