Saturday afternoons - the weekend is born

Manchester pioneered the half-day holiday - Saturday afternoons off - and so helped form the modern weekend in Britain.

19th Century Manchester workers endured long working days (12 hours plus), six days a week, with respite on Sunday to go to church. Factory Acts of 1833 and the 1840s would introduce some restrictions to working hours particularly for children in the likes of Ancoats' mills, but the longer the cotton machines were spinning, the more ‘pure gold’ flowed.

In 1843, a group of young Manchester men recognised the need for workers to have more time off and formed the ‘Committee for the Establishment of Saturday Half Holiday’. This was led by William Marsden and included members of Manchester Athenaeum, a club for the improvement of young gentlemen, the building of which is now part of Manchester Art Gallery.

This gave rise to debate both in Manchester and nationally with fears about what mischief (or worse) the working classes would get up to on a Saturday afternoon, if allowed such freedom. Worthy, improving, recreational activities were needed - parks and libraries might help - to stop an early start to Saturday night drinking. Drinking on a Saturday afternoon – a distressing thought.

But even the increasingly wealthy Manchester middle class had some concern over the working conditions and poor health of workers and recognised the benefits of some leisure time. Also, perhaps if exploited workers were given a little, it might quash any radical uprisings, and keep them in their place. Some church leaders thought that a half-day might improve attendances on Sunday, if the congregation had other free time on Saturdays.

The half-day would create new consumers, taking excursions on the new railways, spending money in shops, and as the century progressed, buying bicycles or watching organised sports like football - the potential to make money was attractive to profit-seeking Manchester.

William Marsden and his committee were therefore able to broker an agreement initially with the town’s warehouse owners, before the half-day spread to other employers in the town, and also across the country.

William Marsden is buried in St John's Gardens. We visit the gardens and hear of his achievement on the Campfield walking tour.

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