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History and origins

Manchester was the world’s first modern industrial city and the history of the University is closely entwined with the history of the city and the wider region. The present University has its roots in workers’ education, private medical schools, the arts and sciences of Owens College, and the cultural institutions of the city. We continue to combine and develop these rich local legacies, serving the world as well as our region.

Origins of The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester in its present form was created in 2004 by the merger of The Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), two of Britain's most distinguished universities, each with a long and proud heritage.

History of the Victoria University of Manchester

The Victoria University of Manchester developed out of Owens College, which was founded in 1851 and from 1872 incorporated the Royal School of Medicine and Surgery, which had been formed in 1824 as a medical school owned by doctors.

Owens College was created by a legacy of £96,942 left in 1846 by the wealthy industrialist, John Owens, to found a college for education on non-sectarian lines. It opened in 1851 in a house on Quay Street in central Manchester. Its first few years were difficult; the only English precedent for a modern university college was in London, and most Manchester merchants saw little value in the education on offer; they preferred that their sons join the family business as soon as possible.

From the 1860s the College found a new vision. Its leading professors looked to German universities, which stressed the creation of knowledge, not simply its transmission. For them, research was the key ingredient of a university; it advanced knowledge and was a potential source of material benefits. It also gave students the experience of facing the unknown and of finding out for themselves. This would become true for humanities as well as for the sciences, and a ‘college education’ came to be valued as the normal preparation for the professions. By 1870 the college had grown to need new premises and building started on the current Oxford Road site.

The first building, now the John Owens building, was completed in 1873. The set of buildings that make up the Old Quadrangle were finished in 1903. They were designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of Manchester Town Hall, and included the first galleries of the Manchester Museum, whose natural history collection had been amassed by a local society. From 1873 there was a large chemistry laboratory on Burlington Street and a new medical school on Coupland Street. Clinical teaching was provided at the Manchester Royal Infirmary which remained in Piccadilly until 1908, when it moved to Oxford Road, just south of the University.  

In 1880 Owens College became the first constituent part of the federal Victoria University, England’s first civic university, which later included colleges in Liverpool and Leeds. After Birmingham gained its own as charter as a University in 1900, the colleges of the Victoria University separated and in 1903 Owens College was reconstituted as the Victoria University of Manchester, though it was often known simply known as 'the University of Manchester', or simply as 'Owens'.

Between 1890 and 1914 the University expanded considerably, with new laboratories appearing on Coupland Street. Between 1918 and 1939 new arts buildings to the south of Burlington Street were added. After 1945 the science, engineering and medical departments were rehoused to the east of Oxford Road.

The John Rylands Library on Deansgate started out as one of the world’s finest charity libraries; established in 1899 by the widow of a Manchester merchant, it joined the University in 1972. The Whitworth Art Gallery was founded in 1889 commemorating Sir Joseph Whitworth, the great Manchester engineer whose legacy funded many of Manchester’s educational investments around the beginning of the 20th century. It joined the University in 1958.

History of UMIST

The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology can trace its origins to the Manchester Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1824 as part of a national movement for the education of working men.

The Mechanics' Institute was formed by industrialists who thought that artisans should learn basic sciences at evening classes. Its first building was near St Peter’s Square. At times the Institute struggled because students had little basic education; primary schooling was not made compulsory in England until 1870. Artisans worked long hours, and many saw little advantage in science studies. The institution’s more general classes often proved more useful to young office workers and shopkeepers seeking to improve their literacy and numeracy.

Growth was sufficient to need a new building, opened in 1853 on Princess Street, but it was in the later decades of the century that pressure for technical education increased, fuelled by fears that Britain might lose its leading position as an industrial nation. In Manchester, it was a self-taught ex-shoemaker, John Henry Reynolds, who transmuted national and local concerns into a successful programme of classes. He focused on subjects that served the industrial needs of the Manchester region and in 1883 he converted the Mechanics' Institute into the Manchester Technical School.

From 1892 the Technical School was funded by the Manchester Corporation, partly from national taxes, and it came to be known as the Manchester Municipal Technical School. A huge new building was opened in 1902, modelled after German technical high schools, and this is now called the Sackville Street Building. After World War I the Technical School was renamed the Manchester Municipal College of Technology.

The increasingly high standards of education and the beginnings of research at the technical college raised questions about its relationship with the newly independent Victoria University of Manchester, a mile to the south, which had its own department of engineering. An agreement was reached in 1905 for the professors at the College of Technology to constitute the Faculty of Technology of the Victoria University. Students at ‘Tech’ could take Victoria University degrees. But until after the Second World War, the majority of ‘Tech’ courses were for professional and technical, rather than academic, qualifications, and most of the teaching was through evening classes for students who were at work during the day.

In 1956 the College of Technology gained independent status as a university college after the non-degree work was moved to some of the municipal colleges which later became Manchester Polytechnic and then Manchester Metropolitan University. In 1966, during a period of rapid expansion, the College of Technology was renamed the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), but remained largely independent of the Victoria University. Changes to legislation meant that in 1994, UMIST became a completely autonomous university with its own degree-awarding powers. Ten years later it merged with the Victoria University.

The University of Manchester

After 100 years of a long and close relationship, the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST agreed to merge and form a single university. On 22 October 2004 they officially combined to form the largest single-site university in the UK.