Romans, Underground Shops & Lots of Denim: Exploring Manchester's Market Street

The city's busiest street is also one of its most interesting.

By Manchester's Finest | April 21st '20

You’re probably thinking that Market Street is easily the most annoying street to walk down in the whole city. And you’d be right.

Basically, every single oddball and weirdo seems to flock to the street every day – dressed up like some form of cartoon character or dancing like a knob head in the hope that you’ll give them a quid on the way to Debenhams.

It’s super annoying and I hate it. I hate it so much that I try to avoid it as much as possible – usually adding another 10 minutes to my journey as I head down some dodgy side streets on the way to Debenhams.

But there’s no denying that Market Street has been at the centre of the city for hundreds, if not thousands of years, so I wanted to take a look back at its history – and perhaps uncover some secrets…

Muddy Beginnings

Now, I never thought I’d find myself looking up Britain’s Roman Roads on the internet when it is so sunny outside but here I am. Extensively researching old bits of cobble and mud – FOR YOU.

I’m trying to uncover the deepest, darkest history of Market Street and I’m coming up short. I’d have thought that there would be thousands of sites about roads in the country – but no – it’s all rather vague.

Credit: Charles Roeder

This is likely down to the fact that when the Roman’s scarpered back to Italy – we basically just left their amazing roads to ruin – and for hundreds of years the country had no system of construction for paved highways, until the 18th century that is.

So, is Market Street a Roman Road? Well, it’s highly likely that it is yes.

As part of their extensive network throughout the country, they connected Mamucium to Luguvallium on Hadrian’s Wall, a road which today acts as the northern end of the A6 – a road which Market Street almost certainly was a part of at some point in the past.

Old Market Stree by Paul Braddon, 1820. © Manchester City Galleries

A quick visit to the University of Manchester Old Maps page reveals that Market Street was slap-bang in the middle of the city all the way back in 1750, and it undoubtedly stretches back A LOT further than that.

Even though it wouldn’t have been in the centre of the Roman city (that would have been down near the Castlefield Fort,) it would still have existed as a vital link within the city and the major road network as a whole.

A ‘Market’ Street

So as the city developed around it, Market Street became a major thoroughfare, and naturally a place where you could buy anything from a new wonder drug that would fix your rickets, to some leeches to sort out your crusty underpants. If you needed it – you’d find it there.

1895

Right at the bottom of the street was the Shambles, site of Manchester’s oldest market. The name was originally used for a street of butchers shops where meat was slaughtered and sold, coming from the Middle English word schamel, which was the bench in which the meat was displayed for sale.

The Shambles was likely a busy market for hundreds of years (The Old Wellington pub was built in 1552) and as the city grew the market stalls spread up Market Street. By the mid-1800s there was a ‘New Market’ halfway up the street (near where TK Maxx is) which again, spread out to incorporate the length of the road.

1914

As the city expanded, so did Market Street. As the demand for goods from throughout the British Empire increased and the city’s population went into overdrive, many of the brands we know today started to pop up.

Just imagine, if we think that it’s busy now – it would have been MUCH busier then – with the added annoyance of trams and later – automobiles.

The Underground Market

Post WW2 Manchester saw massive changes, developments and ‘improvements’ take place, with much of the city either bulldozed by the council or bombed by the Nazis. And as such, Market Street was no different, becoming home to a rather polarising development – The Arndale Centre.

Once the vomit yellow tiles of the Arndale were up, Market Street became the true centre of the city’s shopping district – essentially becoming its main ‘high street’ and the place to go if you wanted to buy some new clobber.

Then in 1972, a true shopper’s paradise opened – the famed Manchester Underground Market with its entrance just on Brown Street (where Tesco is now).

As my mum always tells me – it was great in there, as you descended the escalators down to find a wealth of independent shops and stalls pretty much selling everything you could ever imagine.

It was pretty well-known for it’s small, dedicated clothing shops selling punk gear, a couple of great record shops and even a Stolen from Ivor – the jewel in the crown of any decent shopping area.

However, by the end of its life around the late 80’s, many of the stalls had closed, with many of the operators moving out to other premises elsewhere in the city centre (usually the Northern Quarter) or out into the ‘burbs.

Next time you’re downstairs in Tesco though – you’re IN the old Underground Market – enjoy it.

The Characters

We’re getting to the point in time now where I started to visit Market Street, usually on a weekly basis with my mates to spend my wages from working the tills at Iceland.

After a disastrous first visit where we got chased by some ‘bigger boys’ – we would spend all day just walking up and down the street and having a laugh.

Another person who did this was the ‘Market Street Model‘, or as one of our Facebook followers used to call him – ‘The Denim Terminator’.

He was a tall, VERY tanned bloke who would just strut up and down Market Street on a Saturday head to toe in denim. He was great. Legend has it that he was an aspiring model who heard that someone had been ‘discovered’ on Market Street so he decided to just walk up and down there every weekend to try to get spotted. I doubt he did.

Market Street has been home to many a ‘character’ over the years, from the Denim Terminator to George Sampson, that young lad who would do dancing on the weekends with his mum, who then went on to win Britain’s Got Talent and turn up in a load of teenagers’ movies.

There’s also the lovely blind fella who plays the guitar with his dog, the Piccadilly Rats, and that bloke who makes those little Bart & Homer Simpson dance to some happy hardcore on a Saturday to make a few quid. I’m sure you lot can remember more than I can – as I said – I rarely go down there anymore.

Today Market Street is still busy, it still has shops and it’s still the ‘centre’ of the city for most people. Sure, it can be annoying, it can be frustrating and it can be dirty – but it’s ours and we wouldn’t want it going anywhere.

Just less dancing idiots asking me for money please.