When her date had suggested the museum, Alex had laughed. Then she looked up from her coffee and the crestfallen face opposite suggested Peggy had been serious. Embarrassed about her reaction, Alex waffled in praise of the archaic structure which she had not visited since primary school.
The Manchester Water Museum sat on the site of the old Transport Museum. Her grandmother still talked about the great sky vehicles and steam powered engines made of metal that had been housed there. They had all been destroyed by Alex’s generation, but as a child she had imagined great silver ships with wings like sails. The photos she had seen were different. The bodies were painted white and windows speckled the sides like holes in the coral.
‘We should do one of those audio tours,’ Peggy said, squeezing her arm. The woman was so breathtakingly beautiful that Alex found herself agreeing. Peggy was the textbook siren with long black hair to her waist and sparkling amber eyes. She wore a dress the colour of the sea and she made Alex forget to breathe. Peggy had a degree in Marine Biology and had lived in China, Japan and Korea. Alex felt out of her depth and didn’t know what the woman saw in her. Alex had never even been outside of her home city. She hated feeling so helpless but at the same time revelled in the crush that left her bursting to the surface for air. Normally, Alex would laugh at the idiots in museums that shuffled around in a mindless shoal, the same predictable order following a dot to dot of displays.
Peggy paid for the tickets at the door from the attendant who had a face like an otter. She grinned conspiratorially and handed Alex her headset. Her hands were small and pale next to Alex’s olive skin and when they touched, both women lingered there a while. It didn’t matter that the ugly headphones netted over her ears when Peggy was looking at her.
Welcome to the Manchester Water Museum, the only collection recounting Manchester’s complicated relationship with the water in the city. This collection was kindly donated by the Marine Council and Friends of Alderley Edge.
When the Thirlmere Aqueduct was completed in 1925, Manchester was provided with clean water from nearly 100 miles away in the Lake District. There had been local opposition to the dam being constructed but considering initial plans had included draining Ullswater, this was compromised. Diverting water had a major impact on Manchester and the North-West that was to forever change the landscape of our country. Follow our exciting new audio tour recounting where it all began.
Side by side at the first exhibit, Peggy’s head came up to Alex’s ear. She was close enough that Alex could inhale the scent of fresh waves from her date’s hair. They looked at the oil paintings housed in a cabinet. The glass had started to turn green around all the edges but if they stood with their noses to it, they could see in and surreptitiously hold hands.
Several paintings from the 1860s recounting the Kelpie Uprising.
In hindsight the Kelpie Uprising in Loch Katrine in 1859 should have been a major consideration but distance in time and geography made Mancunian businesses turn a blind eye. Before the Katrine dam had been constructed, kelpies in the area had been used extensively as a labour force in the fields and pulling carts. Kelpie herders caught wild ones by the lakeside using blessed bridles but for most communities, interbreeding with domesticated horses had produced resilient and docile foals. In 1859, kelpies around Lochs Katrine, Lomond and Ard simultaneously broke out of stables, smashed down fences and gates and headed towards the water. Owners’ children were lured from their beds by siren songs and rode willingly atop kelpies' backs into the waves. Neither bridles, arrows or silver bullets were able to stop the migration.
A grieving community voted whether to destroy all kelpie and kelpie offspring remaining, or alternatively destroy the dam that now supplied the city of Glasgow and the surrounding area. Inevitably, conflict arose between the insulated urban population who had not suffered casualties from the Uprising, and the country dwellers who did not benefit from the water supply. Had it not been for the fortitude of Mhairi Epona, a cotton factory worker who started the campaign to pay homage to the kelpies, the disturbance may have continued for decades. Leading factory workers in one week strikes, Mhairi managed to negotiate a compromise for mills and aqueducts not to be used on Sundays, shrines to be set up in key locations and offerings to be made in the driest months of May and June. This appeased the kelpies somewhat and was continued up to the 1960s when the practice became outdated.
‘There’s an argument that kelpies enjoy the manual labour, you know,’ Peggy said, pulling one of her earphones to the side. ‘And a lot of them preferred to be seen as horses, less discrimination.’
Alex nodded although she didn’t really know much about the kelpies. They did not often venture outside of Scotland but she had seen some holidaymakers in her job at the harbour. ‘It’s so tragic though, what happened to the kids.’
‘Tragic?’ Peggy asked, looking surprised, ‘they lived out their lives under the sea. They would’ve been treated like royalty. Think of the opportunities as the pioneers of mixed species relations! Some of the earliest Kelpie interpreters, and you could venture, anthropologists, had been taken children.’
‘Oh, I always presumed they would’ve died.’
Peggy raised an eyebrow, flustering Alex. She realised how foolish the comment sounded given the circumstances, her date’s ethnicity, the museum they were in. She grappled awkwardly for something to say but the other woman took her by the sleeve and pulled her towards the next exhibit.
Photographs of the navies and Morgens c 1890s. Men and boys as young as 8 worked 12 hour shifts to construct the dams and aqueducts at the turn of the twentieth century. Morgens worked in support roles providing food and entertainment to the workers.
The Mancunian construction team had relied on the plans and success of the Elan Valley Dams in Wales, ignoring issues that had occurred in other parts of the country. Morgens had free movement throughout Wales as early as 1850 and were visible members of society in all settlements near the coast or rivers. In 1893 newspapers showed a rash of drownings of young single men in Birmingham that were largely blamed on the small Morgen community resident in the city. Most of the Morgens moved back to Wales amidst an atmosphere of racial hostility however a few are known to remain, marrying local Brummies. Mayor Aeron Jones, who helped to pass the referendum in the 1940s is known to be part-Morgen as were many of the key supporters in the city.
Alex snorted, ‘So frigging typical, insinuating the Morgens targeted men. Most of the Morgens I know prefer the company of women. I don’t know why they keep maintaining the stereotype.’
‘Morgens don’t generally differentiate by gender. In human terms you could call them bisexual, although some prefer the term gender-blind. They tend to choose a partner by the colour of their souls.’ Peggy replied with a smile on one side of her mouth.
‘The colour of their…’ Alex looked at Peggy skeptically but her date looked straight back at her with no semblance of laughter in her oceanic eyes.
Scale model of Manchester in 1925. Note the convergence of several major waterways once the Thirlmere Aqueduct had been constructed.
Entrepreneurs had previously failed to consider the consequences of the Manchester Ship Canal destroying the natural course of both the Rivers Mersey and Irwell. Several major tributaries (Rivers Medlock, Irk and Tib) already flowed into central Manchester and with the addition of the aqueduct, an influx of water made Manchester a beacon for local water spirits.
Some precautions had been taken to placate local spirits during the aqueduct construction however the source of strife was not forseen by any of those that campaigned for or against it. The route of the aqueduct was detoured on several occasions and at great expense, to avoid disturbing known fairy mounds and boggart holes. Priests, druids and witches were employed to bless the dam and the tunnels that would transport the water into the city.
‘Do you think it could’ve been stopped?’ Alex asked.
‘The time was right. Balance in the world had to be restored. It’s made humans more careful and respectful. It is a world we can share together.’
‘Surprisingly, an unscientific answer,’ Alex commented tilting her head to one side. Peggy stroked the silver on her skin and looked away briefly. She played with her hair, pulling it over one shoulder so it concealed part of her face.
‘Even the world turtle has a heart.’
‘You are no turtle, Peggy Long!’
Peggy laughed, ‘True, but he’s practically my uncle.’
The Tarquin built 1895.
The Tarquin was one of the many ships used to transport goods via the Manchester Ship Canal. In the early 19th Century, Manchester was a hub for the cotton industry bringing prosperity to the people.
In 1930, ships such as the Tarquin entered Manchester to bring raw cotton to be processed from America. Amongst the normal cargo, the sailors failed to notice several dragon eggs that had been in the hold. Sources from the United States suggest this was paid sabotage from one of the rival manufacturing hubs. As can be seen by the substantial hull breech, the dragons were of juvenile size, as large as a seal, and several had died on the voyage. It was not known at the time, but subsequent research has shown that prolonged exposure to one element in incubation affects a dragon’s affinity. The entire clutch became water dragons, fighting voraciously over territory. Historians believe there may have been as many as a dozen dragons on The Tarquin however after the first year of fighting, five remained, each claiming one of the major rivers in Manchester.
Watch our 15 mins film in the next room showing the Battle of St Ann’s Square and the destruction of Castlefield.
‘I sometimes wonder what it would have been like, this Manchester. When the buildings were free of algae and trams ran along those rusted tracks,’ Alex mused.
Peggy shook her head, ‘It wouldn’t have been the Manchester of your grandparents’ generation anyway. Statistically, by now it would’ve gone the way of London.’
Alex shuddered. London had started building higher and higher to avoid the floods, with the richest living in the tallest buildings so they could still feel the sunlight whilst the poor sank further down. They had never torn down the old slums, but just built on top of them until the brick crumbled and crushed. There weren’t any official figures for how many people still resided in the lightless depths before another building sank into the water. The blocks of flats were so close together that people put planks between windows as walkways twenty floors up. They were so scared of getting wet that they had cut themselves off from the rest of the country. Rumours said that the poor were unrecognisable, wasted away like ghouls with fungi sprouting from their damp clothes.
‘Hey,’ Peggy said, ‘let’s just breeze the rest of it ok? This might have been a heavy choice for a third date.’
Alex shook her head and smiled, ‘No, I’m glad you brought me here. I don’t know anything about my own city. It’s embarrassing. Let’s finish the tour then I’ll buy you a drink. Let me guess, blue lagoon?’
Attire of a Humanist, late 1930s. Original Humanists wore chain mail or helmets but these proved impractical against rust and were soon replaced by wax coats with imitation shoulder pauldrons.
By 1935, Manchester city centre had been ravaged by multiple flash floods. Lightning storms had destroyed most of the tallest buildings and those remaining had been the victim of dragon duels. Whilst damage had initially been repaired, Mancunians began to despair that the destruction would never end. On top of this, the constant rain meant water levels on the streets stayed approximately a metre high all year round. People began to travel by boat in their everyday lives and many moved out into the neighbouring countryside.
Resentment and anger towards the water dragons and spirits generally increased with economic downturn and a decrease in standards of living, resulting in a new definition of the term Humanism. Humanists found comfort in stories where people prevailed over magical creatures and especially revered all stories of dragonslaying. This culminated in the irrevocable decision to open the cave at Alderley Edge.
‘I don’t see the problem with flooded streets,’ Alex said, ‘isn’t it Venetian and romantic?’
‘Venice smells of sewage in summer,’ Peggy said. Alex had a retort on her lips but it slipped back into its shell when her eyes saw the next exhibit. It was a tsunami in miniature: a single wave occupying the double height room, frozen in place with hundreds of white horses foaming from its throes. The roar of the sea washed over her and she could feel the spray on her face. The horses looked at them and reach out without moving from their solid gallop. The whole wave curled in on the couple and strained towards them palpably.
‘How is that… possible?’ Alex whispered. She moved towards the wave, hand outstretched but shaking. Her fingers ran through the curtain and she saw the water trailing down her hand in cold rivulets.
‘Impressive work. Fairy illusion,’ Peggy answered, her eyes widening with her smile, ‘the little folk are powerful.'
In response Alex felt her hand tingle with a feather-light touch and someone giggled in her ear.
‘They like you,’ Peggy said.
‘They?’ Alex replied with and arched eyebrow, flushing as she pressed the play button on her headset.
The Wizard of the Edge’s decision.
(This exhibit could not exist without the generous contributions of the Peak District Fairy Council)
The Humanists clung to Arthurian stories and longed for a simpler time where men ruled by force and metal. The folktale of the sleeping knights at Alderley Edge who would awaken should England ever fall to danger again, was an inspiration to the group. In 1942, a crusade of Humanists led by Didsbury-born George King, marched with banners and in barefooted pilgrimage to Alderley Edge from one of the rehousing camps in Sale. It is interesting to note that although gangrene was common, many people’s feet had begun to harden and web even in these early years since the floods. For the Humanists this was the ultimate disfiguration and many attempted primitive surgery on their toes, often leading to serious complications.
A large crowd of non-Humanists joined, interested to see the results of the march. By the time they reached Alderley Edge, contemporary reports suggest ten thousand people were there. There was a ceremony at the mouth of the cave but ultimately it was drums, pickaxes, hammers and the squabble of ten thousand onlookers that roused the wizard from his slumber. He stood six and a half foot tall with moss growing on his beard and a tree branch for an arm. He was not, as the Humanists had expected, a human, but a druid. There were no slumbering human knights, for what human could sleep for centuries without ageing? This, the druid explained, was human self-conceit and he had never promised a human army.
George King’s biographer later described the scene:
“The druid heard what had befallen Manchester from the Humanists, the local villagers, and the spirits. He saw that the humans could not live in the semi-flooded state and that the divide between people and the little folk grew greater every day. He saw the dragons bickering for the rivers, heedless of the dwellings they knocked down as they fought with waves and storms. He saw this all and he raised his staff.
“An almighty roar was heard and the crowd backed away from the cave. Knights stood shoulder to shoulder at the cave mouth in full armour with swords and shields at the ready. The crowd cheered but a few noticed the banners they held were not Arthurian coats of arms. Banners all in blue and green depicted kraken, seals, dolphins, mermaids and fish. Barnacles were scattered on the surfaces of their armour and the knights dripped seawater as they walked. The crowd’s cheer petered out and rumbles of fear set in. As the knight marched through the crowd, they changed. Banners became manes and feet became hooves. The sparkle of armour became the shimmer of water. Eyewitnesses turned in confusion to find themselves in a herd of horses. A thousand horses galloped through them, rearing and foaming until the onlookers were drenched. Their hooves stamped up the muddy water in froth and waves. It grew taller and taller until a tidal wave could be seen from miles around, in the middle of a Cheshire village.
“The wave crashed down and submerged the land from Alderley Edge to Rochdale. Buildings taller than two floors crumbled and all the trappings of land crumbled away. When the people of Manchester picked themselves up from the ground, they were astonished to find they could breathe under the water.”
Peggy stroked down Alex’s cheek, caressing the gills on the side of her neck gently. It tickled. ‘I’ve never been on dry land,’ Alex admitted, ‘my father came from York so I could probably tolerate the air but, I, I’ve never even left Manchester.’
‘Two-thirds of the country is underwater now anyways. Besides, it feels like Britain was always meant to be this way. An island notorious for rain and floods? The sea wanted her back’ Peggy said, her hand still now on Alex’s face.
Water dragon statue
This marble statue depicts the Medlock dragon in 1956. Note his eel-like body which helped him move quickly in the water. A rudder-like fan tail could be opened and closed to navigate. The Medlock dragon was known as the earliest peacemaker and helped establish the Marine Council in 8th October 1949. He can be visited on weekends under Victoria Bridge (please retain your museum ticket for 20% off entry).
After the submersion of Manchester, Liverpool followed in 1945, Preston in 1946 and Blackpool in 1948. The Northwest was the first area to be fully submerged and embrace the Marine Movement Act 1950, giving full citizenship to all resident water creatures. People adapted quickly to their new lifestyles and most metals were abandoned as an industrial product due to rust susceptibility.
No longer having to fight over small areas of water territory, the Mancunian dragons became benevolent protectors of the city, their many offspring serving in the Marine Council and advising in other cities. To this day, Marine Day is a public holiday celebrated throughout Manchester with diving races and open water performances. Manchester stands as a beacon of diversity and embraces its status as the First City of the Water.
We hope you have enjoyed this audio tour of Manchester Water Museum and look forward to seeing you again soon. Our gift shop has an array of souvenirs for the whole family. Please stop by on your way out!
Alex pulled her headphones down to her neck and pulled Peggy into the gift shop, kicking her legs against the current. An array of the usual gaudy tat greeted them: pieces of coral with plastic dolphins and whales glued atop them; mugs with earth and twigs sandwiched between plastic layers; bags of seaweed and squid jerky. Alex swam straight towards the display of water dragons. There were rubber toy dragons for toddlers, soap stone dragons in sandglobes, dragon masks made of driftwood and even puppet dragons that squirted bubbles into the water.
Peggy groaned as she floated reluctantly over. ‘Don’t you dare buy any of that!’
‘Why not? You don’t like photos. How will I remember what we did on our third date?’
‘You are the one who brought me here,’ Alex countered.
Peggy nodded, picking at the webbing between her hands as she nodded. ‘Yes, that’s true. I think I was trying to impress you and possibly even warn you about my weird family history.'
‘I knew what you were when I asked you out, Peggy. The scales are a dead giveaway.’ She traced a finger down Peggy’s arm where scattered silver scales shimmered in her pale skin. ‘I wouldn’t care if you were a boggart.’
‘Lucky for you,’ Peggy replied, satisfied. ‘I’m just a dragon.’
Have you got something to say about this story? Write a letter to the editors! Put 'Letter to the editors' in the subject line of your email and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature your letter in the next issue.
Did you enjoy this story? Please donate so we can pay our talented writers.