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A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smithsby Tony Fletcher
I don’t really feel any kinship with the place. It’s just somewhere that I just so happen to live. It doesn’t mean a great deal to me. And I’m sure I’ll leave very soon—when I’m rich.
—Morrissey, The David Jensen Show, July 1983
We felt like every little town was our hometown. And I think that the people in Inverness and Brighton and St. Austell and Norwich all felt that way when they came out to see us.
—Johnny Marr, May 2011
The story of the Smiths is intrinsically entwined with that of Manchester. And yet the group proved curiously conflicted in their loyalties to the city that birthed them—and which has subsequently claimed them as one of its most successful exports and biggest tourist attractions. It’s not just that the Smiths concluded their first album with the disparaging refrain, “Manchester, so much to answer for,” or opened their second one with the equally negative line, “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools.” It’s not only that they packed their bags and moved to the British capital at more or less the first sign of success (though the fact that they returned to Manchester a year later suggests that they may have gained a new appreciation for their hometown in their absence). It’s also that the Smiths played in Manchester less often in the entire four years of their performing career than they played in London during their first twelve months alone.
Such ambivalence can partly be excused and justified as ambition, a determination to escape the relative confines of their semidetached, semiurban surroundings and spread their musical wings across a national, and then an international, stage. From the beginning, the Smiths sensed greatness, and to realize that greatness meant a refusal to accept confinement to the margins. They were never going to content themselves with being anything as trifling as a mere Manchester band.
And yet, more deeply conflicted feelings about their origins are readily understandable. As children, Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr were ejected from their inner-city childhood homes, in the overlapping neighborhoods of Hulme and Moss Side, and Ardwick, respectively, as part of a sweeping program of “slum clearance” that provided them with better housing, but at the cost of community upheaval. All four members of the band were subject to the city’s arcane and draconian (in their case, Catholic) school system, which failed miserably to provide them with a quality education, let alone a means to pursue their artistic talents. And they came together at a time when Manchester was declining more precipitously than any other British city under the weight of poverty, unemployment, and attendant social ills—and yet, during the early days of the Smiths’ unanimous acclaim from the London music media, it often seemed as if they had to fight for every last drop of local civic respect. What, in a sense, was there to be loyal toward?
This, in a more general sense, has long been Manchester’s dilemma. A city that launched the Industrial Revolution, that contributed so enormously to Britain’s wealth, that to a large extent financed and furnished the Victorian empire, did so on the backs of its underpaid, malnourished, mistreated workers. Its inhabitants therefore mix an instinctive pride for their city’s copious achievements (including its ongoing sporting and cultural successes) with a necessary prejudice against their own bosses and municipal leaders who have often sold them out without a second thought. The result is a somewhat cheerful cynicism; Mancunians remain among Britain’s most outgoing and welcoming people despite their history of hardships. The occasional good-natured ribbing aside, there is rarely any genuine antagonism exhibited toward residents of the “soft south.”
As for the Smiths, however, perhaps the main reason they never waved a Manchester flag was because, for three of them at least, their recent family histories lay not in Lancashire but in Ireland. “With so much Irishness around us, my sister and I growing up, never really felt we were Mancunians,” said Morrissey in 1999, five years before he released a solo song stating his composition as one of “Irish Blood, English Heart.” Johnny Marr put it another way: “I don’t think of myself as being English and I don’t think of myself as being Irish. I think of myself as being Mancunian Irish.” If one or both of these viewpoints was true too of the other Smiths, so it was of so many Mancunians down the course of history, because a significant part of Manchester’s wealth—or at least the wealth of its industrialists, who were not readily predisposed to share it—was built upon Irish blood.
Before its transformation in the eighteenth century, Manchester served as but a respectable agricultural center, with an additional reputation for textile production thanks to an influx of Flemish weavers exiled there in the 1300s; it was Liverpool, thirty miles west along the River Mersey, that stood radiant as the “Gateway to the British Empire.” Liverpool’s fortunes were built in part on the export of Manchester textiles, and on guns made in Birmingham, but they were especially enhanced by the exchange of such goods on the west coast of Africa for human cargo, which was then transported for sale into slavery in the West Indies or along the American Atlantic coast before returning from the New World laden with raw goods. Come the year 1800, and Liverpool was considered the second wealthiest city in all of Europe.
By then, however, the harnessing of steam power, and the successive inventions, mostly in the British Midlands and northwest, of a series of jennies, looms, frames, and mules that exponentially increased the production capabilities in the cotton industry, were already serving to shift that balance of regional power. Manchester benefited from these inventions in part due to its existent foothold in textiles, but also because it had the attributes required by the new large-scale industries—natural high humidity, heavy rainfall, a copious supply of soft water, and, thanks to the pioneering Bridgewater Canal that connected a private regional coal mine to the owner’s warehouse in Manchester, easy access to coal and a burgeoning system of further arterial canals. The world’s first water-powered mill was built in Royton, in the east of modern Manchester, in 1764; the city’s first steam-driven mill opened in Shudehill, in the heart of modern Manchester, in 1782. From there, the mills expanded by the dozen, many of them built on the banks of the Rochdale Canal in Ancoats, the border of modern Manchester’s fashionable Northern Quarter. Mills were also constructed on the northern edges of Chorlton-on-Medlock, through which ran the Oxford Road south from the city, and on which was later built the University of Manchester, the city’s most populous seat of higher learning and one that, studies have frequently shown, now attracts students as much for Manchester’s musical reputation as any educational one.
Britain abolished slavery in 1807, and Liverpool’s position at the core of its global trade suffered accordingly; the “Middle Passage” having been eliminated, ships arrived at the Mersey port increasingly laden with raw cotton from India or the Americas, and departed with finished cotton textiles from Manchester for sale around the globe. In 1830, when the world’s first passenger railway line opened, connecting the two great northwestern English cities, there was little doubt which of them held the key to Britain’s future prosperity: “Cottonopolis,” as Manchester had come to be known, the engine room of the Industrial Revolution.
By this point in time, fully one-fifth of Manchester’s population was Irish.1 They had come in part because of the poverty in their homeland, where, especially since the Acts of Union at the start of the nineteenth century, they had been subjugated by absentee British landlords to the point that the greater part of their food production ended up on English dinner tables. They came to Manchester especially for the promise of jobs in the vast new cotton mills, as well as the iron foundries, machinery plants, and glass works that were built in large part to service this industry. And yet they arrived to find themselves shunned by the English, who viewed them not only with the religious prejudice of a Protestant nation, and not just as a threat to employment but, with their foreign tongue (for many of the immigrants spoke Gaelic) and equally distant ways, as a different and inferior race entirely.
As a result, the Irish had been cast into ghettoes, where they lived in quite possibly the worst conditions yet witnessed in a (then) modern society. Details of their hardships were eventually publicized by Dr. James Phillips Kay in his 1832 study entitled The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester. Kay served as physician to the Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, neighborhoods that, along with New Town (or Irish Town), served as the main residential areas for the Irish immigrants and were, not by coincidence, the core of the city’s squalor. In these areas, entire families of sixteen or more could be found cohabiting in single, sublevel, damp, pestilent rooms barely one hundred square feet in size, crowded in with pigs and other animals. Such was the lack of basic sanitation that on Parliament Street, some 380 people shared a single “privy,” from which the human waste not surprisingly ran over into adjacent houses. (In whole swathes of inner Manchester, there were a greater number of beer houses, taverns, and gin shops than there were toilets.) Allowing too that the city’s rivers were poisoned with any number of odorous colors by chemical dumping and that the air was thickened with polluting soot to the point that the houses were coated black with the stuff, it was no wonder that cholera epidemics often swept the city—and that fully half the city’s infants died before the age of five.
Those children who survived found themselves called to work in the factories and mills; it was a mark of just how deeply they were enslaved in such premises that an 1819 Cotton Factories Regulation Act had been required to restrict their labor even to twelve hours a day. Still, partly because there was no enforcement of these laws until a new act of Parliament in 1833, children as young as five—many of them orphans provided by local parish authorities—continued to be freely beaten, easily injured, otherwise mistreated and abused, and disciplined violently, often dipped headfirst into water cisterns when they inevitably became drowsy from overwork. Men, women, and children alike worked in a machinery-driven din of such volume that the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the Manchester of this time that he heard it before he saw it, using appropriately rhythmic language to bemoan the “crunching wheels of machinery, the shriek of steam from boilers, the regular beat of the looms.”
Likewise, in his groundbreaking report, Dr. Kay rightly compared “The dull routine of a ceaseless drudgery” in the mills to “the torment of Sisyphus—the toil, like the rock, recoils perpetually on the wearied operative.” Yet Kay could not hide an underlying contempt for the unskilled Irish among these toilers. With free use of the term “savage,” he cited their “contagious example of ignorance and a barbarous disregard of forethought and economy,” and concluded that “such a race is useful only as a mass of animal organization, which consumes the smallest amount of wages.”
By the end of the 1830s, cotton accounted for fully half of Britain’s export earnings, but there had been little change in living standards. When the German-born Friedrich Engels came to town in 1842, sent by his father to oversee the family’s cotton spinning mill in the hope that the experience would temper the young man’s radical beliefs, his exposure to the effects of large-scale industry encouraged him instead to formulate his own vision of society alongside his political partner, Karl Marx, with whom he would meet and devour economic theories at Chetham’s public library (the oldest in Britain) during the latter’s visits to Manchester. Engels and Marx would later pen The Communist Manifesto, but first, in 1845, Engels was to publish The Conditions of the Working Class in England, at the age of just twenty-four. In it, Engels—suspecting that it was more by design than accident—astutely noted of Manchester how its city center was filled with impressive offices and warehouses, and the main roads out of town were lined with well-kept shops. As such, a businessman “commuting” from his suburban village, or a visitor whom he might wish to impress, could make the journey in and out of the city center without exposure to the destitution of the working-class residences that lay hidden behind the main roads in a vast, unmapped configuration of alleys and terraces and jerry-built cottages—out of sight and, to many, out of mind.
Detailing the conditions of the slum people and the factories that employed them as a powder keg ready to explode, Engels framed his study not just as an indictment of the Industrial Revolution but as a warning of an inevitable Workers Revolution. “The fighting proletariat will help itself,” he believed. Yet Engels, like Kay before him, seemed to simultaneously believe that self-emancipation was beyond the Irish. In a special section of his “Conditions” devoted to Irish Immigration, he stooped to every caricature ever identified with the nationality:
“The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink. What does such a race want with high wages?”
It has sometimes been suggested by Engels apologists that these comments were a form of bitter sarcasm, perhaps intended to reflect the views of the Industrial barons, but his conclusions still made for awkward reading: “Even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilised, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.” Engels’s theory was to be immediately put to the test, as potato crops repeatedly failed across Ireland in the 1840s, leading to famine and the mass emigration of up to a million young Irish in less than a decade, many of whom followed a now familiar journey—to the mills, works, and slums of inner Manchester.
Manchester gained renown as more than just the birthplace of modern capitalism and communism. In 1801, the Church of England Sunday Schools in Manchester, proud of their part in helping to educate the poorest of factory children, paraded them to the Collegiate Church on Whit Monday to hear a special holiday sermon. The practice soon spread across the country, while growing more popular in Manchester so that by the middle of the century, a minimum of 10,000 “scholars” could be found marching behind church banners; in time, the children would come to anticipate the Whit Walks as an alternate Christmas, a day for new clothes and financial gifts from relatives and friends. Other events carried a heavier weight of history. In 1819, years of worker unrest following the Napoleonic Wars culminated in an astonishingly large crowd of 60,000 gathering in the city’s St. Peter’s Field from all across Lancashire to hear the top orators of the day call for parliamentary reform.
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