Searching for the Nineteenth-Century Manchester Man

By Michelle D. Ravenscroft, Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University

If you delve into the history of the Manchester Man figure, you will discover that the record is somewhat incomplete. However, my doctoral research and a collaborative volunteer project with the Portico Library, Manchester are uncovering clues to the identity and reading practices of these men during the nineteenth century that are helping to form a more detailed picture.

Who was the Manchester man?

Although the identity has links with trade and manufacturing, the origins of the Manchester Man figure is still unclear. In the pre-industrial era, he was deemed to be a rather untrustworthy cloth or woollen merchant salesman that travelled from Manchester across the Pennines.[1] The identity then began to evolve, and rather than a travelling merchant or manufacturer, the Manchester men were classified as influential owners of local textile mills and factories firmly located in the town.

Eighteenth-century trade directories show that the number of Manchester-based textile manufacturers increased from 209 in 1772 to 579 in 1797.[2] Nineteenth-century guides to Manchester reveal how this affected their increasing social status, as highlighted in the title of Benjamin Love’s Manchester As It Is: or Notices of the Institutions, Manufacturers, Commerce, Railways, etc. of the Metropolis of Manufacturers: Interspersed with Much Valuable Information useful for the Resident and Stranger (1839). The title also explicitly links their identity as an important factor that determined Manchester as a metropolis.[3] This association between place, trade and the Manchester men is further supported by the term ‘Cottonopolis’, which symbolised the town’s ‘singular importance in this staple product of industrialization’.[4] The Manchester men not only connected through trade, but also through their cultural practices, with institutions such as the Portico Library enabling them to mix business with pleasure.

The Portico Library, Manchester

Founded in 1806, the Portico Library is a subscription library located on the corner of Mosley Street and Charlotte Street. Many of the nineteenth-century Library members were local manufacturers and merchants, living in the surrounding streets.[5] The institution not only provided access to newspapers, periodicals and books, but offered the perfect opportunity for members to increase both their knowledge and their business connections.

The Portico Library, Mosley Street, Manchester
© Michelle D. Ravenscroft 2023

The Manchester Man Volunteer Project

My doctoral research is supported by a collaborative project involving a group of Portico Library volunteers. It focuses on identifying and analysing representations of the Manchester Man figure within the nineteenth-century Collection. These include literature, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Manchester novels’ and Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby. The archives show that the Portico Library committee ordered a copy of Disraeli’s novel within a month of its publication.[6] Another novel that features in the Collection, Isabella Banks’s The Manchester Man (1876), chronicles the life of the ‘new Manchester man’ from the beginning of the century.[7] Originally serialised in Cassell’s Family Magazine, the work features representations of its Manchester Man-type members, and contains a chapter entitled ‘On the Portico Steps’ which explicitly references the Library. The archives reveal the popularity of the novel with the members through the issue book entries that show it was borrowed continuously during the months following its acquisition.[8]

Issues for Thursday 27 April 1876.

The Portico Library Archive, Issue Book, 14 January 1875 – 22 December 1876.
© Michelle D. Ravenscroft 2023

The Portico Library Collection and archives are proving a valuable resource for researching the nineteenth-century Manchester Man. It is hoped that as my research and the volunteer project progress, the representations of the Manchester Man figure and the borrowing habits of the Library members during the 1800s will reveal more about how this important and influential collective both formed and supported the identity of nineteenth-century Manchester and the Portico Library.

Acknowledgements: Supervisors, Dr David Cooper and Dr Emma Liggins, Manchester Metropolitan University, and The Portico Library staff and volunteers.

[1] Gary S. Messinger, Manchester in the Victorian Age: The Half-Known City (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 175.

[2] Peter Maw, ‘Provincial Merchants in Eighteenth-Century England: The ‘Great Oaks’ of Manchester’, The English Historical Review, Volume 136, Issue 580, June 2021, Table 1. Manchester textile manufacturers listed in trade directories, 1772-1800, p. 575. 

[3] Benjamin Love, Manchester As It Is: or Notices of the Institutions, Manufacturers, Commerce, Railways, etc. of the Metropolis of Manufacturers: Interspersed with Much Valuable Information useful for the Resident and Stranger (Manchester: Love and Barton, 1839). 

[4] Alan Kidd and Terry Wyke, ‘Introduction: Making the Modern City’, in Manchester: Making the Modern City, eds. Alan Kidd and Terry Wyke (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), p. 2.

[5] The Portico Library Archives, Share Transfer Records, 1806-1850.

[6] The Portico Library Archives, Committee Meetings Minutes 1834-1849.

[7] Mrs G. Linnaeus, The Manchester Man (Manchester: Abel Heywood and Sons, 1896), p. 409.

[8] The Portico Library Archive, Issue Book, 14 January 1875 – 22 December 1876.

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