Review originally posted on Olga NM’s blog
2,000 Years of Manchester by Kathryn Coase.
This is not a chronological history of Manchester with lists of facts and figures. Rather, it is an eclectic mix of fact, fiction, legend and myth which presents the history of Manchester from its beginnings as a Roman settlement, then as an insignificant market town, to its place as a city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. The author has attempted to capture not only the often tragic lives, times, struggles and beliefs of the city’s ever-expanding population, but also its resilience and humour. Including photographs, illustrations, poems and quotes, the book ranges from the humorous, including the stories of “Spanking Roger” and the “Manchester Mummy” to the tragic stories of “Cholera” and “Mary Bradley”, together with the bizarre “Pig Tales” and the criminal “Scuttlers” and “Purrers”.This is a well-researched, well-written and, most importantly, entertaining and informative read, presented in an unusual yet accessible and easy-to-read format, intended to appeal to the widest audience.
About the author:
As a Mancunian, Kathryn Coase has been interested in the history of Manchester for many years and has possessed a longstanding ambition to research and write a book on the subject. After 30 years of teaching, she has finally decided to take some time out in order to fulfil this dream.
Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I lived and worked in the outskirts of Manchester (in Worsley, Salford) for a couple of years and liked Manchester from my first visit, quite a few years earlier (before the 1996 IRA bombing) although I don’t remember a lot about the first occasion I visited. It is partly because it reminds me, somehow, of my hometown, Barcelona. Not architecturally, or even for its location, but because of its history, its industrial past, and the way it has always been a driving and innovative place, despite not being the capital of the country (and yes, being in the North, I guess). It’s also a city that has reinvented itself many times, and like most big cities has undergone transformations and changes (some more successful than others). Oh, and of course, both have a Roman origin. (And the football. Let’s not forget football). So, when I saw this book and the description, I was convinced I’d enjoy it. And I did.
This book, as the description explains, is not a chronological account of the history of Manchester, although most chapters (but not all) do tend to deal with the topic at hand in a chronological fashion, when relevant. There are tonnes of images, mostly archival, and the author thanks the Chetham Library, the Greater Manchester Police Museum, and the Manchester Local Images Collection for their help and resources. They make the book a joy to leaf through and stop at whatever attracts one’s fancy, be it a drawing of some odd contraption (the chapter on Crime and Punishment is particularly fascinating on that account), or a picture of a building that might still be recognisable today. There are also highlighted boxes of text containing titbits of curious or remarkable information —from ghost legends to who Tom and Jerry where— and there is the rest of the text, that is packed with information: historical, sociological, artistic… written in an engaging and entertaining manner. At no point did I find myself wondering what happened next (when talking about buildings or historical figures), and many of the topics and the stories opened my eyes to places and people I’d like to know more about.
Manchester is a place of many firsts (some disputed, of course): like the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking word, the first department store, the first telephone line in Britain, the first passenger railway line (a rather sad story behind it), the first Marks & Spencer shop (Marks started trading in Leeds but opened the first store with his partner in Manchester), the Manchester Exhibition that helped open art to the general public, the first lonely hearts ad (the poor woman was committed to the lunatic asylum for four weeks by the mayor, in 1727)… It also has seen quite a few historical figures come and go, both international and local: Marx and Engels, Oswald Mosley, John Dalton (now I understand why the Eye Hospital is so important there), Harold Brighouse (I love Hobson’s Choice), Dodie Smith (101 Dalmatians), Anthony Burgess, Elizabeth Raffald (an amazing entrepreneur who invented the ready meal, wrote a cookery book, created the first trade directory, run an employment agency…), Peter Mark Roget (the creator of the first thesaurus that’s become one of most writers’ best friend), Old Billy (the oldest horse who survived to be 62), Mark Addy (who rescued more than 50 people from the river), Alfred Pierrepoint (who held the record for the world’s fastest hanging, at only 8 seconds, at Strangeways Prison), Ernest Rutherford, Marie Stopes, Alan Turing…
The book is divided into 21 chapters, which can be read individually, and works perfectly well as a reference book for anybody looking for information about Manchester, its people and influences. It is fairly comprehensive as it includes: early history, from town to city, conditions of the working class, politics, to battle!, religion, crime & punishment, health, education, science & technology, transport, the press, entertainment, creative Manchester, ‘incomers’ (the great explosion in population following the industrial revolution makes one think about current international concerns and the sheer difference in scale), disaster!, Manchester characters, what’s in a name, shopping, iconic buildings (past and present), and sports. There is a certain overlap of content in the chapters: what’s in a name, shopping, and iconic buildings, because some of the relevant information is shared in other chapters as well depending on the subject, although that is an advantage for those thinking of the book as a reference or for research, rather than reading it from beginning to end. And I thought that “what’s in a name”, which looks at where the names of many streets come from and how they have changed, could be followed as a guide to explore the city for anybody interested in a historical tour.
The book also includes a bibliography and an index that should further aid those keen on locating specific information or looking for precise research topics.
In sum, this is a highly entertaining and informative book that I recommend to anybody who’s ever wondered about Manchester’s history (or the history of the UK). It can be read whole or by topics and it also makes for a great reference book. It is full of inspiration for writers and historians trying to get a sense of how things have changed over time and to get a perspective on the evolution of a city and its people. Fabulous.