Even if you’re aware of Manchester’s long history of innovation, it’s still quietly gobsmacking to see the staggeringly long list of the city’s historical ‘firsts’, from the launch of Rolls Royce, Marks & Spencer and the co-operative movement to the discovery of graphene, precision engineering and the splitting of the atom.

Speaking to Northern Soul, author Brian Groom says: “There are lots of firsts. Obviously Manchester has a certain reputation for arrogance and shouting its story from the rooftops – I sometimes think that’s a bit of a pose in itself. But it’s true, there are lots of firsts in Manchester, there’s no doubt about it.”

2022 saw the publication by HarperNorth of Groom’s first book, Northerners. Subtitled ‘From the Ice Age to the Present Day’, it took on the huge narrative of the entire history of the North of England. It won Groom a legion of admirers, and now he’s followed it up with Made in Manchester, a deep dive into the city’s story specifically.

“It was suggested by my publisher,” Groom says. “They were keen for me to do a history of Manchester. I hadn’t really thought of going quite as narrow as that, but it didn’t seem like a bad idea. Obviously, I knew the outlines of the story already and I’d done quite a bit of research on it for Northerners, but it’s my home city so it was great to go into it at greater depth.”

Groom, who went on to have an impressive career as a journalist, was born in Stretford Memorial Hospital and grew up in Stretford, until his family relocated to nearby Whalley Range when he was almost five. “It’s home territory for me,” he says.

Even objectively, though, Made in Manchester has a compelling story to tell. “The one thing I’ve loved about doing this book is that Manchester’s story has a real story arc to it. You go from it being just a little rainy spot with nothing there and the Romans arriving, through just being a village in the hundred of Salfordshire in the Middle Ages, to the point where it becomes the city everybody wants to visit in the Industrial Revolution – the shock city of the 1840s, the template for the industrial city. But then you get a period of decline, particularly in the late 20th century, when a lot of people felt that it was dying on its feet, and then a pretty impressive recovery, to once again being in the spotlight as a debate about what kind of city it should be. I felt that there was a real story of its own to tell there.”

Brian Groom. Photo courtesy of HarperNorth.

The question of Mancunian identity is a practical issue that Groom needed to tackle. “I’ve tried to be as objective as I can. I mean, there are lots of emotive issues surrounding Manchester, not least the whole identity and boundaries thing. If you think that there are tensions between Liverpool and Manchester or Lancashire and Yorkshire, then just look at the boundary issues within the Manchester area. Greater Manchester encompasses parts of the historic counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire, and there are people who feel quite strongly that they should still have that meaning.

“But I think it’s a complex picture, and people can have multiple layers of identity. Personally, I don’t have much difficulty thinking of myself as a Stretfordian. a Mancunian, a Lancastrian and a Northerner, and all those things have some meaning to me. In telling the story, though, obviously a lot of it inevitably focuses on the boroughs of Manchester and Salford, where much of the action happened, but I’ve tried to involve as much of the wider region in it as I can – not just Greater Manchester, but anywhere in the region that kind of looks to Manchester as its nearest big city.”

Made in Manchester

Like Northerners before it, the narrative of Made in Manchester is interspersed with chapters that focus in on particular aspects of social and cultural interest.

“The two big differences from Northerners are, firstly, that there’s less early history, just because there isn’t so much, so you get to the Industrial Revolution much earlier – by chapter three in the narrative. Also, this being Manchester, there are special chapters on science and technology, on sport and on music, both classical and pop music, all of which are really important to Manchester’s story particularly. Those were great fun to do in greater depth.”

The process of researching and writing the book, Groom says, took a year. “Given my journalist background, I treated every chapter as if it were a magazine-type feature. With each one I reckon I’ve got to know enough about it to have enough colourful facts to tell the story, but I don’t have to be the world expert on absolutely everything in it.”

As part of his wide-ranging researches, then, did Groom discover facts about Manchester that came as a surprise?

“When I was researching Northerners, probably the most surprising thing was getting to the extent to which Lancashire had traditionally had a working class Conservative voting history. I knew a bit about it, but didn’t know how far it went. The reasons for that are debated quite often, but a lot of it seems to have been to do with hostility to Irish Catholic immigration. Now, that comes through very much in the Manchester story as well. Manchester likes to think of itself as a radical city. It’s the city of the Peterloo massacre, a big centre of Chartism, where the suffragettes were created, where the first Trade Union Congress was held and all those things. And that’s true, it does have a radical history, but it also had two quite long periods of Conservative political dominance, in the late 19th century and between the two World Wars in the 20th century. What it showed me is that Manchester’s political history is more complicated than it’s sometimes portrayed as.”

Made in Manchester by Brian Groom

It’s intriguing to consider exactly who is the readership for Groom’s books. It’s probably safe to assume that Northerners has been read by northerners, but how much appeal does it hold beyond that group?

“Well, so far I think Northerners has sold almost 30,000 copies. I don’t have a geographical breakdown, but I imagine most of them are people that either live in the North or were born in the North, or who have Northern connections. It’s sold copies around the world as well, particularly in America, Australia and New Zealand. I reckon if you added up all the Mancunians around the world and all people who live in the travel to work area, you’d probably get to around a quarter of the total of Northerners as a whole. So, obviously I’m hoping to appeal as deeply as possible to all those people, and to anybody who’s interested in the Industrial Revolution, the history of cities, where cities are going, that kind of thing. I hope it will appeal a bit more widely.”

Groom, who is already at work on his next book (“I don’t want to talk too much about it at the moment, all I’ll say is it’s a much broader topic looking to the big picture again this time”) has some thoughts on the possible future of Manchester and whether further chapters in its history could be as rich and fascinating as its past.

“I think it depends on a few factors,” he says. “Economically, the recovery in the 21st century so far has been pretty impressive. Since the year 2000, the population of the city of Manchester has grown about three times as fast as the national population’s average growth. Its economy has grown despite a recession, a pandemic and a European war. But the big questions surrounding Manchester at the moment are – one, aesthetically, all the skyscrapers that are blossoming all over the city centre. A new one goes up just about every day, and it’s pretty disconcerting, particularly for older people who question whether it looks as distinctive as it did.

“And probably the bigger question still is, yes, its economy is growing, it’s creating lots of jobs in business services, advertising, media, things like that, and some science jobs as well. But is all this growth benefiting its existing citizens? Can Manchester find a way of spreading that wealth more evenly across its population? I think I quote the official stats by saying that the city of Manchester is the second most deprived borough in England, after Blackpool. So, in some ways it has massive inequalities. Can it do anything to resolve those? I think the jury is open on that.”

By Andy Murray

Main image taken from the cover of Made in Manchester by Brian Groom


Made in Manchester is available as a hardback, ebook or audiobook 

Brian Groom will be discussing the book at a number of upcoming events:

At Manchester’s Portico Library on May 30, 2024, in conversation with Northern Soul’s editor Helen Nugent: https://www.theportico.org.uk/event-calendar/brian-groom-in-conversation-on-made-in-manchester

As part of Manchester Histories festival on June 9, 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/brian-groom-made-in-manchester-tickets-901367483407

At Urmston Library on June 13, 2024, in conversation with Northern Soul’s editor Helen Nugent: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/made-in-manchester-author-talk-with-brian-groom-tickets-863892304137