Why visit Manchester? For the football and the vibrant contemporary music scene? For shopping, galleries and easy access to the Peak District National Park? They are all good reasons, but on my recent visit I was in search of the history and heritage of Manchester, and there was a surprising amount to be seen.
The Remarkable History And Heritage Of Manchester
Manchester was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and has a fascinating industrial and social history. I became more aware of this when I heard a talk by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester. He told us how – despite their poverty – workers in Manchester had refused to handle slave-produced cotton during the American Civil War. The city was later at the forefront of trade unionism and of the suffragette movement, and it was now a leader in green activism.
As business prospered it played its own part in social progress. The great public buildings of Manchester, built as the city’s wealth increased, were all linked to a philosophy that combined philanthropy with self-help.
All of this means that Manchester is home to a vast social, historical and architectural heritage. I visited three very different places, showcasing various aspects of the city’s heritage. But with a longer visit I could have seen much more.
The Pankhurst Centre
The Pankhurst Centre is the house where the widowed Emmeline Pankhurst lived with her family, and where the suffragette movement was born. It is now open as a small museum where you can learn about the Pankhursts and about the struggle for women’s suffrage, and for women’s rights more generally.
We were shown round by Rachel, who explained that the history of the house is as interesting as its exhibits. Now surrounded by – and owned by – a hospital, it was scheduled for demolition in the 1970s. It was immediately occupied by local activists who squatted in the house and learnt the skills needed to renovate it. Today, in a continuation of its campaigning history, it is the headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid as well as a museum.
The Pankhurst Centre is currently open to visitors on Thursdays and Sundays. See the website for details.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a much more substantial and prosperous dwelling than the Pankhurst Centre. It was the home of Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), a novelist, social commentator and wife of a Unitarian minister. She was very aware of her privilege and her role as a minister’s wife brought her into contact with some of the very poorest people in Manchester. She tried to use her writing to highlight social conditions, as well as participating actively in relief and education programmes.
Walking around the house you get an idea of the way a middle class family would have lived in Victorian times. You also learn something about the Gaskells’ extensive social circle of artists and social reformers (visitors to the house included Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin).
The house is open to visitors on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. There is a café and family-friendly activities are available.
By way of contrast, the Victoria Baths were a very grand public building. Opened by the local authority in 1906, Manchester’s “Water Palace” gave people a chance to swim and socialise. Turkish baths and a sauna were later added, and dances took place here in the winter months. It was also a social amenity, with bathrooms and a laundry for those who did not have their own facilities at home. However there was nothing utilitarian about the building, which is an elaborate confection of tiles, ironwork and stained glass.
The Baths closed in 1993 and fell into decline, but they are now undergoing a major process of restoration. The women’s pool is occasionally filled with water and used for swimming, and the building also hosts other events including cinema, beer festivals and comedy nights. The Turkish Baths – perhaps the most ornate part of the building – have featured as a location in many films and TV productions.
The Victoria Baths are open for events and to visitors on certain days. Look at the website for details.
Where Else To Find Heritage In Manchester
There are more places to explore the history and heritage of Manchester than I could mention here! If you are inspired to find out more about the conditions of the workers Elizabeth Gaskell wrote about you could try the Science and Industry Museum or, further afield, the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum in Burnley. And visit the People’s History Museum for stories of Manchester’s politics and social movements.
Elsewhere you can explore transport history and there are several important libraries and specialist museums. Have a look at the tourism website for more inspiration.
Where To Stay In Manchester
I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. This was a comfortable hotel with spacious rooms and good facilities (as well as great views of the city and the Peak District from my room on the 17th floor). It was within comfortable walking distance of all the heritage sites I visited.
Elsewhere in Manchester you can find a whole range of accommodation choices to suit all budgets.
And finally, have a look at some tips for Getting The Best Deal On Your City Break In Manchester.
Thanks to the Hyatt Regency Hotel for providing accommodation and to Marketing Manchester for arranging the tour of heritage sites.