Sir William Arthur Lewis: The hero of Hulme who won a Nobel prize and has his face on thousands of banknotes

Pioneering economist whose gift to Moss Side is still raising smiles today

This October we are celebrating Black History Month, a time to reflect on the great black figures who have influenced Manchester.

We’ve looked at the black change makers making history in Manchester today, and at those who blazed a trail at our city’s famous institutions.

Which brings us to the life and legacy of Sir William Arthur Lewis, the great economist who was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences.

He was a pioneer in his field who later became the James Madison Professor of Political Economy at Princeton University in the US, and was knighted in 1963.

There will be many articles written about his academic prowess and success, but few are aware of how much Prof Lewis did for Manchester and, in particular, the communities of Moss Side and Hulme.

William Arthur Lewis – who generally went by Arthur Lewis – was born in 1915 the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, then still part of the British Empire.

A gifted student who graduated from school at just 14, the future professor worked as a clerk when he was still a teenager, using the job as a placeholder until he was old enough to sit the exam for a government scholarship to a British university.

This came in 1932 with the Saint Lucian initially keen to seek out a career in engineering, before turning his hand to business administration.

Aged 18, Arthur Lewis accepted a government scholarship to attend the London School of Economics (LSE) becoming the first black person to study there.

The promising student was given a PHD at LSE and stayed there as faculty member until 1948, when he was given a post at the University of Manchester.

At only 33 years of age, Prof Lewis would become the university’s first black lecturer when he moved up to Manchester, bringing his wife and two children with him.

Manchester University professor Sir Arthur Lewis fought to improve the lives of people living in Moss Side (Image: Nobel Foundation)

Though his time in Manchester was remembered globally for the economic concepts and theories he devised, many of which were adopted by colonies who were slowly gaining independence from European colonisers, the work he did in some of Manchester’s inner city neighbourhoods testifies to his character, as well as his intellect.

Both Hulme and Moss side had grown into central hubs for Afro-Caribbean ex-pats, with a thriving community emerging during the 1930s and 1940s.

This swelled in the wake of World War II, when a large number of West Indian servicemen settled in the area, happy to find a place full of familiar faces and businesses without discrimination.

Jobs were within reach as well – with Trafford Park a mere ten minute ride away.

By 1951 there were some 2,500 Afro-Caribbeans in Moss Side, just under half the population of the two Moss Side wards combined, and Arthur Lewis was determined to improve the lives of the community there.

Prof Lewis knew that education of the Moss Siders was key to progress, and so he founded two education centres.

The process of establishing the South Hulme Evening Centre began in February 1952 when the Bangor Street Boys School agreed that one of their wings could be used as an educational hub.

On September 28, 1953, the centre opened to rapturous celebrations.

Although the centre was intended to help Afro-Caribbeans make their way in this country, Prof Lewis was able to convince many white locals to join in the celebrations and set up a table tennis tournament between white and black communities.

Prof Lewis used the centre to deliver evening classes to those who could not afford their own university studies before establishing his second centre.

The Community House Social Centre, on Moss Lane East, would open sometime in 1954.

This centre still survives to this day – as the West Indies Sports and Social Centre. While it’s original use has changed, it’s still at the heart of community, serving Mancunians of all backgrounds, nearly 70 years on.

The economist left Manchester in 1957 and went to live in Ghana where he became a government economic advisor.

Sir William Arthur Lewis died on June 15, 1991, in Bridgetown, Barbados, and was later buried in the grounds of the St. Lucian community college named in his honour.

In 2016, he was honoured on the Eastern Caribbean $100 banknote, in use in seven countries. The Queen is on the other side.