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History of Manchester

John Rylands Library in Deansgate, Manchester  (photo by Clem Rutter - Creative Commons license)


In ancient times, the region of Manchester was settled by the Brigantes, a Brythonic Celtic tribe. In 79 CE, the the Romans built a fort, known as Mamucium, on a sandstone buff overlooking the River Medlock. Its purpose was to guard the road running between the two major Roman towns of Deva Victrix (Chester) and Eboracum (York). The Roman fort was located in the Castlefield area of the modern city centre. It seems to have been abandoned around the middle of the 3rd century. The name Manchester is thought to be a Latinisation of an original Celtic name 'Mam' (meaning 'breast' or 'mother') and ceaster, the Germanised form of the Latin castra (fortified settlement).

Manchester Cathedral (photo by Jungpionier - Creative Commons license)

Middle Ages to 18th century

Manchester remained a minor town throughout the medieval period. In Norman times, a small castle stood by the rivers Irk and Irwell, where Chethams School of Music stands today. It was replaced by a fortified manor house in the 13th century, which became the centre of town, along with the Church of St Mary (the present cathedral).

Around the 14th century, Manchester received an influx of Flemish weavers, sometimes credited as the foundation of the region's textile industry. By the mid 16th cenury, Manchester had turned into an important centre for the manufacture and trade of woollens and linen. Cotton from the Americas progressively replaced linen and wool during the 17th and 18th centuries. The completion of the Bridgewater Canal, Britain's first wholly artificial waterway, between Liverpool and Manchester in 1776, halved the transport cost of raw cotton and readied Manchester to enter the industrial era. In 1780, Richard Arkwright began construction of Manchester's first steam-powered cotton mill, which opened in 1783.

19th century

The arrival of the cotton spinning mills radically changed the face of south Lancashire and north Cheshire. Manchester quickly became the biggest and most productive centre of cotton processing in Britain, and grew into the world's largest marketplace for cotton goods in the 19th century, which earned it the nicknames of "Cottonopolis" and "Warehouse City". The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 and was the world's first timetabled inter-city passenger railway. The number of cotton mills reached a peak of 108 in 1853. Naturally the city's population boomed, passing from 328,000 in 1801 to 700,000 in 1831 and 2,000,000 around 1885.

Rochdale Canal in Castlefield, Manchester (photo by Clem Rutter - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The industrialisation generate enormous wealth for the bourgeoisie, but left the working-class masses in abject misery. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws aimed to protect corn prices in the UK against cheaper imports. On 16 August 1819, a crowd of approximately 70,000 gathered at St Peter's Field to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The demonstration ended tragically, when the cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, resulting in 15 people dead and 400700 injured in the ensuing confusion. The incident is known as the Peterloo massacre, thus named in ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of the communist theory along with Karl Marx, spent much of his life in and around Manchester. In his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Engels describes chiefly what he observed in Manchester. Biggest working class city in the UK, Manchester held the country's first Trades Union Congress in 1868, and was later a cradle of the Labour Party and the Suffragette Movement.

The Manchester Ship Canal was dug between 1887 and 1894 to give the city a direct access to the sea. It was at the time the largest navigation canal in the world.

20th century

Beetham Tower & industrial era buildings in Deansgate, Manchester

In 1913, 65% of the world's cotton was still processed in the Manchester region. The First World War caused severe disruptions in the cotton trade, and production in England plummeted, with direct effect the increase in cotton processing in other parts of the world. Badly hit by the Great Depression in 1929, Manchester's industry suffered another serious blow during WWII, when it became the target of bombing by the Luftwaffe. Cotton production kept declining after WWII. The port of Manchester, which was the UK's third largest in 1963, was unable to handle the increasingly large container ships and closed in 1982.

Manchester has a history of attacks attributed to Irish Republicans, including the Manchester Martyrs of 1867, arson in 1920, a series of explosions in 1939, and two bombs in 1992. The worst, and most recent, was the IRA bombing of June 1996. A large bomb detonated next to a department store in the city centre, injuring over 200 people and breaking windows half a mile away. Many buildings were badly damaged and torn down to be rebuilt, thanks to the insurance companies' payout of over 400 million. The events started the regeneration process of Manchester's city centre.

Among the new constructions is the 169-metre tall, 47-storey Beetham Tower (completed in 2006), which is the tallest building in the UK outside London and the highest residential accommodation in Western Europe. Large sections of the city dating from the 1960s have been either demolished and re-developed or modernised, giving Manchester the opportunity to become one of Britain's great showcases for modern architecture.


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