Most students at the University of Manchester have become very familiar with the campus and buildings around us. But, have any of you ever wondered how the institution which surrounds us actually came into being? The origins of the university can be traced back to 1824 and it has since enjoyed a rich history, allowing it to develop into the current largest single university site in UK.


The John Owens Building, home of Owens College, 1908
The John Owens Building, home of Owens College, 1908

Our university as we know it now originated from the merging of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004. The University of Manchester has roots in the Mechanics Institution which was formed in 1824 by wealthy merchants and industrialists. In the 19th century, Manchester was at the forefront of British industrialisation, becoming the first industrial city in a period of rapid population growth and urbanisation. As a result, its primary objective was to educate the working class population in the sciences, literacy and numeracy to keep up with growing industrial pressures. Compulsory education in Britain was not introduced until the 1870s, and the Institution was an opportunity for urban workers to educate themselves. Initially, the Institution struggled as most students lacked basic education and found it difficult to attend classes due to full time working commitments but in the 1880s, when Britain feared losing her industrial power, a greater importance was placed on the education of working people. Ex-shoemaker John Henry Reynolds pushed this to national attention, constructing a new programme of successful classes which led to the Institute being converted in to the Manchester Technical School in 1883. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the School began gaining wider recognition and appreciation for its efforts, later becoming recognised as the Manchester College of Technology after World War II. As the College continued to grow, it transformed in to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in 1966, gaining full university autonomy and degree awarding powers in 1994. It was UMIST which joined with the Victoria University of Manchester ten years later, founding our university as we know it now.


Manchester’s Old Quad, containing Whitworth Hall and the John Owens Building, became home to Owens College, formed in 1851, a second institution which contributed to the founding of the university. Created by the legacy left by wealthy merchant John Owens, the College was opened to provide, “to youths of the age of 14 and upwards instruction in the branches of education taught at English universities, free from religious tests.” From the 1840s there was growing demand in the city for university-style education, and the College began to tread new waters as one of the first non-conformist institutions in the country outside of London. It encouraged active philosophical and theological thought, supporting the creation of knowledge rather than just its transmission. The College was subject to a strong German influence, adopting the Humboldt model which believed in both research and education, allowing students to learn new, innovative and cutting edge ideas – a model which modern universities use today. After considerable growth and expansion, including the incorporation of the Royal School of Medicine and Surgery, Owens College was reconstituted as the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903. From here on, the University continued to grow with the joining of the Whitworth Art Gallery in 1958, and the John Rylands Library on Deansgate in 1972. By this time it had become a well respected institution, which prompted the merging of the Victoria University of Manchester with UMIST to create the University of Manchester.


Most university buildings are often named after academic pioneers and professionals, as the university believes in awarding recognition based on merit and rejects barriers to education and access to knowledge. This includes the Samuel Alexander Building, home to our school of arts, languages and cultures. Constructed from 1911-1919, it was named after professor of philosophy, Samuel Alexander, who was an avid supporter of education for women. He firmly believed in the education and training of both men and women for professional vocations, while also encouraging an independence of thought and action developed through critical study.


Our university has a very long and rich history which has led to it becoming the marvellous institution which it is today. It has enjoyed a fascinating founding story, emerging from a period of iconic British development, to now being known as a frontier of furthering knowledge and education for all.