The BLM movement illuminated the symbolic and emotional power attached to who and what councils and communities choose to exalt in civic space. In March 2021, Manchester Council conducted public consultations to ‘ensure’ the public realm was ‘holistic’ and ‘meaningfully reflected the city’s communities past and modern-day identity’. Yet questions regarding the history of revered figures, imbalances in representation and silences in recognition remain. The following traces both new and lesser-known, but no less pivotal, plaques and monuments, their often-overlooked histories and current place.
Peterloo Massacre: August 16th, 1819, amidst chronic poverty and unemployment after the Napoleonic Wars, 60,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field peacefully rallying for expanded political franchise at a time when only 11% of adult males could vote and Manchester had no MP. Met with armed cavalry, an estimated 600 injuries and 18 deaths ensued. The stacked rings, inscribed with the victim’s names, were unveiled inconspicuously by construction workers in 2019. Failure to consider activist’s concerns means this memorial’s step-like design prevents full access and somewhat overshadows this commemoration.
William Marsden: St John’s Gardens rests on the former St John’s Church yard. A centralised memorial recognises many of the 22,000 people buried in the vicinity. Significantly, one panel commemorates Marsden who ‘originated the Saturday Half Holiday’. Perhaps incomprehensible in today’s reality of weekend brunches, shopping or football, Marsden led an 1840s campaign which, to the dismay of Mill owners, ensured Mancunian operatives became the first to finish at noon on Saturdays. Helping fuel recreational demand, this victory was an important precursor to extending leisure time outside gentrified classes and is part of the origin of our modern weekend.
Emmeline Pankhurst: Following the WoManchester Statue Project’s five-year campaign ‘Rise up Women’, the first female statue erected since Queen Victoria in 1901, was unveiled on the centenary of the first woman’s election vote. Standing on a chair rostrum orating at a meeting circle, the statue powerfully embodies Pankhurst’s commitment to public participation and inciting ‘Deeds not Words’. Holding the radical WSPU’s first meeting at her Chorlton family home (now The Pankhurst Centre), Pankhurst led the pioneering Suffragette campaigns of aggressive civil disobedience. The bronze sculpture etenalizes Pankhurst and provides permanent reminder of the role played by women of the city in driving forward feminist political activism and societal change.
Alan Turing: Turing’s criminalisation for ‘public gross indecency’ in 1952 saw his remarkable contributions subsequently silenced. Turing cracked the Enigma code during WWII and his computing theories have (now) titled him the father of modern computer science. Cast in china on a Sackville Garden bench, aptly between Canal Street and a university science building, Turing sits holding an apple. Shortly after undergoing chemical castration, Turing is thought to have committed suicide via an apple laced with cyanide. The memorial reclaims this gay man’s legacy but also fosters reflection upon his position as a victim of homophobic prejudice and systemic discrimination. Constructed following a Stockport Barrister’s decision to kickstart a public memorial fund, it was on what would have been his 89th Birthday in 2001 that the city memorialised him.
5th Pan African Congress: In October 1945, the Pan African Congress held its fifth conference at the former Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall recognised by a red plaque on Manchester Metropolitan University’s All Saints Building. Delegates from across Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and America gathered with students and local diaspora to condemn imperialism and racial discrimination and demand decolonization. An important turning point in the struggles of African nations for independence, many significant activists and intellectuals attended like W.E.B Du Bois, Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, Jamaican activist and feminist Amy Ashwood-Garvey and future Ghanaian President and revolutionary theorist Kwame Nkrumah. While small, this plaque aims to remember the city’s place in powerful transnational anticolonial politics.
Ellen Wilkinson: Wilkinson enjoyed a trailblazing career of activism and politics, becoming the 2nd ever female cabinet member. As Jarrow’s MP, Wilkinson led the famous march of the town’s unemployed to London petitioning for the re-establishment of their industry and right to work. Dubbed “shelter queen” whilst junior minister for home security during WWII she also supervised civil defence, distributed air raid shelters and controversially approved conscription of women into the AFS. Moreover, as Minister for Education, Wilkinson played a monumental part in expanding secondary education and ensuring the leaving age was raised. Ellen was shortlisted in the Womanchester Project’s poll however, as yet, is recognised in the city only via plaques situated on the street where she was born and The University of Manchester’s main quadrangle, as well as the renaming of a university building after her.
Doves of Peace: The Doves of Peace sculpture, outside the People’s History Museum, remembers how the city was the first to declare itself a Nuclear Free Zone in November 1980. Embodying the commitment to opposing atomic weapons made during the Cold War. A commemorative plaque also mounts the Town Hall.Adrift: Sculpted in 1907 and situated outside Central Library Adrift is not new, nor probably forgotten, but remains a favourite due to its poignant symbolism and enduring message. A sculpted stone family clinging to a raft amid stormy seas, Adrift encapsulates the late 19th century New Sculpture movement’s spirit of rebellion against Victorian propriety. The physical realism and poetic content embody life’s vicissitudes and fickleness. Sculpture Cassidy wrote that it represents “Humanity adrift on the sea of life, depicting sorrows and dangers, hopes and fears and embodying the dependence of human beings upon one another…”