Whilst this is by no means a comprehensive history of the Whit Walks, I thought I best provide a bit more context for the posts in this blog. There are a few more comprehensive overviews out there I would recommend Canon Jim Burns’ book if you can get hold of a copy as the most interesting overview complete with personal reflections from people who have walked over the years (available in Manchester Central Library). I do intend to try and develop a fuller explanation – we have gathered over 200 years of news archives related to the Whit Walks in Manchester which we are in the process of making sense of. Below is work that is pretty much pasted from a conference paper I delivered so is a really condensed explanation! Here is a picture of my Grandma doing the Whit Walks in Denton (South-East-ish of Manchester)….
During the beginnings of industrialisation in Lancashire, the Whitsun holiday was seen as one of the most important times of the working classes calendar (Fielding, 1989). The Walks were traditionally undertaken on Whit Friday for the Catholic churches and Whit Monday for the Anglican churches during the religious festival of Pentecost. Pentecost celebrates the decent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles as described in The Act of the Apostles in the New Testament. Fielding states that the first Anglican walk took place in Manchester in 1801 with the Catholics following the tradition by 1844 (Fielding, 1989).
The original 1801 Walks came about due to the split between the Nonconformists and the Church of England who jointly governed the Sunday Schools. The Church of England scholars paraded to service through the streets in order to display their independence (Entwistle, 2012). Fielding (1989) and Entwistle (2012) highlight the sectarian nature of the Walks with different denominations parading at different times and their parades being visually different. However, it is identified that whilst rivalries did exists and tensions were evident between the Anglicans and the newly arrived Irish Catholic immigrants, they were not as pronounced in Manchester as they were in Liverpool (Entwistle, 2012). Fielding (1989) notes that within the Catholic Walks there were divisions evident from inside the congregation. He identifies that class and social status was very much on display during these Walks through the ability of parishioners to wear new clothes or in the rivalry between which churches will have a the better display, a competition that the more affluent congregations invariably won. However, the Walks had a strong focus on the children of the church schools and the Sunday Schools. For them, oral histories tell us, it was like Christmas, where neighbours would give them money and gifts (Burns, 2013)
In recent more times the Walks have not attracted the same numbers of participants or spectators as during those earlier Walks. The local press reported that, ‘hundreds marched through city’ in the 2015 processions (Hibbert, 2015) with 12 churches from the Salford and Manchester area taking part. This seems a far cry from the headline from the same publication in 1933 that stated ‘1,700 minor casualties in Manchester’s big Whit Monday Walk, but it was well worth it’ (cited in Fielding, 1989). The Walks have not been controversy free despite their diminished scale. In 2013, after over 200 years, the decision was taken to move the Walks to the Sunday of the bank holiday, One commentator interviewed in the Manchester Evening News felt that, ‘I don’t think there’s been any consultation about this. It seems like they don’t care about the tradition at all’ (Qureshi, 2013). The original Monday date was reinstated in 2014 due to ‘popular demand.’
The reason for the date change in 2013 was to prevent diminishing numbers due to the competition from low cost holidays at this time of year (Qureshi, 2013). Indeed, the relationship with the secular holiday and commercial leisure consumption has always been evident, indeed the Walks could be argued to be rational recreation, keeping the youth away from the Kersal race weekend. Fielding notes that, ‘the Walks were not a mere appendage to popular leisure, through an influential strand in the histography of religion states that religious festivals of this period had little sacred content. This line of thought presumes that the industrial urban culture in general and the working-class in particular had little time for religion’ (Fielding, 1989: 9). Entwistle similarly suggests that by 1871 and the newly designated Bank Holiday, the increasing standards of living offered the potential for short breaks for the working classes threatening the numbers involved in the Walks. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 saw Whit Monday become an official Bank Holiday and moved to a fixed date on the last Monday in May by 1978.