Northern Quarter (Manchester)

Northern Quarter
Oldham Street, Manchester.jpg
Northern Quarter is located in Greater Manchester
Northern Quarter
Northern Quarter
Location within Greater Manchester
Metropolitan borough
Metropolitan county
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Postcode districtM1, M4
Dialling code0161
PoliceGreater Manchester
FireGreater Manchester
AmbulanceNorth West
UK Parliament
List of places
Greater Manchester
53°28′56″N 2°14′04″W / 53°28′56″N 2°14′04″W / 53.482289; -2.23435

The Northern Quarter (N4[1] or NQ[2]) is an area of Manchester city centre, England, between Piccadilly station, Victoria station and Ancoats, centred on Oldham Street, just off Piccadilly Gardens. It was defined and named in the 1990s as part of the regeneration and gentrification of Manchester.

A centre of alternative and bohemian culture, the area includes Newton Street (borders with Piccadilly Basin), Great Ancoats Street (borders with Ancoats), Back Piccadilly (borders with Piccadilly Gardens) and Swan Street/High Street (borders with Shudehill/Arndale). Popular streets include Oldham Street, Tib Street, Newton Street, Lever Street, Dale Street, Hilton Street and Thomas Street.


Early history

Although the town of Manchester existed from medieval times (and had previously been the site of a Roman settlement), the area now designated as the Northern Quarter was not fully developed until the late 18th century.

The area now between Shudehill and Victoria Station was first built upon in the 14th century, as the village of Manchester expanded as a local centre for the wool trade. The expansion of the area was gradual up to the mid-18th century, when Manchester markedly increased in size and significance with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

During the Industrial Revolution

In the early 18th century, Oldham Street was apparently "an ill-kept muddy lane, held in place on one of its sides by wild hedgerows".[3] The first town directory of Manchester, published in 1772, lists a number of buildings on Tib Street and Oldham Street. By the time of a map by William Green in 1794, the whole of the Northern Quarter is shown as a developed urban district.[4]

It might be supposed that Oldham Street is so named because it links to Oldham Road but this is not the case as Oldham Street predates Oldham Road which was named Newton Lane in the 18th century. Oldham Street is probably so named because one of its first buildings was the house of Adam Oldham, a wealthy feltmaker and associate of John Wesley, who owned the land along which the street ran, and probably paid to have it surfaced for the first time.[5]

John Wesley opened two Methodist chapels in the Northern Quarter. In 1751, a chapel was opened on Church Street (east of High Street at Birchin Lane, formerly Methodist Street). This was upgraded to a larger chapel on Adam Oldham's land in 1781, on the site that is now Methodist Central Hall. John Wesley performed the opening of the first chapel which stood until 1883.[6]

Manchester's first cotton mill was opened by Richard Arkwright in 1783, on Miller Street, near the junction with Shudehill. By 1816, there were 86 mills in the central area of Manchester, and by 1853 there were 108.

By the 1840s, the Northern Quarter was at the centre of one of the most significant economic changes in history, with the Industrial Revolution at full pace and Manchester taking its place as the world capital of the textile industry. In common with the town as a whole, the area became characterised by both wealth and poverty.

The area around Withy Grove and Shudehill is described by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England as insanitary and down at heel, but markedly more ordered than the area around St Ann's Square, which is also described. Nevertheless, the houses are "dirty, old and tumble-down, and the construction of the side-streets utterly horrible".[7] Engels also talks of "pigs walking about in the alleys, rooting in offal heaps".[8]

The area around Oldham Street seems to have been more affluent, with warehouses and shops, many of whose merchants lived within their shop premises. This is described by Isabella Varley, Mrs. Linnaeus Banks, a resident of Oldham Street, in her book The Manchester Man.

One Oldham Street shopowner mentioned by a number of writers is Abel Heywood, who spearheaded the mass distribution of books, supplying the whole country not only with penny novels, but also with educational books and political pamphlets, according to an article in the Morning Chronicle in 1849. Heywood also produced a newspaper, on which he refused to pay duty — a radical gesture, since in those early days of the British Labour Movement, taxes were used to stifle free expression.[citation needed] Heywood went on to become Mayor of Manchester.

The Victorian era

Enterprise continued to be the focus of the area through the Victorian age. James Middleton notes that at this time "business was conducted on the old-fashioned lines by people who had been in the street for a long time".[9] Middleton also describes Tib Street as "a perfectly adorable street, where natural history was taught by living examples...birds, dogs, rabbits, poultry displayed in the windows or outside the shops",[9] a tradition which continued for at least a hundred years, having only recently died out with the closing of the last surviving pet shops.

Modern writer Dave Haslam notes something of the birth of the modern Saturday night in the Northern Quarter at this time with "crowds of shoppers and sightseers...most shops were open and the main streets were lit up and packed...there was the added incentive that at midnight the food became cheaper...on a single day in 1870 it was estimated that up to 20,000 people went to Shudehill".[10]

Throughout the Victorian era, Stevenson Square and parts of Oldham Street were known for frequent political speeches and public debates. Haslam notes that a debate in the 1830s between one Dr Grinrod, a Temperance movement activist, and Mr Youil, a brewer, attracted around three thousand spectators.[11]

Early 20th century

A mural on a wall outside Afflecks, in the heart of the Northern Quarter. The adjacent sign reads "...AND ON THE SIXTH DAY GOD CREATED MANCHESTER"

The development of Smithfield Market and the continued growth of the cotton industry helped to foster economic activity in the Northern Quarter into the 20th century. Middleton describes an area buzzing with hawkers and processions.

Youth culture was the next development in the area that might be recognised today. A street dancing culture emerged in the early part of the 20th century, with "dozens of young people performing polkas, waltzes and schottisches to music provided by Italian organ-grinders".[12]

The cotton trade reached its peak in 1912, when 8 billion square yards (6,700 km2) of fabric were manufactured and sold from Manchester. Following the First World War, the high cost of British cotton, and the increase in production elsewhere in the world, led to a slow decline of the British cotton industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, mills were closing in Manchester and the rest of Lancashire at a rate of almost one a week, and by the 1980s only specialised textile production remained, although clothing manufacture and the wholesale trade continue to form a strong part of Manchester's economy.

Later 20th century

Following the Second World War, attention focused away from the Northern Quarter as Manchester began to build itself a modern city centre in the ruins left by German bombers. As a commercial area, Oldham Street became quieter, particularly as nearby Market Street and the Arndale Centre grew in importance.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Smithfield Gardens housing estate was constructed to the east of Tib Street and the south of Foundry Lane. The estate consists of two-storey maisonettes in three-storey blocks - the middle storey is divided and provides the upper floor for the lower maisonette and the lower floor for the upper maisonette. This was the first modern residential development in the Northern Quarter.[13]

Between the Second World War and the 1990s, the Northern Quarter was not considered to be a residential area, but since then, some of the old industrial and warehouse buildings in the area were converted into flats, as part of a wider trend for living in city centres.[14] Although no official figures are kept (the Northern Quarter is not recognised for administrative purposes), it might be estimated that a little over 500 people now live in the area, which is split between the city centre and Ancoats and Clayton wards.

Over time, certain types of business were attracted to the area, which offered low rents and an alternative feel to the typical British high street. This became the main strength of the Northern Quarter — today it is known for hip, independent stores, cafes and bars, and for offering a distinct alternative to the shopping experiences to be found elsewhere in Manchester city centre.

For Dave Haslam, the Northern Quarter became the last refuge of the Manchester music scene in the 1990s: "A community, of sorts, had developed around music-makers wedded to experimentalism, from Andy Votel to Waiwan, nurtured at club nights such as Graham Massey's Toolshed and Mark Rae's Counter Culture ... In 1992, Frank Schofield and Martin Price (of 808 State) had lamented the fate of the independent record shop, yet within five years there were several new record shops in the Northern Quarter".[15]

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