Key quotes about the city through the ages - and a famous one that was never said
Manchester is quotable. Over the centuries people have loved or hated it. It’s not a place that attracts neutral opinion. Who wants to live in a place that is simply all right, or ok? Manchester is either a labour of love or a source of rancour. Good. With that in mind, here's a collection of the best things ever said about Manchester and also some of the worst. Let's not be precious.
(The main image above, from high over Manchester Central to Deansgate Square, is from Andy Mallins. In this article we explored his work.)
Manchester’s size makes the social processes more visible. You can see how things are developing. Where they might end is another matter. Perhaps it’ll be the first place to show us whether our new cities work. Manchester, as the Mancs love to tell you, is ahead of the game. Jim McClellan, Esquire Magazine, 1998
Manchester became the centre of the universe. The best drugs. The best clothes. The best women. The best bands. The best club. Suddenly everyone wanted to be from Manchester; and if you were a Manc everyone wanted a part of you. For a big city, Manchester is just small enough. Anthony H Wilson, broadcaster, music impresario, commentator.
Manchester is a city which has witnessed a great many stirring episodes, especially of a political character. Generally speaking, its citizens have been liberal in their sentiments, defenders of free speech and liberty of opinion. Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, 1914
If proximity to great sporting events, an excellent reference library, a fine art gallery, the best curry houses in the Western world and some of the unlikeliest looking transvestites on the planet are considered pertinent, then Manchester deserves its ranking. Howard Jacobson, writer, winner of Man Booker prize, in 2011 as Manchester makes Conde Nast’s best cities list.
This was the city which gave voice to 'the Manchester School' - the free-market liberals who did so much to define Victorian politics. Its heroes were Richard Cobden and John Bright, men who believed in the unalloyed power of commerce to deliver progress. Their acolytes transformed Manchester into 'the last and greatest of the Hanseatic towns - a civilisation created by traders without assistance from monarchs or territorial aristocracy'. Tristram Hunt, The Observer, 2006
Look again at those buildings. As examples of frozen energy they fill you with amazement. Some Mancunians must have been giants. What dreams did these people have? And do they still have them? Charles Jennings, Up North, 1996
I lived so far north of the city centre the postman was Norwegian. You can tell people in Didsbury are posh, they have grapes on the table when no-one’s ill. There is an energy about Manchester that seems lacking in other cities, and if you see what the pigeons can do to a statue in Albert Square, the birds have it too. People think it always rains in Manchester. Not true, though I admit it's the only town in the country with a lifeboat drill on the bus routes. Les Dawson, comedian
I would like to live in Manchester. The transition between Manchester and death would be unnoticeable. Mark Twain, American writer, 1846
We like annoying people. It’s a Manchester thing. It’s a trait. We like pissing people off. Noel Gallagher, former Oasis song-writer
Manchester is a remarkable instance of the good effect freedom has on trade. As this town is neither city nor corporation, but probably no more than a village, every man is at liberty to follow what occupations he pleases, without being subject to the restraint of particular laws. Anon, The Travels of Tom Thumb over England and Wales, 1746
Yes I have had a tan. I went to Los Angeles and got one there, but it didn't make it back. You're not allowed to come through customs with a tan. Morrissey on his Manchester complexion, 2009
'So much of what is wrong with Britain today stems from the fact that it is unusually centralised. The point of the exercise should be to create two rival centres of the establishment. That demands a city with the attractions and capacity to counterbalance London; one capable of attracting government departments and their staff, the media, think-tanks, international investors and some businesses. One worldly enough to become a global power centre befitting Britain’s importance. Manchester clearly has the edge (amongst other cities).’ Its position as Britain’s de-facto second city is well-established. Bagehot, The Economist, in an article entitled Go North: The pragmatic case for moving Britain's capital to Manchester, 2017
Manchester and Liverpool have a strange relationship. You can tell a joke in Liverpool and they won’t understand it in Manchester. That’s because they can’t hear it. Ken Dodd, comedian
In the evenings, the street life in Manchester is about the same as in London, only more crude. Yesterday in the Theatre Royal there were fifty people in the stalls and a dozen in the boxes. The bar, the foyer and the lounge of the theatre were dominated by prostitutes who offered themselves in a most shameless manner. When I went home I encountered two drunken middle-aged women workers, who, like the men, tried to haul each other into pubs in order to carry on drinking. Jakob Venedey, 1845
If I should be so blessed as to revisit again my own country, but more especially Manchester, all that I could hope or desire would be presented before me in one view. Robert Clive, letter from India, 1744
Everything in the exterior appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage. Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England & Ireland, 1835
Will tourists from New Holland or Michigan be someday amusing themselves with digging up antique steam engines at Manchester? Richard Cobden, letter from Rome, 1827
I will not praise Manchester. I will agree with you that it rains there every day, that it is the ugliest city in Britain, that it is cocksure and conceited. I will, I say, agree to all this. You may say anything disagreeable you like about Manchester, and I will not care. Nevertheless...I have stayed in Athens, and Athens is a marvellous city; I know my Paris, and Paris is not without fascination; I have been to Cairo, and bazaars of Cairo seemed to me so wonderful that I held my breath as I passed through them. But these places are not Manchester. They are not so glorious as Manchester, not so vital, not so romantic, not so adventurous… But already I have broken my word: I have begun to praise Manchester in my second paragraph. Let me begin a third. Gerald Cumberland (pseudonym for Charles Frederick Kenyon), Set Down in Malice, a Book of Reminiscences, 1919
Because Manchester has never blown its own trumpet, it has never featured prominently on the tourist map of Europe. If Manchester were in France or Germany, we would visit it in droves. In fact, in many ways, it is the perfect city-break destination: accessible, reasonably compact, but blessed with a bewildering variety of attractions… Architecturally, Manchester is a mess, but a glorious mess. Max Davidson, ‘Manchester: another angel of the north’, The Telegraph, 2010
“Manchester is in the south of the north of England. Its spirit has a contrariness in it – a south and north bound up together – at once untamed and unmetropolitan; at the same time, connected and wordly.” Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal?, 2011
What Art was to the ancient world, Science is to the modern: the distinctive faculty. A Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses. Yet, rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens. From early morn to the late twilight, our Coningsby for several days devoted himself to the comprehension of Manchester. It was to him a new world, pregnant with new ideas, and suggestive of new trains of thought and feeling. Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, 1844
A wondrous town is Cottonborough! Vast – populous – ugly – sombre. Full of toiling slaves, pallid from close confinement and heated air. Full of squalor, vice, misery: yet also full of wealth and all its concomitants – luxury, splendour, enjoyment. A city of coal and iron – a city of the factory and the forge – a city where greater fortunes are amassed, and more quickly than in any other in the wide world. But how – and at what expense? William Harrison Ainsworth, Mervyn Clitheroe, 1858
No provincial city in the United Kingdom, perhaps, is the subject of so general an interest, as the city of Manchester. Its fame has penetrated wherever the elevating influences of civilization have found their way, and the products of its industry, and the impress of its power, may be seen in every corner of the inhabited globe. A main source of England’s greatness, there is no wonder that every Englishman should be anxious to gaze on its multiplied operations and vast appliances. George Bradshaw, Bradshaw’s Illustrated Guide to Manchester, 1857
We are here tonight standing in the centre of a district more wonderful in some respects than can be traced out on the map of any other Kingdom of the world. The population is extraordinary. It is extraordinary for its interests and industries, for the amount of its wealth, for the amount of its wages, and for the power which it exercises in its public opinion on and over the public opinion of the nation. But still, for all that, although the present and the past have been so brilliant. We must bear in mind that great cities have fallen. Therefore let us not for a moment imagine that we stand on a foundation absolutely sure and absolutely immovable. John Bright, speaking at the banquet to celebrate the opening of the new Town Hall, 1877
All roads led to Manchester in the 1840s. Since it was the shock city of the age it was just as difficult to be neutral about it as it was to be neutral about Chicago in the 1890s. If Engels had lived not in Manchester, but in Birmingham, his conception of ‘class’ and his theories of the role of class in history might have been different. In this case Marx might not have been a communist but a currency reformer. The fact Manchester was taken to be the symbol of the age in the 1840s and not Birmingham… was of central political importance in modern world history. Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities, 1963
John Dalton was a man of regular habits. For fifty-seven years he walked out of Manchester every day; he measured the rainfall, the temperature—a singularly monotonous enterprise in this climate. Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 1976
As for the Town Hall in Albert Square, once you have seen its silver plate and paintings and busts, its marble columns and mosaic floors, its stone staircase climbing past a blaze of stained glass, all other town halls fade into insignificance. What a world it represented – cotton and shipping and commerce, the like of which we shall never see again. It’s a wonder they didn’t use gold bars instead of bricks and stone. Beryl Bainbridge, English Journey, or, The Road to Milton Keynes, 1984
In those days, for a Mancunian to visit the capital was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy. True, it had the monarch and the government and was gratuitously big. It had more history than Manchester, but history was no more than a tourist frippery. When foreigners came to Manchester, they came to learn, not to feed ravens and snap beefeaters. Manchester was generous and London was not. London had something of the air of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God, 1986
I came to the conclusion that the inhabitants here are of a different spirit which makes them want to enjoy life a little more. Johann George Büsch, 1777
I feel close to the rebelliousness and vigour of the youth here. Perhaps time will separate us, but nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration and of music. Eric Cantona
'London is now isolated in the agricultural south...if Britain had now for the first time to choose a capital, its choice would naturally fall upon Manchester.' The Cornhill magazine, 1881
By no stretch of the imagination is Manchester a picturesque city. It is however emphatically if unconventionally beautiful. In common with all things beautiful it is fundamentally flawed. It has a compulsion to preen and show off, it is narcissistic, contrary and wayward, and yet you cannot help but love it. It is admirable and maddening. Chris Lethbridge, Change and Contradiction, Diverse City, 1998
For Manchester is the place where people do things. It is good to talk about doing things, but better still to do them. ‘Don’t talk about what you are going to do - do it.’ That is the Manchester habit. And in the past through the manifestation of this quality the word Manchester became a synonym for energy and freedom and the right to do and to think without shackles. Sir Edward Abbott Parry, What the Judge Saw: Being Twenty-Five Years in Manchester By One Who Has Done It, 1912
Far, far away in the distance, on that flat plain, you might see the motionless cloud of smoke hanging over a great town, and that was Manchester – ugly, smoky Manchester; dear, busy, earnest, noble-working Manchester… Elizabeth Gaskell, Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras, 1847
‘It was in Manchester where I was hit in the face by the economic realities which in the historical narrative to date played either no role or were dismissed.’ Friedrich Engels, 1892, previously author of The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 and the co-author of The Communist Manifesto (1848).
And what George Orwell never said...
The most overused quote about Manchester is false. Across the city you’ll see ‘Manchester, the belly and guts of the nation’ attributed to George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier.
In 2007 Manchester Confidential’s Sleuth showed how the quote came from a city guidebook written by the editor Jonathan Schofield for City Life magazine several years earlier and had subsequently been adopted by the now defunct Urbis (presently the National Football Museum). Schofield said he should have checked the source but he'd trusted the person who'd given it him implicitly.
The truth was only discovered when after a visit National Geographic magazine wanted to use the quote in a travel article about Manchester and some poor researcher read everything by George Orwell and found he'd never said the 'belly and guts of the nation' thing: probably because 'belly and guts' are more or less the same thing so it doesn't make sense.
As Sleuth wrote in 2007: ‘Orwell might not have said it but he should have. And now everybody thinks he did’.
* This is a gift that keeps on giving. On 18 October 2023 Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Lucy Frazer, used the quote in her celebratory speech at the official opening of Aviva Studios. As with the overspend on the project, £110m to £240m approximately, the quote is unreal.
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