Manchester Moments – Great Abel
Today we climb to the top of probably the most iconic of Manchester’s buildings.
The neo-gothic masterpiece that is the jewel in the crown of Manchester’s 19th century architecture is topped off by the clock tower. Building of the Town Hall was started in 1868 and almost 20 years and £1 million later it was finished. Alfred Waterhouse’s design was the most practical, if not the most popular, of over 130 designs that entered to win the right to build.
Ever since, it has been the heart of Manchester’s civic pride, a logical end point for demonstrations and rallies. Festivals and markets, sport and music are all held here. In fact, it seems that there is rarely not a cultural event either in place or being set up. Tourists pose outside for photos looking up at the 286 feet (87m) high clock tower.
Once inside, there are amazing mosaics which include the Manchester Bee – the city’s symbol for its industrious work – and statues aplenty, including Roman Governor, Agricola, who founded the original fort of Mamuciam. But it is the clock tower and the bell of Great Abel that I am focussing on here. I went up the clock tower recently, which is only open at certain times of the year, so it was a privilege and one I recommend to all Mancunians and others who are able to climb the claustrophobic spiral staircase.
The bell tower has 23 bells, with the clock bell named Great Abel after Abel Heywood. It first rang in New Year’s Day of 1879 but cracked and had to be replaced. It is inscribed with Heywood’s initials and the Alfred Tennyson line Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Heywood from was from a poor background but rose to great heights. He ran a bookselling business on Oldham Street for many years and was imprisoned in 1832 for four months for refusing to pay a £48 fine stamp duty which would have suppressed mass publishing. He later went onto become Mayor of Manchester twice. His interest in publishing for the masses continued throughout his life. Seeing as there were no affordable travel guides for workers to take advantage of the expanding rail networks, he began to publish a series of Penny Guides, short travel guides that covered such places as Buxton, Bath and the Isle of Wight.
It was decided to recast the bells (apart from Great Abel) in 1937 to commemorate a new King, which proved to be a costly error. The bells were engraved with the title of ‘King Edward VIII’, but Edward then decided to abdicate, so they had to be re-engraved for the King who replaced him, known as George VI (not that many people would ever have seen the engraving).
The clock face bears the inscription Teach us to number our Days and once you reach the summit and wander around outside you can almost reach out and touch the city’s four guardian angels with hearts of stone. It is quite a moving moment.
The views on each floor of the tower’s innards are fascinating – the mechanism room and the dial room are steps back in time and ascending the many stairs is not for the faint hearted. Glimpses of the triangular town hall’s design can be seen at certain points, and an ever distant Manchester looms below. On a clear day you can see out to the wonderful countryside surrounding the city, on a gloomy day there is a sense of history and industrial heritage in the air. You can imagine the atmosphere chock a block with soot and pollution in its heyday when the local mills and factories belched out fumes and destroyed the lives of the workforce within, whilst city elders basked in comfort in their palatial and modern Town Hall.
To this day the town hall clock issues forth its evocative chimes on the quarter hour, resounding across the city, although chimes are switched off at 9 p.m. for the night as they disturb residents and hotel visitors within earshot…What would Mr Abel say?