As Defoe would write of Manchester in the late 17th century, says T.S Wilham in his publication on Elizabethan Manchester, it was one the greatest if not the greatest meer village in England.
He used the term village because it was in all terms a village ruled by a manor house through its Court Leet, its charter of 1301 falling far short of incorporation.
We get some idea of the manor for during Elizabeth’s reign, there was a survey and four rentals, a father came in the reign of her successor James I. They showed a collection of rights and properties scattered over a wide array, some outside the oafish of Manchester, Dalton, near Wigan, Turton, near Bolton, Flixton, Towneley and Brocholes near Preston.
Within the Parish, Sir John Byron paid for lands in Blackely and Blackeley Fields, and hamels in Gorton, Alexander Reddish for lands in Cromsall, and Edmund Prestwich for Hulme, Adam Hulton for the hamell of Harpurhey and Ralph Haughton for one oxegange in Denton and twelve tenants in Moston, who included the Misley family who paid the Lords of Nuthurste.
The township of Manchester was bounded by the Irk, Irwell and the Medlock, it stretched north to Collyhurst and Ancoats and centred on the parish where the Cathedral now stands including the old Roman settlement of Aldport.
The main streets were Millgate, Market Stead Lane, Hanging Ditch, Fennel Street and Deansgate and much of the township was surrounded by open land. The main streets had the burgages frontages, their revenue made up mostly of the manors revenue.
Mills supplied the Town, they lay on the River Irk, three corn and one fulling mill, all on land granted by the Lord of the Manor, the inhabitants were obliged to have their corn ground there, the monies went to the Grammar School and there were huge fines for those who tried to evade the system. The manorial oven would bake the bread and we know that it was baked in Millgate in 1580 in an oven owned by Richard Foxe.
Some idea of the sums involved come from Mosley’s first year as Lord in 1598-99.
- Income was £189 14s and 1/2d.
- £27 came from outside the manor from the Lordship of Cheetham, the rest was £140 from rent, £15 for pasturage in Collyhurst and the balance from perquisites from courts and other profits.
- £161 was paid out, £42 in expenses which included a rent to the Queen, the balance going to Nicholas Mosley as his profit from the manor.
Not all the property belonged to the manor, the Collegiate church held lands in Newton and on Deansgate and the Earls of Derby held land in Aldport, other property was in the possession of the Queen.
The burgages could be bought and sold and were often leased with many of the rents had fixed under the 1301 charter.
The Queen held a considerable amount of former chantry property and most of this had been leased to Sir Edwatd Trafford,
The township of Manchester could well have had a population of around 2,000, its economy based in agriculture, trade and industry.
There was farm land and farming and probably Barley wheat corn and oats were grown.
People kept pigs and cattle, there were rules for keeping pigs, they had to be kept in the backsides of houses and were not allowed to roam into the churchyard or market place, pig owners were either to keep the pigs inside themselves, or they would be driven at the end of the day by the swineheard to Collyhurst common. Horses and cattle were also kept but of sheep there is little evidence.
We know one example of a wealthy farmer, Roger Bexwixk who died in 1598, described as a yeomen, he owned houses in Fennel Street, Millgate, Deansgate and Over Ardwick and his livestock included pigs, cows, a brown, a black pied, a calf, another heifer and calf and two further black heifers.
He stored corn and hay at a barn in Shudehill, and could well also have been an innkeeper as his house had thirteen rooms. He may have been typical of farmers in Manchester at the time in having another occupation with farming as a sideline.
Dairy farming was probably the main occupation, much of the cereal could well have been bought from elsewhere, milk, cheese and butter was probably the only thing that the township was self sufficient in.
As far as Industry was concerned little can be gleaned from the records Manchester, not being incorporated or having tradesmen’s guilds was at a disadvantage when it came to record keeping. We have to rely on snippets from the Court Leet with much if it only written down when there were transgressions.
Thus people were ordered not to dry clothing the streets, there was a searcher of leather and a measurer of cloth, there were tanners, and whittawers who made leather by dressing skins with oil or alum. There were blacksmiths but no evidence of other metal workings.
It’s industry by that time was the making and marketing of cloth, both woollen and linens. Cottons, kerseys, rugs and friezes were of the former, all narrow cloths made from carded wool on looms operated by one weaver, independent workers who owned the raw material and sold on the cloth. Carding the male occupation and spinning a part time occupation for the women.
The woven cloth was sold to the clothier who saw to the dressing and the dyeing. Much of Manchester’s exported output went to France via ports in Bristol and Southampton, others found its way to Chester and Liverpool, some was sold locally but much was scattered across the country. Nicholas Mosley was exporting Manchester cottons in London in 1570.
Making linens was more complex, transforming flax into yarn required soaking drying and beating rather than simple carding before it could be spun and then it would be bleached, sometimes by the weavers but often by specialist bleachers or the dealers themselves. Again the spinning was done by independent weavers.
The dealer in linens was more important than in woollens given the bleaching process required and the first merchants appeared around this time.Much of the linen went to export but also found a market in many of the provincial towns. There was also a local market for sheets, pillow cases and napkins.
For trade Manchester had an annual fair and a weekly market, the fair 20-22nd Sept on Acres Field, the market on a Saturday.
Again most of the knowledge comes from the Court Leet trying to stamp down on unruly activity, confining trading to the market area, the quality of the foodstuffs sold, forbidding forestalling the practice of intercepting supplies before they reached the market and selling them on at inflated prices.
Outside of the market there were the shops and it appeared that Manchester had both specialist shops and more general stores, saddlers and shoemakers, there was also a goldsmith.
There were dealers and haberdashers, Mercers who would also sell grocery and stationery, spices,medicines and chemicals, brimstone, worm seed, arsenic, verdigris, argol and fenugreek.
The Burgage is best described as a multi purpose property, it was a residence, it was a shop it was a workshop, gardens were commonplace with room for pigs and poultry. The ribbon development of these dwellings along Deansgate and Market Stead Lane had farmland surrounding them.
Nothing of this survives today and we only get glimpses of what the interior of these houses looked like ranging from one room abodes to thirteen rooms, though the larger ones specified were probably inns.