History of Manchester – A Quiet Beginning

It all started with the Romans.  No record has been found of buildings related to the Setantii branch of the local Brigantes tribe so it must have been the cohorts of XXth Valeria Victrix legion, under General Agricola, who spotted Manchester’s potential in 79 AD.  In particular, they recognised the strategic value of the rounded bluff over the confluence of the Rivers Irwell and Medlock and named it Mamucium or ‘breast shaped hill’.

What did the Romans ever do for us?

Roman ManchesterThe Romans stayed for over three centuries.  Thier fort was garrisoned, at its peak, by an 800 strong mixed force of infantry and cavalry.  This was an auxiliary regiment, not native Romans, but recruits or conscripts from the other provinces.  Primarily the place was military in character but as often happened outside Roman forts a civilian settlement grew which accommodated the unofficial wifes of the soldiers and attracted artisans and craftsmen, who set up furnaces and workshops.  During excavations a Christian ‘magic square’ dating from 185 AD was found.  This coded inscription spells the word Paternoster, the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.  It’s the oldest evidence of Christianity in the country.

manchester Roman fortThe Romans chose their site well.  Seven roads met at the Fort, more than at any other site in the north.  Future movements of people and resources would, for convenience sake, move along these routes and come directly through Manchester.  Many of the main routes into the city still follow Roman lines.  The Romans abandoned Britain in 410 AD, the Saxons moved in and the town underwent a sex change.  The ‘Mam’ of Mamucium became ‘Man’ whilst the Latin word ‘castrum’, meaning fort, was twisted into the ‘chester’ element of the name.

So what about the Saxons?

salford saxon mapThe Saxons also signed their names right across the region.  Greater Manchester is full of tons, hams, fords, hulmes.  There is also one physical remnant of the Saxon period.  Straggling through the south of the city, Fallowfield and Levenshulme, is the old boundary division of Nico Ditch.  The major development of the time was the movement of the settlement a mile down the Roman Road to the area of what is now the Cathedral.  The rocky outcrop here, where the Rivers Irwell and Irk joined was, in the dangerous times of the lawless Dark Ages, easier to defend.  It is here that the first church was probably built.  The Angel-stone preserved in the Cathedral may be a fragment from this time.

saxon manchesterBut the Dark Ages really were the Dark Ages in Manchester and after the Romans departed recorded history in effect ceased for 600 years.  Manchester, like all Lancashire, suffered from its location.  At that time the county was an inhospitable place of marsh and bog, isolated between the sea and the wild hills of the Pennines.  When the Domesday Book was compiled, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, Lancashire and Manchester warranted less than two pages out of 1700, and that as an appendix to Cheshire.  The town grew slowly but steadily and in 1227, the annual fair was confirmed by royal grant.  Shortly after it became a borough whose burgesses paid a rent rather than being obligated in the feudal way to give service to the local lords, the Grelley family – an important freedom which allowed them to carry on their own business without undue interference.  By this stage of the Middle Ages the economy of the town was already tending towards weaving and the production of textiles.  As early as 1375 tradition states that there was a colony of Flemish weavers in Manchester.

What happened in the Middle Ages?

The Parish Church was enlarged to a Collegiate Church in 1421 – one with its own college of priests.  In 1515 a grammar school was founded, which later became Manchester Grammar School.  The prodigious traveller Leland, soon after described Manchester as ‘the best builded, quikkest and most populous tounne of al Lancastreshire’.  In the time of Elizabeth 1, wool and linen production was important, the latter produced from locally grown and imported flax from Ireland.  Around 1600, the import of cotton from Smyrna, now Izmir, in Turkey and Cyprus began.  Forty-two years later Manchester touched on the national scene in the English Civil War and unlike most of Lancashire supported Parliament against the King.

Industrial Revolution Begins

manchester industrial revolutionIn the C18 the pace of development began to accelerate.  In 1710 Celia Fiennes described Manchester as a ‘thriving place’.  In 1729, the first Exchange for the pursuit of the town’s textile business was opened.  In the 30 years between 1720 and 1750 the town’s population doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 and the built up area began to expand.

In 1745, war again gave Manchester a bit part on the national stage, when Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young Stuart Pretender to the throne, arrived.  He recruited 250 volunteers from Manchester to join his campaign against the Hanoverian dynasty that had supplanted his own.  The venture was doomed from the start.  After inevitable defeat, the officers of his Manchester Regiment were executed and the heads of two of their number, Deacon and Syddall, impaled on the roof of the Manchester Exchange.

If you want to find out opening times for any of the industrial revolution cotton factory museums or the Roman fort, please take a look at our things to do in Manchester guide for more information.

manchester cotton millSuch moments were almost incidental: the industrial cataclysm was coming.  Cotton had now established its local dominance.  Technological advances accelerated the process: Kay invented the Flying Shuttle in 1733, then between 1760 and 1790, Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny, Arkwright, the Water Frame and Crompton, the Spinning Mule.  They were all Lancashire men.  Meanwhile good turnpike roads were improving communications between the capital and the other burgeoning centres of industry.  Cheap coal arrived in Manchester with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal in 1759 and the first steam mill fired up in the city in 1783.  Manchester’s first bank had already opened in 1771.

The North Becomes Great

In all Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire in 1800 there were 89 steam engines in factories, 32 of them were inside Manchester mills. Location, coal, steam, innovation and experience was placing the town at the centre of a new world. All this attracted attention, some of it not wanted, earlier in 1785, a German named Baden was tried at Lancaster, and fined £500, for having visited Manchester and seduced cotton operatives to return to Germany with him.

More Information

If you would enjoyed this guide, why not take a look at some more Manchester attractions and events in our other Manchester tourism and travel information guides.