A spaceman comes to Manchester

Yuri Gagarin's visit, 60 years on

Good morning Millers — space travel is in the news again. On Tuesday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will attempt to follow Richard Branson in becoming a commercial space tourist when he sets off on his Blue Origin mission.

The two entrepreneurs are ushering in a new era of civilian space flight, although for the time being it might be limited to billionaires. Yet for all the hype, they will follow in the footsteps of the first human being who was sent into space sixty years ago.

In many ways, Yuri Gagarin makes a better claim for being the world’s first space virgin. Sixty years ago, he ventured into the unknown. And in July 1961, he came to Manchester as part of a great propaganda effort. In today’s weekend read regular Mill contributor and former Observer science journalist Nicholas Booth narrates what happened on that strange and remarkable day.

By Nicholas Booth

It’s not every day you see an alien in Manley Park, less still one travelling in an open-topped Bentley in the rain. But almost exactly sixty years ago, a 17-year-old nursery trainee saw just such a vision, a Soviet airman with what she was sure was the largest military cap she had ever seen. “It was so unusual,” says Marjorie Ross, now in her seventies. “He was just like a completely alien being — and I don’t mean that in a horrible way. He had come to Manchester. We couldn’t believe our luck.”

His name was Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. And as Marjorie and her colleagues at a nursery school came out to greet him, one of the cleaners said, “Here take these.” So they waved felt dusters that were an appropriate red colour. The first human being to orbit the Earth was given a hero’s welcome here in Manchester. “He wasn’t invited by the Queen and the Prime Minister,” she says. “He was invited by Manchester boilermakers.”

Indeed on July 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin spent six hours in the city at the behest of what was then known as the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers. In Trafford Park, he visited what was then Europe’s largest factory (Metro Vickers) and then the Union headquarters close by. Crowds cheered and came to see the world’s first spaceman. “He was as excited as we were,” Marjorie recalls, “I think he was as overwhelmed as we stood and cheered him.”

Needless to say, it poured down. That hardly came as a surprise to the natives — who in places lined up two or three deep with their trustiest umbrellas — but to the all-conquering hero and his entourage, it was a shock. It didn’t cramp Yuri’s style at all. On his way in from an airport still called Ringway — and an airliner named after Isaac Newton — Yuri Gagarin said to his translator, “Surely the least I can do is get wet, too.”

By the time Marjorie saw him drive down the Upper Chorlton Road, it was drizzling not pouring. So the teachers from the nursery, as well as an annexe to the school, ran out and couldn’t believe what a figure he cut. In a world of grey and rain, his bright green uniform was matched by an even brighter smile. “He was a good looking lad,” Marjorie says. “He was beautiful. He had a lovely complexion, fair-skinned and he had this great big smile.”

And he had a great deal to smile about. Three months earlier, the Soviet air force major had made the first complete orbit of the Earth. At this point in 1961, nobody else had followed in his wake — yet. Three weeks after Yuri's flight, an American called Alan Shepard had experienced just 15 minutes of weightlessness, like this month's space tourists on a sub-orbital lob. The johnny-came-lately aspect of the American response prompted an uncharacteristically sour comment: "We sent up some dogs," Gagarin later said referring to a test flight the year before, "just like Alan Shepard".

Gagarin himself thus entered the history books for himself. Even today, the passage of the Bentley with the young man — he was only 27 years of age — has stayed with Marjorie. “I know these days people see the famous all the time,” she says, “but in those days, it was an event.”

Others agreed. Though some schools wouldn’t let their charges out, others, like Marjorie’s own headmistress, and the head at William Hulme on Princess Parkway, allowed pupils out to wave and cheer as Gagarin made his way to and from his official duties. They all went out in a trice, Marjorie says of about eighty people from her college — teachers, student teachers and pupils. Nobody had seen anything like it and what was diagnosed as “Yuri mania”. And for a teenage girl like Marjorie, it hinted at greater social change to come.

“Yuri was the start of the sixties in many ways,” she says. “Life got brighter and lighter.” Two years before Beatlemania, the only precedent were the girls in their bobby socks who had screamed for Frank Sinatra and Elvis across the water. But a foretaste came throughout Yuri’s visit here in 1961. “My mam remembered him at the airport,” Marjorie says. “She worked at the Excelsior, the only hotel there. Quite a kerfuffle went on there, I believe.”

The pioneering spaceman was only in the country for five days. “Manchester was the only place he visited outside of London,” says Dr Tom Ellis, a Cold War historian at the London School of Economics. “At school, Gagarin would have heard of Engels and The Condition of the Working Class In England.” And the day after his return, Gagarin had told Isvetzia “I am sure a time will come when trips around the Earth will be arranged by trade unions.”

In May, the Foundrymen’s union did the next best thing. They knew he was likely to attend a trade fair at Earls Court and asked him to make the journey north. And he did so with pleasure, notes the spaceflight historian Gurbir Singh, who has written a book about Gagarin’s visit and blogs on the Astrotalkuk site. The spaceman was escorted on the flight from Heathrow by Fred Hollingsworth of the union, a Communist who shepherded him around. As Gurbir notes, Gagarin’s time in Manchester was very much a union affair. “They kept tabs on who had access to him, whom he saw and all the way until he was dropped back at the airport,” Mr Singh says.

There was mayhem at the union offices as everyone crowded to see him. At one point a union official barred somebody from following the spaceman whom he later found out was the Soviet Ambassador. A photographer stood on a moulding to take a photo and Gagarin chided him; it wasn’t finished and you should never stand in the way of work that was not complete. “Although I am doing a different job now,” he said with his trademark grin, “I am still a foundryman at heart.” What the union knew was that as a student, Yuri had worked at a foundry on the outskirts of Moscow. “It was there — as he makes out in the chapter of his autobiography I Join The Ranks Of The Working Class! — he saw a sign on a noticeboard about a local flying club,” says Ellis.

In what sounds like a corny B-movie script with added dialectical materialism, Yuri smiled as he accepted a gold medal. “I consider it the greatest honour possible to be an honorary member of your union,” said Brother Yuri — as they called him. Yet the whole event meant more to him than other decorations. “The firm handshake of my fellow workers meant more to me than any awards,” he said. And the chronicler of the visit heartily agrees: “The connection he had from his own foundry experience was genuine,” says Singh.

The currents of the cold war could be every bit as capricious as the draughts of a sudden Manchester downpour. The Gagarin visit was one chess move in the great ideological match between the Soviets and the West. It even prompted the Soviet propaganda organ Pravda to consider “to what extent the British people are fed up with the Cold War.” The triumph of an ordinary citizen who had gone into space had doubtless caused “alarm in those circles which continue to support the nuclear armaments race and heightened tension,” the paper noted.

Many in London saw the visit of Gagarin as the worst sort of propaganda, the young airman an automaton representing an inhumane system. There was incomprehension at “Gagarinitis”, noted Lord Altrincham, for “a brainwashed slave may be lovable, but love for him must be tinged with pity, not with hero worship.”

Yet that came as news to ordinary Mancunians. “He was like a superhero,” says Singh. “Here was someone who had been in a realm nobody else had — travelled faster, reached higher and had taken on something very risky.” None of this seemed to show on the handsome and smiling face of the young cosmonaut. “A smile like his can’t be manufactured,” said The Observer. “He was simple, warm, patient, unspoilt, self-possessed and highly intelligent”

Space, a new frontier, became all about political posturing, propaganda victories and prestige. Soviet supremacy mattered to Moscow: and in his smiling face, Yuri Gagarin became a powerful symbol. “It’s not about decrepit guys waving from a mausoleum,” says Ellis. “He’s young and handsome.”

In many ways, the real Yuri Gagarin is lost to history, the weight of expectation and soon, the tremendous pressures he bore, distorting the record. He never flew in space again and was killed in 1968 when a training flight went horribly wrong. During his internment at the Kremlin, Muscovites came in their thousands — as Mancunians had done — to pay their respects.

This month in 2021, as the first space tourists follow in his wake, it is easy to forget the dangers Gagarin faced. Accelerating to a speed of seven miles per second, he prevailed and endured. In just one orbit, ground controllers were worried. The equipment was at best balky, and at the point where his Vostok capsule separated to return home — a glorified cannonball that was now heated during the flames of re-entry — there were problems. It was a miracle that he made it home in one piece.

But he did, and left Manchester with a new novel written by a union man which was presented to him: No Time For Sleep, the irony of which he might have savoured. Endless goodwill tours followed, including immediately afterwards Cuba, where he was fêted by Fidel Castro. For seven hours they stood watching aircraft and what one press report described as “an interminable gymnastic display by thousands of young Cubans.” On his way home, he was asked about the day-long flight of his backup who also had returned home. Would there be a third Soviet spaceman, he was asked.

“Why just three?” Gagarin replied. “Why not five or more?”

And that, over the next two years, was what happened. As other female space tourists now prepare to fly, they follow in the footsteps of Valentina Tereshkova — whom Gagarin helped train for her flight in 1963. Although this backdrop played out in the heavenly firmament, Mancunians were their usual down-to-earth selves. “I bet his hands are bloody sore after all that shaking,” one foundryman was heard to remark.

Marjorie Ross tells a revealing story. A number of the children she looked after were offspring from Hungarian refugees who had left when Moscow brutally stepped in with an attempted revolution five years earlier. “All of a sudden there had been all these refugees,” Marjorie recalls. “They were made very welcome.” And on that rainy day in July 1961, their children — displaced by the very riptides of the cold war — joined in the adulation. “Everyone was screaming,” she recalls, with no thought to why they had ended up here.

“When you look back at all the things you’ve done in your life,” Marjorie says today, “it’s definitely a high point.” And this summer, she realised something profound: that her own granddaughter is now the same age and feeling sorry for her, because of the rotten year she has had to endure. “And then I thought to myself, what did I do when I was 17? Then I remembered — ‘My god, I saw Yuri Gagarin.’”

With thanks to Marjorie Ross and Gurbir Singh (@gurbirsingh on Twitter). His book is “Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester: A Smile That Changed the World?” available online and as an audiobook