Manchester Streets and the Victorian Pioneers Who Made Their Mark

By Ellie Andrews

Victorian Manchester was known to be a gruelling yet booming age. Whilst it was an era of technological innovation, social dynamism and cultural revolution, it was also a period where the average life expectancy was 26 and poor living conditions were at an all time high. Despite this, there were a host of pioneering individuals who navigated these circumstances to defy societal principals and expectations in subtle but long-lasting ways.

These are just a few of the historical figures and streets to be featured in an upcoming digital storytelling project called ‘The Strong Women of Victorian Manchester’ which is currently fundraising on Kickstarter. This initiative will explore the lives of each figure and as their lives cross over and intersect, users will have the ability to choose their destiny in this immersive experience.

Peter Street – Annie Horniman

Image source: Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives. Ref. GB127.m73494

Annie Horniman was a local celebrity, occultist and pioneer of the British repertory theatre movement in Britain. She leased the Midlands hotel as a 1000-seat theatre company for a trial season, before using £25,000 of her family’s packet tea fortune to purchase the Gaiety Theatre on 65 Peter Street in 1905.

Horniman was noted for her celebrity status, extrovert behaviour, eccentric style of dressing, heavy smoking and interest in the astrology. She was a member of an occult group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and was noted for her daily use of tarot card readings. She embraced her love for the theatre, despite the disapproval of her wealthy family, and actively shunned restrictive Victorian values.

Quay Street – Harry Stokes

A master bricklayer, respected beerhouse manager and special constable, Harry Stokes was assigned female at birth but lived his life as a man. His gender variance became subject of both local and national news between 1838 and 1859, when his wife of 22 years told her lawyer about his sex in order to obtain a divorce.

After separating from his first wife, he set up home with a barmaid called Francis Collins. Together they set up an established beerhouse on 3-5 Quay Street. In 1859, Stokes body was found in the River Irwell. Despite the frenzy of local press headlines, Stokes’ gender variance was generally known and somewhat accepted by the working-class community after his death.

Bridge Street – Martha Partington

Image source: Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

A passionate pro-democracy and anti-poverty protestor, Martha Partington was one of approximately eighteen victims of the Peterloo Massacre. On the 16th of August 1819, the mother-of-two marched from her home in Eccles to St Peter’s Field to support the Anti-Corn Laws movement. However, she sadly died whilst fleeing the scenes, having either been thrown or fallen into a cellar on Bridge Street. Her husband and children were reportedly awarded just £5 in relief.

The Peterloo Massacre resulted in over 700 serious injuries and remains a dark day in the city’s history. Whilst there were less women than men present at Peterloo, a disproportionate number of women were either attacked or injured, serving as a reminder of the brutality women faced for a cause they believed in.

Princess Street – Sarah Parker Remond

African American lecturer and abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond was born free in Massachusetts, 1826. As an international activist for human rights and women’s suffrage, she came to Lancashire in 1859 to appeal to mill owners and cotton workers to support the US anti-slavery movement.

She made her mark on Princess Street when she spoke at a meeting presided over by the Mayor in the Manchester Athenaeum. In her speech she declared, “When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 80,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the $125m worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”

Great Ducie Street – Mary Burns

Portrait of Mary’s niece Mary Ellen Georgina “Pumps” Burns
Image source: Familie Marx privat. Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2005, p. 65

Perhaps best known as the lifelong partner of German philosopher, Friedrich Engels, Mary was a working-class Irish woman who is thought to have grown up in the Deansgate area. Whilst few details remain about her life, her impact on some of Engel’s major works are clear. She met Engels during his first stay in Manchester and is thought to have guided him through the worst districts in the region for his research on ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’.

After the German revolution, Engels returned to England where they set up a formal home arrangement together on Great Ducie Street, where they remained for 20 years. Burns died suddenly in 1863 at the age of 41, but her impact lives on vicariously through Engels’ seminar work.

The Strong Women of Victorian Manchester Kickstarter will be running through Women’s History Month 2022. You can help bring the project to life by using this link:


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