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Manchester.

These two books both deal with the history of Manchester and thus have more than local importance, as Manchester is often regarded as the world's first modern city. Kidd's is a general history, although it does not deal with Salford, and is part of a series of town and city histories aimed at the general reader. It begins in Roman times, but the period up to the later eighteenth century is dealt with in the first twenty pages, which nevertheless provide a very clear and succinct account of the town's origins. The bulk of the book deals with the period from 1780 to the present, in three sections divided by the dates 1850 and 1914, each containing several chapters on different aspects.

The story is thus one of the first city of the Industrial Revolution, the 'shock city' of the age which became one of the world's great cities and was never merely a mill town, for it contained other important industries apart from cotton, but was above all a marketing and warehouse centre that was the world's central market for the sale of cotton products, as well as a centre for banking and insurance. Kidd deals with these developments, the relative decline after 1850 -- as other industries and cities caught up -- but continued absolute gowth, the Ship Canal of 1894, making it the fourth largest port in the country and leading to the development of Trafford Park, the world's first industrial estate, before twentieth-century decline. But as well as detailing this economic history, he examines the dynamic merchant community, including many foreign merchants, who became an urban aristocracy, and their cultural activities and institutions and Italianate warehouses that expressed their view of Manchester as a modern Florence, until succeeding generations began to withdraw from business and the public life of the city, becoming Anglican and acquiring country estates.

Kidd also looks at the politics of these groups, moving from Cobdenite radical liberalism to conservatism, as well as the terrible social costs of the city's growth, popular movements and culture, and the importance of immigrant groups of Irish and Jews. Although the section on the second half of the nineteenth century sometimes seems too full and not so clearly focused, in general the book is an excellent, clear, thorough, comprehensive and concise history of a city of international significance.

One member of the Manchester business elite was Absalom Watkin, who was born in London, the son of an innkeeper who died when the boy was twelve. At the age of fourteen Absalom went to work for an uncle who had a small cotton business in Manchester, buying out the firm when he was nearly twenty, and going on to become a substantial businessman with a country house outside Manchester. He was also a member of the group of leading reformers that came to include Richard Cobden, that opposed the Napoleonic War and the Corn Bill of 1815, protested at the Peterloo massacre, supported the Reform Bill in 1831-32, a Ten Hours' Bill, and the campaign to make Manchester a self-governing borough. Absalom was an active member of the Anti-Corn Law league and the Lancashire Public Schools' Association, although he parted company with Cobden and Bright in his support for the Crimean War. One of his sons became a Liberal MP and railway promoter, another mayor of Manchester.

Watkin's story is thus very much part of the account given by Kidd, who deals with most of these movements but never mentions him. From 1803 to 1859 Watkin kept a diary, but only those for 1811-56 survived, and in 1920 a great-grandson published extracts from these, totalling 80,000 words. In 1947 the original diaries were burned, but fortunately another great-grandson had laboriously copied out almost all the unpublished parts of the diaries, another 200,000 words, and his daughter has now published a selection of these, amounting only to a fraction of the whole. This volume contains not only extracts from the diaries but also frequent and often long linking passages and commentaries by the editor, usually well-informed though sometimes dated. While this reduces the value of the book to a specialist historian, it probably makes it more interesting and informative for a more general reader.

In fact the diaries reveal little of Watkin's business, public or political life, and indeed understate his radicalism. They throw some light on the way of life and connections of such a man, but are mainly interesting for what they reveal of his private life. The picture that emerges is of a man who disliked his work and, despite his strong religious faith, was constantly beset by financial worries and fears of failure. His main interest lay in reading, study and the beauties of nature, his library and garden being his real loves, especially as business was so uncongenial and his family life so unhappy. He had bad relations with his wife (whom he regarded as coarse and incompetent and who was unfaithful and became increasingly prone to drunkenness) and with his children, some of whom drank too much, while one son contracted venereal disease from a prostitute at the age of eighteen but later became a clergyman. It thus adds a dimension to the public life of the city that is the subject of Kidd's book.
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Author:Prothero, Iorwerth
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:882
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