A Very Brief History of Manchester

This very brief history of Manchester is included here to help people who don't know Manchester to understanding something of its history.  I have made every effort to make sure that everything on this page and throughout the site is both interesting and accurate but I make no claim that it is a comprehensive history.  On this page I have tried to give readers an overview of the story of Manchester from its earliest days to the present.  To do justice to this over the centuries would take a lot more than this page offers but, if this page piques your interest, I hope you will look further into the website for a more complete story.

Mamuciam - Roman Manchester

Above an excerpt from the Ford Maddox Brown mural in Manchester Town Hall.

As a child I was taken by my Dad to a coal yard in Castlefield beneath the railway viaducts carrying the rail line out of Central Station. This was long before this area of canals, railway lines, warehouses and commercial buildings became the trendy community of condominiums, museums and restaurants it is today

We wandered in unannounced and univited so he could show me a piece of stone wall among the brickwalls and coal heaps. This he told me was all that was left of the Roman fort that gave the area its name.

The fort sat at a major junction in Roman Britain where the east - west route from York to Chester intersected with the north-south route from Ribchester to Hadrian's Wall.

Below are the foundations of the buildings indicated in the image above.

If you go to the site today you can see a very new looking reconstruction of one of the stone gateways of the fort which was built in the 3rd century to replace two earlier turf and wood forts dating back to 79AD. The 1.6 hectare fort known as Mancunio or Mamucium gave the city its name. The Roman word "castrum" meaning fort became "chester" and English cities and towns with chester as part of their name were Roman military settlements, hence "Man - chester". In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it was Mameceaster and in the Domesday Book, Mamecestre.

The Romans left in 140 AD and the area was overun by Anglian and Danish invaders. 


Prior to the Norman Conquest the area which is now Manchester and the Lancashire Plain was occupied by the Mercian Angles.  The Domesday Book records that in 1086 Manchester had a Parish Church. It is believed that it was located at the corner of St Mary's Gate and Exchange Street. In 1215 Lord of the Manor, Robert Greslet, built a church next to his manor house on a sandstone promentary between the Rivers Irwell and Irk and surrounded by a ditch known as the Hanging Ditch

In 1398 Thomas de la Warre became the Baron of the Manor of Manchester. In 1421 the church became a Collegiate Foundation dedicated to St Mary, St Denys and St George.  On his death in 1426 Thomas de la Warre left £3,000 to be used on the buildings of his collegiate foundation. Most of this was spent on converting the Baron's Hall into the house-of-residence for the College Priests or Fellows.

Remanants of that Manor House can be seen today in Chetham's School and Library.

The early maps of Manchester showed a very simple settlement around the confluence of the rivers Irk and Irwell with Salford on the north side of the Irwell and Manchester to the south. The map below is a reproduction of a map claimed to have been "taken about 1650".  On it you can see the Collegiate Church on its prominent site beside the Irwell.  Letter "E" on the map marks Acres Field which became the site of St. Ann's Square.  Across the Irwell Sacred Trinity Church is shown.  Although it shows a very rural aspect some of the major streets are already there including Market Street and Deansgate.

The map above is an inset on the Casson & Berry Map of Manchester & Salford
shown here with the permission of Chetham's Library

A bridge across Hanging Ditch provided access to the church.

A portion of that bridge can be seen in the cafe of the Cathedral Visitor's Centre


By 1751 Casson & Berry are showing a much larger Manchester.

Christ Church, later to become the Cathedral, dominates the community in the east and towards the west St. Anns with its spire, later removed, stands prominently on a now built up Acres Field.  Quay Street, or Key Street as it is shown on the map, runs down to a quay on the Irwell.

Here is their Manchester of 1751

Below are engravings on the Casson & Berry Map of Christ Church, Sacret Trinity, St. Ann's and St, Ann's Square at that time.

In "Picturesque England" by L. Valentine and published by Frederick Warne and Co. it says of Manchester at this time, "Manchestre was the fairest, best built, quietest, and most populous town in Lancashire." Certainly we know that it was a picturesque town in the reign of Elizabeth, having in it many fine old halls, most of them of wood and plaster, fronted in black and white, "magpie," as it was called. 

Much of that Manchester has been swept aside by developments over the years although the Cathedral and the adjacent Chetham's School and Library are at the heart of what is now known as the Medieval Quarter.  One of the old buildings referred to above that survived into the early 20th Century was the Seven Stars Inn on Whithy Grove.


Manchester is known as one of the world's great industrial cities and a leader in trade and commerce.  It was indeed the home of the Industrial Revolution.  In the early part of the 18th Century the area of Manchester that today is referred to as The Northern Quarter was already involved in industrial production and remnants of that activity can be found today in the form of weaver's cottages.  Here are some that were demolished:

and here are some that have survived and are being renovated and given new functions.

At the same time the wealthier members of the business community were building town houses close to the city centre like these on Lever Street.

It was of course mechanization which brought the huge boom in industrial activity and it was the textile industry that changed the face of the city.  In Ancoats huge mills were built to produce textiles and within the city centre the merchants built impressive packing and shipping warehouses. 

Trading exchanges and banks were built in the area around King Street as well as clubs to offer recreation and intellectual stimulation mostly to the wealthy.

The canals and later the railways provided the transportation in and out of the city centre delivering raw materials and taking away finished products. 

Here is a view of the city in 1851 in the form of the Adshead map, shown here with the permission of Chetham's Library.

The map shows the Cathedral at "a" where Manchester began.  By 1851 the Rochdale "c", Ashton "d' and Bridgewater "f" canals were in place.  The railway had arrived and Victoria "b", London Road "e" and Liverpool Road "g" stations can be seen.

In terms of transportation routes though nothing was quite so dramatic in its affect on the city as the  Manchester Ship Canal which turned this land-locked city into a seaport.  Known affectionately as The Big Ditch it runs for 36 miles and provides navigation for ocean going ships into the edge of the city centre.  It cost £15 Million and took 7 years to build opening in 1894.  At the Manchester end an extensive system of wharves was lined with warehouses and the area became the focus for further industrial and commercial development.  The Trafford Docks were surrounded by Trafford Park, an industrial complex.

Manchester became a city of chimneys, both industrial and residential.  The city was overcrowded and characterized by polluted air and water and unsanitary living conditions.  The wealthy merchants moved further out to suburbs like Victoria Park leaving their workers in streets of terraced houses jammed close together in the shadow of the mills and factories. 


By the time I came to know the city in the period after WWII it was still an industrial city with light and heavy manufacturing and trading on the world market through the Ship Canal.  The predominant form of fuel was still coal and a haze covered the city even on good days.  Most of the grand buildings in the city centre were black with soot.

Manchester is now in a post-industrial phase compared to those days.  The Ship Canal is still there but the docks have gone because the shipping now goes to huge container ports elsewhere. 

The warehouses and factories of Trafford Park have given way to waterside condominium and office blocks and The Imperial War Museum, The Lowry Arts Centre and the BBC's Media City are today's landmarks.

After the implementation of the Clean Air Act in 1956 the air did indeed clear over Manchester and for the first time in a long time you could see the surrounding Pennine Hills from the city centre and you could see the city from the top of the hills. 

Prominent buildings were cleaned and I remember as a child being shocked that they weren't actually black.

Today's Manchester is a thriving city with two important universities, a new and extensive banking district, the new BBC Media City and many of the warehouses, mills and factories that once provided employment have been converted into living spaces for those who work in the cities offices.  It is home to two Premiership football teams, the National Cycling Centre and the British Track Cycling Team.  The city has a long history of excellence in the arts and boasts a number of Art Galleries; the Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra; The Opera House and the Palace offering live entertainment and the production studios of the BBC and Granada.  Musically the city is associated with important names from the classics to pop including Sir John Barbarolli, Charles Hallé as well as The Smiths, Joy Division and many more.  Among the scientists, engineers and inventors the city can boast of Richard Arkwright, John Dalton, Ernest Rutherford, Alcock & Brown, James Joule and it was here that Rolls met Royce.  Anthony Burgess was a Manchester man and among the long list of actors are Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellan, Pete Postlethwaite, Victoria and the wonderful Maxine Peake.

Ancoats, the home of the Industrial Revolution is being transformed into a new community with old industrial buildings being renovated and redeployed and state-of-the-art and cutting-edge buildings going up on brownfield land.

The old canals have been rejuvinated and an ever expanding Metrolink tram system is connecting together railway stations, sporting and recreational venues  and outlying communities.  The city features 2 mainline railway stations and an international airport.

In 2008 the City of Manchester covered an area of 11,565 hectares and stood at the heart of a Greater Manchester that covers 127,608 hectares.  The estimated population of Manchester in 2007 was 422,915.  The estimated population within 30 mils of the Manchester City Centre was 11,291,216.  Compare that to the population in 1757 which was 17,101.