The History of Manchester
The area where Manchester now stands was undoubtedly used by nomadic stone-age man, as evidenced by findings of stone axes and other tools; and the remains of a settled Neolithic community were unearthed by archaeologists at Oversley Farm, though this sadly is now buried beneath Manchester Airport ’s second runway. In the Bronze Age various communities existed, their sites hinted at by burial mounds found in the area and by other finds. But it was not really until the Roman occupation that a community recognizable as the seed from which Manchester grew can be identified.
The North of England and well into what is now Scotland was the territory of the Brigantes tribe when the Romans arrived in 43AD. It was as part of his campaign to subjugate the Brigantes that Agricola in about 79AD ordered a fort to be built in the area on a hill shaped like a breast, hence the original Roman name for the fortress: Mamucium. Sited at a point where two rivers, the Irwell and the Medlock, provided two easily defended boundaries, the timber and turf construction was an outpost and a staging point for the legions, a stopping place for journeys between far more significant Roman settlements at Chester , Ribchester , and York for example, with east-west and north-south roads nearby protected by its garrison.
Mamucium’s fortifications were demolished and improved over the occupation, with a stone gatehouse built and the wooden walls having some stonework added about 200AD. With Roman control largely imposed on the North, and the need for troops greater at Hadrian’s Wall , by the late 3rd century the garrison had declined and eventually may have quit the place altogether.
The Romans abandoned their most westerly colony in the early 5th century. It seems that the village or small town that had evolved to service the Roman fort disappeared when it lost its raison d’être, i.e. when the troops quit, so post-Roman Manchester was a new community entirely, and sited away from the old fort at another river confluence, where the Irk and the Irwell met, though the old fort was re-used later by the Saxons .
The Manchester area after the Romans left was decidedly disadvantaged as regards stability by its position on the ever changing frontiers of the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and even eventually Wessex. In the early 7th century Edwin of Northumbria is supposed to have raided and destroyed such settlements as had sprung up again. The later arrival of the Norsemen added to the confusion and peril, though at times separate communities of Angles, Saxons and Danes lived, perhaps warily, near to one another in the Manchester district. A substantial ancient defensive earthwork, Nico Ditch, was built by the Anglo-Saxons to protect their territory from the Danes, though in 870 it is thought the latter did ravage the area on a great raid shortly after the earthwork was completed.
With the reign of Alfred the Great an Anglo-Saxon holding in the Manchester area became one of his defensive network of burghs, which would have entailed a market for local produce as well as military obligations for its menfolk. This burgh is thought to have been called Mamceaster by the Saxons, harking back to the Roman roots of the place; this later evolved into Mamecester, and in the fullness of time into the present name of Manchester. Evidence points to what is now Castlefield being the focal point of this burgh.
The Norman Conquest in the latter part of the 11th century brought great change to England, and Manchester was no exception: Salford was more important than what was little more than a village at Manchester, and the two places were part of a grant by William I to Roger de Poitevin, who in turn passed them down the feudal pyramid to Albert de Greslé or alternatively de Gresle, whose family name in time anglicised to Grelley. By the latter part of their tenure Salford and Manchester were linked by bridges over the Irwell and the Irk; they were separate but mutually dependent entities already.
The Grelley family held the manor for the next two centuries, during which Manchester developed from a sparsely populated village to something of a local economic centre: in 1222 it was granted a two-day fair, extended to three days in 1227; a court was held in the manor; a weekly market drew buyers and sellers from the surrounding district; but the town was very much still a fiefdom, its economic growth linked for example to the building of a fortified manor house for the first resident Lord of the manor, Robert Grelley who died in 1230.
That status changed, however, in 1301 with the granting of a charter, which meant an elected reeve ran the place for the benefit of its merchants and well-to-do residents, rather than a bailiff on behalf of the absentee Lord of the Manor, though nominally it remained a baronial borough, passing in the 14th century from the Grelleys to the de la Warre family. It was not indeed until 1846 that the manorial rights were finally acquired by the then Borough.
We know that the textile industry in Manchester existed by 1322 from mention in documents of a fulling mill there; likewise there was tanning. An influx of Flemish weavers bolstered the new trade in the 14th century (as it did again in the early 17th). A century later this economic growth was matched by the foundation of a college and the collegiate church which in time became the Cathedral on the same site as the Saxon St Mary’s Church had stood. This church, however, was not finished until the early 16th century.
The textile industry founded in the early medieval period became the focus of Manchester’s business life for centuries to come. In the early days it enjoyed good local resources – sheep’s wool from the region, and the running water of its rivers. In the Industrial Revolution Manchester benefitted from its position on the West Coast, convenient for American cotton delivered to Liverpool and when it became an inland port to Manchester itself, the Irwell and Mersey having been rendered navigable by 1721; and the town also suited mechanised textile production, its damp atmosphere reducing the static electricity which is conducive to cotton dust explosions and can create problems in processing fibres for weaving and in felt-making. Investment in infrastructure based on this trade continued with the Bridgewater Canal in 1758, a move followed by others in a network linking the North West’s production centres with Manchester. In 1830 the world’s first passenger railway joined Manchester with its (sometimes uneasy) trading partner Liverpool; in 1894, however, The Manchester Ship Canal was completed to remove dependence on the Liverpudlians.
Textile manufacture in Manchester led to the growth of textile engineering companies there, making the place a world centre of such technology.
As a place where trade was more important than hereditary landholding Manchester was to prove fertile ground for radical ideas over the years: it became a Puritan stronghold in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, siding naturally with Parliament in the Civil War (legend has it that Richard Percival, defending a powder store against a raid by the Royalist Lord Strange, was the first to die in that Civil War). The town resisted a siege by the Cavaliers, and remained resolutely Parliamentarian, rewarded for its loyalty with money in 1645 raised by selling Royalist property, and with a seat in the House of Commons that was annulled by Charles II on his restoration .
A sign of Mancunian radicalism still visible is the elegant Georgian St Ann’s Church , founded to offer Whigs a place of worship away from the High Church St Mary’s. Running counter to this radical tradition was the welcoming of the Jacobites in 1745, explained by local Tory grandees and high church clergy being Stuart supporters. At the end of that century further signs of the radical ‘threat’ in Manchester were the petitioning of dissenters for reform in 1789, an injudicious moment with events in France worrying the government. Indeed in 1794 Thomas Walker of Manchester was indicted with some supporters for a supposed conspiracy against the crown and government, though this was dropped; similarly 38 workers who attended a radical meeting in Ancoats in 1812 were tried for their daring, but found not guilty. Reformists saw some success with Manchester at last getting two MPs (notwithstanding the brief existence of one such post in the Commonwealth) in 1832. In 1853 the settlement was granted city status.
The most famous moment of Manchester radicalism was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819: a crowd of perhaps 60,000 (some more fanciful estates reach towards 200,000) gathered to hear reformist speakers; local magistrates panicked and sent in the drunken Yeomanry who slashed a path to the speakers with sabres, followed by the Hussars to support them. Eleven in the crowd died, and more than 500 were injured. The Manchester Guardian was founded to promote radical views; it still does so as The Guardian, though sadly it could not resist the lure of the metropolis.
Manchester’s thriving economy attracted immigrants century after century: Flemish weavers helped build its early prosperity in the Middle Ages; in the 18th century immigration included those drawn from the countryside; by the 19th century the Irish, especially during the Potato Famine , came in their thousands; and so did Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in the latter part of that century; the 20th century saw Manchester’s mills and factories act as a magnet for South Asian immigrants too. This fresh blood helped continue the radical tradition, marked for example by the first ever Trades Union Congress being held there in 1868; and by Engels living in the area in the 1840s; the Suffragette movement too was born in the city where the Pankhurst family lived.
The 19th century in Manchester saw the creation of what would become Manchester University (originally The Victoria University of Manchester chartered in 1880, though given birth by textile magnate John Owens in 1851) and UMIST which is rooted in the Mechanics Institute founded in 1824. The city nowadays is an even greater centre of academic excellence, with a very large student population.
The 20th century saw a decline of textile making in England, and Manchester was no exception; though for a time engineering and chemicals replaced textile employment, Manchester has continued to evolve, being most famous today perhaps as home of Manchester United ; being noted for its lively nightlife and gay village; and having developed as a major retail centre – the rebuilt Arndale Centre is Britain’s biggest mall. In a strange twist of fate an IRA bomb in 1996 proved a positive for the city, though it did injure 200 or more people: the city centre has been modernised, and made attractive for residential use once more. The rejuvenation of the city was underscored and publicised by the 2002 Commonwealth Games being held there, though sadly the British establishment failed to get behind previous bids for Manchester to hold the Olympic Games.
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