The Manchester Society of Architects (MSA) has enjoyed a long and distinguished existence in the city. Founded in 1865, the Society is still active today.
The earliest group for architects in Manchester was a short-lived affair which existed between 1837-42. In 1860, the Manchester Architectural Association was established. In 1865, a group of leading Manchester architects including Isaac Holden, William Mangnall, Alexander Mills and James Stevens decided that new group was needed which would be more actively directed to defending their professional interests. A meeting was held at the Clarence Hotel, Manchester in April 1865, and this approved an organising committee for the new group. The Manchester Society of Architects then held its inaugural meeting in June 1865. The MSA’s first president was Holden, with Alfred Waterhouse as vice-president (Waterhouse was based in Manchester, but enjoyed a national reputation) and James Murgatroyd as the honorary secretary.
Like other professional associations of the time, the main objectives of the MSA included regularising the standards of their profession, both in terms of qualifications and professional practice. This meant more clearly defining who could properly call themselves architects. It also promoted a code of practice and agreed scale of charges for its membership, and arbitrated in disputes between architects and employers. In this, the MSA worked closely with the national organization for architects, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
The Society promoted architectural education, encouraging young architects and promoted improved systems of training and examination. It supported architectural competitions for trainee architects and helped educate architectural assistants. The Society was also a lobby for the profession; one of its main ambitions was to regularise Manchester’s system of building bye-laws, something which finally achieved in 1890. Other work included improving the standards of public competitions for new buildings and encouraging better relations with builder’ groups, such as the Manchester branch of the General Builders’ Association. The Society also built up a library.
In 1887, RIBA changed its charter allowing provincial societies to federate, something which the MSA did. The MSA's success indicated that Manchester could not sustain two separate organisations for architects, and in 1890, the Manchester Architectural Association, which focussed less exclusively on professional standards and was not affiliated to RIBA, agreed to merge with the MSA. New bye-laws were issued in 1891, with the Society’s membership then standing 130 individuals.
The Society did not have an established base until the early twentieth century when it purchased a lease at the Geographical Building, St Mary’s Parsonage, using the bequest of a former president, Alexander Mills. It remained at this location until 1963. In the inter-war period, the Society improved conditions for its student members, began to admit women members, and also supported public lectures on architectural topics. It established a joint consultative committee with Manchester, Salford and District Building Trades Employers Association. The Society also worked more closely with town planners. In 1960, it supported the creation of the Manchester Building Centre in Portland St. Manchester, which brought together architects, quantity surveyors and builders.
The Society moved its headquarters to this location in 1963. In 1962, the Society revised its constitution in line with RIBA requirements introducing a more formal committee structure. RIBA members in Manchester were automatically registered as members of the MSA.
Following the reorganisation of the RIBA into thirteen regions in 1967, the RIBA North West Region opened its headquarters at Knutsford in Cheshire. The MSA became one of the Region's seven branches in 1969, being known officially as 'Manchester Society of Architects - a branch of the RIBA'. Although retaining some autonomy, the Society receives an annual grant from the RIBA and is responsible to the central RIBA Council through the North West Regional Council, to which it sends three representatives. This council meets monthly and is constituted by equal representation from each of the seven branches in the region.
The changes made in the 1960s to subscription rules mean that all members of the RIBA in the Greater Manchester area are automatically members of the Manchester Society of Architects. Around half of the RIBA members in the North West Region as a whole are members of the MSA. Elections to the council of the Society are held annually by postal ballot of all corporate RIBA members of the Manchester branch. One third of the council are elected annually and members serve for three year periods. Officers such as President, Honorary Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, and such other posts as are deemed necessary are elected annually from among the members of the council.
The activities and concerns of the Society since 1969 reflect a continued interest in such central issues as professional standards and services, conservation and the urban environment, and education and training in the field of architecture, as well as in promoting the status of the profession as a whole. In 1977 the Society stated that "within the RIBA North West region the aims of the Manchester Society remain, namely, `to support and protect the character, status and interest of architects practising in, or in the vicinity of Manchester, and to promote personal acquaintance and good feeling between members of the Society.'" MSA/ADD/1/2/2/7, RIBA Northwest Region Yearbook and Diary 1977/78, 54. Facilitating social and professional dialogue between architects in Greater Manchester continues to be the main aim of the Society.
Since the regional reorganisation of the RIBA, however, the responsibility for providing professional help to architects has been taken over to a large extent by the RIBA North West Region which has a secretariat of permanent staff, giving it an advantage over the Manchester Society which has no salaried employees, being wholly run by honorary officers. The MSA has also been squeezed from below with the formation in the 1970s of two local chapters which receive a grant from the Society, and which enable architects to meet in their own locality rather than in the centre of Manchester.
Despite this, the Society continues to be active in the city and membership currently stands at 900.