The tour of the scientific history of Manchester starts here, at the Central Library. It is narrated from the viewpoint of John Dalton, the man credited with the discovery atomic theory in chemistry. Dalton lived in Manchester from 1793 until his death in 1844.
The far right-hand corner of the Peace Garden was once home to the Manchester Academy, set up to train Nonconformist ministers at a time when the traditional universities were only open to members of the Church of England. Dalton, a Quaker, came here in 1793 to teach chemistry, natural philosophy and mathematics.
Behind the Academy was the Mechanics’ Institution, created in 1824. The Institution was set up for workers from local industry, to give them a basic education in sciences. The Mechanics’ Institution was later reorganised into what became UMIST, now part of the University of Manchester.
What’s now Manchester Art Gallery was built in the 1820s as the Royal Manchester Institution. Before that, John Dalton’s friend William Henry, a successful chemist, had his house here. Henry’s family business produced magnesia and soda-water, and it was while researching soda-water that he discovered that the amount of a gas which you can dissolve in a liquid varies in proportion to the pressure of the gas, a principle now known as Henry’s Law.
On the opposite side of Princess Street there is a plaque to Frederick Crace-Calvert, who arrived in Manchester in 1846, a manufacturing chemist who taught at the Manchester Royal Institution. One of his chemical interests was carbolic acid, now known as phenol, which became famous for its use in antiseptic surgery, pioneered by Joseph Lister in the 1860s.
This building is the main surface access point for a Cold War bunker located 34 metres below the ground. The tower provided ventilation. Installed in 1954, it housed the ‘Guardian’ telephone exchange, intended to maintain communications in the event of an atomic bomb strike. Because maintenance staff might have had to remain underground for several weeks, the bunker was equipped with food stocks, electric generators and a well to supply water.
Deep bunkers such as Guardian became obsolete almost immediately with the development of the hydrogen bomb, but the main tunnel is still used for secure cabling.
This small black and white plaque commemorates the bicentenary of Dalton’s atomic theory. John Dalton was living in Faulkner street in 1803 when he first announced the theory. Dalton proposed that atmospheric gases and other elements were made up of tiny particles which couldn’t be divided or broken up any further, and that they combined with other elements in simple fixed proportions to make larger molecules. Dalton found that he could explain the results of a lot of chemical combinations if all the particles of each element weighed the same, but each element had its own particular weight. These particles were called “atoms” after the Greek atomos, meaning ‘indivisible’.
A plaque here commemorates the first permanent home of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. The ‘Lit and Phil’, as it was known, was one of the first such societies in England. It began as a dining club in about 1781, at the home of a physician named Thomas Percival. Within a few years the club was an established Society and rich enough to build its own premises on George Street, which opened in 1799.
Dalton joined the Lit and Phil not long after he arrived in Manchester, and in 1800 became Secretary. It was here that Dalton first announced the atomic theory in 1803. Dalton became President of the Lit and Phil in 1816, and remained so for the rest of his life. The building was still home to the Lit and Phil when it was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, with the loss of most of Dalton’s personal papers.
The Portico Library was opened in 1806 as a private subscription library. John Dalton, whose name appears on the list of readers on the blue plaque, was its first honorary member and had the official duty of ‘Clockman’, making sure the Library clock kept time. The Portico still operates as a library on this site, although most of the building has now become a pub.
At the corner of King Street and Cheapside, a plaque marks the site of Charles White’s house. Dr White, a surgeon and man-midwife, was one of the founders of the Lit and Phil, and involved in setting up the Infirmary in the 1750s. In the 1820s, this became the site of Manchester’s original Town Hall. Here, in 1844, John Dalton was laid out after he died; 40 000 people filed past his body.
The original Chapel on this site was the centre for Manchester’s Unitarian community: several of those who worshipped here were active in developing the Lit and Phil and Dissenting institutions such as the Manchester Academy. Just over the road, in the reading room of St Ann’s Church, James Prescott Joule first announced his principle of the mechanical equivalent of heat in 1847. Joule was the son of a successful brewer on New Bailey Street in Salford, and spent some time as a boy as one of John Dalton’s private pupils. As a young man, he would put in a full day’s work at the brewhouse before devoting the evening to his investigations.
Just past the front porch, prominent statues of John Dalton and his pupil, James Prescott Joule, face each other across the main entranceway. Around the corner on the right is a hall of statues, including one of William Fairbairn, the engineer. Many local fortunes were made from the engineering industry which grew up to supply the textile trade, supplying machinery or the materials for mill buildings.
The Great Hall on the first floor is dominated by twelve frescoes, painted by Ford Madox Brown to show the history of Manchester. On the near right, Dalton is depicted collecting fire-gas from a marsh, while at the far end is William Crabtree, a local astronomer, one of a group who measured the transit of Venus in 1639.
Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, have worshipped at a Meeting House on this site since the 1790s. John Dalton, as a lifelong Quaker, worshipped here, and in the 1820s contributed to the fund to build the enlarged Meeting House we see today.
Where St George’s House now stands was the first site of the Manchester Museum. Built in 1835, it housed the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society set up in the 1820s by wealthy local collectors. Manchester also had a Geological Society, whose collections came to be housed here, but financial difficulties led to acquisition by nearby Owens College in 1868.
The site is commemorated by Museum Street, the view down which is dominated by the Manchester Central convention centre, formerly G-Mex. This was built as the train shed of Central Station, which opened in the 1870s as a terminus for the Midland Railway Company. The last major station to be built in Manchester, over 200 houses were demolished to clear its site.
This was once an area of open land known as St Peter’s Field: it was here, in 1819, that local authorities sent in cavalry troops against a large but unarmed crowd who had gathered to hear the radical reformer Henry Hunt, an event remembered as the Peterloo Massacre. Later, the merchants and industrialists of Manchester established the Free Trade Hall here, as part of their opposition to trade protection policies which favoured the old-established country landowners. Before its sale for redevelopment as a hotel, the Free Trade Hall was best known as a concert venue. Home to the Hallé Orchestra for many years, it was also the site of the famous ‘Judas!’ heckle, directed by a folk music purist against Bob Dylan’s use of electrical amplification in 1966.
This huge building, now mostly shops and car parking, was built in the 1890s as the Great Northern Railway Company’s goods warehouse. Huge shafts contained winches to transport goods between the various floors: with a canal running below it, and railway tracks at roof height, it provided a major road, rail and waterway interchange.
Further down Deansgate is another great structure, this time a vertical one: the 169-metre Beetham Tower contains 50 storeys of hotel and private living space. It uses aluminium frames, reinforced concrete and float glass panels, and was built in 2006.
Established by the will of John Owens, a rich local merchant, a college of general education opened here in 1851, but initially attracted few students. It survived largely due to successful integration with local industrial needs, as seen in the work of two chemists commemorated by a plaque on the Byrom Street side of the house.
Edward Frankland, the founding Professor of Chemistry, is best known for the idea of ‘combining power’ of atoms (chemical valency), but also developed consultancies on subjects such as coal and metal ores. His successor, Henry Roscoe, built on this work and was an excellent administrator, gaining students through training links with local manufacturers. By 1863 the College had over a hundred students. Some were very young: J J Thomson, who later worked on cathode rays, was just fourteen when he came to Owens around 1870. The College’s growth eventually led to the move to larger premises on Oxford Road, where it became the University of Manchester.
In the Victorian period, St John’s Street was the Harley Street of Manchester: well-to-do patients came here to visit the practices of the leading local doctors. Below nearby Camp Street, the canal which served the Great Northern Warehouse runs in a 450-metre tunnel on its way out to the River Irwell.
St John’s Church, which stood in the churchyard, was demolished in the 1930s; the churchyard, which survives as a garden, is the site of John Owens’ burial, as recorded on a cross in the centre of the garden. The name here, ‘Victoria University’, was that initially chosen when Owens College got its official university charter in 1880.
On the housing development to your right once stood the Hall of Science, set up in 1839 by followers of the social reformer and mill-owner Robert Owen, who had been active in Manchester around 1790. The Hall of Science movement aimed to give education to the working people of the city, and to challenge the Sunday schools provided by the established Church.
Looking down Liverpool Road, you will see the exterior of the station building for the Manchester to Liverpool Railway, opened in 1830, usually considered the world’s first passenger station. With the growing success of the railway system, the passenger line was extended to a much bigger station (now Victoria), and this site developed as a goods yard, with warehouses and an engine shed. It closed in the 1970s and fell into disrepair, before being redeveloped as the Museum of Science and Industry. From inside the Museum, you can see the roof-level platforms, and a reconstruction of the original booking halls.
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