A History of Manchester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Manchester

Manchester began when the Roman army built a wooden fort on a plateau about 1 mile south of the present cathedral in about 80 AD. The Romans called it Mamucium (breast-shaped hill) probably because the plateau resembled a breast. The fort was rebuilt in stone about 200 AD. Soon a civilian settlement grew up around the fort. The soldiers provided a market for the goods the civilians sold such as shoes and wine.

However, in 407 AD the Roman army left Britain and the civilian settlement disappeared. The stone fort at Manchester fell into ruins.

Manchester in the Middle Ages

At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, a village called Mamecester existed. In time the name changed to Manchester. There is a story that Reddish is called that because there was once a battle there and the blood left ‘reddish’ stains. It is far more likely that Reddish is a corruption of Reed Ditch.

In 919 the king repaired the old Roman fort as a defense against the Danes. It gave its name to Castlefield.

At the time of the Normans in the 11th century, Manchester was a small village but things changed in the 12th century. The population of England grew and trade and commerce grew rapidly. Many new towns were founded. The village of Manchester was made into a town in the early 13th century. The Lord of the Manor, a man named Robert De Grelly built a manor house nearby. He also built the church of St Mary. He divided up some of his lands into plots for building and rented them to craftsmen. He may also have started a weekly market. Soon Manchester grew into a town.

In the year 1222 Manchester was granted the right to hold an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but was held only once a year. It would attract buyers and sellers from all over Lancashire. In the Middle Ages Manchester was, at best, a medium-sized town. It was not nationally important. It is not known what its population was. An educated guess is 2,500. It would seem very small to us but settlements were tiny in those days.

In Medieval Manchester, there was a wool industry. After the wool was woven it was fulled. That means it was beaten in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers powered by a watermill beat the wool. When it dried the wool was dyed. There was also a leather tanning industry in the town.

In 1301 Manchester was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). Before that date, the Lord of the Manor appointed a bailiff who ran the town day to day. Afterward, the merchants of Manchester were allowed to elect an official called a Reeve who did the job.

In the late Middle Ages water from a spring was brought along elm pipes to a conduit in Manchester where the townspeople could fetch water. The spring gave its name to Spring Gardens and Fountain Street.

Manchester in the 16th century

A grammar school was founded in Manchester in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter. During the 16th century and the 17th century, Manchester grew steadily larger and more important. By the late 16th century it may have had a population of 4,000. By the mid-17th century, Manchester probably had about 5,000 inhabitants.

However, Tudor Manchester still wasn’t a particularly large town. It may have been important locally but it wasn’t very important nationally. About 1540 a writer described Manchester: ‘Manchester, on the south side of the Irwell is the fairest, best built, busiest and most populous town in Lancashire’.

Manchester in the 17th century

In 1603 Manchester suffered an outbreak of plague, which may have killed one-quarter of the population. However, the town soon recovered. There were always plenty of poor people in the countryside willing to come and work in the town and replace the dead.

In the 17th century, Manchester was famous for wool and also for cotton. From 1637 silk was woven in the town.

Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. Manchester sided with parliament and the people erected wooden posts linked by chains around the town to stop royalist cavalry. They also erected earth ramparts to protect the town. The royalists attacked on 25 September but were repulsed. They made several attempts to take Manchester by storm but each time they were driven back.

Eventually, on 1 October they gave up and left. Manchester remained in parliamentary hands for the rest of the war but it suffered from disruption to trade. Manchester also suffered from an outbreak of plague in 1645.

However, Chetham’s Hospital (a school for poor children) was founded in 1656.

At the end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes, the travel writer described the town: ‘Manchester looks exceedingly well as you enter. Very substantial buildings, the houses are not very lofty but mostly of brick and stone. The old houses are timber. There is a very large church, all stone and it stands high (above the town) so that by walking around the churchyard you see the whole town. This is a thriving place. The market is large it takes up 2 streets.’

Manchester in the 18th century

In the early 18th century Manchester probably had a population of around 10,000. It was still a medium-sized town. However, in the late 18th century the industrial revolution began. The population of Manchester soared and by the end of the century, it had reached 70,000.

In the 18th century, Manchester continued to be famous for manufacturing wool, cotton, linen, and silk. In 1729 a cotton exchange was built where cotton could be bought and sold. In the late 18th century, with the coming of the industrial revolution, the textile industry boomed.

There were some improvements in Manchester during the 18th century. St Ann’s Church was built in 1712. The first newspaper in Manchester appeared in 1719 and a quay was built on the Irwell in 1735. In 1761 the Bridgewater Canal was built to bring coal from a coalfield to Manchester.

Meanwhile, an infirmary was built in 1752 and the first theatre in Manchester opened in 1753. Heaton Hall was built in 1772.

By 1756 the population of Manchester had risen to over 16,000 (including Salford).

In 1792 an act of parliament formed a body of men to clean and light the streets (with oil lamps). After 1792 night watchmen patrolled the streets of Manchester. (Although it is doubtful if they were very effective!).

Manchester in the 19th century

One of the most notorious episodes in Manchester’s history occurred on 16 August 1819. Tens of thousands of people gathered on St Peters field to hear radical speakers including Henry Hunt. The local magistrates sent the Manchester Yeomanry to arrest the speakers. However, when they were harassed by the crowd the yeomanry drew their swords and started slashing. The magistrates sent in the 15th hussars to disperse the crowd. They did so with their swords. Eleven people died and more than 600 were wounded. Bitterly the people called the massacre Peterloo after Waterloo.

During the 19th century, Manchester was transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The population of Manchester soared. From 75,000 in 1801 it rose to 126,000 in 1821. It then rose to 142,000 in 1831. (Part of the rise in population was due to very poor Irish immigrants).

In 1816 a water company began supplying piped water through iron pipes (for those who could afford to be connected). In the 1820s Manchester gained gas street lights.

Like all 19th century towns, Manchester had dreadful slums. Some streets were unpaved. In some of them, rubbish such as rotting vegetables was piled in heaps. It was only removed at intervals to be sold as fertilizer. People used cesspits, which were only cleaned infrequently. The worst slums were the cellar dwellings. Whole families lived in 1 room cellars. Sometimes they had no furniture and slept on piles of straw. They were damp and poorly ventilated. Because of these horrid conditions, diseases were rife. In 1832 a cholera epidemic in Manchester killed 674 people.

However, there were some improvements in Manchester in the early 19th century. The Manchester Chamber of Commerce was created in 1820. The Manchester Guardian began publication in 1821. From 1828 horse-drawn buses ran in the streets of Manchester. In 1830 a railway to Liverpool opened.

The Royal Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science, and the Arts was built in 1829. It was made an art gallery in 1882. A Natural History Museum opened in Manchester in 1835.

A corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1837 and in 1838 Manchester was made a borough for the first time.

Life in 19th century Manchester gradually improved. In 1846 the first public parks in Manchester were created, Peel Park, Queens Park, and Phillips Park.

After 1845 Manchester council took responsibility for removing refuse. They also removed sewage. In those days some people had cesspits. Others had a bucket with a grid on the bottom. The urine would soak into the soil while the excrement was caught. At night a horse and cart came round and men removed the ‘night soil’. (Everyone kept their windows closed when the ‘night soil men’ came!) In 1851 the council took over the town’s water supply.

The Church of St Mary was made a cathedral in 1847. A tower was added in 1868.

A view of Manchester Cathedral
Manchester Cathedral

In the early 19th century Manchester became world-famous as a manufacturing center. Wool, silk, and cotton were manufactured and vast numbers of working people worked 12-hour days in the mills. There was also a papermaking industry and iron foundries.

By 1851 the population of Manchester had reached 186,000. In the late 19th century the population was boosted by the arrival of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.

The first public library in Manchester opened in 1852. Then in 1853, Manchester was made a city. The town hall was built in 1877. A technical school was built in 1892.

In 1894 the Manchester Ship Canal opened. This turned Manchester into an inland port.

Manchester in the 20th century

John Rylands Library opened in 1900. It merged with the university library in 1972. Manchester University was founded in 1903. Also in 1903, the council purchased Heaton Park. The central library was built in 1934. The Town Hall was extended in 1938.

In the early 20th century there was some diversification of industry in Manchester. New industries included flour milling, biscuits, and breakfast cereals. The old industry of cotton went into a steep decline. Engineering also suffered during the depression of the 1930s though it revived during World War II. In the second half of the century manufacturing industry declined and was, to a certain extent, replaced by service industries such as education and finance.

Tourism also became an important industry in Manchester in the late 20th century. A Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1969. A Museum of Transport opened in 1979.

In the 1980s Castlefield was turned into an Urban Heritage Park including a reconstruction of the Roman Fort. In 1984 the Jewish Museum opened. The G-Mex Centre opened in 1986. The People’s History Museum opened in 1994.

Meanwhile, the Arndale Centre was built in the 1970s. The first section opened in 1976 and it was completed in 1979.

In the early 20th century the council built the first council houses in Manchester. They also set about demolishing the slums. During World War II the center of Manchester was devastated. Many warehouses and business premises were destroyed along with many old buildings. Piccadilly Square was levelled. However, Manchester rose again.

During the 20th century, more and more people moved out of the city center to live in the mushrooming suburbs. The population of the city centre dropped considerably.

From the 1970s Chinatown grew up in Manchester. The Chinatown Arch was erected in 1987. The Chinese Arts Centre opened the same year.

In 1992 the Metrolink trams began running. However, in 1996 IRA bombs devastated the city centre but it was rebuilt. The Trafford Shopping Centre opened in 1998.

Manchester in the 21st century

A view of Manchester

In the 21st century, Manchester is a flourishing city. Although the old manufacturing industries have declined service industries are thriving.

The Lowry Art Gallery opened in 2000 and Beetham Tower was built in 2006. The Civil Justice Centre was officially opened by the Queen in 2008.

In 2023 the population of Manchester was 551,000.

A Timeline of Manchester


The Romans build a wooden fort on the site of Manchester


The wooden fort is replaced by a stone one. A little town has grown up by the fort.


The Roman army leaves Britain and Roman forts and towns are abandoned


Manchester is granted an annual fair. The village becomes a small market town.


Manchester is granted a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights).


Manchester probably has a population of around 2,500


A Grammar School is founded in Manchester


The population of Manchester is about 4,000


The plague strikes Manchester. Up to 1/4 of the population dies.


Silk is woven in Manchester for the first time


Civil War begins between the king and parliament. The Royalists try to capture Manchester but fail.


The first newspaper in Manchester is published


The population of Manchester is about 10,000


A Cotton Exchange is built


An infirmary opens


The first theatre opens in Manchester


The Bridgewater Canal is built


For the first time, the streets of Manchester are cleaned and lit with oil lamps


The population of Manchester is 75,000


Manchester gains a piped water supply


The Manchester Guardian is founded


Horse drawn buses begin operation


A railway opens to Liverpool


The population of Manchester reaches 142,000


Cholera strikes Manchester and kills 674 people


A Natural History Museum opens


A Corn Exchange opens


Manchester is made a borough


The first public parks in Manchester open


The Church of St Mary is made a Cathedral


The first public library in Manchester opens


Manchester is made a city


The Manchester Ship Canal opens


Manchester University is founded


The Central Library is built


The Museum of Science and Industry opens


The Museum of Transport opens


The Jewish Museum opens


The Chinese Arts Centre opens


Manchester city centre is bombed


Trafford Shopping Centre opens


Lowry Art Gallery opens


Manchester Civil Justice Centre is officially opened by the Queen