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Abel Heywood: From hothead radical to Manchester city father

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Abel Heywood lived in Manchester at a time of dramatic and permanent change. The city was arguably the most important place in the world in the 19th century, at the heart of the social and economic changes that created modern Britain. 

It both repelled and fascinated contemporary observers, for it was the site of abject poverty and degradation and at the same time a place of vast wealth-creation, at the cutting edge of technology and social experiment; a ‘filthy sewer’ from which ‘poured pure gold’. It led the way in terms of new and radical political and social ideas, which challenged the old, landed order of British society.

Abel Heywood embraced the opportunities such a wild-west place offered, and worked his way up to wealth and renown from the most poverty-stricken beginnings. It was not easy; he spent four months in prison at the age of twenty-two because he campaigned for a free press, he failed to gain election to parliament because he was from humble origins and had radical views, and his business as a newsagent and publisher did not thrive as it might have due to his commitment to improving the city through his role on the council. 

But all this was not in vain. Abel Heywood’s perspective was that of a ‘Radical Liberal’. He supported all the major social campaigns and economic developments of his day. He worked for universal suffrage as a Chartist, for co-operative ventures, for free, compulsory and secular education, for sanitation reform, for better hospitals, and provision for the destitute. He oversaw the development of Manchester’s transport systems - railways and trams were amongst his special interests. He even brought a wider perspective to his co-citizens when he campaigned on matters of foreign policy, and raised money for relief efforts as far away as India.           

Abel Heywood was an individual with a fascinating story, but also part of the great tradition of social campaigners. He understood that many of the causes to which he aspired would not be achieved in his lifetime, that he would have to pass on the baton to future generations. Many of the aims he favoured have been achieved in the 120 years since his death; but others still remain unfulfilled and the work continues.

He was acknowledged in his own time as a great father of the city; in 1891 he was given its freedom, a rare honour. Since then, his name has largely been forgotten by Mancunians, but his most striking legacy is known to all of them. It is the iconic Town Hall, recently the scene of vigils for the victims of the terrible atrocity at the Manchester Arena. Abel would have been very proud of the way the city has pulled together to face tragedy. It is the vindication of his constant faith in ordinary people, and a fitting manifestation of the success of the efforts he and many others invested in the city he loved. 

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