From the Worker Bee to Manchester’s radical history
The Re:sound project in Manchester gave a dedicated team of aspiring Streetwise Opera historians a unique opportunity to explore the history of their city through a series of participatory history and heritage sessions. The group’s research and learning journey was supported by award winning charity Manchester Histories, that works collaboratively to reveal, share, and celebrate Greater Manchester’s diverse histories and heritage, and the project was kindly funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The programme began in November 2022 with a fascinating talk by historian and heritage guide Jonathan Schofield, who illustrated Manchester’s incredible journey from a small market town in the early 1700s to the world’s first industrial city. A series of paintings, architects’ drawings, maps and photographs highlighted the scale and speed of the city’s development into ‘the shock city of the age’ (Asa Briggs) and the enormous impact this had on both its rapidly expanding population and the world at large.
Piccadilly Gardens by L. S. Lowry
The group were keen to trace the history of the Manchester Bee, which is at the heart of one of the micro-operas. The talk explored the evolution of the Worker Bee as part of the original civic symbol of industrial Manchester, seven bees across the globe featured in Manchester’s coat of arms, granted in 1842. The Bee took on a new role of uniting the community following the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May 2017 and became a symbol of hope, strength, and togetherness.
The group followed up the talk with a walking tour that started at Manchester Central Library (1934) and ended at Piccadilly Gardens, visiting the Emmeline Pankhurst Statue (2018), The Athenaeum (1837) and The Portico Library (1806) amongst many other sites. Visiting these institutions helped give a context to the new wave of socially engaged creatives, philanthropists, activists, and campaigners, such as John Bright and Elizabeth Gaskell, who believed in the right of the poor and working classes to free education, improved working and living conditions, and ultimately the right to vote.
The walking tour highlighted the physical development of the textile warehouses, weavers’ cottages, grand financial and civic institutions, public houses. It also helped the group visualise the scale of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and other major protests and marches. Ending the tour in Piccadilly Gardens gave the opportunity to imagine the site as a natural clay pit when it was originally called Daub Holes, then a Victorian hospital. For some of the group, they remembered personal experiences of the sunken flower gardens in the 1980s as both a visitor and as a person who was homeless. Discussions around contemporary use and design of the space followed, as the site remains controversial in its current state.
Manchester bee art in the Northern Quarter. Duncan Hill.
A coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile
Siobhan O’Connor led a tour of the amazing Strongroom in the former Library Theatre space in the library basement, revealing a home to a vast collection of rare books, manuscripts and city records and other curios such as Frank Sidebottom’s keyboard! The group were invited to handle original ballad and sheet music and viewed precious books such as Codex Justianus (1347).
In the research room, the group learned how to pre-order archives in Archives+, conduct their own research and looked at archives ordered in advance relating to Piccadilly Gardens, the Manchester Bee and the theme of Protest.
The visit to North West Film Archive included a session on how to search and order film and access digital archives through the website. A showing of fascinating film footage of people in and around Piccadilly Gardens in the early 1970s reminded the group of just how much it had changed. A brilliant interview with 90-year-old Elizabeth Dean in the 1980s, a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights, gave inspiration for the group’s micro-opera performances in expressing ideas with passion and authenticity.
Streetwise Opera performers at The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester.
The group were keen to discover examples of protest in more depth, so they visited The Pankhurst Centre, based in Emmeline Pankhurst’s former home, and People’s History Museum (PHM), the national museum of democracy.
In a tour of The Pankhurst Centre, the group were inspired by the actual room where the suffragette movement was created by a small group of women, even getting into character with placards, sashes and straw hats! A visit to Manchester Art Gallery highlighted one of the suffragette’s protests in 1913 in which three women campaigners were arrested for damaging 13 paintings. The group saw all the damaged paintings, including two not currently on public view, held in gallery storage.
At PHM the group learnt more about the power of the banner, unions and the fight for human rights and equality during a tour with archivist Heather Roberts. The visit ended with a viewing of the new exhibition ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’, shining a light on disabled people’s activism. There was so much to see and learn about Britain’s democratic journey that the group chose to revisit the museum to examine the banners that had had such an impact on their thoughts about expressing ideas and unity.
In February 2023, volunteers from the original group of historians worked together to consolidate their learning from the November sessions. They created a presentation to share their knowledge about the history of their city, and how it had impacted them personally. Brainstorming ideas, feelings, and phrases about Manchester, special places, objects and people that epitomised the city, they summed up the experience with these heartfelt conclusions:
Sing for Change
We’ve all got a story to tell
We are who we are
Unite for Rights
History belongs to everyone
Remember to look up!
Streetwise Opera performers at Archives+ in Manchester Central Library.
"Very sad to see how prisoners were treated"
Participants in Streetwise Opera’s creative workshops at the Nottingham Playhouse share their experiences engaging in this research about the Luddites.