St Michael’s is controversial because, as well as its unparalleled size, its construction requires the demolition of a number of buildings, including the Sir Ralph Abercromby, a decent if not entirely salubrious backstreet pub which also happens to be the sole surviving structure from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
In August 1819 around 70,000 people congregated in St Peter's Field, now the site of St Peter’s Square, to demand economic and parliamentary reform. The army was called in and charged on those gathered, killing 15 people and injuring over 500 as they dispersed in panic, pouring around the Abercromby, some seeking refuge inside (some dubious accounts claim that one victim died in the pub). The subsequent public outcry led to further demonstrations and riots across the north, the protestors becoming increasingly organised in the face of government opposition. This in turn led directly to the creation of the Chartist movement, the establishment of trade unions, the founding of The Guardian and eventually to the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, commonly seen as the cornerstone of our modern democracy. Although its interior has been periodically refurbished, the fact remains that the walls of the Abercromby (or two of them, the other two were destroyed in WWII) are the last surviving fragments of the backdrop to this most defining of moments in both the city’s and the country’s history.
But sadly – the local government here in Manchester is never one to shy away from an opportunity for crushingly heavy symbolism – in a couple of years’ time Manchester will most likely be celebrating the bicentennial this key moment of its past by demolishing its one remaining structure to make way for another block of flats. And, like I say, this all feels very emblematic. As I left the library, itself built on the site of the massacre, it was difficult to avoid the invisible presence of Peterloo and all it represents. I passed a beggar outside and was reminded that a large homeless camp had sprung up outside the building after its renovation a couple of years ago, before the ‘protestors’, as they were branded, had been evicted to make way the surrounding area to be ‘futureproofed’ (the council’s word for endless roadworks), something which involved dismantling and moving the city’s war memorial and building a tram stop in the centre of the square. The hundred or so homeless moved on to St Anne’s Square, their new camp in the shadow of St Anne’s Church, which forms something of the city’s heart being as it is the absolute central point of Manchester. Again they were moved on, by which point the council had seen to it that any kind of rough-sleeping within the perimeters of the city had been officially criminalised. Near Victoria railway station, originally the site of St. Michael's Flags, one of Manchester’s most notorious slum, some of this ‘futureproofing’ resulted in the unearthing a mass paupers’ grave. The bodies were disinterred and shipped out, their original resting place taken up with another tram stop. While all this played out the council, in an ugly act of symmetry, simultaneously pledged £32m towards the construction of The Factory, a residential development which promises ‘public and semi-public pocket parks for impromptu community happenings, relaxing, ping pong, chess and horticulture’ but zero provision for social housing.
Veterans of Peterloo in their late 70's and 80's, pictured in 1884.
But such thoughts become difficult to entertain when faced with such a changed, benign landscape. Carnage seems so improbable in such proximity to a San Carlo outlet, a branch of Sainsbury's and groups of international students congregating around benches, chattering away happily to one another. I wondered what other individuals had made this walk in the past, from point A to point B, this particular trajectory. Had they looked around, thinking or trying to think similar thoughts?
The German writer W.G. Sebald relocated to Manchester in the mid 1960’s to work at the University and live, as he put it, ‘among the previous century’s ruins’. In The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated into English, he provided a description of his early impressions of the smog-marked city, the one time core of global industry: ‘I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see… Even the grandest of the buildings, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops.’ Well indeed. Perhaps this is overstating things, but for the young, gloomy Sebald, as for most of those who inhabited the city prior to the extensive regeneration it went through in the 90’s, Manchester was a kind of living museum of its own past, one whose theme was collapse – collapse of progress, of prosperity, of the grand promise they once held – something which held an added symbolism for someone like Sebald, born as he was into a country in the thrall of ideals which promised much but brought only destruction.
Now, walking around central Manchester, in its permanent state of upgrade and its jostling newbuild skyscrapers, it once again often feels as though one is wandering a museum. The collection – opulent flats, lavish hotels, immaculate offices, imposing and implacably crafted stelae of glinting steel and glass all – once again stands proudly for prosperity, progress and promise. But, for those with little and those with nothing, the theme, as ever, is one of absence, erasure and amnesia.