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5 Things You Didn't Know About Manchester

By Edited Jul 18, 2016 1 0
Manchester Images
Credit: Daniel Nisbet/Will Fresch/Gordon Flood/George Ryan

Many of us associate Manchester with fruity accent, crazy football fans, and fantastic music. After all, a tomato isn't a tomato when you're British, the area includes dozens of football clubs, and The Smiths, New Order, and Oasis hail from the city.

Still, Manchester has more to offer. Take mummies, for example. Manchester is supposedly the only place in the world where you can poke at desiccated bodies and earn a degree while you're at it.

Today, we look at five other facts that many of us don't know about Manchester.

Castlefield Fort
Credit: Keith Williamson

1. A Manly Name, or Is It?

Fast Facts: The "man" in Manchester doesn't stand for anything manly. Feminine references may have helped shape the city's name, actually.

It's a silly, inelegant observation, but the city's name really reads like something taken out of a man's handle. After all, it's right there spelled before us, begging to be taken literally. We don't know who Chester is, but he might have been somebody famous in his time. He might have been the local bookie, or he might have set up the neighborhood's version of Walmart. He might have founded the city, even. He must have been a swell character, at least, a get-up-and-go type of fellow who got invited to every party. His fame, achievements, or overall greatness must have spurred everyone in the area to repeatedly say "My man, Chester."

Etymology, though, is never simplistic and rarely gives in to our mundane imaginings. Our Chester didn't exist, or had nothing to do with Manchester. The city's handle actually comes from an old Roman name.

Manchester began as a fort (pictured above, after restoration). Established by the Romans in 79 AD, the fort protected the road between Deva Victrix and Eboracum (ancient fortresses now known as Chester and York). It also secured the way to Bremetennacum (now Ribchester) and looked after a nearby crossing over the River Medlock. The fort may have also guarded the road to Coccium (now Wigan).

In short, Manchester started out as a sort of fortified Texaco or BP station. The place was manned at first by non-citizen soldiers. Later on, a civilian settlement rose around the area.

No one knows for sure what the Romans called their fort. Scholars have traditionally given weight to the name "Mancunium," which supposedly came from the Celtic root "man" or "mann" (meaning "place"), or the word "maen" (meaning "rock" or "hill"). The name appears in a few old manuscripts, but "Mancunium" has since been dropped by researchers because of certain philological and documentary discrepancies.

Today, historians and etymologists favor the form "Mamucium." The name is thought to have been derived from the Welsh word "mam" or "mamm" (meaning "breast," "womb," or "mother"), and is presumed to refer to either an old goddess of the River Medlock or (more possibly) the sandstone bluff on which the fort stood on. In Latin, "breast" is "mamma" (which accounts for breast-related words like "mammal" and "mammogram") while "mother" is "matr" or "metr" (which in turn are the roots of such motherly words as "matron," "maternity," and "matriarch"). Thus, "Mamucium" has been taken to mean "breast-like hill" ("vicium" is a common suffix in Romano-British place names).

Over time, "Mamucium" (or its less accepted alternatives) became "Mameceaster" and "Manigeceaster" (the Anglo-Saxon word "ceaster" means "a walled fort" or "town" and was used primarily to denote a place formerly occupied by the Romans). In later years, the name became "Mamecestre," "Mammecestre," "Mancestre," "Mamchestre," and "Manchestre." Historians ascribe the use of "n" in some of these forms to either scribal errors or the spelling of valid local variants. "Manchester" didn't appear in documents until the 1400s, but the place continued to flit from name to name until everyone sort of settled on "Manceaster" in the closing decades of the following century.

Canal Street Images
Credit: Pete Birkinshaw/Wikimedia Commons/WR Boyce/George Ryan

2. One-Way Streets All Around

Fast Facts: Manchester has a disproportionately high number of gay and lesbian people. According to a 2011 report, 0.23 percent of all households in Manchester were Same-Sex Civil Partnership couple households. The English national average for that year was 0.16 percent.

Even now, Manchester's reputation is being reshaped by the area's vibrant gay community. Canal Street, located on the west side of the Rochdale Canal, best represents the city's liberal ways.

Canal Street was a typical English red-light district before it became a dandy go-to hotspot. Cotton workers frequented the place for quick thrills, but when the cotton industry in Northern England went limp, the area turned into an unwanted smudge on the map. Dim and unvisited, the district then became a favorite among gay men who found the place perfect for hush-hush trysts.

Canal Street went totally and openly gay with the opening of Manto in 1990. Glass-walled and sophisticated, Manto spurted the trend that saw the erection of classy and unabashedly gay establishments. Today, the district and the surrounding areas feature all-gay businesses (among them a gay taxi service and a block of luxury apartments for gay residents) that wouldn't have been possible without the now iconic café bar. By jerking old notions, blowing past conventions, and penetrating the city's rearward way of thinking, Manto won for everyone a level of tolerance previously unseen in the annals of the nation.

Dalton and His Atomic Symbols
Credit: Charles Turner/R. Bickerstaff/George Ryan

3. The Place of Atoms

Fast Facts: The atomic theory was born in Manchester. John Dalton was a secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society when he publicized his hypotheses on the nature of matter.

Elements are made of atoms. Atoms of a particular element are identical in size, mass, and other attributes; atoms of different elements are unlike in size, mass, and other attributes. Atoms can never be created, divided, or destroyed. Atoms are combined, separated, or rearranged in chemical reactions. Atoms of different elements combine in uncomplicated proportions to form chemical compounds. Except when some cause makes another possibility apparent, the unique combination of two atoms must result to a strict binary arrangement.

The above statements may have grown folksy over time (we now know, for instance, that atoms are divisible), but who can deny Dalton his place among the giants of science? After all, where would particle physics be without Dalton?

Born into a Quaker family at Eaglesfield, Dalton moved to Manchester in 1793. He taught at Harris Manchester College, wrote papers on grammar, meteorology, and chemistry (among other topics), and collected all sorts of accolades and a government pension along the way. He remained in the city until his death in 1844.

Marx and Engels
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/George Lester/George Ryan

4. Commies Were Here

Fast Facts: Manchester helped shape the philosophies of Karl Marx (pictured above, left) and Friedrich Engels (pictured above, right). The work that put English economics into the Marxist equation (Engels' "The Condition of the Working Class in England") was written in (and largely about the workers of) Manchester.

Engels went to Manchester because his parents wanted him there. They though Manchester would straighten him out. Engels' father was a wealthy German cotton manufacturer and a zealous Christian Pietist. The then 22-year-old Engels was a labor sympathizer, a resolute atheist, and a lawless dropout who participated in violent revolutions.

Engels' parents saw in Manchester a chance for their son to change his ways, but the city merely provided Engels with the means to further his ideologies. For starters, Manchester gave Engels Mary Burns, a feisty, no-nonsense worker who introduced the young dissenter to the city's seedier districts (while becoming his lover at the same time). Then, Manchester supplied him with firsthand cases that pointed up the flaws of a capitalist society. Finally, the city provided him with employment (through his father's firm) when he had to support Marx later on (like many writers, Marx needed somebody to buy his groceries for him).

In a sense, Engels used the city to reload his already smoking gun. His sweeping study of the state of the working class in Manchester and the surrounding areas gave ammunition to his and Marx's ideas. (For his part, Marx took to the libraries in Manchester and London the first time Engels brought him to England in 1845.) They already had their philosophies and their radical ideas when they came to the city, but after Manchester Engels and Marx agreed that only a class war could realign that time's economic order.

HM Prison Manchester
Credit: Keith Williamson

5. Riot in the City

Fast Facts: The longest prison riot in modern penal history happened in Manchester. On April 1, 1990, several hundred prisoners took control of Strangeways Prison. Government forces fought off and negotiated with the rioters until April 25, 1990, when the last of the protesting inmates surrendered.

To the inmates at Strangeways being locked up in their cells for 22 hours a day was too much. To them the one-hour exercise period each day and the trip to the shower once a week were demeaning concessions that must be replaced (they'd rather not bend down and pick up the soap more than they have to, but nothing refreshes like a proper bath). They also hated urinating and defecating in buckets in front of their mates, and they certainly didn't appreciate being injected with the sedative Largactil when they get a bit unruly. So, one morning, they decided to do something about their situation.

The riot began in the prison chapel during a service. Prisoner Paul Taylor grabbed the microphone and put into words every inmate's frustrations. "This gentleman has spoken about the blessings of the heart," he said, referring to the preacher and his sermon. "He has spoken about how Jesus can take away the hardness from your heart. I would like to touch on how prison brutalizes you."

Nothing in this world comes close to the explosive potential of an angry man and a microphone, and so the place went from holy to hell after Taylor's little homily. Everyone was just shouting and cursing at first, but before long the prisoners had the chapel under control.

Later inquiries revealed that the prisoners only thought of taking the chapel, but a senior jail official ran to the control room during the disturbance and announced to everyone that the prison was lost. He told officers to leave their posts and evacuate the staff. News reports didn't mention him wetting his pants, though.

Left to run free, the inmates then stormed the rest of the facility. They overpowered the few guards who stood their ground, took keys, and freed other prisoners. They destroyed cages and started fires.

The prison wasn't really lost even then, but reinforcements failed to arrive on time because everyone thought the whole thing was a prank. A prison riot on April 1 was as good a joke as any, after all.

The riot raged for weeks, and only ended with the removal of five unwavering holdouts (who were removed from the prison's roof using a hydraulic platform). 147 officers and 47 prisoners got hurt in the affair.

The UK government then spent £55 million to rebuild the place. Today, Strangeways is no more (at least on official papers). The facility is now known as HM Prison Manchester (pictured above, after restoration).

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Bibliography

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