All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it! Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park. My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park. We used to have Sports Days there. In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other. At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”. Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”! When we were older, we took our little cousin there. I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance. It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know. I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.
In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes. Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere. This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.
Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery. Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 . I’ve been going there ever since it first opened. It’s extremely nice.
Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819. The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways. That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign. Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.
With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK. I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.
I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land. However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people. Hooray! (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)
There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws. Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws. I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job. Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”. In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting. I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.
Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later. This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country. 40,000 people turned up! And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on. More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally. There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with. And it all started here. Brilliant!
It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre. And the aerial shots were amazing. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before. They looked so good! And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire. The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.
I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise. Oh well. However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis. And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts! I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I? We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908. It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.
I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally. Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert. I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009! I have spent so much time in that park over the years! Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.