The earliest student society at Manchester dates to shortly after the foundation of Owens College in 1851, when a debating club was established. Since then societies have been established for a range of intellectual, social and cultural activities. Student societies have been subject to the oversight of the University and the Students Union; both have operated procedures by which societies are officially recognized, and consequently can enjoy certain rights and privileges.
The University introduced its procedures for recognition in the early twentieth century; recognized societies were allowed to use University premises for meetings, and were authorised to use University noticeboards for their own purposes. Recognition was granted by the Vice-Chancellor's Office, after it was satisfied with a society's constitutional and financial arrangements. Societies were required to meet two basic conditions: their objects had to include an academic element; and the administration had to be in the hands of University members (not exclusively, but as the predominant interest). Societies whose objectives constituted mainly "religious services or political meetings for purposes of propaganda" would not generally achieve recognition. The Union's procedures, which permitted use of Union premises, and made societies eligible for small grants from Union funds, were similar in nature. Until 1968, the Union recognized societies only after they had been recognized by the University. After 1968, the recognition processes were separated; in general and with a few exceptions, any society recognised by the University was also recognized by the Union, although the converse did not always apply.
Societies would apply for recognition by submitting draft constitutions for approval (in later years, a pro-forma constitution was devised). Recognition once granted was usually renewed for as long as a Society existed. Not all clubs or societies applied for recognition, and informal groups or societies with controversial objectives often did not pursue recognition, and hence will not be recorded in the files. Sporting clubs, which were affiliated to the Athletic Union, were administered according to its procedures. Recognition by the Vice-Chancellor did not apply to societies exclusively for members of UMIST, although UMIST students, as members of the Faculty of Technology, were eligible for membership of University of Manchester societies.