The idea of a university for Manchester had been regularly canvassed from the late eighteenth century onwards. Enlightened opinion in the town was sympathetic to developing more formal systems of education instruction, with bodies such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and the Royal Manchester Institution offering lectures to the public. In 1824, W.R. Whatton, a governor of the Royal Manchester Institution, proposed that a university-type institution should be established at the RMI to educate local men destined for the professions and the higher echelons of commerce and industry. In 1836, Harry Longueville Jones, a former Cambridge don, published A plan of a university of Manchester, which outlined a more detailed scheme. This was taken up by the Manchester Statistical Society and a committee was established to advance this proposal. Ultimately the scheme came to nothing, but it familiarised Manchester elites with the idea of a university which could compete with Oxford and Cambridge; several of those involved in the campaign were later to become trustees of Owens College.
By the mid-nineteenth century there was a growing belief that Manchester could sustain such an institution, reflecting the intellectual and economic confidence of the town. Apart from its learned societies, Manchester also had privately-run medical schools and one of the largest mechanics' institutes in England. The Manchester Academy, with provided advanced education for dissenters, was based in Manchester between 1840-1853. There was a vigorous intellectual culture associated with local dissenters, who actively supported these initiatives; given their continuing exclusion from Oxbridge, they were to be prominent supporters of Owens College.
However, the immediate origins of Owens College were more personal. In 1846, the Manchester textile merchant John Owens (1790-1846) died, and in his will bequeathed a sum of money to be dedicated to "educational purposes". The executors of the will, Samuel Alcock and George Faulkner, were charged with appointing trustees to administer a scheme to establish a college for providing or aiding the means of instructing and improving young persons of the male sex (and being of an age not less than fourteen years) in such branches of learning and science as are usually taught in the English Universities. The college was to impose no religious tests on staff or students, and teaching was not to include "any religious or theological subject which shall be reasonably offensive to the conscience of the student." In all Owens left a total of £96, 954 for the college scheme.
Little is known of Owens' reasons for promoting this scheme. He does not appear to have been involved in the earlier campaigns for a university, but his dislike of sectarian education was well known. Apart from his general avoidance of public life and civic office, Owens was a typical member of Manchester's mercantile elite. The son of Owen Owens (1764-1844), a successful textile manufacturer, he had been involved in both the manufacture and distribution of cotton, amassing a small fortune as a successful exporter.
The task of planning the College was to take almost five years. George Faulkner (1790-1862), business partner and friend of Owens, became chairman of a group of Trustees, who included the mayor of Manchester, the dean of Manchester, the town's MPs, together with business and professional luminaries,William Neild, James Heywood, Alexander Kay, John Foster and John Benjamin Smith. The Trustees appointed a sub-committee to plan the College's curriculum, which sought advice from other higher education institutions in the UK. In its final report, the committee expressed sympathy for the Scottish model of lecture-based university teaching with relatively low fees for students, and backed a largely traditional liberal curriculum of classics, maths, natural philosophy, philosophy and English, with natural history and modern languages as secondary subjects. Engineering and commerce were identified as subjects for future development. At this stage, the main omission from the curriculum was medicine, a prestigious subject which would later enhance Owens' aspirations to full university status.
By early 1850 the Trustees had appointed staff to teach this new curriculum. Alexander Scott (1805-1866) was the College's principal. Scott had been active in theological controversies within Scottish Presbyterianism, and his heterodox views had seen him move to London, where he eventually became professor of English at University College. He was also professor of English language and literature, and professor of logic and mental and moral philosophy. Scott was an established and cultivated intellectual, a friend of Carlyle, F.D. Maurice and Frederic Chopin, who believed the College should uphold a traditional liberal education. His professorial colleagues included: Joseph Gouge Greenwood (1821-1894), who had also taught at University College, was appointed to the chair of classics and history; Edward Frankland (1825-1899), became professor of chemistry (he was the first to depart the College in 1857, succeeded by Henry Roscoe); William Crawford Williamson (1816-1895), the longest -serving of the original professors, who became professor of natural history ( a very wide brief including botany, zoology, geology and physiology), and Archibald Sandeman, the professor of mathematics. Tobias Theodores was appointed teacher in German (a distinguished scholar of Hebrew, he became professor of oriental and modern languages in 1866) and August Poidevin became teacher of French. George Mattinson, formerly John Owens' secretary, was appointed clerk and librarian.
Premises were found in Quay Street in the Deansgate area of central Manchester, in the former home of Richard Cobden MP. This was purchased by George Faulkner and leased to the Trustees. In 1854 Faulkner transferred the house to their ownership (the Trustees had not wished to use the Owens legacy to purchase property). A separate fund was used to equip the College's chemical laboratory and library. The Quay St building was to serve as the College's home until 1872.
Owens College was formally opened at a meeting at Manchester Town Hall on 12 March 1851, at which the new professors delivered speeches. Twenty four students attended during the first session (March-June 1851). At this stage, the College lacked a formal curriculum; the professors lectured to students in their area of responsibility but the latter did not follow a defined programme of study. Owens did not have powers to grant degrees, but a Royal Warrant permitted the College to award certificates to qualify students to take the degrees of the University of London. In fact, in its first two decades, very few students took up this option.
During the period 1851-1870 the College was governed according to the will of John Owens. The trustees had absolute authority over finances, property and staff of the College. In practice, they appear to have exercised their powers in a consensual fashion, extensively consulting with the professors, particularly over academic matters. The Principal proved crucial in maintaining this harmonious relationship. Initially, the College's prospects seemed favourable; students from the Lancashire Independent College (Congregationalist) attended classics lectures, and from 1852 evening lectures in classics and maths were given to school teachers. However, the late 1850s were a period of great difficulty for the College, as numbers of day students fell off. There were various reasons for this, not least a lack of opportunity for students to gain credentials useful to future employment. Some Owens students were successful in gaining degrees from the University of London, but for most, attendance did not have obvious academic or professional benefit. Teachers complained about the poor preparation of their students, many of whom would have been better suited to secondary education rather than the advanced teaching offered at Owens.
Gradually, the situation improved and by the 1860s the number of day students was rising again (from 33 in 1856-7 to 108 in 1862-3). Some of this improvement was due to the administrative skills of Joseph Greenwood, appointed Principal in succession to Scott in 1858 (the latter retained his academic post); Greenwood was both an excellent manager of the College and an effective publicist. He was ably assisted by his staff, particularly Henry Roscoe (1833-1915), appointed as professor of chemistry after Frankland's departure in 1857. Roscoe dedicated his considerable energies to promoting the College as an institution of advanced study, one providing regular courses of instruction, with opportunities to gain credentials and even the possibility of undertaking research. Strongly influenced by his experience of German universities, Roscoe built up his department as an exemplar for his views of higher education as being both practically relevant to the needs of the local community and capable of sustaining intellectually rigorous teaching and research. Effective support was also provided on the humanities side by A.W. Ward (1837-1924), appointed professor of history and English in 1866, and later Greenwood's successor as Principal.
By the mid-1860s, with rising student numbers, Owens was facing acute accommodation problems. Lecture rooms were overcrowded, and laboratories under-equipped. This hindered prospects of developing new subjects such as physics and engineering which required such facilities, and ruled out the possibility of a union with the Manchester Royal School of Medicine. In 1865, the Trustees set up a New Building Committee to investigate the future needs of the College. The committee pursued its research assiduously, proposing a new medical school, halls of residence, and a museum for the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society and Geological Society. In its report to the Trustees in January 1867, the Committee contended "it would probably be found that in no institution of the kind in the kingdom are so many persons under instruction in so confined a space", and recommended that the College should be redeveloped at a new site in the Manchester suburbs.
This ambitious expansion could not be funded from the College's existing endowments, so it proved necessary to seek out new benefactions. This was a potentially difficult matter, because such donations were sensitive to local commercial conditions (the early 1860s had been particularly testing on account of the American Civil War's disruption to the cotton trade). However, the College succeeded in devising a very successful campaign to raise the required funds, generally known as the "Extension". The leading lay figure in this campaign was a local industrialist, Thomas Ashton (1818-1898), who proved adept at persuading rich donors to support the College. A fund committee was appointed by a public meeting in February 1867, with Ashton as chairman of the Executive Committee. This Committee included the banker Oliver Heywood, the industrialists C F Beyer and W R Callender, with Greenwood, R.C. Christie and Roscoe representing the academic staff. The executive committee appointed further sub-committees for canvassing and finance, site, buildings and the constitution. The aim behind the Extension was not merely to fund new buildings for the College but to gain new endowments for chairs and scholarships to allow for an expanded curriculum. The campaign was well-run, making particular use of the local press to publicise its work.
The site committee investigated various locations for the new College: sites at Ardwick, Cheetham Hill and Oxford Road [then Oxford Street], immediately to the south of the town centre were mooted. However, in December 1867, Murray Gladstone, chairman of the site committee, proposed purchasing a site on the western side of Oxford Road, bounded by Coupland St to the north and Burlington St to the South. Shortly afterwards, Ashton purchased the site in trust for the College. In December 1868 the Building Committee appointed Alfred Waterhouse to draw up plans for College buildings at this site, and a foundation stone was laid at the site by the Duke of Devonshire (who occupied the new office of College President) in a ceremony in September 1870.
In addition to the building work, further development of the College would require a restructuring of the College's system of government. Until 1870 the College remained the property of the Trustees, who governed it in accordance with John Owens' will. This was considered an inflexible arrangement, and a constitution committee under the jurist James Bryce was established to consider its revision. The committee's proposals were embodied in a private bill, approved by Parliament as the Owens Extension College Act 1870. The Act created a new legal body, Owens Extension College, which became responsible for and the beneficiary of the Extension funds. A new tripartite system of government was established, comprising a court of governors, council and senate, and a new office of president was created as official head of the College. Another new lay post, that of Treasurer was also created, the incumbent also acting as chairman of Council. The existing Owens College run by the Trustees remained in existence until 1871, when The Owens College Act 1871 merged the two bodies into "The Owens College". The structure of university government created by this legislation was to serve as a model for non-Oxbridge English universities.
In 1872, the first phase of the College building was completed. This comprised the main building (now known as the John Owens Building), which included lecture rooms, laboratories and administrative offices, and adjoining this building, on Burlington St were the chemical laboratories. In 1874, a medical school was opened to the rear of the College in Coupland St. This followed the successful amalgamation of the College with the Royal Manchester School of Medicine in 1872. The acquisition of a medical school was a major boon for the College, with medical students providing a major proportion of the College's students, and helping support the College's aspirations to full university status. The Medical School was further extended in 1883 and 1894, with additions of a dental department in 1884 and a department of public health in 1888.
There were other developments in the College curriculum in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1865 William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) was appointed as professor of political economy (this post also was responsible for the teaching of philosophy until the 1890s), and helped shape the subject as a distinct academic discipline. New chairs were created for geology (1872), zoology (1879), a second chemistry chair was created in 1874 ( in organic chemistry for Carl Schorlemmer (1834-1892), a protégé of Roscoe's), and classics was divided into two chairs in 1869 (Greenwood continuing as professor of Greek, A. S. Wilkins (1843-1905) being appointed to the chair of Latin). In 1868, the College took the significant step of appointing Osborne Reynolds (1842-1912) to a new chair of engineering; the subject having been recognised as crucial to the College's aspirations to attract more students. As well as these professorial appointments, by the 1870s assistant lecturers and demonstrators were appointed to assist the work of the professors (chemistry was unusual in having such junior posts from the 1850s). The College acquired an increasingly important reputation for science; indeed a memorial submitted to the Treasury in 1869 requesting state aid spoke revealingly that "the characteristic development of the College...has been as a School of Science".
These developments encouraged the College authorities to push for full university status, allowing it to award its own degrees and to have full control of the curriculum. In 1875, Greenwood, Roscoe, Ward and J.E. Morgan (professor of medicine) issued a pamphlet in support of a university of Manchester. This attracted both support and criticism: critics ranged from the University of London, which wished to retain control of degrees awarded to students of the provincial civic colleges, to other northern cities, fearful that a university in Manchester would stultify higher education in their localities. In 1877, Owens submitted a memorial to the Privy Council requesting university status, and this was followed by a counter memorial from Yorkshire College, Leeds. As the depth of opposition became clear, it was evident that Owens would be unlikely to achieve the support necessary for a private bill to get through Parliament. After negotiations with Yorkshire College brokered by the Duke of Devonshire, it was agreed that a federal university for the North of England would the best compromise.
Thus, in 1880, a charter was awarded to the Victoria University. This institution was legally separate from Owens, but Owens constituted the first constituent member of the University. The University was legally required to be based in Manchester (with premises at Owens) and was possessed of its own system of government, comprising a court, council and general board of studies, the latter responsible for academic policy (the Board oversaw twelve subject-based departmental boards). The University had powers to devise curricula and examinations and to award degrees to students of constituent colleges. A supplemental charter was granted in 1883 to allow the University to award degrees in medicine. In 1884, University College Liverpool became the second member of the University, followed by Yorkshire College in 1887.
Victoria University also had powers to grant degrees to female students, and this reopened the debate on admission of women to Owens. Women had been technically eligible to enter Owens College since the Owens College Extension Act, but the College authorities had prevaricated in supporting their admission. The Manchester and Salford College for Women, established in 1877, provided indirect access to higher education, with lectures being given by Owens academics, but offered little scope for systematic study. A proposal to admit women students was agreed by Senate in 1881, but it was not until 1883 that the Court sanctioned the move. Even then, women students remained subject to various restrictions; initially admission was guaranteed for a trial period of five years and they could be admitted only to certain classes (not engineering and medicine). A separate Department for Women, headed by a Tutor, was set up, based in Brunswick St, with women students largely segregated from male counterparts in their extra-curricular activities.
By the mid-1880s, the College had over 700 day students. Increasingly, the day students came to dominate numerically over evening students. These students joined the College at later age (by the 1870s there were very few students below the age of sixteen, although there continued to be a significant number of students aged 16-18 years up to the 1890s), and with the advent of Victoria University degrees a larger proportion followed systematic three-year courses of study leading to a degree qualification. In 1899/1900 just over a thousand student s attended the College of whom 87% were male and 13% female, with 37% of the total being medical students. (Based on figures in Charlton Portrait of a University pp.164/165). From 1890, the College became responsible for training teachers in its Day Training College. By the early twentieth century, a small number of postgraduate students had emerged, some taking masters qualifications, others pursuing more informal research. There were an increasing number of open and closed scholarships and prizes available to students to assist with the high costs of attending the College.
Owens students developed a rich form of associational life. A union had been formed in 1861, primarily to provide a forum for debating, but it also published the Owens College Magazine from 1867. Other societies included the Medical Students Debating Society (1873), Shakspere Society (1874) and the Chemical Society (1877). Separate women's groups, including a Women's Union, were set up in the 1880s. A College Volunteer Company was created in 1898; military activities being an important aspect of student social life up to 1914. A College boat race was inaugurated in the late 1860s, and this evolved into an annual sports day. By the 1880s, societies were being formed for individual sports, and these were brought together into a federal Athletic Union in 1885. The College supported such developments by providing sports facilities at the Firs Estate in Fallowfield, and a gymnasium at Oxford Road. The creation of the Manchester University Settlement in 1895 provided opportunities for students who wished to become involved in the wider public life of Manchester. A growing number of students attended halls of residence, indicating the College's appeal beyond the local area (although the majority of students continued to be drawn from the Manchester region). The original halls were private foundations, licensed by the University, and often with denominational connections - the Quakers established Friends Hall (later Dalton Hall) in 1876, and Hulme Hall, which had Anglican connections, followed in 1887. The first women's hall, Ashburne House (later Hall), opened in 1899. Distinctions remained within the student body, particularly between male and female students, and some groups such as medics and trainee teachers retained a distinct identity. Alumni were also encouraged to identify with the College; in 1858, concerned about its future, the College decided to grant successful students the status of Associates, initially for those who had taken first class University of London degrees or had won certain scholarships and prizes. Associates enjoyed certain privileges at the College. Victoria University graduates had their own more formal organization, Convocation, which enjoyed rights of participation in the University's government.
Fees paid by students were a significant element of the College's incomes,and particularly important for paying academic salaries (the salary of a successful teacher like Henry Roscoe was greatly inflated by fee income) . Despite several requests from the College, beginning in the 1850s, state support did not become available until the late 1880s, and then only in very limited amounts. The further development of the College in terms of buildings and curriculum, continued to depend on private benefactions. The majority of these donations were personal rather than corporate, with members of Manchester's industrial and commercial elite offering significant support into the post-Extension period. The engineers Charles Beyer and Joseph Whitworth were major benefactors, much of Whitworth's wealth being disbursed in various projects by his legatees after his death in 1887. But there were number of other significant benefactors including Mr and Mrs John Rylands, Charles Clifton, Edward Schunck and Richard Christie. These allowed for further expansion of the College estate: the Whitworth Engineering Laboratories were opened in 1886, followed by the Beyer building (zoology and botany) in 1888 , the Museum in 1888, the Christie Library in 1898, the Physics laboratories in 1900 and the Whitworth Hall in 1902, along with a major extension to the Medical School in 1894. However, to some extent, these donations did not meet the College's needs; by the 1890s, it was running deficits on a number of capital projects, and these were only eliminated by specially-created funds. In 1901, the Jubilee Fund succeeded in raising new money though broad based public subscription, a method which was to become increasingly important.
Such fund-raising campaigns were essential to the College's plans to gain university status. This issue reappeared in the early twentieth century, following the unexpected grant of a charter to the University of Birmingham in 1900. A debate then ensued about whether the Victoria University was in the best interests of its members; University College Liverpool and (less emphatically) Owens College favoured separation, with the less well-endowed Yorkshire College more reluctant to embrace independence. In 1903, Liverpool was granted its own charter, which was followed by the reconstitution of the Victoria University as the Victoria University of Manchester on 15 July 1903 (Yorkshire College became the University of Leeds in 1904). For legal reasons, Owens College continued to exist until 1904, when it was incorporated into the University of Manchester.