1. Environmental
July 31, 2017updated 30 Jul 2021 2:12pm

Where’s the oldest part of Manchester?

By Jonn Elledge

One of the questions I often find myself pondering when wandering around a city is: where did this whole thing start?

Cities, you see, are big, pretty much by definition. What we today call Greater London is far bigger than the area that connoisseurs consider to really count. But even within the bounds of proper London, there are plenty of places – like Hackney, or Westminster – that were once separate settlements, later swallowed by the metropolis. The reason we call the financial district the City of London is because, once upon a time, that’s literally what it was.

London is an easy one though, precisely because the answer is still there in contemporary nomenclature. But what about other cities that aren’t so helpfully labelled?

I’ve decided to find out. And I’m starting with England’s rightful capital, the great city of Manchester.

Today what outsiders would think of as Manchester is probably the area Andy Burnham is mayor of: Greater Manchester. The City of Manchester itself is technically just one borough among 10; but since chunks of the city’s central business district are across the Irwell in Salford, and some of the most Mancunian sights of all are in a third borough, Trafford, it seems reasonable to count all 10.

The city centre is a rough circle of about a mile in diameter, stretching from the Manchester Arena in the north to the convention centre in the south, and from Piccadilly station to the fringes of Salford.

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Central Manchester. Image: Google.

That, though, is quite obviously a much bigger area than the city once occupied.

In fact, according to John Speed’s 1610 map of Lancashire, in the early 17th century, Manchester was little more than a small town, apparently on a par with Bolton, Bury or Rochdale. (Interestingly, while the Hundred – a sort of medieval equivalent of a district council – is called Salford, the settlement itself is called Sawford. Huh.)

A section of John Speed’s 1610 map of Lancashire. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

That map shows Manchester sitting on the banks of the Irwell, near where it’s joined by another river, the Park Flu. The latter is still there, but today goes by a different name, the River Irk, which joins the Irwell next to Victoria station.

That was where the parish church of St Mary, mentioned in the Domesday Book, seems to have stood. There was also a castle, next door, on the site of what is now Chethams school of Music – although it was probably made of timber, rather than stone, and nobody seems quite sure when it stopped existing, which isn’t a great sign when it comes to castles.

Anyway: this is the site of ye olde Manchester, a spot in the north of the city centre, roughly where the cathedral stands today.

Medieval Manchester: convenient for Debenhams. Image: Google.

But there was an earlier Manchester. Mamucium, or sometimes Mancunium, was a Roman garison, which occupied a spot where you could cross the River Medlock from late in the 1st century AD. That would have been at the other end of the city centre, about a mile from the cathedral, in what is today Castlefield:

A tale of two Manchesters. Image: Google.

It’s probably more accurate to say that Manchester grew out of the medieval township, located at what is now the northern end of the city centre. But pleasingly, the two sites between them mark out the limits of what is now Manchester city centre. Which is pretty cool.

Anyway. If you’d like us to investigate the historic roots of your city, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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