Wonderful Wythenshawe

Housing remained a severe challenge to local councils throughout Britain after 1918 as problems of overcrowding and insanitary dwellings persisted. Manchester faced some of the worst housing in the country, as areas near the city centre including Hulme and Ancoats, were home to damp, cold, leaky dwellings. They were not far from being the ‘most horrible dwellings’ Friedrich Engels had ever seen when he visited Manchester in the early 1840s.


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Older, high-density and insanitary housing persisted in Manchester

Manchester was ‘furnished with an inner ring of slums’, a report on housing by the University of Manchester Settlement found in 1930. The report focused on one of these areas, Ancoats, close to the city centre. It described an overcrowded, high-density area with ‘two up and two down’ houses that were over a hundred years old. ‘Plants will not grow’, warned the report due to the lack of light. Most worrying were the health problems and low life expectancy of the area: it found an infant mortality rate of 125 per 1000, around twice the national average.

Although Manchester was not the only city to face such acute housing problems, it responded with perhaps the most ambitious project: the Wythenshawe Estate. To the south of the city, Manchester’s famous Wythenshawe estate, the largest council estate in Europe, provided suburban homes specifically for the working classes. The houses were spaced apart in green, leafy areas to avoid overcrowding and to ensure all homes received natural light. Strict regulations prevented soot, smog or smoke from polluting the air.

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Wythenshawe was a garden suburb for Manchester’s working-class population

The council aimed to ensure 100,000 Mancunians made their home in Wythenshawe. The homes tended to be semi-detached and designed so all families had hot running water, their own bathrooms, and electricity and gas. At the same time, new consumer durables such as refrigerators offered to make a home more comfortable, for those affluent enough or who took up hire purchase (the never never).

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An interior image of Wythenshawe home with the new consumer durables

Wythenshawe was ‘a bold experiment’, wrote the planning expert Wesley Dughill, in the Town Planning Review in 1937. ‘Other schemes in this country may have their parkways, their neighbourhood unit planning or their agricultural belts and so on, but in no other example have all these elements been correlated and combined to form one self-contained entity.’ The estate was a great source of pride and optimism for Manchester Corporation and it featured heavily in the council’s 1947 documentary film, A City Speaks.

Solving Manchester’s housing problem was not straightforward, however. Whereas many inhabitants embraced suburban life, others found life in Wythenshawe isolating, especially because the building of pubs, cinemas, shops and churches were slow to follow the housing. The council struggled to build enough houses and the ‘slum’ areas persisted as housing remained a problem into the post-war period. Nevertheless, as an example of the council’s dynamic responses to social problems, Wythenshawe points to an important story about civic ambition.


Public Libraries and Civic Pride

We might associate grand public libraries with the great Victorian gestures of civic pride, such as Liverpool’s Central Library (1860). Yet the 1930s witnessed an ambitious and striking wave of library-building in northern towns and cities. For example, Birkenhead, Manchester, and Sheffield all invested in large central libraries. Opened in 1934 amid great pomp and ceremony, these civic buildings reflected an important investment in local culture by committed and passionate civic patriots that we might not associate with these towns and cities between the wars.

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Victorian Civic Pride: William Brown Street in Liverpool

Pioneered by the town’s “civic father”, Alderman E. G. Mason, Birkenhead library was opened by King George V in July 1934, as part of wider celebrations and a royal visit to mark the opening of the Mersey Tunnel. The library is a grand, art deco building with designated children’s library (the Wirral claims to be a pioneer of children’s libraries http://www.upton-wirral.co.uk/index.php/recreation/library )

Sheffield Central Library was opened by the Duchess of York in 1934. Financed in part by contributions by local businessman J. G. Graves, the building reflected cutting-edge art deco architectural designs, including several stone carvings to represent arts and scientists.

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Birkenhead Library, opened by King George V in 1934

Why did these towns and cities invest in such ambitious civic buildings at a time of economic and political upheaval? Firstly, they represented an opportunity to stimulate local business at a time of high unemployment and economic decline. Second, they represented part of a wider drive to re-envision the modern city and, for example, Birkenhead was the focus of ambitious, albeit unrealised, plans during the Second World War. Finally, the libraries represented an important gesture of civic pride as a response to instability and as a way to quell dissatisfaction – there were unemployment riots in Birkenhead in September 1932, for instance.

Civic Pride was a way to boost the local economy: The second Cunard liner Mauretania is launched from Messrs Cammell Laird’s shipyard in Birkenhead, 1938

These new civic buildings may, like their Victorian predecessors, have functioned as a way to impose power and authority over a threatening local population, or, they may have provided a more populist approach to civic culture by investing in a building that aimed to serve the local community. Nevertheless, such energetic ambition and the passion of local civic patriots like Graves and Mason points to ways that we can rethink established narratives about decline in northern Britain during the twentieth-century.

‘China is the market of the future’

The local economies of Liverpool and Manchester and the surrounding Lancashire area struggled between the two words wars. Liverpool’s port trade experienced severe fluctuations, which increased unemployment and the city saw some of the highest levels of poverty in the country. In Manchester, the challenges faced by its ailing cotton industry meant nearly 20% of insured workers were unemployed in the early 1930s, but levels were far higher in the mill towns throughout Lancashire, such as Bolton and Blackburn.

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“Cottonopolis”: Cotton ‘made’ Manchester but the industry struggled after 1918

Local politicians and business owners looked to employ programmes of economic diversification and aimed to boost trade and investment by promoting Liverpool and Manchester in new ways. For instance, politicians and civic leaders attempted to market Liverpool and Manchester as a holiday destination, particularly for American visitors. This ambition was especially strong in Liverpool following the investment in Gladstone Docks opened in 1927, part of a wider attempt to ensure the city was at the forefront of technological advances in transport and communication. The docks remained central to Liverpool’s civic identity and often featured as central attractions in grandiose civic celebrations hosted in the city during the late 1920s.

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The SS Galantez at the opening of the Gladstone Docks at Liverpool.

Manchester, in particular, looked to China for investment in its ailing cotton industry. In January 1924, a Chinese Industrial Mission headed by Chang Chien, representative of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and Minister Plenipotentiary and High Commissioner of the Republic of China, spent two days in Manchester, as part of a wider tour of Britain aimed at developing trade links. The Mission visited the Ship Canal and took lunch with Manchester’s Chamber of Commerce where a speech by the president of the Chamber, Mr Clare Lees, credited China for inspiring the Ship Canal. Lees took the opportunity to try and convince the Mission of Manchester’s leading commercial prowess. Referring to the news that the Mission were visiting Sheffield, the president claimed that their city’s banks took just £57 million compared to Manchester’s £756 million ‘and that was why, when they wished to buy something, they should come to Manchester.’ Visit Liverpool, he said, and they would be told Liverpool was a better port but it was ‘in fact, the only thing Liverpool could say.’ Rather, ‘if you want to do business, come to Manchester.’ Lees illustrated ‘Manchester’s splendour’ by suggesting that if there was a road between London and Shanghai wide enough to carry 120 motorcars, then Manchester would carpet it every year with 200 million pounds of weight to export. (Manchester Guardian, 18 Jan 1924: 11).

Lees’ rhetoric seemed to pay off and by 1931, Lancashire exported 8080000 yards of cotton to China. Businessmen and civic leaders proclaimed with confidence that the future of Lancashire’s cotton trade lay in the development of trade with China: ‘China is the market of the future’, one business owner claimed. (Manchester Guardian, 22 October 1928: 12.) However, the success was short lived and whereas Lancashire exported over 10000000 pounds of cotton to China in 1932, it fell to just over 1700000 pounds in 1933, as political instability and an increased tariff in China alongside increased competition from Japan stifled trade. Lancashire ‘looked in vain for a sign of a break in the clouds.’ (Manchester Guardian, 10 January 1934: 5).

Manchester’s cotton industry never regained its world-leading status as “Cottonopolis” but the attempts by businessmen and local politicians to foster links with China to develop new markets draws attention to the city’s continued ambition and tenacity in the face of economic hardship.

The original Northern Powerhouse

In June 2014, Chancellor George Osborne visited Manchester and announced the need for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, his prestige investment project to redress the North-South economic imbalance. His speech evoked a well-worn stereotype of depressed and decaying northern cities that represented parochial outposts in comparison to economically-diverse and forward-thinking metropolis that had their roots in the early twentieth-century. For example, George Orwell’s accounts of working-class life in Wigan and Carl Jung’s vision of ‘dirty, sooty’ Liverpool where ‘everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque’, are typical of how we often think about these cities.

It is true that these northern cities experienced higher levels of poverty and unemployment during the twentieth-century and particularly after 1918: whereas London’s official unemployment rate stood at 12% in 1932, the peak of the interwar economic depression, it reached nearly 27% in the North-West of England and approached 30% in the North-East. As the old, staple industries such as coal, steel, cotton and shipbuilding collapsed dramatically in England’s industrial heartlands, the new light industries, such as the factories manufacturing consumer durables like radios and washing machines, emerged in the South-East and the Midlands. Local politicians were worried about political instability and the impact of economic decline.

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Rally in Hyde Park during the General Strike of 1926: Wikipedia Commons

Yet these problems overshadow the level of dynamism and ambition displayed by local politicians during the 1920s and 1930s in cities like Liverpool and Manchester in response to unemployment and economic decline. In particular, they invested in ambitious programmes of urban redevelopment that sought to improve the local economy and make local inhabitants feel more confident in the politicians’ ability to govern. For example, Manchester Corporation invested in the Wythenshawe Estate, one of the largest and ambitious council housing estates, new civic buildings such as Manchester Central Library and the Town Hall Extension, as well as expanding the tram network. Liverpool built the Mersey Tunnel to boost trade, worked hard to publicise the city abroad to boost the economy and pioneered extensive civic celebrations.

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The Wythenshawe Estate aimed to improve living conditions for working-class people in Manchester. Houses on Princess Parkway, Wythenshawe Estate, Manchester.

Local politicians, planners and businessmen in Liverpool and Manchester responded to the challenges and regional economic imbalance after 1918 with great ambition. The monograph demonstrates that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ existed far earlier and that the negative twentieth-century images of these cities needs to be readdressed.