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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 that 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.