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Who invented the Manchester Bee?
It's become a ubiquitous symbol for the city and a rallying point in times of disaster. But it wasn't always that way
By Leah Aaron
Every great city has a symbol. New York has I <3 NY. Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Manchester obviously has the Manchester Bee.
But here’s the weird thing: Growing up in Manchester in the noughties, I don’t remember seeing much of the Manchester Bee. It was only in my late teens that the two-winged design that is now ubiquitous started to edge onto the periphery of my consciousness. Along with the piercings and the brightly coloured hair my fellow sixth-formers were trying to look edgy with came a couple of Bee tattoos. In 2013, the Chorlton to East Didsbury tram line opened, revolutionising my trips into town and introducing a distinctive new yellow and grey livery with it.
After I moved away for uni, I noticed how every time I returned to the city there seemed to be a few more Bees around. You’d see them in trendy coffee shops or graffitied around the Northern Quarter. In 2015, The Manchester Shop in Afflecks palace, which sells mugs, badges and t-shirts, primarily with the Manchester Bee on them, seemed to signal its arrival as a symbol for the city. But at that point, the council was still on its I <3 MCR schtick, trying to make New York happen.
Everything accelerated after the Manchester Arena attack in 2017. Within hours of the bombing, the Bee appeared as a rallying symbol for me and so many other Mancunians. In the months afterwards, I started to see it literally everywhere — even in London. It appears so frequently now that we barely notice it. When the Duchess of Cambridge came to Manchester last year, she was wearing Bee earrings. When Andy Burnham did his Great Manchester Run to mark the five-year anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, he showed off a Bee tattoo on his bicep — and his ambitious London-style transport system is now officially called the Bee Network, meaning that we will soon all be travelling in bright yellow buses.
As the Bee went viral, I became ever more curious about it. Not just normal passing-interest curious but I-did-my-undergraduate-dissertation-on-it curious. I wanted to answer some questions about the Bee — like, what did it mean to people? And how did it achieve its extraordinary ubiquity so fast?
The bee man
The answers to both these questions are complicated. But if there’s a place to start, it’s with Gareth Hacking. Originally from Wales, “an outsider to the city” as he puts it, it was around fifteen years ago, when he was working as a freelance photographer, that he first spotted the distinctive design of the Worker Bee while taking photos by Rochdale canal in Ancoats.
“And then I just had the thought — I wonder how many there are in Manchester? And that’s a bad thing to think,” he laughs. Hacking is the founder of the local history project Manchester Bees, a website dedicated to documenting and mapping every Bee in the city, a project he’s still a long, long way off from finishing. Founded in 2012, it’s astonishingly thorough — a treasure trove of delicious deep dives on the topic from the early 19th century to the present. It’s also a crucial historical resource. Hacking, who holds down a full-time job as Student Engagement Officer at MMU, is the first port of call for journalists and academics who are interested in the Bee.
The history of the symbol is somewhat murky. Most articles on the matter start the story off in 1842, the year the Borough of Manchester was granted its coat of arms. But Hacking’s work suggests the story is more complex than that.
Mancunians might look at Manchester’s “shield,” as it’s known in the heraldic lingo, and think it looks sort of fussy. But the art historian H. Ellis Tomlinson, writing in 1944, calls it “simply conceived” — at least compared to others that were kicking around at the time. There’s a ship, three gold stripes, a lion, and an antelope, both of which are sporting the red roses of Lancaster. Seven bees are visible, but they appear tiny in comparison, dotted on what looks like a map of the world at the very top of the crest.
It’s usually suggested they were placed there to represent industrious free trade, the fetching idea of Manchester’s worker bees flying their wares out all across the globe. But there are still a lot of unknowns. “It’s not something that’s come from the people of the city, it’s come from the people who were running the city,” Hacking tells me. On his many expeditions, he’s found Bee imagery dating back nearly two hundred years. The Beehive Mill in Ancoats, for example, was completed in 1824. But before then, the trail goes cold. Surprisingly few historians seem to have taken an interest in the true origins of the Bee. But Hacking has a few ideas.
One is the connection between the Bee and “brotherly orders”. For the Freemasons, the beehive has long been a key symbol, illustrating “prosperity and the rewards of hard work,” as Hacking writes. And for the perhaps lesser-known (but in Manchester equally important) Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity, it was even more central. This “friendly society,” a kind of 19th century mutual aid group, was instrumental in starting up a range of sickness and pension insurances for working people that were a forerunner to today’s National Insurance system.
After their first meeting as a breakaway offshoot of the national Oddfellows society in 1810, they adopted the Beehive as their calling card. Many of the earliest bees and beehives you’ll see around Greater Manchester are on old Oddfellows meeting houses, like the Oddfellow Arms in Openshaw. Hacking thinks that this is one way the Bee might have made it onto the original Coat of Arms. “A lot of people who got into politics at the time would be both Masons and they would be Oddfellows,” he says.
Another theory is the link between the Bee and one of Manchester’s great families: the Peels. Sir Robert Peel the Elder was a wealthy textile manufacturer and politician (and, incidentally, a fierce opponent of the abolition of the slave trade). Peel the Younger, who was twice prime minister, is most well-known as the founder of the Metropolitan Police. “I’ve not got proof of this,” Hacking tells me, his face tight with concentration as he looks for the right picture to show me, “but Salford have [bees on] their coat of arms in 1844, two years later. And they have a Peel Park dedicated to Sir Robert Peel.” The Park was opened in 1846, thanks in part to the then prime minister Peel the Younger’s campaigning. Could the Bee’s inclusion on the Coat of Arms be a deferential nod to the family’s influence?
It might originally have been a capitalist symbol, an idealised image of the way workers ought to have been busying themselves in the city’s textile mills. But, as Hacking sees it, what’s exciting about the Bee is the way it has come to stand in for a range of meanings and causes across the city. The ambiguity of its origins and its purpose may actually be a strength. “It represents Manchester, but what it actually represents is entirely up to the individual.”
An unlikely comeback
So the Bee somehow came to be included on the city’s coat of arms. But there’s little evidence that it was of much interest to Mancunians for the next hundred and twenty years or so. When the great architect Alfred Waterhouse came to design the Town Hall in the 1870s, he placed a mosaic with Bees in the Great Hall. But they were one among a vast array of symbols.
There are a couple of brooches featuring Bees from Manchester Civic Week still kicking around on eBay, but generally, the symbol faded back into obscurity. By the first decades of the 20th century, Manchester was reaching its demographic peak, when around 700,000 people lived in the city. But after that came a long period of decline. Textile production shifted elsewhere and the population shrank. By the 1970s, the grand Victorian architecture of the city’s Cottonopolis heyday seemed kind of embarrassing.
“There was a hostile attitude from some towards the city’s Victorian heritage,” Warren Marshall tells me. The architect and urban designer, who worked in the City Planning department for more than 30 years, remembers that a strongly socialist council felt so negatively about the pomposity and ostentation of the city’s 19th century architecture that there was talk of tearing down and grinding up the Albert memorial to use as street paving.
Marshall had other ideas, however. In 1975, he’d already written a report arguing that the best way to market Manchester abroad was to promote it as “the Victorian city”. Others in the council were lukewarm about the idea. But then in 1976, a bust-up between the City Engineer and the City Architect gave him an opportunity. “I had a very warm relationship with the City Engineer,” he says. At that time, the city’s benches, bins and bollards were austerely modernist in design, tending to be made of concrete. But in a rainy city like Manchester, the material degraded quickly. Marshall, who though a trained architect was then working in a firmly administrative role, was tasked with designing a set of bollards that were longer-lasting.
“My boss had just come back from a trip to Amsterdam and had noticed that there were three little crosses on every bollard. He told me, “I have no idea what they mean, but when you see it, you know it means Amsterdam.” He was given two weeks to design something similar for Manchester. In those days, the Planning Offices were in the Town Hall Extension. Stressed before his deadline, he went for a walk across the bridge into the main building, and looking down at the floor, thought the Bee seemed perfect. “In those days I had a team of model makers working for me. I got them to mock up a design for me and there it was.”
Marshall’s success with the bollards kick-started his career as an urban designer unafraid to play with Victorian elements. It also coincided with a broader reassessment of the city’s past. Starting in the mid-1980s, the derelict mills and warehouses on the periphery of the city centre were being transformed into swanky clubs and airy living spaces. A new generation of “Manchester Men”, like the former council leader Graham Stringer, were working hard to revitalise the local economy around the creative industries and tourism. It was becoming a more and more commonly held view that cities needed a recognisable brand if they were going to be able to compete with each other, especially post-industrial ones like Manchester.
People were beginning to come round to Marshall’s point of view. Perhaps Manchester could market itself as the original Victorian city, or “the original Modern city,” as it later came to be known after much chin-scratching from design and marketing gurus. But it needed something like those three Xs.
It was well into the 21st century that the Bee began gathering momentum as a grassroots symbol - a process that seems to have happened relatively organically rather than being driven by the council. Chorlton café Teahive adopted a Bee in its logo in 2011, and local artist Mancsy, who uses a Worker Bee as his “tag,” started hiding screen prints for local people to find in 2012. The following year, screen-print studio One69A ran a design competition to draw a bee that represented the city.
And then came the Arena bomb.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the Manchester Bee emerged, almost overnight, as a spontaneous symbol for the city. Local illustrator Dick Vincent’s image of a Bee with the caption “Stay Strong Our Kid,” went viral on Instagram, as did tattoo artist Sam Barber’s campaign to give out Bee tattoos in order to raise money for the victims and their families.
It’s not unusual for symbols similar to the Bee to appear in the wake of these kinds of atrocities. Sam Merrill, an academic at the University of Umea in Sweden, has researched the role of social media in helping the Bee spread across Manchester. “In the wake of the 2005 London Bombings, the Underground Roundel played a similar role to that of the Manchester Bee,” he tells me. “But in the relative absence of social media platforms the use of the Roundel in this way arguably spread more slowly and to a lesser degree.”
The difference between the Roundel and the Bee, of course, is that the Roundel was designed and owned by Transport for London. In 2017, the Bee belonged to no one. Just two weeks after the bombing, all that changed. As Merrill’s research reveals, Manchester City Council quietly trademarked all of the versions of the Bee it had legal claim to in June 2017. They only publicised this fact in March 2018, when the period for objections had passed. Commercial applicants now have to pay a £500 fee to use the Bee, and pass on all royalties from their sales to one of the council’s selected charities.
It might have started out as a symbol handed down from on high. The council might have quickly tried to grab a slice of the pie. But it has been everyday people’s love for the symbol that has made the Manchester Bee into the icon we all immediately recognise today. When my train pulls into Piccadilly, and I see the bees etched onto the glass, that’s when I know I’m home.
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Leah Aaron grew up in Manchester and is currently doing a PhD at the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL. If you know more about the Manchester Bee, please do post in the comments.