Rediscovering the Underbanks
4. History and heritage
Early origins as a Market Town.
Stockport was granted its Market Charter in 1260 and developed through the medieval period as a prosperous market town. The Market Place was served by a network of roads which converged on the Market Place. They also connected to a nearby bridging point over the river Mersey. Lancashire Bridge, which crossed the Mersey on Bridge Street, was one of only three along the entire length of the Mersey in the medieval period. A factor which must have contributed to the commercial success of the town.
Old Road to London
It's not clear when the roads of Great and Little Underbank came about. However, the increasing use of wheeled transport required a more practical route from the steep Brow to gain the old Roman Road in the Market place for the journey south. By skirting Stockport’s high outcrop and using the valley of the Tin Brook made for a more gentle gradient rising out of the Mersey valley. We now know that this road as the Great and Little Underbanks and for over 400 years carried traffic through to London.
Early industrial development.
By the 17th century Stockport had become a centre of small domestic industries such as spinning, weaving, leather working, button making and hatting. Retail shops stocking non-perishable goods and luxury items grew in number while the market continued to thrive. It was famous for its local cheeses and cloth. The town had even given its name to a type of linen called Stopport cloth. The town developed rapidly during the late 18th and 19th century and Stockport became one of the region’s first centres of the Industrial Revolution. Factories were established in close proximity to the town centre. In 1732 the North-West’s first water-powered textile factory was built in the Park below the Market Place. Cotton spinning, weaving and other industrial activities, notably including hat manufacture followed.
During the 18th century the town’s many inns remained a central part of its social life. Also its business life with thirty-one inns recorded in the township in the mid 1750s. The principle hostelry at this time was the White Lion Hotel on Great Underbank, Stockport’s main coaching inn and the venue for the Court Leet banquets.
Late 18th century development
This rapid expansion in industry also led to an increased demand for land for new buildings by the late 18th century. This resulted in the passing of an act permitting the rector of Stockport to lease out much of the surrounding glebe land. This had previously been reserved for use by the church or as agricultural land, for building. The late 18th century town houses at 78 and 80 Churchgate were erected on land leased for building under this act. Other buildings in the area were increasingly sub-dived or extended to meet the growing need for domestic accommodation and business premises. There is evidence of buildings being extended backwards by hollowing out the soft sandstone cliffs which lay to the rear of some of the towns streets.
At this time fashion for brick buildings were replacing the timber-frame tradition with many earlier dwellings being rebuilt or remodelled in brick. The core of the town then became a mixture of the two building types. The early timber framed rectory was replaced with the present brick building in 1743. The 17th century gabled façade of Staircase House was hidden behind a more fashionable brick frontage.
Having invested in the mid 19th century improvements in the Market Place, the issue of access once again arose. It was again addressed in 1864 with construction of a bridge linking the Market with St Petersgate over Little Underbank. This was to provide an easier approach from the west of the town and from the railway station. St. Petersgate Bridge was built next to Turners Steps, an existing pedestrian link between the Market Place and Little Underbank. To make way for this, properties in the south-west corner of the Market Place were demolished. A grand new commercial building (the Bank of Stockport) was then erected.
A Victorian Shopping Street
In the 19th century Little Underbank was probably the finest shopping street in Stockport. All the needs of the town were available on Little Underbank from its 30 shop with hosiers, milliners and curriers all plying their trade. Its prestige encouraged Jacob Winters to set up a jewellery shop at number 23. He installed a superb automaton clock with soldier sailor and old father time marking the time. His ingenuity did not finish with the clock. By harnessing the power of water, he made a device for lowering and raising the window display which could be lowered into the basement for safe keeping.
White Lion, in the 1950's