MANCHESTER has had a global profile for more than 150 years, since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But today’s elegant core of converted warehouses and glass skyscrapers is a far cry from the smoke-covered sprawl George Orwell once described as “the belly and guts of the nation”. Its renewed pre-eminence expresses itself in various ways, most swaggeringly in its football, as home to the world’s most famous and wealthiest clubs – Manchester United and Manchester City, respectively – but also in a thriving music scene that has given birth to world-beaters as diverse as the Hallé Orchestra and Oasis. Its cultural significance is epitomized by the bi-annual Manchester International Festival that features upwards of twenty world premiers of new, creative talent. Moreover, the city’s celebrated concert halls, theatres, clubs and cafés feed off the cosmopolitan drive provided by the country’s largest student population outside London and a blooming, proud gay community.
There are plenty of sights, too: the centre possesses the Manchester Art Gallery, the National Football Museum and the fantastic People’s History Museum as well as the Museum of Science and Industry, while further out, to the west, the revamped Salford Quays are home to the prestigious Lowry arts centre, complete with a handsome selection of L.S. Lowry paintings, and the stirring and stunning Imperial War Museum North.
Despite a history stretching back to Roman times, and pockets of surviving medieval and Georgian architecture, Manchester is first and foremost a Victorian manufacturing city. Its rapid growth set the pace for the flowering of the Industrial Revolution elsewhere – transforming itself in just a hundred years from little more than a village to the world’s major cotton centre. The spectacular rise of Cottonopolis, as it became known, arose from the manufacture of vast quantities of competitively priced imitations of expensive Indian calicoes, using water and then steam-driven machines developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This rapid industrialization brought immense wealth for a few but a life of misery for the majority. The discontent this came to a head in 1819 when eleven people were killed at Peterloo, in what began as a peaceful demonstration against the oppressive Corn Laws. Things were, however, even worse when the 23-year-old Friedrich Engels came here in 1842 to work in his father’s cotton plant: the grinding poverty he recorded in his Condition of the Working Class in England was a seminal influence on his later collaboration with Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.
The Manchester Ship Canal, constructed in 1894 to entice ocean-going vessels into Manchester and away from burgeoning Liverpool, played a crucial part in sustaining Manchester’s competitiveness. From the late 1950s, however, the docks, mills, warehouses and canals were in dangerous decline. The main engine of change turned out to be the devastating IRA bomb, which exploded outside the Arndale shopping centre in June 1996, wiping out a fair slice of the city’s commercial infrastructure. Rather than simply patching things up, the city council embarked on an ambitious rebuilding scheme, which transformed the face of the city forever.