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Abel Heywood, Manchester’s Radical Mayor

Meet author Joanna Williams, whose book Abel Heywood, the Man who Built the Town Hall, was published by the History Press on 1 September 2017.

Abel Heywood (1810-93), Mayor of Manchester, as chair of the New Town Hall Committee was the leading light behind the construction of the ‘municipal palace’ in Albert Square.  Rising from severe poverty, he had a long and successful career as a newspaper distributor, publisher, printer, and wallpaper manufacturer.  He was especially committed throughout his life to his work on the Manchester Council, becoming Mayor twice.  He became only the third Freeman of the City, and was the first from a humble background.

He was involved in the major radical causes of his day, from the free press – for which he went to prison in 1832 – to universal suffrage as a Chartist.  In his eagerness to promote the latter, he even sought a parliamentary seat for Manchester in 1859 and 1865, but his working class origins and his radicalism failed to win over the vital middle class vote.  As a radical liberal he espoused causes in Europe, such as Hungarian, Italian and German nationalism, and campaigned about the Crimean War and the Eastern Crisis in the Balkans.  At times of crisis, notably the Cotton Famine in the 1860s, he was prominent in fund-raising and otherwise managing the situation, and very cordial relations were established between Manchester and the USA at this period.

He worked tirelessly throughout his life to develop Manchester’s infrastructure, notably as chair of the Paving and Sewage Committee, and took a lead in the construction of railways and the tram system.   But his driving force was his own early experiences of squalor in Angel Meadow, which gave him an acute awareness of the needs of the city’s poorest inhabitants; public health, education, co-operation and temperance were all areas in which he laboured to improve their lot.  Nor did he neglect the city’s cultural life; he encouraged the council to take on the Royal Institution as its art gallery, and was a patron of the College of Art.  He assiduously focused on the development of Manchester to create a great city in every sense.

Although there are no personal papers, except for his will, the local press reported his activities in such detail that it is possible to gain an idea of the kind of man he was and what were his aspirations. There are also archives, such as the records of Manchester Corporation, private papers of his colleagues, and Home Office papers which reveal some of the inner workings of local power.  The latter indicate some of the murkier aspects of his dealings with the government, as it appears that he informed on his fellow Chartists to prevent a violent uprising in 1840, for example.  Examination of his election campaigns in the general elections of 1859 and 1865 show similarly that he was not above some manipulation in tailoring his choice of topics to his audiences; he was a clever politician.

The new Town Hall project was Abel’s overriding preoccupation for at least ten years, and his worst public humiliation was the refusal of Queen Victoria to open it and bestow a knighthood on him. The reasons for the royal snub remain a matter of conjecture to this day.  But the city honoured him, and it was he who presided at the opening ceremonies and was acclaimed by the Liberal establishment, being granted the freedom of the city in 1891.

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