The origin of the name Stretford is "street" (Old English stræt) on a ford across the River Mersey. The principal road through Stretford, the A56 Chester Road, follows the line of the old Roman road from Deva Victrix (Chester) to Mancunium (Manchester), crossing the Mersey into Stretford at Crossford Bridge, built at the location of the ancient ford. The earliest evidence of human occupation around Stretford comes from Neolithic stone axes found in the area, dating from about 2000 BC. Stretford was part of the land occupied by the Celtic Brigantes tribe before and during the Roman occupation, and lay on their border with the Cornovii on the southern side of the Mersey. By 1212, there were two manors in the area now called Stretford. The land in the south, close to the River Mersey, was held by Hamon de Mascy, while the land in the north, closer to the River Irwell, was held by Henry de Trafford. In about 1250, a later Hamon de Mascy gave the Stretford manor to his daughter, Margery. She in turn, in about 1260, granted Stretford to Richard de Trafford at a rent of one penny. The de Mascy family shortly afterwards released all rights to their lands in Stretford to Henry de Trafford, the Trafford family thus acquiring the whole of Stretford, since when the two manors descended together.
The de Trafford family leased out large parts of the land, much of it to tenants who farmed at subsistence levels. Although there is known to have been a papermill operating in 1765, the area remained largely rural until the early 20th-century development of Trafford Park in the Old Trafford district north of the town. Until then Stretford "remained in the background of daily life in England", except for a brief cameo role during the Jacobite rising of 1745, when Crossford Bridge was destroyed to prevent a crossing by Bonnie Prince Charlie's army during its abortive advance on London; the bridge was quickly rebuilt.
Until the 1820s one of Stretford's main cottage industries was the hand-weaving of cotton. There were reported at one time to have been 302 handlooms operating in Stretford, providing employment for 780 workers, but by 1826 only four were still in use, as the mechanised cotton mills of nearby Manchester replaced handlooms. As Manchester continued to grow, it offered a good and easily accessible market for Stretford's agricultural products, in particular rhubarb, once known locally as Stretford beef. By 1836 market gardening had become so extensive around Stretford that one writer described it as the "garden of Lancashire"; in 1845 more than 500 tons of vegetables were being produced for the Manchester market each week. Stretford also became well known for its pig market and the production of black puddings, leading to the village being given the nickname of Porkhampton. A local dish, known as Stretford goose, was made from pork stuffed with sage and onions. During the 1830s, between 800 and 1,000 pigs a week were being slaughtered for the Manchester market.
Situated on the border with Manchester, Stretford became a fashionable place to live in the mid-19th century. Large recreation areas were established, such as the Royal Botanical Gardens, opened in 1831. The gardens were sited in Old Trafford on the advice of scientist John Dalton, because the prevailing southwesterly wind kept the area clear of the city's airborne pollution. In 1857, the gardens hosted the Art Treasures Exhibition, the largest art exhibition ever held in the United Kingdom. A purpose-built iron and glass building was constructed at a cost of £38,000 to house the 16,000 exhibits. The gardens were also chosen as a site for the Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887, celebrating Queen Victoria's 50-year reign. The exhibition ran for more than six months and was attended by more than 4.75 million visitors. The gardens were converted into an entertainment resort in 1907, and hosted the first speedway meeting in Greater Manchester on 16 June 1928. There was also greyhound racing from 1930, and an athletics track. The complex was demolished in the late 1980s, and all that remains is the entrance gates, close to what is now the White City Retail Park. The gates were designated a Grade II listed structure in 1987.
The arrival of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, and the subsequent development of the Trafford Park industrial estate in the north of the town – the first planned industrial estate in the world – had a substantial effect on Stretford's growth. The population in 1891 was 21,751, but by 1901 it had increased by 40% to 30,436 as people were drawn to the town by the promise of work in the new industries at Trafford Park.
During the Second World War Trafford Park was largely turned over to the production of matériel, including the Avro Manchester heavy bomber, and the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines used to power both the Spitfire and the Lancaster.[a] That resulted in Stretford being the target for heavy bombing, particularly during the Manchester Blitz of 1940. On the nights of 22/23 and 23/24 December 1940 alone, 124 incendiaries and 120 high-explosive bombs fell on the town, killing 73 people and injuring many more. Among the buildings damaged or destroyed during the war were Manchester United's , All Saints' Church, St Hilda's Church, and the children's library in King Street. Smoke generators were set up in the north of the town close to Trafford Park in an effort to hide it from enemy aircraft, and 11,900 children were evacuated to safer areas in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire, along with their teachers and supervisors. A memorial to those residents who lost their lives in the bombing was erected in Stretford Cemetery in 1948, over the communal grave of the 17 unidentified people who were killed in the blitz of December 1940.
Between 1972 and 1975, what is now a closed B&Q store in Great Stone Road was the 3,000-capacity Hardrock Theatre and Village Discothèque, hosting some of that period's major artists in their prime. Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Elton John, Hawkwind, Yes, Chaka Khan, Curved Air and Lou Reed were amongst those who appeared. Tangerine Dream was the last band to perform at the Hardrock, on 19 October 1975. In more recent years, Lancashire Cricket Club's Old Trafford ground, next door, has provided a concert venue for bands such as Oasis, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Radiohead, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys and Take That.
Stretford's growth was fuelled by the transport revolutions of the 18th and especially the 19th century: the Bridgewater Canal reached Stretford in 1761, and the railway in 1849. The completion of the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJAR) in 1849, passing through Stretford, led to the population of the town nearly doubling in a decade, from 4,998 in 1851 to 8,757 by 1861.
Because Stretford is situated on the main A56 road between Chester and Manchester many travellers passed through the village, and as this traffic increased, more inns were built to provide travellers with stopping places. One of the earliest forms of public transport through Stretford was the stagecoach; the Angel Hotel, on the present day site of what used to be the Bass Drum public house, was one of the main stopping places for stagecoaches in Stretford, and the Trafford Arms was another. Horse-drawn omnibuses replaced the stagecoach service through Stretford in 1845. The Manchester Carriage Company's tramway from Manchester to Stretford was built in 1879, terminating at the Old Cock Hotel on the A56 road, next to which a small depot was built to house the cars and horses. A 1900 timetable shows that trams left for Manchester every 10 minutes between 8:00 am and 10:15 pm. The horse-drawn trams were replaced with electric trams in 1902, and after the Second World War the trams were replaced by buses.
The MSJAR railway line through Stretford was electrified in 1931 and converted to light rail operation in 1992, when it became part of the Manchester Metrolink tram network. The first Metrolink tram through Stretford ran on 15 June 1992.