Your Manchester Insights: Heritage

Beyond the façade: exploring the history of the University through its buildings.

As in many university cities around the world, the buildings of The University of Manchester are urban landmarks passed by thousands every day. But how many know the stories behind the buildings, their original purpose and architectural features?

Your Manchester Insights is the flagship academic lecture series for alumni of the University. For the first lecture of 2017 our graduates gathered in the oldest surviving lecture theatre on campus - the Beyer Lecture Theatre - to hear a richly illustrated account of the University's historical buildings, the intention of their architects and the context of a developing university in the world's first industrial city. The lecture was delivered by Dr James Hopkins, University Historian and Heritage Manager. In recognition of the location the presentation focussed on the story behind the earliest University developments on Oxford Road.

Developing Owen's College

Owens College, the precursor of the Victoria University of Manchester, was opened on Key Street in the city in 1851.

The building was created by a legacy from the industrialist and philanthropist John Owens - who left £96,942 (around £10m in today's money) to:

"Provide youths of age 14 and upwards instruction in the branches of education taught at English universities, free from religious tests"
John Owens, industrialist, philanthropist

Alongside University College London, Owens College was the only university college in England at that time not requiring entrants to be members of the Church of England - crucial to the population of Manchester, which had a large percentage of non-conformists.

The Extension Movement

As the University moved more towards conducting research and teaching more suited to the needs of the industrial Manchester - under the guidance of academics like chemist Henry Roscoe - it began to outgrow its city centre premises.

Thus began the extension movement, whereby the College sought public subscriptions and donations to enable them to purchase a larger site and new premises to the south of the city in what was then a leafy suburb.

Construction on the quad began in 1870. The first building, the Christie Building, was designed by Alfred Waterhouse - architect of the Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum.

A Period of Rapid Development

Over the course of 30 years the campus as we know it today began to take shape:

The John Owens Building opened in 1873, with the adjoining chemistry buildings completed simultaneously.

In 1874 the first medical school was completed, with an extension added in 1894.

The Beyer Building and what is now the museum were also added in 1888.

The Christie Library - now the Christie Building and Bistro - was completed in 1898.

Finally, the Whitworth Hall was added in 1902.

A campus for modern learning

The tradition created in the early days of Owens College - of learning appropriate to the industrial setting of the city - was maintained as the institution transformed into the the Victoria University of Manchester at its new site.

This was reflected in the construction and furnishing of the buildings used to study the sciences - in particular Chemistry and Medicine. By way of testament to this, the great chemist pioneer Henry Roscoe was said to have turned down a prestigious position in Oxford on the basis that the facilities were nowhere near as good as at Manchester.

The Medical School also underwent significant extension and modernisation in recognition of the vast scope of development of the field of medical education during the time when the University buildings were in construction.

Details from 
Waterhouse's designs

While the University itself was introducing new ideas about education and research in England, the emerging campus drew heavily on the ancient colleges of Oxbridge. This represented a deliberate choice from architect Alfred Waterhouse who wanted to ensure that the campus suggested a reassuring longevity and sense of continuity. Differing heights of buildings were used to suggest incremental development over a number of years - when in reality the entire campus at that time was created over a period of 30 years.

Similarly the details of the building reveal Waterhouse's desire to reflect the inclusive nature of the institution - for example, his notes on the drawings of a boss on the grand staircase reveal that the figures at the bottom depict a nobleman and women, while at the top of the stairs are the faces of commoners. 

The great philanthropists who contributed to these pivotal buildings are also recognised - Christie is seen in this stained glass window, in recognition of his donation of the building and his collection of books to the University - now held in the John Rylands Library. Christie is pictured here in front of the University spire and the spire of Manchester Cathedral and sitting alongside scholars  Erasmus and Aldus Manutius - once again, tying a modern institution to the great history of learning.

What do we learn by looking at these buildings?

The history of the buildings at the centre of today's University of Manchester provide a visual representation of what it was to create a university in the north of England at the end of the 19th century: the requirement to represent the needs of an increasingly industrial city and it's populace with modern facilities for education in sciences and mechanics whilst using established symbols to evoking a reassuring sense of kudos and continuity.

If you would like to learn more about the heritage of the University of Manchester you can see all the pictures used in James's presentation and more by visiting our Heritage Timeline. You can also join one of the University's heritage tours to see the buildings for yourself. 

We host events for alumni throughout the year and across the globe - for more information check our Forthcoming Events pages.