What Is Manchester Famous For

What Is Manchester Famous For?

“Manchester – so much to answer for,” went one of the Smiths’ most mournful early songs. And so it does. So what is Manchester famous for? Cotton mills, Coronation Street, some of the richest musical heritage on the planet – oh yes, and two of the biggest football teams in Europe. Read on for many more reasons why this fine northern city is so well-known around the world – from a former resident.

Industrial Revolution

Manchester first grew famous by the early 19th century because of its profusion of cotton mills – by 1830 the city had almost 100. Manchester was the ideal location for cotton mills because of its fast-flowing rivers, providing a reliable source of power. It became known as Cottonopolis, and with a network of canals and the world’s first passenger railway it became a powerhouse, albeit one with vast inequality of wealth.

Rain

Manchester has long had a reputation for rain. And it’s not really deserved. I lived there for three years and never thought it was particularly bad – hardly surprising when I hail from the rainiest city in the UK, Cardiff! Each year, Cardiff cops almost 300 mm – nearly a foot in Imperial terms – more than Manchester. It’s not exactly overly blessed with sunshine either (Cardiff gets considerably more) and this is down to its proximity to the Pennines and Peak District, with convectional cloud forming prior to emptying all over the hills a few miles away.

Coronation Street

Coronation Street, based on the fictional town of Weatherfield, is the world’s longest-running soap opera, running since 1960.  It depicts life around the street of the same name and its corner pub, the Rovers Return. Its heyday was probably the 1970s and 1980s, when it was enhanced by some brilliantly written comedic characters. Over 60 years on, it remains one of the most popular shows on British TV. One of the most popular things to do in Manchester for visitors is to visit Granada Studios, where it is filmed.

Manchester United FC

Many people’s first encounter with Manchester is through Manchester United, the red half of the city. They became the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968, aided by their talismanic but troubled genius George Best. They have won the most league titles of any English club (20, just ahead of Liverpool’s 19) and play at Old Trafford, the vast 76,000 capacity stadium just to the south of Salford.

Manchester City FC

For decades a byword for ineptitude, ‘Citeh’ are now in the ascendancy over their local rivals.  A decade on from having their coffers filled with funds from the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, City have assembled one of the best and most expensive club squads ever, and won the English Premier League five times in the last decade, three of these under Catalan coach Josep Guardiola.

Peterloo Massacre

As Manchester’s population grew exponentially in the early 19th century, so social problems mounted up, especially overcrowding and extreme poverty.  The impoverished workers of Manchester also grew frustrated that they had no political power, with the vote only open to 2% of the population. On 16th August 1819 thousands gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester for a peaceful demonstration. The local yeomen cavalry waded in, trampling and slashing 19 protesters to death. It became known as Peterloo, in scathing mockery of the cavalry, contrasting their actions with the heroism at the battle of Waterloo four years previously.

Manchester Guardian

The Peterloo Massacre directly led to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper. It started out with a radical agenda, and has long been considered the voice of the left in the UK press. Its first edition was printed on May 5th 1821, and it remained in Manchester until the 1960s. It’s now based in London, with popular online editions internationally, in the US and Australia. It has gained considerable traction in the latter, where it’s a rare alternative to the dominant News Corporation-owned publications.

The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses were by far the best of the Manchester bands to emerge in the mid to late 1980s. Their eponymous debut album, all fresh, spiky ‘60s-influenced pop, is the one record from that period to have stood the test of time. Contemporaries like Happy Mondays crossed over from a  guitar-led sound to more funk and dance- and rave-influenced pop, but none had the impact of The Stone Roses. It took them five years to produce a follow-up, by which time the world had moved on, the late ‘80s zeitgeist was long gone and the magic dust scattered far away in the wind.

Joy Division

Joy Division were one of the greatest bands of the post-punk period, their music still resonating hugely over 40 years on. Singer Ian Curtis was from Macclesfield, and he met Mancunians Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who were keen on starting a band. They made two astonishing albums – Unknown Pleasures and Closer – before Curtis tragically committed suicide at the age of 23. Their sound was best described by contemporary journalist Charles Shaar Murray, as ‘awful things carved from black marble’ – this sparked my curiosity and I’ve been a fan ever since.

New Order

After the loss of Ian Curtis, the three remaining members decided to continue, with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert added to the line-up and Bernard Sumner taking over on vocals.  They became interested in electronic and dance music, from disco to Detroit, and soon developed a very different sound. It’s staggering that 1983’s Blue Monday is by the same band as Closer from just three years previously. 1989’s Technique album is even more radical a departure, like an Ibiza party record compared to a funeral elegy of Closer.

Buzzcocks

Buzzcocks were the first punk band to emerge from Manchester, forming in February 1976. After their original singer left (see below) they became known for their tuneful, melodic punk with a string of classic singles including Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With). After three great albums they disbanded in 1981, reuniting from time to time afterwards. Singer Pete Shelley died in 2018, but they’re still going with bassist Steve Diggle now on vocals.

Magazine

Original Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto went on to form Magazine, one of the most progressive of what would be called ‘post-punk’ bands.  With the peerless, awesome Barry Adamson on bass, they had a unique avant-garde sound which won them a devoted fanbase (myself included) but not commercial success, which led to a gradual parting of the ways. Their first three albums – Real Life, Secondhand Daylight and The Correct Use Of Soap – are three of the standout classics from the post-punk and New Wave era.

The Smiths

The Smiths were a hugely popular ‘indie’ guitar band from Manchester who left a massive mark in their 5-year existence. Frontman Morrissey was as un-rock’n’roll as you could get, wearing gladioli and NHS glasses, and became a figure many people who felt they were outsiders could identify with. Guitarist Johnny Marr was his perfect foil, but they split in 1987 and don’t hold your breath with regard to any reunion. Morrissey has blotted his copybook in recent times by supporting far-right organisations in the UK, losing some of his fanbase along the way.

The Fall

Vocalist Mark E Smith was once voted the greatest living Mancunian. His band, The Fall, were always something of an outsider presence, but somehow they stacked up over thirty studio albums, including some of the finest underground music to come out of the UK in the early ‘80s through to the early ‘90s. They sounded like nobody else and nobody else sounded like them. Smith was considered something of a contrarian, and a great many anecdotes about him abound – my favourite is the tale that he sacked a soundman because he caught him eating a salad! The following are the best places to start for the uninitiated:

This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

I Am Kurious Oranj (1988)

Oasis

Oasis were one of the biggest Manchester bands, and they quickly became huge with their debut album, Definitely Maybe, in 1995. Heavily inspired by the Beatles, Noel Gallagher wrote most of the tunes while younger brother Liam sang them. Their follow-up, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory was as good as they got. The brothers were known for swearing at or about each other throughout music press interviews, and the acrimony simmered over into estrangement, which has gone on for over a decade now. Again, don’t hold your breath.

L S Lowry

Laurence Stephen Lowry was one of the most famous British artists of the 20th century. He was born in Stretford, in what is now Greater Manchester in 1887. He became captivated by the industrial landscapes of nearby Pendlebury and Salford, and painted and drew them with crowds of people. Many of these depictions of working-class life can be seen in The Lowry, the arts centre bearing his name on Salford Quays.

BBC at Media City, Salford

Many of the main BBC TV programmes have been made at Media City UK on Salford Quays since 2011. These include the flagship BBC Breakfast, children’s programme Blue Peter, Match of the Day and Radio 5 Live. Once the Covid-19 pandemic is over they will resume tours of the studios, where visitors can go behind the scenes and watch some filming.

Curry Mile, Rusholme

Also known as the ‘Curry Corridor’, the section of Wilmslow Road running through the centre of the inner-city suburb of Rusholme has been packed with curry houses for decades. I lived just off it for a year, and loved the place – not just the curry, but also the feeling I was stepping into the Sylhet for a few minutes every time I walked through it. Many of the restaurants are Bangladeshi-run, but they serve dishes from across the sub-continent.

The Birthplace Of Nuclear Physics

Some articles on the internet refer to Ernest Rutherford ‘splitting the atom’ at the University of Manchester in 1917. I checked my old University’s site on this, as it’s the sort of thing I would have known about having lived and studied there for three years. The New Zealand-born scientist was the first to create an artificial nuclear reaction by bombarding nitrogen with alpha particles, triggering the emission of a hydrogen nucleus and oxygen atom.  So Manchester was essentially the birthplace of nuclear physics. The atom was first split during experiments at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1932.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing was a genius scientist, best known for his work as a cryptographer and code breaker in World War II. His work was instrumental in deciphering the German Enigma code transmissions, thereby greatly aiding the Allied war effort. He worked at the University of Manchester after the war, where he was arrested in 1952 for ‘gross indecency’ – a homosexual act, illegal at the time – and chemically castrated, which he accepted instead of a prison sentence. He died by cyanide poisoning – believed to be suicide – two years later. Over 50 years later he received a posthumous apology from the British Government. He is now recognised as one of the greatest British scientists of all time and he is commemorated by a statue in Sackville Park, in the city’s Gay Village.

Manchester Gay Village

Manchester’s Gay Village is one of the oldest gay districts in the UK – several bars, pubs and clubs were already long-established when I lived in the city in the early 90s. It’s a small area either side of the Rochdale Canal, between Princess Street on the west side and Minshull Street. Canal Street, on the north side of the canal, has always been the busiest, and The New Union is one of the oldest gay pubs in the city, close to the corner of Princess Street.

Hacienda

The Hacienda nightclub on Whitworth Street West was one of the most famous nightclubs in the UK. Owned by Factory Records and band members of New Order, it introduced a lot of club music from the US and was at the forefront of the rave scene in the mid and late ‘80s. It finally closed in 1997, and New Order bassist and part-owner Peter Hook wrote a book about it, How Not To Run A Club. The 2002 film 24 Hour Party People was set around it. The club was demolished in 2002 and an apartment complex was built on the site.

Anthony Burgess

Manchester writer Anthony Burgess is best-known for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, which was adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971 and later withdrawn by Kubrick over some violent scenes therein.  He also wrote many other novels and TV screenplays including the 1970s mini-series Moses the Lawgiver and Jesus of Nazareth.

Jeanette Winterson

And while we’re on the subject of oranges…

Jeanette Winterson is a Manchester-born English writer best-known for her debut novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Her adoptive parents wanted her to become a missionary for a Pentecostalist church, whereas Winterson had other ideas. Oranges is one of the best-known LGBTQ+ novels of all time, a brilliant work. Winterson has subsequently written many other novels, children’s books and a memoir, and is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette Movement

Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the most vocal and committed campaigners for universal suffrage, giving women as well as men the right to vote.  Originally from Moss Side, she founded the Women’s Franchise League, the Women’s Social and Political Union, and eventually the Women’s Party. Her daughters Christabel and Sylvia also had leading roles within the movement. After World War I, women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote, but men over the age of 21were eligible. This discrepancy was eventually addressed in July 1928 when all women and men over the age of 21 became eligible to vote. Sadly she didn’t live to see this day – she died just 18 days before the legislation was passed.

Further Reading

Dave Haslam’s Manchester,England charts the history of both the city and its music scenes up until the late 1990s. As a former resident of the city, this is the best introduction to Manchester I’ve ever found.

Factory Records founder Tony Wilson’s 24 Hour Party People looks back on the early days of Factory Records and the chaos of running the Hacienda nightclub when nobody had the faintest idea what they were doing. The film version, starring Steve Coogan as Wilson, is hilarious.

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David Angel
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years.  His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.