The History of the Area 

The Metropolitan Borough of Oldham has a unique and rich heritage that can be traced back for nearly 10,000 years. The modern district  forms the eastern part of Greater Manchester, nestling in the Pennine foothills and creating a border with the Derbyshire Peak District and West Yorkshire to the east. The eastern part of the borough is characterised by rural open space stretching across the South Pennines, whilst the western part is contiguous with Manchester, with a highly industrialised and densely populated townscape. The borough is named after its largest component town, which lies at the heart of the district, with the other principal settlements including Chadderton, Failsworth, Royton, Shaw and Crompton.

The Prehistoric Landscape

Many prehistoric finds, particularly from the Mesolithic period (c.9600 – 4000 BC), have been discovered in the borough. After c.8000 BC, the climate of the Pennine region warmed up and the ice and snow from the last Ice Age disappeared. As this happened, woodland regenerated and a greater variety of woodland species flourished, providing a varied food source that could sustain more human life. Findspots from the Mesolithic period are typically scatters of worked stone tools, such as flint blades and tool-production waste, often recovered from sheltered locations overlooking the steep-sided valleys, or cloughs, that characterise the topography of the district’s eastern part. As the flints were found in scatters, this indicates that these were sites were camps, where people worked the flint into tools. This is supported by further flint scatters found together with remains of fire pits and possible shelters. The evidence implies that these were hunting camps that were occupied seasonally, as opposed to permanent domestic sites.

No confirmed Neolithic settlement sites (c.4000 – 2500 BC) have been identified in the district, although it is likely that the uplands continued to be exploited as a resource for hunting after the introduction of agriculture into the region. This is represented by a change in stone tool types, finds distribution and evidence of woodland clearance from this period. Several lithic scatters (indicating tool working and occupation) and the higher incidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age arrowheads in these areas supports this idea.

Archaeological remains excavated at Castleshaw provided evidence for more permanent settlement in the area during the Bronze Age (c.2500 – 700 BC).  These remains included storage pits, burial cairns and a domestic ceramic ’Beaker‘ assemblage, and it is possible that the site had been a small farmstead. Bronze Age barrows (burial mounds) have also been noted at Brown Hill, Harrop Edge, Knott Hill, Chadderton Hall and Fairbanks Farm. Although no other firm evidence for early prehistoric settlement has been found to date, the presence of Neolithic and Bronze Age hafted implements (tools with separate blades and handles), metalwork and burial sites could suggest the beginnings of a settled agricultural lifestyle. Life in the Oldham area through the Iron Age(c.700 BC – AD 43)  probably continued the practices of the Bronze Age, with the disjointed introduction of new technologies and cultural practices. No settlements of Iron Age date have been discovered in the borough and artefact evidence is scarce, but earthworks on Wharmton Hill, Greenfield, could represent a late prehistoric hilltop enclosure.  

From Roman Occupation to the Norman Conquest (AD 43 – 1066)

Evidence of Roman activity in Oldham is limited to a fort at Castleshaw, a small settlement next to the fort and a section of the trans-Pennine road between the legionary fortresses at York and Chester. The first fort at Castleshaw was built of turf and timber, and is most likely to have been one in a chain of Roman auxiliary forts along the York to Chester road. This fort was abandoned around AD 90, although  a second, smaller, fort was constructed on the site roughly 15 years later. Dating evidence from archaeological excavations suggests that the second phase lasted until around AD 120. A small settlement evolved to the south of the Roman fort, although this is thought to have been short lived .

As is the case for much of the North West, there is a lack of archaeological evidence from the post-Roman period in the Oldham area, although it is likely that some of the earliest settlements and farms originated prior to the Norman Conquest. Place-name evidence is frequently used to identify pre-Norman settlement and, in the Oldham area, examples of names attributed to the Anglo-Saxon period might include Crompton, Royton and Chadderton. The emergence of Oldham as a permanent place of settlement is believed to date from AD 865, when Danish invaders established a settlement called Aldehulme. The name is thought to be derived from the Old English ald, meaning old, and the Old Norse holmr, meaning island.

The Medieval Manor (AD 1066 – 16th Century)

Oldham is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but probably formed part of the manor and hundred of Salford at this time. The land was held as Royal demesne or by local Saxon thanes, although Oldham was documented in the later 13th century as a manor held from the Crown by a family surnamed Oldham, whose seat was at Werneth Hall. Other local gentry owned small estates during this period, and occupied manor houses such as Lees Hall, Medlock Hall and Royton Hall.

The medieval economy was largely agricultural - mainly pastoral with some arable farming – with dispersed smallholdings occupied by tenant farmers. Small-scale industry in the area included coal mining, quarrying and iron-working, with the sites of corn-drying kilns and fulling mills having been identified in the Castleshaw valley. Domestic production of woollen textiles was also common in the area and provided an important extra income for most households, and made a significant contribution to the local economy.

Post-Medieval Oldham (16th – Late 18th Centuries)

The post-medieval period witnessed the transformation of the North West from a relatively impoverished and sparsely populated backwater to a key region in the early stages of Britain’s industrialisation and globalisation, and the cultural developments of this era laid the foundations for the radical changes to society and the environment that followed. A key characteristic of the onset of the period was the extension and intensification of agrarian activity, enabled by the Dissolution of the monasteries during the 1530s and made essential to sustain the ensuing population growth. The medieval manorial system of land use was reorganised from the 16th century, leading to the enclosure of ‘waste’ and common land as a result of population pressure and innovations in agricultural practice.

As farms were passed down through the generations, the landholdings were divided into smaller and smaller parcels of land. This affected the amount that farmers could produce and therefore the profits they would make. This financial pressure forced farms to rely more on textile production. The production and sale of textiles allowed the farmers to accumulate independent wealth and many were able to afford land holdings and build higher-status homes. The economic expansion of the textile industry during this period led to the emergence of independently wealthy yeoman clothiers, who formed a new social elite. These people improved upland pasture for sheep farming to supply the growing woollen textile industry, which developed accordingly and became the mainstay occupation of Oldham’s rural society. Small communities of weavers grew up around established historic houses and, by the mid-1700s, weavers cottages with their rows of multiple windows were being built in the area en masse to house people now completely dependent on the textile industry. Many farms had upper floors used solely to house handlooms, and the wealthier clothiers went on to build some of the first water-powered mills in the area, where some of the production processes were mechanised.

The population steadily increased and soon the settlements in the district had expanded with local market centres that could support the growing number of residents. Oldham town at the end of the 18th century, for example, was one of many newly developed industrial villages. Other examples included Greenfield, Shaw and Delph.  Settlements such as Hollinwood developed along the important routes through the area and other settlements, such as Uppermill, prospered due to their proximity to the trade routes.

Industrial Oldham (18th – 20th Centuries)

Notwithstanding its local importance until the later 18th century, Oldham essentially comprised little more than a scattering of small settlements spread across the moorland. A market was not established in Oldham until quite late and, as a result, the area experienced ribbon development along the roads to Manchester, Saddleworth and Rochdale, rather than development focusing on a central core. A town plan of 1756 depicts Oldham as a settlement development running along the former routes of High Street, Manchester Street and Henshaw Street. The character of the town is likely to have been that of a semi-rural Georgian high street, similar to those at Greenfield, Shaw or Royton. The town would have had multiple workshops, warehouses, shops and houses. Turnpike roads, and later the canals, were funded by private investors. These improved transport networks allowed for the movement of locally produced textiles and provided access to imported cotton and silk.

Writing in 1795, John Aiken observed that Oldham was inhabited by ‘a number of respectable families’, noting that the manufacture of hats and strong fustians for the Manchester market were trades of particular importance locally. He also commented on the large number of machines that were being worked in water-powered cotton and woollen mills situated on tributaries of the rivers Irk and Irwell. The introduction of steam power in the late 18th century, however, enabled textile mills to be located away from water sources, and allowed new mills to be built in Oldham.The introduction of this new breed of steam-powered textile mills had a major impact on the landscape of Oldham. Cotton mills became large multi-storey buildings that dominated their surroundings. Alongside most of these new mills were ranges of associated buildings such as warehouses, offices, reservoirs and engine houses that imparted a distinctive industrial character to the landscape. Engineering works were also required to the supply the textile industry with necessary equipment to keep the mills running, and low-cost terraced properties was built to house the thousands of industrial workers. As settlement increased, the number of churches, schools and shops also grew.

Between 1854 and 1910, the size of urban Oldham had roughly doubled in size and Shaw, Royton, Hollinwood and Greenacres had also grown. While Oldham town centre adopted a commercial and civic identity with a new market, arcade, hotels, banks, shops and civic building,  middle-class suburbs were developed on the fringes of the historic core, particularly around Alexandra Park and Werneth Park. By the late 19th century Oldham had grown into one of the foremost cotton towns in the world, and the town’s population has increased from an estimated 12,000 at the end of the 18th century to a staggering 137,000 by 1900. This was a direct consequence of the town’s industrialisation and, in the words of one 20th-century historian, ‘if ever the Industrial Revolution placed a town firmly and squarely on the map of the world, that town is Oldham’.

Industry went through a phase of decline in the early 20th century and inter-war period owing to general economic depression. Sadly, this led to bankruptcy and massive unemployment in the area and mill building had ceased by the 1920s. However, there was some expansion of the area during this period, as social housing began to be built after the First World War. During the 20th century, Oldham underwent a substantial period of residential development, with large, planned estates of semi-detached houses erected to accommodate the commuting workforce from Manchester.

The Heritage Assets of Oldham

The borough of Oldham is characterised by rich and diverse heritage that plays an important part of Oldham’s identity. Significant historic buildings, industrial townscapes, and landscapes amid the South Pennines, make up and provide a multitude of designated and non-designated heritage assets, on our very doorstep. A Local List will help preserve the unique character Oldham has to offer and is a great way for the community to get involved; learn more about the history and significance of the borough; and nominate local heritage assets, to allow the recognition and protection they deserve.

Paula Stebbings. Conservation Officer, Oldham Council 

Farm Complexes, Folds, Weavers’ Cottages, and Vernacular Cottages

The earliest farms across the district were linked to piecemeal enclosure and areas of woodland that had been cleared for farming. These older farms and cottages may provide evidence of earlier enclosure patterns. Farms were not built in clusters, but were scattered across the landscape, probably on the better drained and more productive areas of land within the district. Later farms, dating to the mid-18th century onwards, were established within regular, bounded fields on the more marginal areas of agricultural land.

Cottages were built in isolation and in small groups. More cottages were built as the textile industry developed and the population increased. The majority of historic rural cottages would have had a domestic workshop element and many still standing today feature the characteristic weavers’ cottage windows. (Insert Plate 5 –Weavers’ Workshops at Greenfield)

Historic farm buildings and vernacular cottages remain in both rural and urban settings. Where old farm buildings and cottages have survived within urbanised areas, they serve as a reminder of the evolution of the landscape and the agricultural past. Any evidence relating to this agricultural landscape is important. Evidence for this includes:

  • farmhouses;
  • barns;
  • stables;
  • workers cottages;
  • weavers cottages with rows of windows to the upper floor;
  • boundary treatments;
  • methods of enclosure.

Elite Residences and Yeomans’ Houses

An elite residence is a grander house that was usually associated with a wealthy family. In the middle ages, the local gentry owned small estates and lived in modest halls; higher-status halls were commonly associated with deer parks or, later on, designed landscapes.

Local independent landowners (yeomen) of the post-medieval period accumulated considerable wealth from wool and textile production. These houses were designed to show the wealth of the owner and were designed to reflect the stately homes of the gentry. However, they were still functional rural buildings and many contained features associated with agriculture or domestic industry. Further grand houses were built in the later 18th and 19th centuries as the homes of wealthy industrialists. These buildings vary in design and materials, but sites are likely to retain the following evidence:

  • grand standing buildings of historic interest such as historic halls, post-medieval yeomans’ houses that are of a higher status than surrounding vernacular buildings but still retain agricultural features;
  • the homes of wealthy 19th-century industrialists;
  • ancillary buildings such as stables, coach houses, lodges or cottages;
  • garden or parkland features may also be present, including boundaries and paths.

Terraced Housing  

Terraced housing in Oldham was mainly built in the late 18th to early 20th centuries, largely to accommodate industrial workers. The earliest examples were back-to-back and court developments located particularly around Oldham’s historic town core; these were built before the late 1700s. In urban areas, the size of the developments ranged from single rows to large estates. The terraced houses also display some variety and range from simple modest homes to larger, more decorated examples. Terraces were also built in rural areas, associated with the developing early textile industry. Terraced housing once formed a significant element of the urban landscape and those that survive provide important evidence of the industrial-era heritage of the region. Things to look out for include:

  • terraced houses ranging from back-to-back cottages to middle-class residences;
  • within larger areas of terraced housing, there is potential for the survival of other contemporary buildings that served the residents such as chapels, schools, shops or public houses.

Villas/Detached Housing

These larger houses were the homes of the middle classes. They are typically large detached or semi-detached homes with some decoration to the exterior, originally set in large gardens. Some higher-status housing of this type also occurs as short, terraced rows. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, some villas were scattered through the rural landscape. By the late 19th century planned villa suburbs were being developed. Villas and detached houses represent an early element of suburbanisation, serving as a reminder within the landscape of some of the changes in society that took place in the 19th century. Evidence of these may include:

  • standing buildings of historic interest, including architect designed residences;
  • larger detached or semi-detached houses set within their own grounds;
  • historic boundary treatments and historic gateposts (some of which may retain the names of the houses).

Open Space, Parkland and Recreational Areas

This can include playing fields/recreation and sports grounds, public parks, urban green spaces, golf courses, country parks, private parkland and deer parks. Public parks, playing fields and recreation grounds can offer important open green space in urban areas. Public parks can include significant formal layouts and landscaping, with a range of leisure facilities and features such as fountains, bowling greens and ornamental planting. They also may respect or incorporate earlier boundaries relating to private parks, field systems or settlement. In the case of country parks, these may preserve remnants of entire earlier landscapes, particularly industrial, extractive, agricultural or designed parkland landscapes. Open spaces are often very important to local communities, some features to look out for include:

  • pavilions and clubhouses;
  • bandstands;
  • pagodas;
  • former elite residences;
  • buildings relating to former historic grand houses such as stables, coach houses, glasshouses and ice houses, lodges and gatehouses;
  • historic sports grounds;
  • associated boundary features such as railings and gateposts;
  • boundaries such as hedges and walls relating to historic field systems or to historic designed approaches;
  • evidence of former agricultural and economic use of country parks may be present, such as boundary banks, medieval or post medieval ridge and furrow, fish ponds, warrens or leats.

The Textile Industry

The textile industry transformed Oldham and its satellite settlements from small villages to a world-class industrial district by the end of the 19th century. This industry altered the landscape of Oldham to one of steam-powered mills, factories, workers’ housing, warehouses, churches, civic buildings, shops, a canal basin, railway depots. Heritage assets associated with the textile industry include:

  • weavers cottages (sometimes with long strips of windows to the upper floor);
  • mills and associated structures;
  • bleach works and associated structures;
  • warehouses;
  • textile trade sites;
  • water features commonly associated with industrial sites including arrangements of reservoirs, weirs and leats.

Engineering Works, Foundries and Forges

Engineering works in the area developed in the 19th century to support the flourishing textile industry and produced specific machinery, spindles, engines and structural members in purpose-built factories.  The industry declined in step with the textile industry and many firms had closed by the mid-20th century. Even though many of the former engineering sites have been lost to later modernisation, some were re-used for modern commerce or industry and traces of their earlier use may remain. Evidence of this important historic industry can include:

  • standing buildings and structures of historic interest relating to various engineering works;
  • evidence of earlier transport infrastructure, such as railway lines and tramways;
  • evidence of historic water supply and management features such as ponds, reservoirs and leats.


Institutional sites are those that serve communities and can often make a positive contribution to the historic landscape. In Oldham, several institutes are thought to have had medieval or early post-medieval origins. For example, a medieval chaplaincy is thought to have existed on the site of St Chad’s in Saddleworth and the Old Grammar school in Oldham was built c.1611. However, little, if any, medieval institutional building fabric survives in Oldham today. The further development of institutions was related to the expansion of the settlements which occurred as a direct result of the growing textile industry. Many more public institutes were built in the 19th century, including fire and police stations, public baths, schools, libraries, galleries, hospitals, cemeteries and prestigious new town halls. Institutional sites often form key features in our landscape and retain historic and social interest. These sites almost always contain buildings and can include:

  • schools and colleges;
  • places of worship;
  • medical complexes and nursing homes;
  • civic and municipal buildings;
  • police, fire and ambulance stations;
  • community centres;
  • public baths and wash-houses;
  • parish halls;
  • day centres;
  • youth clubs;
  • boundaries and railings and other features like lych gates;
  • cemeteries (some may have important headstones or sculpture).

Utilities/ Industrial Utilities

The first industrial utilities, gas and sewage works, were developed in the 19th century.  Sewage works made an especially significant contribution to the health and sanitation of local communities of the later 19th century. By the early 20th century the first electricity transformer stations and telephone exchanges were present. Many water-treatment plants, gas works and telephone exchanges incorporate building design elements which are exemplary of the period and those that remain can make a positive contribution to the landscape. Evidence of these facilities remaining today may include:

  • historic water treatment plants;
  • historic gas works/ gas holders;
  • water towers;
  • electricity transformer stations/ substations;
  • telephone exchanges and some types of telephone kiosks.

Commercial Development

Before the boom of the textile industry and improvements in transport, Oldham had a few small town cores (such as Oldham itself, Shaw, Royton, Greenacres, Chadderton and Lees). These smaller settlements would have acted as market centres for the trade of textiles and would have included a mix of workshops, small early mills, shops, inns, houses and institutes. In the later decades of the 19th century, historic cores such as these took on a more commercial character with the addition large mills, workers housing, more shops and businesses. Evidence of historic commercial heritage can include:

  • single or terraced rows of shops dating to the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries;
  • historic markets,
  • historic purpose-built public houses
  • banks
  • hotels
  • cinemas

Modes of Transport 

New modes of transport developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, including canals and railways, which had a significant impact on the landscape and industry of the district. Although some sections of the canals are now backfilled and no longer in use, some have been landscaped to form recreational features and historic features associated with the canals may survive. Similarly, there were a number of railway lines throughout the district, some of which were related to industry, which are no longer in use. However, areas of track or associated structures may remain as evidence of these historically significant modes of transport. Remaining evidence may include:

  • 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century structures, such as lifting equipment along the canals;
  • features that facilitated the use of horse-drawn canal boats;
  • locks;
  • lock-keepers’ cottages;
  • bridges;
  • cuttings;
  • aqueducts;
  • tunnels associated with canals;
  • railway stations;
  • warehouses;
  • rolling stock housing;
  • maintenance sheds;
  • signal boxes;
  • station masters’ houses;
  • offices;
  • associated hotels.