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The Story of Manchester in 101 Objects. No. 6: Manchester-Liverpool Rivalry

Story: Manchester-Liverpool Rivalry
Object: Liver Bird
Location: Spring Gardens on Vivienne Westwood shop wall
Year: 1207 (year of Liverpool’s founding)

How far back should we trace the rivalry between Manchester and our formidable cousin, 35 miles west down the Mersey? In the year 1207 King John issued letters patent proclaiming the establishment of a new borough, “Livpul”, and inviting people to settle there. At that time Manchester was a minor player, a village of no renown. Lancashire itself was considered isolated and unimportant, the major routes from London heading east to York and then on to Edinburgh.
Liverpool moved ahead of Manchester in mediaeval times because of its status as a port for British trade. Manchester caught up and overtook Liverpool during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, only for Liverpool to respond by becoming one of the world’s major transatlantic ports.

But why the rivalry? First it was over trade, then slavery, then religion, then the Manchester Ship Canal (the Manchester Ship Canal, note, not the Liverpool Ship Canal); now it will be kept going for evermore through that most important of all topics: football, although we also have to factor in modern cultural mores: music and television.

Slavery was a key battleground. On 8 October 1787 the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson spoke at the Manchester Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral) in his countrywide campaign to highlight the iniquities of the system. Manchester went on to amass the biggest collection of signatures opposing slavery sent to Parliament, a petition lost when the House burnt down in 1834. Yet when Clarkson turned up in Liverpool, the locals tried to throw him in the Mersey. Not only did the sea city support the system which had made so many so rich at the expense of so many made so poor but now, nearly two hundred years since the British government abolished slavery, the city is still saturated with reminders: public buildings and streets named after slave traders and their work: Goree, Penny Lane, Rumford House. We don’t have anything like that in Manchester.

As Manchester and Liverpool grew during the 19th century, so they drifted apart through religion. Manchester mainly protestant through its long history of protestant non-conformism; Liverpool mainly Catholic thanks to immigration from Ireland. Such divisions seem trite now, but the two cities’ history reflects this contrast. At the end of the 19th century came one of the biggest splits of all when a wide and deep 35-mile canal was built from a sea terminus just south of Liverpool heading east almost into Manchester city centre. This was the Manchester Ship Canal. It opened in 1894 and soon began to take trade away from Liverpool.

The people behind the canal all came from this side of Warrington. The Manchester merchants were desperate to avoid paying huge duties to Liverpool Docks to bring in raw materials and send finished products away. The ship canal achieved this, as Liverpool knew it would, so when Parliament approved its construction the Liverpool Daily Post mocked ecstatically: “Manchester is going to throw £10 million into a big ditch”. Alas for the Liverpool economy the Manchester Ship Canal worked. Manchester 1, Liverpool 0.

In recent years the rivalry has worked its way into new phenomena. Professional football didn’t matter until the Football League was created in 1888. Neither Liverpool nor Manchester United, then Newton Heath, were invited to take part, which seems unthinkable now. Liverpool were the first of the two to win the title – in 1901. Neither team were particularly successful until after Second World War but it was Liverpool who forged ahead with 18 championships to United’s seven by 1990. It is almost impossible to believe that since then United have won the League another 13 times. As Alex Ferguson once explained: “United knocked Liverpool off their perch”. Manchester 2, Liverpool 0. Historically these are the two most successful clubs in English football. The two annual games between them are still the most hotly contested in England.

What else can possibly compete with football? Music, of course. Even though we had the extraordinary Smiths, Liverpool had the Beatles, the single most important contribution to popular music of all time. Manchester 2, Liverpool 1. Which just leaves television. Coronation Street might be the most watched soap in British history but Liverpool had Brookside. Oh dear. Manchester 2, Liverpool 2.