Public meeting places and enclosed spaces: (very) current uses of Castlefield & the tradition of meeting on the Camp field in the nineteenth century

by Erin Beeston

Last Sunday, the People’s Assembly hosted a No to Austerity march through Manchester amongst a host of activities trending on twitter as #TakeBackMCR in response to the Conservative Party Conference held at Manchester Central (or G-Mex as many of us know it) in the former Central Railway Station. Reports on attendance in the press varied from the figure of 60,000 people in Manchester to approximately 100,000 at the upper estimate. The March route went through key Manchester city centre locations from Oxford Road, passed the Conservative Party Conference venue (and the metal fence constructed to segregate an unpopular government from Mancunians) and gathered in Castlefield. The Castlefield Arena space at the Bridgewater canal basin was used for speeches from a variety of political leaders to pop stars against public spending cuttings. Full list of speakers here

The crowd gathered at the canal basin

The next day, on Monday 5 October, the People’s Post rally was held at Manchester Cathedral at 7pm hosted by the Communication Workers Union (CWU). I ordered my free ticket in advance, expecting a cosy pew in Manchester Cathedral. Arriving about 6.50pm, the Cathedral was full and a growing crowd were directed around the corner to the Cathedral Gardens to watch an outside delivery of the speeches. CWU Union officials spoke, keen to garner support to fight suggestions that the postal service should be privatised by the Conservatives – a Party eager to reduce public services wherever possible. An estimated 7000 people amassed outside, many drawn to the event by the presence of the Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Other speakers included the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and #Milifandom creator and activist, Abby Tomlinson. It occurred to me throughout the speeches how small an area the Gardens covered – perhaps others arrived and turned back for lack of space. I even spotted people clambering on buildings – sitting in windowsills to get views of the speakers, with others leaning out of nearby apartments to hear. Whilst the Cathedral Gardens were perhaps never designed for more than coffee breaks and sunbathing, I wondered where in Manchester public meetings could be held? Albert Square –outside the Town Hall – is space often employed for official festivals and filled with stallholders. The Piccadilly Gardens area is split in two by a concrete wall and surrounded by hazardous tramlines and bus routes. Perhaps Castlefield Arena, where the March finished on Sunday, really is the best place for large groups of people to gather, about 1 mile from the traditional centre of Manchester.

People waiting to hear from speakers at the People’s Post on 5 October 2015. As the Cathedral filled up, crowds packed into the triangular section of open space at Cathedral Gardens, between the Corn Exchange building and Urbis, where speakers then re-gave their speeches to the crowd outside.

Perhaps you are wondering, as I’ve posted this on the CHSTM PhD blog… what does this have to do with historical research? Well, the enclosure of open meeting places in Manchester and the displacement of people through the actions Manchester Corporation has emerged in my research into Liverpool Road Station and the Campfield area (now encompassed within the locality we call Castlefield). In history, we find clues to how and why there are few public meeting places in Manchester today.

1850 Ordinance Survey Map of Manchester (scale – 6 inches to 1 mile) shows the open meeting space of the Camp Field – from which the area took its name – either side of St Matthew’s Church.

The Camp Field along Liverpool Road was used as a public meeting place and site for fairs during the nineteenth century. From 1806, the Knott Mill Fair – a pleasure fair held every Easter, took place there. Knott Mill Fair attracted large crowds and was described as ‘the annual resort of the working classes’ [1]. The artist Frederick Shields described the sights of the fair: ‘My annual sketching festival, rich in character never seen but at those old fetes, where Wombwell’s Menagerie vied in attraction with the strolling players who strutted upon the platform in paste-board armour and conventional robber costumes’[2]. Shields also illustrated and painted the regular rag fair held on the Camp Field every Tuesday during the 1860s and 1870s; Factory Girls at the Old Clothes Fair, Knott Mill, Manchester (1875) is now in the collections of Manchester Art Gallery.

Meetings more akin to this week’s anti-austerity rallies were also held on the Field, particularly gatherings ahead of meetings in the radical Hall of Science during the 1840s. Following the closure of the Hall of Science, an open-air Chartist meeting was held on 20 October 1850 [3]. After the Chartist cause waned, the Camp Field continued to provide space for rallies. For example, in July 1869 a trade union meeting took place outside drawing crowds of about 2000 people [4].

Local traditions of both meeting and trading goods on the Camp Field came to an abrupt end after Manchester Corporations Markets Committee used the 1871 Fairs Act to abolish the Knott Mill Fair in 1876. As early as the 26 May 1876 (prior to official abolition) the Markets Committee discussed an ‘iron roof’ for the field. Later that year, the Committee commissioned architects to come up with two new Market Halls to construct on the Field either side of St Matthew’s Church [5]. The Lower and Upper Campfield Market Halls designed by Mangnall and Littlewoods survive. The Lower Hall is now part of the Museum of Science and Industry complex, housing ‘Air and Space’ exhibits.

The enclosure of open spaces and displacement of stall traders has been described by historian Patrick Joyce as the ‘severance’ of the market from the street, a break with the ‘old urban milieu’ [6]. It has been noted how profitable Knott Mill Fair was to the Corporation by Robert Poole, posing the question why did they want to stop it? In my own research, I have found that the indoor markets were not busy or popular in the 1880s. Was the motivation to enclose the Field as much about reducing outside meeting places for gatherings as it was for the creation of indoor market venues? I have also discovered that there was a plan as early as 1853 to enclose this Field with a market connected to Liverpool Road Station. This coincided with the opening of Manchester’s Free Public Library in the former Hall of Science. Librarians are well documented as being harassed by ‘nuisance’ behaviour outside the building, especially when the Knott Mill Fair was in town. The Corporation worked over several decades to establish a manageable, civic space in this largely working-class area 1 mile from the city centre.

I like to think that the Campfield/ Castlefield area has come full circle; after popular protests and pleasure fairs were displaced in 1876, we now have an open space a little further down Liverpool Road used for all manner of meetings, from mass rallies to popular music gigs.

Castlefield Urban Heritage Park leaflets c.1982-1990s. The development of the Urban Heritage Park conserved (and restored) outside spaces as well as historic canal and railway structures.

Castlefield Urban Heritage Park leaflets c.1982-1990s. The development of the Urban Heritage Park conserved (and restored) outside spaces as well as historic canal and railway structures.


  1. Manchester Guardian, 18 April 1838. For more on Knott Mill Fair see Robert Poole, ‘Wakes holidays and pleasure fairs in the Lancashire cotton districts c.1790-1890’, PhD diss., Lancaster University, 1986.
  2. Ernestine Mills, Life of Frederic Shields, p.90.
  3. The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds), 26 Oct 1850.
  4. ‘Trade Unions Demonstration in Manchester’, The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield), 7 July 1869.
  5. Manchester Archive M901/28476: Manchester Markets Committee Proceedings October 1873-Nov 1876.
  6. Patrick Joyce, Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (Verso, London, 2003) p.85 in reference to Smithfield markets.

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