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What Shall We Do With the Manchester Statues?

18/08/2020 11:30 am
18/08/2020 1:15 pm
£11 for one. £16.50 for two.

Next tour: Tuesday 18th of August, 11.30am.
Meet: TfGM Travelshop, Piccadilly Gardens.
Booking: Please press here to book with eventbrite.

–– Tories 3, Socialists 2 –––

It’s not just Bristol (and London as Sadiq Khan has just discovered) that have the wrong statues. Manchester is full of them. First of all, the most glaring anomaly, is that in a city that prides itself as one of the most left-wing in the country there are more statues of Tories than socialists: 3–2 at the last count.

Funnily enough the people, yes, you the people, are to blame for this in one respect. When the public was asked a few years ago to choose a new statue that had to be of a woman, under-represented in the city’s statuary, there was huge support for Emmeline Pankhurst at the expense of her more deserving daughter, Sylvia. It was hardly surprising; the public are force-fed a regular diet of the wonders of Emmeline while teachers, journalists and broadcast presenters ignore Sylvia. Result: everyone knows about Emmeline and her good deeds, so people are bound to vote for her, while Sylvia remains obscure.

Another quirk of the city’s statues is that those in powerful positions in Manchester don’t seem to know which statues we have on offer. For instance, when the council first raised the idea a few years of commissioning a new statue of a woman the Evening News ran story after story claiming that there was only one statue of a woman – Queen Victoria, with a quite a few to her name in Manchester. When I pointed out that Queen Elizabeth who stands proudly at the front of the Town Hall was probably a woman I was told it wasn’t a proper statue. No, probably a hologram.

Here’s another wonderful anomaly. Terry Wyke’s superb, award-winning book on Manchester statues contains one glaring mistake. He cites a statue of the mediaeval Lord of the Manor of Manchester, Thomas de Gresley, being on the outside of the Town Hall, holding a copy of the charter he secured for Manchester in 1301. “The inscription on the pedestal,” he continues, “reads Thomas de Gresley”. Every serious book on Manchester claims it’s a statue of Thomas de Gresley. Even the epic red book that the council brought out when the Town Hall opened in 1877 cites it as Thomas de Gresley. I smelt a rat. Why would the council honour Thomas de Gresley, just because he secured a charter, when his ancestor of a hundred years earlier, Robert de Gresley, was considerably more important, being one of the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.

I suggested to Terry Wyke that the statue was of Robert, not Thomas. Indeed I insisted it. “What makes you so certain?” Terry asked. “Because it says Robert de Gresley on it,” was my winning reply. Yes, I resolved the confusion using the ancient technique of looking at it – with a pair of binoculars. It clearly says “Robert de Gresley,” therefore it is most likely he is holding a representation of the Magna Carta, a key artefact in the history of the country, not a far less interesting copy of a local charter.

Now let’s have a look at our friends in the stone poses.

Piccadilly Gardens
Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), Prime Minister, Military Leader, Tory No. 1
The Duke is one of the three Tories honoured in stone in Manchester city centre. Here is a man who refused on every count to give the people some, any, democratic rights when he was prime minister 1828-30. When he was urged to change the British Constitution so that the ordinary people could have some say in who governed them he famously replied: “Change the British constitution? The British constitution is perfect!” The Duke had supported the actions of the military in attacking the people at Peterloo a decade earlier. His connections with Manchester? When he arrived at Liverpool Road station to mark the opening of the world’s first passenger railway in 1830 he was too scared to go into the city centre for the banquet at the Portico Library. Yes, his coach had just been stoned by the mob still outraged by Peterloo, but this was the so-called Iron Duke, fearless against Napoleon at Waterloo.

Verdict: Outrageous. Take him down.

James Watt (1736–1819), Inventor
James Watt improved the steam engine and his work paved the way for the industrial revolution in which Manchester prospered more than most. But he took his ideas and went into partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1774 in Birmingham, not Manchester.
Verdict: Take him down.

Queen Victoria (1819–1901), Edward Onslow Ford, 1901
Statues should surely commemorate people who achieved things. At least James Watt, above, created something of enormous benefit, even if he took it to Birmingham, but what did Victoria actually do? She was born into her position.

She did nothing to create the great world of the 19th century during which she reigned from 1837 to 1901. Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Morris, Emily Bronte, Alfred Tennyson, William Holman Hunt, William McGregor, W. S. Gilbert, Richard Pankhurst. Those were the people that created the exciting world of the time. The Queen did nothing to encourage and quite a lot to discourage them. Talking of Richard Pankhurst, Victoria actively railed against “this mad folly of women’s rights”. In the city that led the fight for women’s rights her presence is an affront. And she refused to open the Town Hall on political grounds.
Verdict: Take her down – and all the other needless Victorias: the one outside Katsouris, the one in front of the west side of the Cathedral, the one near Albert Square…they’re everywhere!

Robert Peel (1788–1850), Prime Minister, Tory No. 2
There has been a campaign which started on the Evening News Facebook pages about Peel, with people split over whether to back him or sack him, during the current frenzied statue climate. Here is the evidence from both sides.

In Peel’s favour

– Pushing the Catholic Emancipation Bill through parliament in 1828.

– The founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.

– The Mines Act of 1842, which forbade the employment of women and children underground.

– The Factory Act of 1844, which limited working hours for children and women in factories.

His creation of a police force still divides people. Amazingly not every leading local citizen can see how introducing citizens in uniform aimed at stopping other people committing crimes and rounding up those who do – policing by consent – as opposed to the Secret Police of George Orwell’s 1984, can be a good thing.

Step forward Shaun Ryder who once told journalists how shocked he was when he discovered the Peel featured here was not the DJ John Peel but the founder of modern policing, Robert Peel. It had to be explained to him that society was more successful under a system called “the rule of law” rather than anarchy, mob rule, rule by local warlords (such as London’s East End in the Krays era) or in the Happy Mondays case, rule by Bez and his druggy mates.

– Repeal of the Corn Laws

The poor, the middle class, indeed everyone in late Georgian Manchester other than the aristocracy and the most rapacious mill owners wanted the Corn Laws scrapped to lower the price of bread. Their existence was one of the reasons why Peterloo occurred. The ruling Tories of 1819 wouldn’t budge. It took until 1846 for an enlightened Robert Peel as prime minister to do the right thing.

Against Peel

– He initially opposed Parliament reform, despite Peterloo, but did change his mind.

– His father opposed the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill in 1806. We’re on dodgy ground here. The statue is of Peel Junior, not Senior.
Verdict: Leave him.

Albert Square (north to south)

James Fraser (1818–85), Bishop
Officiated at Manchester Cathedral. A tireless figure who campaigned for improved education. Known popularly as the “people’s bishop”. Tens of thousands came to show their respects at his funeral.

 John Bright (1811–1889), Liberal politician
Radical, reformist, progressive, anti-slavery campaigner, supporter of religious freedom, opponent of the pointless Crimean War (which cost him seat, but a view he stood by), leading campaigner against the hated Corn Laws, promoter of free trade in the century before Thatcher discredited the term.

Heroic figure.

Prince Albert (1819–61)
His wife may have been ridiculous and reactionary, but the prince was certainly more progressive. He supported Manchester’s attempts at becoming a centre for the arts by opening the 1857 Great Art Treasures Exhibition in Old Trafford

Oliver Heywood (1825–92), Banker, Educationalist, Philanthropist
Not a major figure of Manchester history but contemporaneously popular with the Liberals who paid for the Square and the Town Hall

William Gladstone (1809–98), Liberal Prime Minster
One of the epic figures of English history. Four times PM, vowed to pacify Ireland but couldn’t get approval from the establishment. Perhaps his greatest achievement was a formidable extension in democracy with legislation in 1872 that introduced the secret ballot.
Verdict: Leave those ones.

Town Hall frontage (north to south)

Robert de Gresley (1171–1231), Lord of the Manor
The first Lord of the Manor of Manchester to live locally and was one of the group of barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

Thomas de la Warre (1352–1427), Lord of the Manor, cleric
Refounded St Mary’s, the parish church of Manchester, as the Collegiate church of St Mary, St Denys and St George (now Manchester Cathedral) in 1421 and created the adjacent college, now Chetham’s.

Charles Worsley (1622–56), Politician
Manchester’s first MP, appointed by Oliver Cromwell in 1654. He lived in what is now the Gallery of English Costume in Rusholme.

John Bradford (1510–55), Cleric
Local born Protestant, educated at Manchester Grammar School, burned at the stake in London in 1555 under the instructions of Mary Tudor for the crime of being a Protestant priest.

Humphrey Chetham (1580–1653), Philanthropist
Legendary Mancunian figure who left money for a school for poor boys (now a prestigious music school) and a much-visited library, the oldest in Europe.

Henry of Grosmont (1310–61), Nobleman
Duke of Lancaster in the mid-14th century and an original member of the Knights of the Order of the Garter.

Agricola (40–93), Roman leader
It might be two thousand years ago but one can’t get away from the fact that the Romans illegally occupied the country. No one invited them, no one wanted them, no one could get rid of them.

King Henry III (1207–1272)
Yes, he granted England its first Parliament, which is why he’s there – with one hand tied behind his back, metaphorically.

Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603)
In contrast to her descendant, Victoria, Elizabeth actually achieved great things. Let Emmeline Pankhurst take over: “This great queen and great woman, perceiving that the responsibility for the poor and the helpless rightfully rests on the community, caused an act to be passed creating in the parishes public bodies to deal with local conditions of poverty.” Elizabeth’s here solely on religious grounds – she re-founded the old College of Priests (now Chetham’s) as a Protestant establishment. And that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be here – her persecution of Catholics led to many executions at the Tyburn Tree in London.

St George (??? – 303)
Patron saint of England who never came to England. Probably too late to change now.

Verdict: Remove the illegal invader Agricola and the two monarchs.


Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), Tory No. 3
One of the few 21st century arrivals, placed in a prominent position in St Peter’s Square. The wrong Pankhurst. Why? She dropped the magnificent fight for votes for women to support the pointless, lunatic Great War. Daughter Sylvia far more deserving.
Verdict: Too late to change now.

Robert Owen (1771–1858), Socialist No. 1
This is more like it! One of the most heroic and brilliant Britons who ever lived. A Manchester mill manager who changed the world with his revolutionary ideas about co-operation. A visionary. A tireless champion of the downtrodden.
Verdict: Perfect

Friedrich Engels, Socialist No. 2
Let’s face it, the only reason why Engels landed here a few years ago (from Ukraine) is because for bizarre pseudo-political reasons he and his pal, Karl Marx, are fashionable, “cool” even. On a superficial level their plea for equality and workers’ rights sound attractive…until one realises it ends with the prohibition of private property, the gulags, the secret police and mass poverty. Still, he wrote some brilliant stuff about poverty in early Victorian Manchester.
Verdict: We’re stuck with him.

The Liver Birds
Verdict: What the hell are they doing there?

To sum up, if we are going to erect statues to the greats then people who achieved something special, that not only benefited Manchester but the world beyond, would be a greater statement than simply cluttering up the place with the easy option – royalty and politicians. The arts are severely under-represented. John Barbirolli, the greatest of all Hallé music directors has a bust outside the hall that should have been named after him. L. S. Lowry has a full-size bronze in Sam’s pub. There are plenty more great achievers, born, raised or made locally:

  • Tony Wilson
  • Anthony Burgess
  • Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Kathleen Ollerenshaw
  • Thomas de Quincey

But it costs a lot to create a statue and little to knock one down.

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