Why the worker bee is a symbol of Manchester


Manchester, now a city and metropolitan borough in the North West of England (UK), became famous as a hub of the Industrial Revolution as the use of machinery rapidly advanced its industry textile. With the subsequent development of transport (including the opening of the first steam railway) which facilitated the flow of raw materials and the export of finished goods, the entry of new businesses, Manchester became a sprawling industrial city who would become a model for others.

The industriousness of Mancunians (as the people of Manchester are known) has been compared to the “worker bee” and its factories called beehives. The symbolic reference became so popular that the worker bee was incorporated into Manchester’s coat of arms in 1842.

Today, the symbol has mingled with the spirit of Manchester. People inking with the symbol as a show of solidarity after the Manchester Arena terror attack to use it as street art to thank NHS workers working in COVID-19 hospitals, the worker bee is a symbol of hope and encouragement, and can be seen on many public buildings or otherwise.

But the Industrial Revolution also led to a new society, rich factory owners and an impoverished working class. Money has become a tool to win political favors. The working class, led by radical thinkers, began to demand reforms in parliamentary representation, changes in administrative regulations, better living conditions and the availability of food, which led to clashes.

One of those infamous confrontations was the Peterloo massacre that took place 200 years ago, which is still studied by political scientists to understand the state’s repression of radical protests. On August 16, 1819, at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, nearly 60,000 people had gathered to demand a change in parliamentary representation, which they believed would, among other things, defeat the Corn Laws and thus reduce poverty. The famous orator Henry Hunt was to address the assembly. But according to reports, local yeomanry and mounted military at the behest of the magistrates, charged into the crowd, killing around 18 people and fatally wounding a large number of people. The confrontation became known as the Peterloo Massacre (as opposed to Waterloo).

According to Oscar-nominated writer and producer-director Mike Leigh, the mound outside Manchester Central (the iconic convention center carved out of the former eponymous train station) is where the crowd stood to listen to speaker Hunt and d ‘others. Leigh had researched the unfolding of the massacre and local landmarks extensively for her film Peterloo, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2018.

In 2019, the 200th anniversary of the fateful event was celebrated with a series of events, including the unveiling of a Memorial and an interactive participation of local people and families of people who had joined the meeting two centuries ago. .

When you visit Manchester, you can go to the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub located between Jackson’s Row and Bootle Street. The pub, which predates the massacre [though the building has seen many changes since then and was  saved from being demolished under a real estate development plan], features a mural executed by artist Paul Fitzgerald based on the fateful event and unveiled last year. Fitzgerald is also chairman and founding member of the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Committee.

While in Manchester, between visits to the football clubs, make time to visit the People’s History Museum (PHM). Called the National Museum of Democracy, it is a place “to learn, be inspired and engage with ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, cooperation and a just world for all”. The museum, through its galleries, exhibitions and workshops, participatory programs, is concerned with revolutions and reformers, workers and voters, etc.

If you want to know what happened on the day of the Peterloo Massacre, you can ask permission to view the collection of original 1819 newspapers archived at the museum. They also have some of the few memorabilia related to the event, such as the Peterloo cane donated by the family of one of the protesters (Charles Worsely) present that day, and the Peterloo handkerchief, among the memorabilia created after the massacre; etc They also have living history workshops where interactive theater activities and gallery walks familiarize you with significant events, including the Peterloo Massacre.

It was in Manchester that the seeds of the suffragette were sown. PHM posters show how women had to fight for the right to vote alongside men in the general elections. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to strengthen the demand for women’s suffrage. The first meeting was held at her home, which has now been converted into the Pankhurst Center. The movement was further intensified by Annie Kenney. Along with Christabel Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter), she was imprisoned in 1905 for standing up to Sir Edward Grey, a British statesman, over the issue of women’s suffrage. In 2018, Manchester honored Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney by unveiling their statues to mark the centenary of British women first voting in general elections.

It remains to wonder how the right and radical thinking of workers would have taken shape if two great minds, Friedrich Engels and Karl Heinrich Marx, had not met in Manchester. Although they arrived in 19th century England from Germany for different reasons, it was the working class condition of Manchester and its surroundings that gave them food for thought. It is said that Engels’ treatise on “The Condition of the Working Class in England” attracted Marx’s attention, and the latter often traveled from London to Manchester to study and discuss with Engels.

Chetham Library (commissioned by wealthy landowner, textile merchant and banker Humphrey Chetham in 1653 as part of a school for poor boys) still retains the alcove and desk where the two would study together through the famous stained glass window which lit the corner was damaged in a storm in 1875 and was replaced by plain glass. Visitors can still leaf through the books to which the two philosophers would refer. Apart from the library, it is said that the Crescent Pub was also one of their favorite meeting places.


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