Five Reasons Manchester Is The Greatest City On The Planet

We know no match

Manchester Rick Crisp

Most places on earth lay claim to being the first at something or other, but there’s few cities to match Manchester when it comes to being first at stuff. 

It’s all important, but that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting: for instance, you won’t win many friends at parties by telling them that Manchester was where the First Law of Thermodynamics was developed, the steam hammer was invented and where the world’s first and only swing aqueduct was built. Unless they’re engineers or nerds with a penchant for dusty detail.

Manchester is the world’s first modern city. It was home to the world’s first industrial estate, the first municipal parks (Philips, Queens and Peel parks all opened in 1846) and featured the first street to be lit by gas light (ok, so it was Chapel St in Salford, but Manchester claims it anyway). 

Manchester was also where the cast-iron beam was developed and where colour blindness was properly labelled - by John Dalton (1766-1844), who has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ all to himself: not only is he the father of modern chemistry, but he’s also the big daddy of atomic theory and the developer of modern meteorology. 

And that’s all apart from suffering from and giving his name to the red-green kind of colour blindness known as Daltonism, the study of which was apparently prompted when he inadvertently bought his mum a racy pair of knickers because he couldn’t tell the colours apart. Why he was buying his mother underwear in the first place is a mystery that’s yet to be solved.

With the greatest respect to John Dalton, his aren’t the ‘firsts’ that will turn heads in general company. You stand a much better chance of getting a ‘wow, that’s interesting’ by relaying one or more of the following fun facts.

Pankhurst Plaque

5. Votes for Women

If it wasn’t for a group of intrepid Manchester women, it’s unlikely that half the population would finally have been granted the right to vote in 1918. And it all began in 1867, when local woman Lydia Barker convened the first meeting of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee, the first organisation of its kind in England. The following year saw the first public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, which passed the resolution that women should be granted the same voting rights as men. Four years later, 14-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), born in Moss Side to a politically active family, was introduced to the cause: in 1903 she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in her house on Nelson St. Fifteen years and a host of radical and disruptive tactics later, the government passed the Representation of People Act, granting the vote to all women over 30. In 1999 Time magazine recognised Pankhurst’s efforts by naming her one of the 20th century’s 100 most important women.


4. Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism is seeing tremendous growth in the city - with a number of dedicated vegetarian cafes including Earth and Lotus springing up in Manchester (and witnessing great success.)

The philosophy of a meat-free diet was born in the inauspiciously named Beefsteak Chapel on King Street in Salford, established in 1800 by the – wait for it – Revered William Cowherd (1763-1816). The good reverend preached that his congregation should “eat no more meat till the world endeth,” thereby delivering them from a diet of low-grade meat and rank offal. He also preached abstinence from alcohol, but made up for his killjoy sermons by offering the poor vegetable soup, free medical services and a lending library. Following his death in 1816, the baton was picked up by Joseph Brotherton (later an MP), who continued to preach the evils of eating meat: in 1847 he helped established the Vegetarian Society, whose message spread throughout Britain and led to the proliferation of vegetarian restaurants throughout the country, including 34 in London alone. Brotherton’s sister Martha published Britain’s first vegetarian cookbook, Vegetable Cookery, in Manchester in 1821.


3. The First Railway

As firsts go, the establishment of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (the L&MR) on September 15, 1830 is quite the humdinger. For starters, it was the first railway powered exclusively by steam engines rather than the occasional use of horse-drawn carriages. It was the first railway to be double-tracked for its entire length; the first to be fully and properly timetabled; the first to have a functioning signalling system; and it was the first time a train transported mail. In effect, it was the first proper inter-city train link in the world. And if that wasn’t enough firsts for one day, the Liverpool Road terminus in Manchester was the world’s first passenger railway station – it’s now part of the Museum of Science and Industry. John B Jervis of the Delaware and Hudson Railway in the United States wasn’t exaggerating when, a few years later, declared that the L&MR “must be regarded…as opening the epoch of railways which has revolutionised the social and commercial intercourse of the civilised world.” Worth bearing that in mind next time you’re waiting for an overdue tram. 

Liverpool Road Plaque 2
Liverpool Road Terminus
Liverpool Road Plaque

2. Rolls Meets Royce

Should you ever have the cash to splash out on a Rolls-Royce or (more likely) the next time you drool over one, remember that the object of your affection was born out of a meeting on May 4, 1904 at the Midland Hotel. It was here that wealthy London playboy and motoring enthusiast Charles Stewart Rolls met with local engineer Frederick Henry Royce to establish a new car manufacturing firm, which was officially founded on March 15, 1906. The new partnership established a plant in Hulme, and the first car they produced was the six-cylinder Silver Ghost, which was soon hailed as ‘the best car in the world.’ But Rolls, who had broken the world speed record in 1903 by driving a 93mph in direct contravention of the Locomotion Act (which established a speed limit of 4mph), was more of a thrill merchant than an actual merchant, and by 1909 he’d opted out and made himself a non-executive director. Within a year he was killed in a flying accident and the partnership ended. 

Rolls Royce Plaque

1. Splitting the Atom

Between 1907 and 1919 a group of scientists at the University of Manchester led by Ernest Rutherford changed the world forever. In a lab just off Oxford Road, Rutherford and his star-studded team (including Hans Geiger, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Niels Bohr) first discovered that an atom was not the smallest particle in the universe and that within its mass were other particles 1000 times smaller than the atom itself. Then, in 1919, the ultimate breakthrough when Rutherford realised that he could break up the nucleus of a nitrogen atom by firing radioactive particles into it, thereby releasing ‘fast protons:’ 25 years later, this breakthrough resulted in the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the dawn of the nuclear age. No wonder Einstein later called Rutherford a ‘second Newton.’

Rutherford Plaque

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Written By

Fionn Davenport

Career travel writer in a world that needs them less and less. Spends an inordinate amount of time in Manchester Airport.