Thirty to forty miles round Manchester covers a lot of ground. I’ve just used a clever online device to draw a circle of 35 miles round Manchester, and it encompasses (literally!) many more places in many more counties that I would have thought: from the bottom, Newcastle-under-Lyme (or Lyne, as it used to be) and Tunstall, Crewe and Nantwich, Chester and Ellesmere Port, Liverpool and Southport, the forest of Bowland, Skipton, Ilkley, Keighley, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield, almost Chesterfield, and the Peak District National Park.
I suppose it’s because I am hopelessly southern that – as well as thinking that the north begins at the Trent – I have a skewed view of latitude. Horncastle, for example, birthplace of Sir Joseph Banks, which I think of as a reasonable car-ride from Cambridge, is in fact further north than Newark-on-Trent and Nottingham, which are irrevocably ‘up there somewhere’. And of course the other legendary divide is the east–west one: as we all know from primary school geography, the Pennines, the backbone of England, divide the country into two (and the Yorkists and Lancastrians still kill each other if they stray over county boundaries).
But physician and author John Aikin didn’t see it like that. Dissenter, polymath and father of a large and impressive family, he wanted the rest of Britain to recognise that the north-west of England was increasingly the driver of innovation, trade, economic and technical growth: in short, prosperity.
Aikin was born in 1747 in Leicestershire – so he was not a northerner, even in my terms. The family moved when he was eleven to Warrington, where his schoolmaster father took up a place as tutor in languages, literature, and divinity at the famous Dissenting Academy, where John and his elder sister, Anna Letitia, became close friends of Joseph Priestley. At fourteen, John was apprenticed to a surgeon back down south in Uppingham, and went on to study surgery at Edinburgh, Manchester and London before setting up a practice at Chester.
This was not a profitable enterprise, so Aiken requalified at Leiden as a physician, and started a medical practice at Great Yarmouth. (In East Anglia, he was closer to his sister, now married to a Mr Barbauld of Thetford, and establishing a reputation as a poet, writer and educationist.) But he lost many friends and patients among the Anglican community in Great Yarmouth because of his dissenting views and outspoken approval of the French Revolution, and in 1792 he and his growing family moved to London.
He was welcomed into a circle which included Thomas Pennant, Erasmus Darwin, and John Howard, the prison reformer and philanthropist, and for the next few years practised as a physician, devoting his spare time to literature. In 1780 he had published Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain, and he later extended this to an eight-volume General Biography. He also wrote educational works for children, some in conjunction with Anna Letitia. However, in 1796 he had a stroke which led him to give up his practice to his son, and retire to Stoke Newington to continue his literary work.
The ‘Manchester’ book was published in 1795, and was based not only on Aikin’s own experience of the area but on information provided by a number of acquaintances including Pennant, Thomas Percival (who was instrumental in moving the Warrington Academy to Manchester in 1785), James Ogden, who had published a Description of Manchester in 1783, and several other contributors.
All this is revealed by a ‘prefatory advertisement’ by the publisher, John Stockdale, who explains/complains that his original idea was ‘merely to give an account of the town of Mottram in Longendale’ (on the Lancashire/Derbyshire border), but that ‘at the urgent solicitation of some Lancashire gentlemen, he was induced to enlarge his plan’, which ‘involved him in toil and expence, the idea of which, had he foreseen their extent, would probably have deterred him’. That the work was composed, and the materials arranged, by Aikin, is clear from the title page, but is not otherwise mentioned.
The frontispiece represents, we are told, ‘Agriculture, Industry, Plenty, and Commerce … The ship in the background alludes to the port of Liverpool. The Cupids sporting above, express the joy and satisfaction resulting from such an association.’ The vignette on the title page ‘is a kind of visionary anticipation of the future wonders of canal-navigation’. Canals are described in great detail, and illustrated: we have used the plate of Brindley’s aqueduct at Barton Bridge on the cover. Water-born transport for heavy and bulky goods is clearly one of the great drivers for growth of industry in the region.
But the work looks backwards as well as forwards, with fascinating bits of historical detail. In Ashton-under-Lyne [sic], ‘nothing excites the curiosity of the stranger so much … as the annual “Riding the Black Lad”, which is always celebrated on Easter Monday’. Ribchester is ‘a poor village … celebrated as having been a Roman station of considerable note’, but in constant danger of being swept away by the river Ribble.
Knutsford (Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford) has a unique custom at weddings: ‘the friends and acquaintances of the parties strew the streets with brown sand, and on this, figure with white sand various fanciful and emblematical devices, and over the whole are occasionally strewed the flowers of the season. This custom [also cited in Mrs Gaskell’s biography] serves at least this good end, that it keeps the streets clean.’
In the parish of Mottram in Longendale, which was the fons et origo of the book, ‘Cranberries and cloud-berries grow on the moor, the latter of which is a delicate fruit, little known and rare. … Moor game or red grous frequent these moors in great numbers, and the different lords of the manors are at considerable expense to preserve them from poachers.’ Young salmon, called ‘brood’, ‘run up the rivulets among the moors to an incredible height, and are easily caught in the shallow water by persons skilled in groping’.
And something else caught my eye as I flicked through: ‘Overton-hall … is a good mansion house, belonging to Sir Joseph Banks, Bart., whose family became possessed of it by marriage with the heiress of Hodgkingson’.
Further investigation reveals that the great man came to stay most years for several weeks in late August, attending to the affairs of the estate. Happily, the house still exists, though divided up – the south wing was on the market a few weeks ago: ‘within easy reach of the towns of Matlock and Chesterfield. The cities of Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby are within commuting distance’; and, as we know, the house is also only thirty to forty miles from Manchester.