Greater Manchester is world-renowned for its contributions to music, football and, of course, television, via the beloved soap opera Coronation Street. But it’s also an area bursting with history.
A former textiles hub, Greater Manchester thrived during Britain’s Industrial Revolution, becoming a melting pot of creativity and radicalism. It’s the home of Suffragette royalty, the Pankhurst family. It’s where the great codebreaker, Alan Turing, lived and worked. And it’s the birthplace of Vimto, the Hacienda and much more besides.
Outside the urban centres of Manchester and Salford, the vast stately homes of wealthy industrialists and British nobility dot the county’s landscapes.
Here are 10 of Greater Manchester’s best historic sites, from elegant Tudor manors to towering gothic cathedrals.
1. Ordsall Hall
Ordsall Hall is a Tudor manor house in Salford that was the seat of the Radclyffe family for over 300 years. With sections of the house dating as early as the 1360s, it is a hidden gem amongst the busy city streets, and allows guests to experience the everyday lives of its past Tudor occupants. The Hall first appeared in written records in 1177 as ‘Ordeshala’, but the oldest surviving portions of the current house date back to the 15th century.
Today, Ordsall Hall is managed by Salford City Council. It is free to visit and provides guests with a wealth of fascinating history and stunning architecture. Visitors can explore the Great Hall, the Star Chamber, the Hall’s kitchen and the lush gardens.
2. Dunham Massey
Dunham Massey is a country house in Altrincham, Greater Manchester. It was built in the 17th century and was home to two of Britain’s most eminent families: the Booths and the Greys. For over 300 years, Dunham Massey bore witness to these families’ intriguing lives, and is now home to one of the most stunning examples of Georgian design in the country.
Dunham Massey is now a Grade I* listed building managed by the National Trust. The site boasts a vast number of historic artefacts, including one of the largest collections of Huguenot silver, and tells the story of the manor’s occupants through the lavish items they amassed.
3. St Peter’s Square
St Peter’s Square is a public space in central Manchester home to the Manchester Cenotaph and various transport links. The surrounding area was the site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which saw 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered in St Peter’s Square – then called St Peter’s Fields – to protest the existing system of representation. Troops, with sabres drawn, charged the crowd, killing 16 civilians and injuring 600 more in the ensuing violence.
Today, a commemoration to the Peterloo Massacre stands near St Peter’s Square. The square is also surrounded by a variety of historic buildings, notably the Midland Hotel – constructed in 1898 as a companion hotel to St Pancras in London – and the Central Library, with its domed ceiling and tall columns.
4. John Rylands Library
The John Rylands Library in Manchester is a stunning neo-Gothic library home to over 250,000 printed works and over 1 million manuscripts and archival items. The library was first commissioned in 1890 by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband, John Rylands, who had died 2 years earlier in 1888. It swiftly grew in size and popularity.
Today, the John Rylands Library is open to the public for both academics and tourists to explore. It houses one of the finest collections of books, manuscripts, maps, works of art and objects in the world, with striking architectural features to match. Be sure to pay a visit to the ‘Karl Marx desk’, where Marx and Friedrich Engels worked and studied in the 1840s, leading to the publication of The Condition of the Working Class in England.
5. Castlefield Roman Fort
Castlefield Roman Fort in central Manchester is what remains of the Roman fortress Mamucium, established around 79 AD. When in operation, Mamucium would have been a cosmopolitan hub of activity with merchants from all over the empire travelling there, as it lay at an important junction in the network of Roman bases in Britain. The east-west highway ran through between Deva Victrix (Chester) and Eboracum (York), while the northern highway ran to Bremetennacum in Ribchester.
Today the remains of the Castlefield Roman Fort are open to the public. Though the fort was cut through by the Rochdale canal and a succession of railway viaducts, its north quarter has survived relatively well. Following excavations by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit, the north gate was reconstructed in 1984 and incorporates some of the original stones from the Roman gate. Visitors can walk atop the reconstructed ramparts, and view the double ditch defenses that accompanied them.
6. Manchester Cathedral
Manchester Cathedral is a striking Gothic structure that has served as a centre of worship for hundreds of years. The present Manchester Cathedral started its life as a parish church constructed in 1215. It was placed alongside the Manor House of the Greslet family, whose coat of arms may still be viewed within its walls today. It was not until 1847 that the church received cathedral status, however. It was heavily refurbished in the Victorian era and after the bombing of World War Two.
Today Manchester Cathedral is still an operating centre of worship in the city, and is open to visitors all year round. Guided tours run from Monday – Saturday, with guide leaflets provided for those who wish to explore the Cathedral at leisure. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the cathedral’s celebrated interior features, such as the ‘Minstrel Angel’ sculptures commissioned by Margaret Beaufort, each depicted playing a different medieval instrument.
7. Pankhurst Centre
The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester is a community centre and museum dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Situated in the house where Pankhurst lived for around a decade, the centre brings to life the movement in the very building it began. All three of Pankhurst’s daughters were involved in the fight for women’s suffrage – Christabel, Adela and Sylvia – and lived with her at 62 Nelson Street.
On 11 October 1987 – the 84th anniversary of the first Suffragettes meeting in 1903 – the Pankhurst Centre was opened by Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter. It is now the headquarters of Manchester Women’s Aid and serves as a female community centre and museum. On-site exhibitions explore the lives of the radical family.
8. Victoria Baths
The Victoria Baths in south Manchester is an early 20th-century bathhouse that remains open to the public to this day. The Victoria Baths were built in 1906 to much local fanfare. Costing double the usual price of bathhouses in the United Kingdom, the Victoria Baths were intended to be a “water palace of which every citizen of Manchester can be proud”, as the Lord Mayor of the city described them.
The Baths were open from 1906 to 1993, when Manchester County Council were at last forced to close them despite protest from locals. The Friends of the Victoria Baths then took over their operation, raising funds to prevent their deterioration. They’re now once again open to the public. Visitors can swim or bathe for a small fee.
9. Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
Situated just south of central Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a house-turned-museum based within the former home of the famed Victorian author. Gaskell, who wrote North and South and Cranford, lived there from 1850-1865, hosting esteemed guests such as Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens.
Today, the home has been preserved as it would have appeared in the mid-19th-century. Visitors can explore the glorious historic rooms, browse the bookshelves of the study where Gaskell wrote, peruse the on-site bookshop and even grab some refreshments at the museum’s tea rooms.
10. Chetham's Library
Chetham’s Library in Manchester is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, having been founded in 1653. It was founded by a wealthy merchant, Humphrey Chetham, who also established a school on the site, hoping to improve education in the northwest of England and to build a library that would rival those of Oxbridge.
Chetham’s Library now functions as an independent charity, and it is open to visitors, but only by appointment. The institution also offers guided tours. The building itself is absolutely magnificent – and even older than the library itself, dating back to 1421 – while its collections are wide-ranging.