Where’s the oldest part of Manchester?

A tram passes Manchester Central convention centre, 2010. Image: Getty.

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.

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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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?


You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.


Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?



Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.


I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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