The Manchester Town Hall Tussle

The Manchester Town Hall Tussle

I’m delighted to have a guest post by Sue Wilkes, expert historian and author of the excellent, Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors:



Before Manchester and Salford were incorporated (1838 for the former and 1844 for Salford), the two towns were controlled by the ancient manorial courts and their officers: the borough-reeve and constables.

In 1765 a Cleansing and Lighting Committee was set up for Manchester and Salford, but little progress was made in sanitary reform. Following the Manchester and Salford Police Act (1792), the towns were divided into eight districts, each with fifteen elected commissioners. These 120 police commissioners were responsible for paving, lighting, sewerage, watching, and cleaning and the night watch; in many respects they took over the manorial courts’ functions. One success story was the introduction of gas lighting in 1807.


Watchman 1750s


However, the two towns’ population had greatly increased following the industrial revolution. The streets were filthy and poor people’s houses were overcrowded, unsanitary and unfit for human habitation. The police commissioners could not raise enough money to perform their functions properly, and local ratepayers were reluctant to pay for better services. This archaic civic machinery could not cope with major problems of law and order, as was made dreadfully apparent at the tragedy of the Peterloo Massacre (1819).


Manchester bull hunt, Peterloo


After a spirited battle by calico printers Richard Cobden and William Neild, banker Sir Benjamin Heywood, industrialist Thomas Potter and others, Manchester gained its charter of incorporation. The first Borough Council met on 16 December 1838. The following year, Sir Richard Beswick was made chief constable for Manchester Borough.

Unfortunately, the ‘old guard’ who formerly ran the town did not want to give up their privileges without a fight. The legality of the town charter was questioned, and the overseers of several Manchester townships refused to pay rates to the Corporation. There was a bit of snobbery involved over the appointment of the new borough magistrates, too, as they were from the middle classes and the old justices of the peace were usually landowners.

The Police Commissioners even refused to allow the new Council to use the Town Hall (founded in 1822 on the Cross Street corner of King Street). Instead the Council held its meetings at the York Hotel on King Street. It was not until four years later that parliament confirmed Manchester’s charter, and two years later the town was granted its own coat of arms.


Free reference library and former town hall, Kings Street


However, the Corporation still did not have the full legal powers it needed to run Manchester. On 24 March 1845 the manorial rights were bought from Sir Oswald Mosley for £200,000. In 1853 Manchester became a city, and in 1868 a new town hall was built on its present site, designed by Alfred Waterhouse. The old town hall was used as a reference library for some time, but was later demolished.


Sue Wilkes is the author of several history and genealogy titles, Her latest book is Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors, She blogs at and

Many thanks to Sue for her fascinating post. Do check out her new book – it’s highly recommended!




A watchman of the 1750s. Manchester Historical Recorder, John Heywood, Manchester, c.1875.

‘Manchester Bull-hunt’ – a contemporary satirical print on the Peterloo Massacre, courtesy Library of Congress.

The Free Reference Library on King Street (formerly the Town Hall). Manchester Faces and Places, Vol. 1, J. G. Hammond & Co., c. 1895. Author’s Collection.

Manchester Town Hall today. © Sue Wilkes.




  1. Richard and myself found this item very interesting, and would love to see any more material of this nature. Joan Neild.

    • That’s great thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed Sue’s guest post.


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