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Some merits of Manchester

Updated Friday 27th May 2016

In Manchester, William is struck by the city's dignity - and woollen socks.

I will suppose the reader not to be going to Oxford, but, in compliance with the scheme of this paper, to Manchester, where there is perhaps no other reason for his going. He will there, for one thing, find the supreme type of the railroad hotel which in England so promptly shelters and so kindly soothes the fluttered exile. At Manchester, even more than at Liverpool, we are imagined in the immense railroad station hotel, which is indeed perhaps superorganized and over-convenienced after an American ideal: one does not, for instance, desire a striking, or even a ticking, clock in the transom above one's bedroom door; but the like type of hotel is to be found at every great railroad centre or terminal in England, and it is never to be found quite bad, though of course it is sometimes better and sometimes worse. It is hard to know if it is more hotel or more station; perhaps it is a mixture of each which defies analysis; but in its well-studied composition you pass, as it were, from your car to your room, as from one chamber to another. This is putting the fact poetically; but, prosaically, the intervening steps are few at the most; and when you have entered your room your train has ceased to be. The simple miracle would be impossible in America, where our trains, when not shrieking at the tops of their whistles, are backing and filling with a wild clangor of their bells, and making a bedlam of their stations; but in England they

     "Come like shadows, so depart,"

and make no sound within the vast caravansary where the enchanted traveller has changed from them into a world of dreams.

Manchester Town Hall Creative commons image Icon Nightfall404 under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Manchester Town Hall


These hotels are, next to the cathedrals, perhaps the greatest wonder of England, and in Manchester the railway hotel is in some ways more wonderful than the cathedral, which is not so much planned on our native methods. Yet this has the merit, if it is a merit, of antedating our Discovery by nearly a century, and pre-historically it is indefinitely older. My sole recorded impression of it is that I found it smelling strongly of coal-gas, such as comes up the register when your furnace is mismanaged; but that is not strange in such a manufacturing centre; and it would be paltering with the truth not to own a general sense of the beauty and grandeur in it which no English cathedral is without. The morning was fitly dim and chill, and one could move about in the vague all the more comfortably for the absence of that appeal of thronging monuments which harasses and bewilders the visitor in other cathedrals; one could really give one's self up to serious emotion, and not be sordidly and rapaciously concerned with objects of interest. Manchester has been an episcopal see only some fifty years; before that the cathedral was simply T' Owd Church, and in this character it is still venerable, and is none the less so because of the statue of Oliver Cromwell which holds the chief place in the open square before it. Call it an incongruity, if you will, but that enemy of episcopacy is at least not accused of stabling his horses in The Old Church at Manchester, or despoiling it of its sacred images and stained glass, and he merits a monument there if anywhere.

With the constantly passing trams which traverse the square, he is undoubtedly more significant of modern Manchester than the episcopacy is, and perhaps of that older Manchester which held for him against the king, and that yet older Manchester of John Bradford, the first martyr of the Reformation to suffer death at the stake in Smithfield. Of the still yet older, far older Manchester, which trafficked with the Greeks of Marseilles, and later passed under the yoke of Agricola and was a Roman military station, and got the name of Maen-ceaster from the Saxons, and was duly bedevilled by the Danes and mishandled by the Normans, there may be traces in the temperament of the modern town which would escape even the scrutiny of the hurried American. Such a compatriot was indeed much more bent upon getting a pair of cotton socks, like those his own continent wears almost universally in summer, but a series of exhaustive visits to all the leading haberdashers in Manchester developed the strange fact that there, in the world-heart of the cotton-spinning industry, there was no such thing to be found. In Manchester there are only woollen socks, heavier or lighter, to be bought, and the shopmen smile pityingly if you say, in your strange madness, that woollen socks are not for summer wear. Possibly, however, it was not summer in Manchester, and we were misled by the almanac. Possibly we had been spoiled by three weeks of warm, sunny rain on the Welsh coast, and imagined a vain thing in supposing that the end of August was not the beginning of November.


I thought Manchester, however, as it shows itself in its public edifices, a most dignified town, with as great beauty as could be expected of a place which has always had so much to do besides looking after its figure and complexion. The very charming series or system of parks, public gardens, and playgrounds, unusual in their number and variety, had a sympathetic allure in the gray, cool light, even to the spectator passing in a hurried hansom. They have not the unity of the Boston or Chicago parkways, and I will own that I had not come to Manchester for them. What interested me more were the miles and miles of comfortable-looking little brick houses in which, for all I knew, the mill-labor dwelt. Very possibly it did not; the mills themselves are now nearly all, or mostly, outside of Manchester, and perhaps for this reason I did not find the slums, when shown them, very slummy, and I saw no such dreadful shapes of rags and dirt as in Liverpool. We passed through a quarter of large, old-fashioned mansions, as charming as they were unimagined of Manchester; but these could not have been the dwellings of the mill-hands, any more than of the mill-owners. The mill-owners, at least, live in suburban palaces and villas, which I fancy by this time are not

     —"pricking a cockney ear,"

as in the time of Tennyson's "Maud."

What wild and whirling insolences, however, the people who have greatly made the greatness of England have in all times suffered from their poets and novelists, with few exceptions! One need not be a very blind devotee of commercialism or industrialism to resent the affronts put upon them, when one comes to the scenes of such mighty achievement as Liverpool, and Manchester, and Sheffield; but how mildly they seem to have taken it all—with what a meek subordination and sufferance! One asks one's self whether the society of such places can be much inferior to that of Pittsburg, or Chicago, or St. Louis, which, even from the literary attics of New York, we should not exactly allow ourselves to spit upon. Practically, I know nothing about society in Manchester, or rather, out of it; and I can only say of the general type, of richer or poorer, as I saw it in the streets, that it was uncommonly good. Not so many women as men were abroad in such weather as we had, and I cannot be sure that the sex shows there that superiority physically which it has long held morally with us. One learns in the north not to look for the beautiful color of the south and west; but in Manchester the average faces were intelligent and the figures good.


With such a journal as the Manchester Guardian still keeping its high rank among English newspapers, there cannot be question of the journalistic sort of thinking in the place. Of the sort that comes to its effect in literature, such as, say, Mrs. Gaskell's novels, there may also still be as much as ever; and I will not hazard my safe ignorance in a perilous conjecture. I can only say that of the Unitarianism which eventuated in that literature, I heard it had largely turned to episcopacy, as Unitarianism has in our own Boston. I must not forget that one of our religions, now a dying faith, was invented in Manchester by Ann Lee, who brought, through the usual persecutions, Shakerism to such spiritual importance as it has now lost in these States. Only those who have known the Shakers, with their good lives and gentle ways, can regret with me the decline of the celibate communism which their foundress imagined in her marital relations with the Lancashire blacksmith she left behind her.

I am reminded (or perhaps instructed) by Mr. Hope Moncrieff in Black's excellent Guide to Manchester that before Mrs. Gaskell's celebrity the fitful fame of De Quincey shed a backward gleam upon his native place, which can still show the house where he was probably born and the grammar-school he certainly ran away from. In my forgetfulness, or my ignorance, that Manchester was the mother of this tricksy master-spirit of English prose, who was an idol of my youth, I failed to visit either house. The renown of Cobden and of Bright is precious to a larger world than mine; and the name of the stalwart Quaker friend of man is dear to every American who remembers the heroic part he played in our behalf during our war for the Union. It is one of the amusing anomalies of the British constitution, that the great city from whose political fame these names are inseparable should have had no representation in Parliament from Cromwell's time to Victoria's. Fancy Akron, Ohio, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, without a member of Congress!

The "Manchester school" of political economy has long since passed into reproach if not obloquy with people for whom a byword is a potent weapon, and perhaps the easiest they can handle, and I am not myself so extreme a laissez-faireist as to have thought of that school with pathos in the city of its origin; but I dare say it was a good thing in its time. We are only now slowly learning how to apply the opposite social principles in behalf of the Man rather than the Master, and we have not yet surmounted all the difficulties or dangers of the experiment. It is droll how, in a tolerably well-meaning world like this, any sort of contempt becomes inclusive, and a whole population suffers for the vice, or it may be the virtue, of a very small majority, or a very powerful minority. Probably the most liberal and intelligent populations of Great Britain are those of Manchester and Birmingham, names which have stood for a hard and sordid industrialism, unrelieved by noble sympathies and impulses. It is quite possible that a less generous spirit than mine would have censured the "Manchester school" for the weather of the place, and found in its cold gray light the effect of the Gradgrind philosophy which once wrapt a world of fiction in gloom.


I can only be sure that the light, what little there was of it, was very cold and gray, but it quite sufficed to show the huge lowries, as the wagons are called, passing through the streets with the cotton fabrics of the place in certain stages of manufacture: perhaps the raw, perhaps the finished material. In Manchester itself one sees not much else of "the cotton-spinning chorus" which has sent its name so far. The cotton is now spun in ten or twenty towns in the nearer or farther neighborhood of the great city, as every one but myself and some ninety millions of other Americans well know. I had seen something of cotton-mills in our Lowell, and I was eager, if not willing, to contrast them with the mills of Manchester; but such of these as still remained there were, for my luckless moment, inoperative. Personal influences brought me within one or two days of their starting up; one almost started up during my brief stay; but a great mill, employing perhaps a thousand hands, cannot start up for the sake of the impression desired by the aesthetic visitor, and I had to come away without mine.

I had to come away without that personal acquaintance with the great Manchester ship-canal which I almost equally desired. Coming or going, I asked about it, and was told, looking for it from the car window, there, there it was! but beyond a glimpse of something very long and very straight marking the landscape with lines no more convincing than those which science was once decided, and then undecided, to call canals on the planet Mars, I had no sight of it. I do not say this was not my fault; and I will not pretend that the canal, like the mills of Manchester, was not running. I dare say I was not in the right hands, but this was not for want of trying to get into them. In the local delusion that it was then summer, those whose kindness might have befriended the ignorance of the stranger were "away on their holidays": that was exactly the phrase.

When, by a smiling chance, I fell into the right hands and was borne to the Cotton Exchange I did not fail of a due sense of the important scene, I hope. The building itself, like the other public buildings of Manchester, is most dignified, and the great hall of the exchange is very noble. I would not, if I could, have repressed a thrill of pride in seeing our national colors and emblems equalled with those of Great Britain at one end of the room, but these were the only things American in the impression left. We made our way through the momently thickening groups on the floor, and in the guidance of a member of the exchange found a favorable point of observation in the gallery. From this the vast space below showed first a moving surface of hats, with few silk toppers among them, but a multitude of panamas and other straws. The marketing was not carried on with anything like the wild, rangy movement of our Stock Exchange, and the floor sent up no such hell-roaring (there is no other phrase for it) tumult as rises from the mad but not malign demons of that most dramatic representation of perdition. The merchants, alike staid, whether old or young, congregated in groups which, dealing in a common type of goods, kept the same places till, toward three o'clock, they were lost in the mass which covered the floor. Even then there was no uproar, no rush or push, no sharp cries or frenzied shouting; but from the crowd, which was largely made up of elderly men, there rose a sort of surd, rich hum, deepening ever, and never breaking into a shriek of torment or derision. It was not histrionic, and yet for its commercial importance it was one of the most moving spectacles which could offer itself to the eye in the whole world.

I cannot pretend to have profited by my visit to that immensely valuable deposit of books, bought from the Spencer family at Althorp, and dedicated as the Rylands library to the memory of a citizen of Manchester. Books in a library, except you have time and free access to them, are as baffling as so many bottles in a wine-cellar, which are not opened for you, and which if they were would equally go to your head without final advantage. I find, therefore, that my sole note upon the Rylands Library is the very honest one that it smelt, like the cathedral, of coal-gas. The absence of this gas was the least merit of the beautiful old Chetham College, with its library dating from the seventeenth century, and claiming to have been the first free library in England, and doubtless the world. In the cloistered picturesqueness of the place, its mediaeval memorials, and its ancient peace, I found myself again in those dear Middle Ages which are nowhere quite wanting in England, and against which I rubbed off all smirch of the modernity I had come to Manchester for.


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