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29 Apr 2020 - 4 minutes

International Worker’s Day: Manchester’s radical history

Engels statue Manchester

Every year, the 1st May sees annual May Day celebrations around the world, a traditional holiday in many cultures to bring in the new Spring season. The day has also been known as International Workers Day since 1904 when trade unions chose the occasion to demand an eight-hour working day and universal peace.

With that in mind, we have taken this opportunity to look at the history of worker’s rights and highlight Manchester’s role in the movement. As the world’s first industrial city, Manchester served as an illustration of the pros and cons of technology and urbanisation, permitting the production of untold wealth on the one hand, and transforming radically the lives of its people on the other.

French historian and observer Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to Manchester in 1835 and summarised nicely the city’s dual nature, stating that: “Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish.”

This was a situation almost tailor-made to create change, and the history of Manchester and its Industrial Revolution is packed with moments and movements which shape our lives to this day.

The effects of the Industrial Revolution on Manchester barely need pointing out to any resident of the city. The Bridgewater Canal was the world’s first manmade waterway designed to bring coal into the city centre for industry, and Richard Arkwright’s engine-powered mill kicked off the textile-revolution which led to Manchester being nicknamed Cottonopolis and taking its place at the centre of global trade. This created huge economic gains and spurred a wave of factory construction which defines the city’s visual identity to this day, giving it a unique charm and heritage.

However, the proliferation of factories and mass production also led to overcrowding, poor working conditions and social stratification which lowered quality of life for Mancunians considerably. The Ancoats area is the archetypal example of this following its transformation from rolling countryside into the world’s first factory district.

Demonstrating the scale of the population increase, just over 20,000 people called Manchester home in 1773, but by 1803 that had increased more than five-fold to 108,000. That rapid growth, along with the air pollution spewed out by the factories, made it increasingly obvious that only a very small number of people truly benefitted from the new world of industry – and this realisation would change the world.

Philosophers from across Europe were attracted to Manchester to study the emerging industrial city that would soon become the norm across the continent and the world. Foremost among those thinkers was Friedrich Engels, a statue of whom you can now find outside HOME at First Street.

The son of a German industrialist, Engels found his purpose in Manchester. He was appalled by the conditions working people were forced to endure in the city, writing in The Condition of the Working Class in England, that: “The industrial revolution has [made] the workers [into] machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men.”

He would go on to use these experiences to create the most consequential work of economics in modern history along with his friend Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto was written in Manchester’s Chetham’s Library and went on define the terms of politics and the economy as we know it to this day.

In hindsight, it’s remarkable to think that the bustling, attractive and modern city we live in had such an impact on the world. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which Manchester and its people changed everything. We owe our present-day prosperity to the often appalling conditions endured by those who came before us, because the same Mancunians who suffered so much to bring the industrial world into being were the forbearers of the global labour movement which eventually gave us many of the privileges we enjoy today – shorter working weeks, paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, child labour laws, the minimum wage, sick pay and many more.

It all happened right here, in this city where we live and work. History lives and breathes in Manchester. International Worker’s Day – or May Day – this Friday 1st May is an opportunity to celebrate Manchester’s role in that past and look towards a future that is fairer for all.

To find out more about Manchester’s role in the history of the labour movement, the People’s History Museum on Bridge Street is the place to start when it reopens following lockdown. As the national museum of democracy and the story of its development in Britain, there is no better place to visit. Click here for more information >>

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