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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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.