Like many former industrial cities, Manchester has had a hard time trying to find a new identity in an increasingly technological and globalised world. However, over the past few decades the city has reinvented itself as a northern hub for culture, science, and of course, sport.
This article will give any prospective visitors some cultural and historical background to a city seen by many as “the capital of the North” (although this author’s Yorkshire origins may cause him dispute that!). We will explore the city’s rich and complex history and link it to the present, seeing how the once small market town transformed into an industrial behemoth, before transitioning into a centre for research and development during the postwar period.
Those looking to journey north (or south) for a weekend trip should consider hiring a rental car in Manchester with easyCar for unbeatable rates.
From Romans to Rooney: A Brief History of Manchester
The burial sites discovered around the region help us trace Manchester’s history as far back as Neolithic times.
The first cohesive settlements took shape when the Roman fort of Mamucium was built in AD 79, during a campaign against Celtic tribes led by Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Crucial roads and links to other parts of England were established during this time, laying the foundations for a long future of trade.
Following the Roman’s departure, the settlements moved away from the old fortress to the point where two neighbouring rivers met. Manchester was, at that time, part of several English kingdoms, with certain districts being inhabited by the British, the Angles and the Danish. Eventually a formal parish emerged, comprising of 40 townships with Salford being the most important.
Norman times saw the city’s population grow as it became a northern centre for administration, ruled over by barons, the first and most notable of them being Albert de Gresle. Churches and castles began to spring up as the settlement became an important market town, before the arrival of Flemish weavers in the 14th century, who transformed Manchester into a textiles giant.
Prosperity was propelled by the wool trade which flourished despite the turmoil of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution during the 1600s. During this period, the English-speaking world’s first free public library was opened in Manchester, the Chetham’s Library in 1653. The library’s construction can be seen as a catalyst for the development of intellectual activity in the city, and these advancements were to continue during the ensuing centuries.
The Industrial Revolution, and the mechanised production processes that came as a result, caused Manchester to expand rapidly from the late 18th century. Cotton was brought in through the port of Liverpool and transported east via waterways to fuel the ever-growing textile industry. The city earned the nickname “Cottonopolis” due to its abundance of cotton mills and bleach works. Manchester also enjoyed technological advantages, and was home to one of the first telephone exchanges in Europe, as well as opening the world’s first steam passenger railway.
The 18th and 19th centuries also saw intellectual life blossom, as nonconformist academics rejected from Oxford and Cambridge ventured north to set up their own cultural and scientific institutions. At that time the city was seen as a pinnacle of modern civilisation, with one author stating “what Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow.”
By 1900, the city was the ninth most populous in the world and had branched out to into electrical and chemical industries. American companies, such as Ford, chose to set up shop before the Great Depression of the 1930s devastated the city’s economy.
After serving as a crucial centre for aircraft manufacture during World War II the city’s traditional industrial base gradually began to decline. The second half of the 20th century saw the advent of cultural and sporting dominance, with Granada Television creating Coronation Street and Manchester United growing into the powerhouse of global football which it would remain to be for decades to come.
Research and development were also central to Manchester’s post-textile life, with many pioneering inventions in computing taking place at the university.
Manchester has undergone drastic transformations during its long history. After a difficult period in the 1990s, which saw an unpleasant rise in gang-related crime, the city has undergone significant regeneration and enjoyed prestige through hosting events such as the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
In addition, regeneration initiatives have turned old mills and factories into stylish apartments, breathing new life into the city centre, whilst many grand Victorian and Georgian buildings still remain, giving the city an eclectic, modern feel.
There is certainly a sense that Manchester will continue to strive for success in the coming decades and, despite an increasingly dominant London, the city will no doubt be central for any future government plans of a “Northern Powerhouse.”
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