Monday, December 19, 2011

Dark Satanic Mills

We quite liked Manchester, although it felt oddly closed in - much of the areas we travelled were 19th C industrial buildings, tending to tall brick walls and narrow streets. It felt odd (but not unpleasant) in other ways too. Possibly this was because the centre of town was apparently entirely flattened during WWII, so the architecture was generally modern. Most of the parks and squares we walked past were the footprints of churches that had been destroyed and not rebuilt. The other thing that made it feel quaint was an evident lack of confidence in itself - all the tourist information, and information in museums, was very quick to point out what was invented and discovered in Manchester, who was born in Manchester, and who had visited Manchester once to play piano, even though he wasn't feeling very well (Chopin):

The Museum of Science and Industry had a pretty nice collection, sprawled across four buildings that looked largely to be old warehouses and engine sheds, and a rail station, ranging from aircraft through to some of the first programmable computers in the world (invented in Manchester). The highlight though was a representation of a cotton mill, showing all the stages of the process from unpacking the cotton bales to weaving calico, mainly late 19th C machines. This was demonstrated and talked through by an ex-weaver, and there is no doubt that working in the mills was hellish. It's no surprise that Marx and Engels were inspired by their visits to Manchester. On the other hand, the Jacquard looms were very cool, and we went on a short steam train ride in reproduction 1830 carriages. Better known as "open boxes with low ceilings and very dodgy suspension".

The next day we went to the John Rylands Library which was awesome. Wall to wall books, of course, in this startling neo-gothic late Victorian pile of masonry. It' looks like a cathedral has mated with a bookstore, and had sculptures added, but it was incredibly atmospheric. More to the point, on display were some stunning examples of artistic bookbinding, and representative samples of many of their books from the late 15th and 16th centuries. Including an original King James bible, and texts set by Mantius and Caxton. Possibly the coolest item though was a fragment of parchment in Greek which is the oldest known New Testament text, from about 260 AD, and a letter from a (Jewish?) scholar travelling to Acre in the 11th Century, which roughly read "Dear dad, I'm fine, how are you and mum? I hope to meet a good wife when I get to Acre, and tell mum I'm eating properly".

The Rylands library really encapsulates Manchester though: a sincere effort on the part of someone with an enormous amount of money to build a tribute to art and culture, for the benefit and edification of the People, ultimately funded from the profits garnered through the efforts of the workers in those horrid, dark satanic mills.

PS. Apparently the life expectancy of mill workers in the 19th Century was around 30, and they were generally deaf by that time, and died of a variety of lung diseases and cancers. Worth bearing in mind when we look at fine cotton products from Victorian England.


  1. The library sounds like a hoot (did I really just say that?)

    There is a school of thought that Blake, given is peculiar religious attitudes, meant the parish churches rather than the new industrial mills.

  2. The statue is awesome. A wave of melody perhaps?