With the coming of the industrial revolution, the manufacturing city of Manchester became the beating heart of the British Empire. Still, the unique structure of Britain’s parliamentary democracy meant that the city had little representation at the national level, and even when this inequality was addressed, thousands of working people who toiled in the city’s factories were denied the vote. No wonder then that Manchester became the epicenter of the British labor movement and a hotbed of socialism in the U.K.. This history is richly documented in the extraordinary displays at the Peoples’ History Museum.
Located on a prominent corner in the heart of the old city, the museum is housed in a modern building and a one-time boiler house where workers beat the summer heat by dipping in the enormous tanks. The museum offers an entirely different perspective on the prosperous history of Britain in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. Here you can see exhibits that commemorate political activists (including Thomas Paine, whose body may have been stolen from a tavern while it was in transit back to his home country), labor organizers, feminists, radicals and pacifists who stood up for the dignity and moral claims of common people.
In these exhibits and displays, the dominant narrative of intrepid, visionary, and spectacularly wealthy captains of industry has been turned on its head. Instead, visitors quickly come to understand that the world’s great industrial fortunes were and continue to be built on the backs of hard-working, underpaid, and unrecognized working people, some of whom paid with their lives for standing up for essential human rights. This was a deeply moving experience.