Thursday, Jul 07, 2022

Why Manchester Loves The Worker Bee

Textiles mills and football are not the only reasons which make Manchester in England famous. Take a tour of the city's landmarks this International Workers' Day, observed on May 1 every year, to learn how it also became the hub of people's movements

Sculpture of Manchester Worker Bee
Sculpture of Manchester Worker Bee Image credit: Joyce Nelson /

Manchester, now a city and a metropolitan borough in north-western England (United Kingdom), rose to fame as the hub of industrial revolution, as the use of machines fast forwarded its textile industry. With subsequent development of transportation (including the opening of the first steam passenger railway) that eased the flow of raw material and export of finished products, entry of new businesses, Manchester grew into a sprawling industrial city that would become a model for others. 

The industriousness of the Mancunians (as the people of Manchester are known as) was compared to the ‘worker bee’ and its factories known as beehives. The symbolic reference became so popular that the Worker Bee was incorporated in Manchester’s coat of arms in 1842.


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Today, the symbol has become entwined with the spirit of Manchester. From people inking themselves with the symbol as a mark of solidarity after the Manchester Arena terror attack to using it as street art to thank the NHS workers toiling at COVID-19 hospitals, the Worker Bee is a symbol of hope and encouragement, and can be seen on many public buildings or otherwise.

But the industrial revolution also led to a new society, the wealthy factory owners and the impoverished working class. Money became a tool for gaining political favours. The working class, led by radical thinkers, began to ask for reformations in parliamentary representation, changes in administrative regulations, better living conditions and availability of food, which led to confrontations.

One such infamous confrontation was the Peterloo Massacre that took place 200 years ago, which is still studied by political scientists to understand state repression of radical protests. On August 16, 1819, at the St Peter’s Field in Manchester, nearly 60,000 people had gathered to demand a change in parliamentary representation, which they thought would, among other things, beat the Corn Laws and thus alleviate poverty. Famous orator Henry Hunt was to address the gathering. But according to reports, local yeomanry and mounted military at the behest of the magistrates, charged at the crowd, killing around 18 and fatally wounding a large number of people. The confrontation became known as the Peterloo Massacre (as opposed to Waterloo).

According to Oscar-nominated writer and producer-director Mike Leigh, the mound in front of Manchester Central (the landmark convention centre carved out of the eponymous former railway station) is the place where the crowd stood to listen to orator Hunt and others. Leigh had deeply researched into the unfolding of the massacre and the local landmarks for his film Peterloo, which was first screened at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2018.

In 2019, the 200th anniversary of the fateful event was observed with a series of events, including the unveiling of a Memorial and an interactive participation by local people and families of the people who had joined the meeting two centuries ago.

When you are visiting Manchester, you may drop in at the Sir Ralph Abercromby public house located between Jackson’s Row and Bootle Street. The pub, which predates the massacre [though the building has seen many changes since then and was  saved from being demolished under a real estate development plan], showcases a mural executed by artist Paul Fitzgerald based on the fateful event and unveiled last year. Fitzgerald is also the chair and founding member of the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Committee.

While in Manchester, in between visiting the football clubs, do take out some time to visit the People’s History Museum (PHM). Called the national museum of democracy, it is a place ‘to learn about, be inspired by and get involved in ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, co-operation, and a fair world for all’. The museum, through its galleries, exhibitions and workshops, and participatory programmes, focuses on revolutions and reformers, the workers and the voters, etc. 

If you are interested in knowing about what happened on the day of Peterloo Massacre, you may seek permission to see the collection of original newspapers from 1819 archived at the museum. They also have some of the rare memorabilia connected with the event, such as the Peterloo Cane donated by the family of one of the protestors (Charles Worsely) present on that day, and the Peterloo Handkerchief, part of the souvenirs created after the massacre; etc. They also have Living History workshops where interactive drama activities and gallery walks acquaint you with important events, including the Peterloo Massacre.

It was in Manchester that the seeds of suffragette were sown. Displays in PHM highlights how women had to fight for the voting rights alongside men in the general elections. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to strengthen the demand for women’s right to vote. The first meeting was held at her home, which has now been converted to the Pankhurst Centre. The movement was further intensified by Annie Kenney. Along with Christabel Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter), she was imprisoned in 1905 for standing up to Sir Edward Grey, a British statesman, on the issue of women’s suffrage. In 2018, Manchester honoured Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney by unveiling their statues to mark the centenary of British women casting their vote for the first time in the general election. 

It remains a wonder how workers’ right and radical thinking would have shaped up if two great minds, Friedrich Engels and Karl Heinrich Marx, had not met in Manchester. Although they arrived in 19th century England from Germany for different reasons, it was the condition of the working class in Manchester and its neighbourhood that gave them food for thought. It is said that Engels’ treatise on ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ caught the attention of Marx, and the latter would often come down to Manchester from London to study and discuss with Engels. 

The Chetham’s Library (commissioned by wealthy landowner, textile merchant and banker Humphrey Chetham in 1653 as part of a school for poor boys) still preserves the alcove and the desk where the two would study together though the famous stained glass window that lighted up the corner was damaged in a storm in 1875 and was replaced by plain glass. Visitors can still browse through the books that the two philosophers would refer to. Outside the library, it is said that The Crescent Pub was also a favourite meeting place of theirs.