Lowry was born on 1 November 1887 at 8 Barrett Street, Stretford, which was then in Lancashire. It was a difficult birth, and his mother Elizabeth, who hoped for a girl, was uncomfortable even looking at him at first. Later she expressed envy of her sister Mary, who had "three splendid daughters" instead of one "clumsy boy". Lowry's father Robert, who was of northern Irish descent, worked as a clerk for the Jacob Earnshaw and Son Property Company and was a withdrawn and introverted man. Lowry once described him as "a cold fish" and "(the sort of man who) realised he had a life to live and did his best to get through it."
After Lowry's birth, his mother's health was too poor for her to continue teaching. She is reported to have been talented and respected, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. She was an irritable, nervous woman brought up to expect high standards by her stern father. Like him, she was controlling and intolerant of failure. She used illness as a means of securing the attention and obedience of her mild and affectionate husband and she dominated her son in the same way. Lowry maintained, in interviews conducted later in his life, that he had an unhappy childhood, growing up in a repressive family atmosphere. Although his mother demonstrated no appreciation of her son's gifts as an artist, a number of books Lowry received as Christmas presents from his parents are inscribed to "Our dearest Laurie". At school he made few friends and showed no academic aptitude. His father was affectionate towards him but was, by all accounts, a quiet man who was at his most comfortable fading into the background as an unobtrusive presence.
Much of Lowry's early years were spent in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park, Rusholme, but in 1909, when he was 22, due to financial pressures, the family moved to 117 Station Road in the industrial town of Pendlebury. Here the landscape comprised textile mills and factory chimneys rather than trees. Lowry later recalled: "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it ... One day I missed a train from Pendlebury – [a place] I had ignored for seven years – and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out ... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture ..."