The history of Castlefield Viaduct

View of Castlefield Viaduct and the surrounding buildings

This 330-metre long steel viaduct sits in Castlefield, the oldest part of the city of Manchester. It’s an area steeped in rich history: once the site of the Roman fort of Mamucium, and later a hub of the Industrial Revolution. Here we uncover Castlefield’s past, and how the viaduct played a key role in Manchester’s story.

As the Romans do

Castlefield’s story began in 79 AD, when Roman soldiers led by General Agricola chose the area as the site of a timber fort, which they called Mamucium. It was a strategic position: protected by the Rivers Irwell and Medlock, and well-located to guard important roads towards the larger Roman forts at York, Chester and Ribchester.

Over time the fort was repaired and enlarged, and eventually rebuilt in stone. A village (known as a 'vicus') was established nearby to supply the fort, but once the Romans left around 410AD both the fort and the village declined and were eventually abandoned.

In 1086 a village called ‘Mamcester’ was recorded in the Domesday book, lying around a kilometre north-east of the old fort. It grew steadily, incorporating the site of the fort which was now known as Castlefield, and became a town in the early 13th century. However, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the area really began to put itself on the map.

The world’s first industrial city

Manchester’s industrial heritage began around 1758, when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned James Brindley to construct one of Britain’s first canals to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to Manchester.

The Bridgewater canal proved a huge success, halving the price of coal and prompting a period of intensive canal-building across the country. When the Rochdale canal was complete in 1804 it was joined to the Bridgewater canal at Castlefield, making this area the hub of the canal network.

By this time Manchester was the fastest growing city in the world thanks to the ever-increasing number of cotton mills creating jobs and bringing trade into the city. Eventually it became clear that the canals alone couldn’t move goods efficiently – leading to the dawning of the railway age.

Making tracks (over the viaduct)

In 1830 Castlefield became the site of world’s first inter-city passenger railway station: Manchester Liverpool Road. Over the next several decades the area was solidified as the central hub for Manchester’s goods transportation network.

Warehouses sprang up all over Castlefield to support the network, and in 1855 construction began on Great Northern Warehouse. It was designed to be a three-way warehouse served by canal, road and rail, so in 1891 construction began on a viaduct which would carry the railway line to both the warehouse and the adjacent Central Station.

The viaduct itself was constructed by Heenan and Froude, the engineers who constructed the iconic Blackpool Tower. Upon the viaduct’s completion, a local newspaper report declared it ‘a triumph of engineering skill,’ and stated that ‘some notion may be formed of the nature and importance of [the viaduct] from the fact that the total cost has amounted to £250,000.'

For the next 77 years the viaduct was used to carry heavy rail traffic in and out of the area, until it finally closed in 1969.

Castlefield’s legacy

Since its closure the viaduct has remained a focal feature of the Castlefield skyline, even serving as a backdrop to TV series such as Coronation Street and Peaky Blinders, the latter of which made use of the viaduct’s shadowy archways and looming industrial bulk to evoke 1920s Birmingham. The viaduct was also used as inspiration for the ‘Motostoke’ area in the Pokemon Sword/Shield games, which is based on Manchester.

As canal and rail transport declined the surrounding area became more of a space for leisure. The Liverpool Road station became the Science and Industry Museum, and various other cultural venues were established, from concert venues to a reconstruction of the old Roman Fort.

As work begins on this exciting project, we hope that the viaduct will soon join its near neighbours as a core part of Castlefield’s vibrant cultural scene.