YURI GAGARIN'S VISIT TO MANCHESTER
BY FRANCIS FRENCH
Originally published by the British Interplanetary Society in Spaceflight in July 1998. © Francis French.
In the rush of publicity that followed Gagarin's extraordinary transformation from an unknown pilot to one of the world's most famous names, the Soviet press was quick to highlight Gagarin's working roots. Indeed, this useful publicity aspect was a consideration in his selection as a cosmonaut. In 1951, Yuri Gagarin had been a foundry worker. He completed a course at a vocational school in Lyubertsy, outside Moscow, with distinction, qualifying as a moulder. A few years later, while still studying, he joined an aero club, which set him on the road to becoming the first person in space on 12 April 1961.
The Union's Invitation
The Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, one of the world's largest unions, with a strong presence in the then union-strong industrial works of Manchester, England, noted Gagarin's background with great interest. The Union's Executive Council quickly decided that they would offer Gagarin an honorary membership. This was not purely for selfless reasons. Their own newsletter later stated:
'Our own Union must benefit directly from all this friendly publicity and interest, and indeed we have, but the Trade Union Movement as a whole is seen in a more favourable light as a consequence of our achievement'.
Similarly, the Soviets were looking for ways to highlight their technological successes abroad, create friendly links with workers' movements and, at the same time, send the message that great things were achieved under Communism. The honorary membership of Gagarin was the perfect way that both sides could benefit.
The Soviets must have had a farsighted plan to use Gagarin in this way, because the Union's invitation was accepted, and confirmed by the Union's Executive Council as quickly as 23rd May. What preparations were made in Russia are still not known, but by the time Gagarin arrived, he was utterly professional in dealing with huge crowds and dignitaries and managed to win everyone over. Much of this may have been due to his natural sunny charm, which was another reason for his selection as the first cosmonaut, but it is likely he also received some thorough training for his new role as the Soviet's biggest PR machine.
Arrival at Manchester
Major Yuri Gagarin visited Manchester exactly three months after his historic space flight. It should be remembered that this was only the second stop outside the Soviet Bloc on what became a very long world tour. Gagarin had just visited Finland, and went on to visit many other countries. In contrast to some of the later visits, which concentrated on meeting Kings and Presidents, the visit to Manchester was very deliberately organised to create a sense of solidarity between the workers of England and the Soviet Union.
At the time of Gagarin's visit, Gherman Titov's flight was still a month away, and so Gagarin was still the only cosmonaut known to the world public. Alan Shepard was the only other person to have been into space, but Gagarin was still the only human to have been into orbit. While there had been speculation that there would be a Soviet manned flight for many years, the secrecy given to the flight until he was actually in orbit meant that Gagarin's name and unique achievement were still very fresh to the public.
The combination of Gagarin's unique achievement and the Soviets' clever publicity combined to create a welcome in Manchester that was like nothing ever seen there before. In this decade, when most people would not recognise even Neil Armstrong if they passed him by in the street, never mind any other space farer, it is hard to imagine the star quality that Gagarin carried. In fact, it had more in common with Beatlemania than the later, formal visits of other space farers. This was about something that had never been achieved before in human history, and here was a chance to meet the man who did it.
Thousands of expectant people turned out in the pouring rain to welcome the cosmonaut at Manchester Airport, where he arrived on a specially-chartered Viscount 800 aeroplane. The flight was Gagarin's first in a British plane, and he took over the controls of the plane for a short time on the way to Manchester. Appropriately enough, the plane was named Sir Isaac Newton. A huge crowd of people had pushed through the airport gates to get on to the tarmac and, as Gagarin stepped from the plane, a surge from the crowd carried him away from the party of officials waiting to meet him. The police eventually managed to force a path for Gagarin back to the jostled city representatives. They included the Mayor of Stretford, who was introduced to Gagarin, but did not get a chance to say anything to him because of the cheering and applauding crowds. He later said, 'With that crowd, we were lucky to be standing on our feet'.
Gagarin then tried to make his way to a waiting car, but was again swept up by the crowd, which this time took him away in a sea of backslapping to the far end of a hangar, far from his car. Gagarin never lost his composure, smiling and waving as he was swept around and around, finally reaching his transport. Airport officials stated it was the biggest and most enthusiastic welcome ever given to anyone there.
Drive to Moss Side
Gagarin drove from Manchester Airport to Moss Side, through streets lined with cheering, waving crowds. Here Gagarin showed his skill at public relations. Although it was pouring with rain, Gagarin insisted the car hood remain back. Through his interpreter, he told the driver, "If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I". Refusing an umbrella, he stood in the back of the open Bentley and smiled at the cheering crowds, including many schoolchildren, who shared his soaking to greet him. Although he was wearing a raincoat over his Air Force uniform, it was not enough to prevent him becoming soaked through.
Many teachers had taken their classes out on to the drenched streets to glimpse this historic figure, and then had to try and stop their students from running into the road to try and shake Gagarin's hand as he cruised past. Other children ran to try and keep up with the car. Many children there were from schools further away from the route, and had simply decided not to go to school that day.
At one vantage point, four people squeezed into a tiny enclosed telephone booth to be able to watch the procession and keep dry. Some were expecting Gagarin to be taller, more muscular and heroic looking, and wondered how this light, boyish man, smiling 'like a boy in a dream', could be the man who had made history. His car was showered with red roses, poppies and carnations as it made its way through the rain.
At Union Headquarters
Gagarin, soaking wet when he arrived at the Union headquarters in Moss Side, stepped out of the car towards the entrance. The large crowd, which had been waiting there for hours, broke the police cordon and mobbed him. This is despite the fact that there was a very large police presence, and Gagarin had only a distance of five feet to cover between the car and the Union's gate. After much waving to the crowd, a path was made for him to get inside. In a crowded ceremony, he was presented with a gold medal by the Union, made the first ever honorary member, and the first Soviet member of the British trade union movement. Gagarin immediately pinned the medal to his uniform, where it joined a great number of decorations he was wearing, and said that it would be a privilege to wear it. The medal had on it a design that was also to be the new logo for the Union showing the hands of two people cradling a globe with the words 'Together Moulding a Better World'. On my most recent visit to the Union, it was still their logo.
Gagarin told the assembly that he had not been able to see the British Isles from space - the nearest he had been was when he was over the Atlantic. At one point during the ceremonies, Gagarin excused himself to go to the window and stood there for many minutes, waving and smiling at the crowds outside.
Gagarin's next stop on the visit was the giant AEI works at Trafford Park, known as 'Metros'. Thousands of workers mobbed him. Police had to stop the traffic and force back the crowds to allow his car to get through the gates. His welcome was tumultuous. But none of this ever seemed to alter Gagarin's smiling composure. The Union later said: 'The famous charm, which has won the hearts of British almost as easily as his venture as the first man into Space, never faltered.' Gagarin kept a smile on his face all day.
Vast crowds of workers, clapping and cheering, followed him on his factory tour, as police officers forced a path through the sea of people, who were all struggling to catch a glimpse of him. Hundreds gave him congratulatory slaps on the back, and he signed a few autographs. One woman rang a hand bell in celebration. Security men and detectives tried to encircle the cosmonaut to prevent him being pushed over by the overenthusiastic crowd. In the end, the tour of the factory was cut short, as there were fears Gagarin would get hurt in the crush. It is unlikely that Gagarin saw much of the foundry, as he was constantly surrounded by faces.
While in the factory, Gagarin shook his head, saying 'Nyet, nyet' when passing a photographer who was standing on a casting to get a better shot. An interpreter told the man that Gagarin knew the casting was unfinished and might be spoiled by being stood on. Gagarin commented, 'I was a foundry worker, and although I am doing a different job now, I am still a foundry worker at heart.'
After the factory tour, the police, linking arms, forced a way for Gagarin through the crowds to the car park, where a lorry was set up as a temporary platform. The cosmonaut spoke to a crowd of over five thousand, made up mostly of workers from the factory, but swelled by hundreds of workers from surrounding factories who gave up their lunch hour to come and see him. The police grappled with the crowd to try to keep some sense of order. They had to constantly pull down people who were trying to climb on to the lorry. One person, who had stood patiently by the lorry all day to be right by Gagarin during his speech, later commented, 'The rain did not trouble me. I was repaid with the humble boy bending down to take my hand.' The brief speech, given through an interpreter, included saying that he had carried no armaments or photographic equipment on his flight – that all the devices on board were for scientific and technical purposes. He added, 'There is plenty of room for all in outer space. Plenty of room for the Americans, the Russians, and the British.', and said he looked forward to the day when Soviet space ships would be flying to the Moon and working with American and British scientists who would be there, too. The crowds shouted back, 'Yuri! Yuri!' The Union newsletter later commented:
'The people of Manchester certainly maintained their reputation for warmth and hospitality in the overwhelming welcome they gave to the modest and engaging personality we were honouring. Despite the heavy rain, thousands of people lined the route to our General Office, and the response at Metros on his visit to the factory was tremendous. This proved to be one of the greatest days in the history of our Union.'
It was also later reported that Gagarin's good looks had created a stir amongst the factory's office girls, too...
Certainly, both sides had achieved their aims beyond all expectations. The Union knew it would receive favourable publicity, but it could not have imagined the overwhelming surge of popular feeling that accompanied Yuri Gagarin's visit. Gagarin, for his part, had the opportunity to portray the Soviet space programme as peaceful, scientific, and the first step of a global push into space.
At the Town Hall
It took Gagarin's car five minutes to drive the few hundred yards to the gate. Now half an hour late, Gagarin was then driven to a civic banquet at Manchester Town Hall. Huge crowds again lined his route, which passed by the Manchester United football ground. The United players all came out to cheer him, too. A train driver sounded his whistle in salute, which Gagarin responded to with a wave and a grin. At the Town Hall, a crowd of over six thousand people were waiting to see him. This was the largest crowd there that police ever could remember. The Russian National Anthem was played, and the red flag raised over the Town Hall. As Gagarin saluted, a small boy broke through the police cordon, shook the Mayor's hand, took a quick photo of Gagarin, and then stood staring at him. The Town Hall had had just twenty-four hours' notice of Gagarin's visit. A military-style operation was put into action to prepare the Town Hall, the food, and the police reinforcements, including a motorcycle escort. A burst water pipe that had flooded part of the cellar had not helped matters.
At the luncheon, Sir Bernard Lovell was introduced to Gagarin, and later stated:
'He's obviously a man you can talk to for a long time. He will become one of the historic figures in civilisation because he is the first man to live in a new environment. There are lots of things I would like to ask him, but probably he would not answer them.'
Gagarin made sure to thank Sir Bernard for the assistance Jodrell Bank had given the Soviet space programme in tracking their early launches. Sir Bernard had also hoped that Gagarin would have time to visit Jodrell Bank, but the day's schedule was too tight. In a telephone conversation I had in 1988 about this meeting, Sir Bernard still spoke of Yuri Gagarin with great warmth and affection, and remembered his smile and his charm.
While Gagarin was in Manchester, the Russian trade minister was visiting factories and boosting orders for the Soviet Union. Fashion designers and machinists from Moscow handed out Sputnik badges and small hammer and sickle pins. The badges they gave out were by far the most popular.
Gagarin returned to the airport for the flight to London. Thousands of people were still waiting for him there. As he reached the top of the steps leading on to the aeroplane, he turned, grinned, and blew a kiss. Worn out, he used the flight as an opportunity to get some sleep. Arriving in London, he attended a press conference, televised live on both the BBC and ITV networks, after which he was presented with a gold medal by the President of the British Interplanetary Society. The next day was spent meeting with the officials and royalty of Britain. This was important in diplomatic terms, but had none of the sheer exuberance, excitement and unexpectedness of his visit to Manchester.
What Was Said
The headlines of one Manchester newspaper on the day of the visit proclaimed 'It's just Yurific!', and testified to the incredible welcome that Gagarin had received. They also reported that the whole city talked of little else but Gagarin for a few days. The Manchester Evening News emphasised the human aspect of the visit:
'Major Gagarin is above the tedious enmities of politics. His was a human achievement; a victory for man's spirit and courage. That is why any sort of hesitation in the hospitality would have jarred so much. But any suggestion of that has been swept away in the tumult and the shouting, for the ordinary people's cheers have blown away the cobwebs of protocol. It is the human warmth of the welcome that counts.'
The Soviet press gave extensive coverage to Gagarin's visit. Concentrating on the welcome given by the Mancunians, Pravda wrote:
'Manchester's toiling masses accorded Major Gagarin a reception unsurpassed in its cordiality. Never over the past many tens of years has Manchester met anybody with such an embrace. They were greeting the cosmonaut as a glorious son of the Soviet toiling masses who had demonstrated to the whole world what the people of triumphant Socialism could do.'
The Soviet trade union newspaper Trud said:
'Mancunians met the Soviet guest as an envoy of peace and as a man who has strengthened it with practical deeds.'
Gagarin wrote a letter of thanks to the Union, stressing peace and friendship between the nations, and saying:
'I thank you also for the warm greetings with the view to the great successes of Soviet science and technics. Soviet people think of their victories in outer space as not the achievement of their own only but of that of the working people throughout the world.'
From these Soviet pronouncements, it is clearer still that Yuri Gagarin's visit had been a potent way of putting across the propaganda of the Communists. But the real point of interest in the visit for us today is in the incredible public welcome he received. It is hard to imagine any space flight event in the near future that could cause such a public celebration, and do so much to break down mistrust between people of different nations. However, I hope that day is not too far away.
A letter the day after the visit in the Daily Express seemed to sum up the whole event:
'Yuri Gagarin's visit to Britain proves one thing: whatever tensions build up politically, people love people! Would the welcome have been any greater had the cosmonaut been an American or even a Briton? I, for one, doubt it.'
My sincere thanks to Sir Bernard Lovell, Erin and Tom Rogers, and the past and present members of the Foundry Workers' Union, who were so generous in their help and time by granting interviews and allowing me access to their archival material.
Yuri Gagarin with the Foundry Workers' Union President, Fred Hollingsworth, at Manchester Airport. [Author's collection]
The design of the medal presented to Gagarin by the Foundry Workers' Union. [AUFW]