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Until the industrial development of the park began, in the late 19th century, much of the area now known as Trafford Park was a "beautifully timbered deer park".
It was formerly the ancestral estate of the family that has lent its name to the area, the de Trafford family, one of the most ancient families in England. Sometime between 1672 and 1720, the de Traffords moved from the home that they had occupied since 1017, in what is now known as Old Trafford, to what was then called Whittleswick Hall, which they renamed Trafford Hall. Their new home was a little to the east of where Tenax Circle is now, at the northwestern end of Trafford Park Road.
Trafford Park contained the hall, its grounds, and three farms: Park Farm, Moss Farm, and Waters Meeting Farm. There were three entrance lodges to the park, at Throstle Nest, Old Trafford, and Barton-upon-Irwell. The Old Trafford entrance lodge is the only one to have survived, having been relocated from its original position opposite what is today White City to become the entrance to Gorse Hill Park. An old map shows the whole area as Trafford Heath, and inside it a smaller Trafford Park.
In 1761, a section of the Bridgewater Canal was built through the southeast and southwest sides of Trafford Park. Along with the River Irwell, marking the estate's northern boundary, that gave the park its present-day "island-like" quality.
In about 1860, an eight acre ornamental lake was added to the park. This became filled with foundry waste and builders' rubble during the mid-20th century. What remains of the lake is now the centrepiece of Trafford Ecology Park.
In 1882, a meeting held at the Didsbury home of engineer Daniel Adamson began the estate's transformation, with the creation of the Manchester Ship Canal committee. Sir Humphrey de Trafford was an implacable opponent of the proposed canal. He objected, amongst other things, that it would bring polluted water close to his residence, interfere with his drainage, and render Trafford Hall uninhabitable, forcing him to "give up his home and leave the place". In spite of Sir Humphrey's opposition, the Ship Canal Bill became law on 6 August 1885, after two previous Bills had failed to get through Parliament. However, the construction of the canal did not begin until 1888, more than two years after Sir Humphrey had died.
The Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1894, making Trafford Park a prime site for industrial development. During the following century, Trafford Park was built over with factories and some working-class housing. Neither the deer park nor the ancestral home of the de Trafford family, Trafford Hall, survived its 20th-century industrialisation.
On 7 May 1896, Sir Humphrey Francis de Trafford put the estate up for auction, but it failed to reach its reported reserve price of £300,000. There was much public debate, before and after the abortive sale, as to whether Manchester Corporation ought to buy Trafford Park, but the corporation could not agree terms quickly enough, and so on 23 June 1896 Ernest Terah Hooley became the new owner of Trafford Park, for the sum of £360,000.
On 17 August 1896, Hooley formed Trafford Park Estates Ltd, transferring his ownership of the park to the new company – of which he was the chairman and a significant shareholder – at a substantial profit. The initial plans for the estate included a racetrack, exclusive housing, and a cycle works, along with the development of the Ship Canal frontage for "all types of trade including timber". By that time the ship canal had been open for two years, but the predicted traffic had yet to materialise. Hooley met with Marshall Stevens, the general manager of the Ship Canal Company. Both men recognised the benefit that the industrial development of Trafford Park could offer to the ship canal, and the ship canal to the estate. In January 1897, Stevens became the managing director of Trafford Park Estates.
Like any commercial enterprise, Trafford Park Estates had to generate an income for its investors. The company chose not to construct buildings for letting, but instead to lease land for development by the tenant. However, it could not afford simply to wait for prospective tenants to come forward, and so the park's existing assets had to be made use of in the meantime:
The ornamental lake was leased to William Crooke and Sons, for use as a boating lake, initially on a five-year lease. The lake continued to be used for leisure activities until the 1930s.
Manchester Golf Club leased 80 acres of land near the hall, on which it set up a three-mile long golf course. In 1912, the club moved from Trafford Park to a new site at Hopwood Park.
Trafford Hall's stables and some other outbuildings were used for stock auctions and selling horses, from 1900–1902. A polo ground was also set up in the park.
The Trafford Park Hotel was built in 1902, on the corner of Third Avenue and Ashburton Road. All of the open-field land uses were subsequently pushed out by industry.
Among the first industries to arrive was the Manchester Patent Fuel Company, in 1898. The Trafford Brick Company arrived soon after, followed by J. W. Southern & Co. (timber merchants), James Gresham (engineers), and W. T. Glover and Co (electric cable manufacturers). Glovers also built a power station in the park, on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal. Most of these early developments were built on the eastern side of the park, with the rest remaining largely undeveloped.
The first American company to arrive was Westinghouse, which formed its British subsidiary – British Westinghouse Electric Co in 1899, and purchased 130 acres on two sites. Building work started in 1900, and the factory began production in 1902, making turbines and electric generators. By the following year, British Westinghouse was employing approximately half of the 12,000 workers in Trafford Park. Its main machine shop was 899 feet long and 440 feet wide; for almost 100 years Westinghouse's Trafford Park works was the most important engineering facility in Britain. In 1919, Westinghouse became Metropolitan-Vickers.
In 1903, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), bought land at Trafford Wharf and set up a large food packing factory and a flour mill. Other companies to arrive at that time included N. Kilvert and Sons (making lard), the Liverpool Warehousing Company, and the Lancashire Dynamo and Motor Co.
The second major American company to set up a manufacturing base in Trafford Park was the Ford Motor Company, in 1911. Initially Ford used its factory as an assembly plant for the Model T, but other vehicles were assembled there in later years. Ford moved to Dagenham in 1931, returning temporarily to Trafford Park during World War II, when it manufactured Rolls-Royce Merlin engines – used in both the Spitfire and Lancaster bomber – under licence.
By 1933, over 300 American companies had bases in Trafford Park, and that number was added to when, in 1938, the Kellogg company opened a large industrial complex at Barton Dock. Kellogg's remains a significant presence in the park today.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, there were an estimated 50,000 workers employed in the park. By the end of the war, in 1945, that number had risen to an estimated 75,000, which probably represented the peak size of the park's workforce. Metropolitan-Vickers alone employed 26,000 workers at that time.
As an important industrial area, Trafford Park suffered from extensive bombing during the war, particularly in the Manchester Blitz of December 1940. On the night of December 23, 1940, the Metropolitan-Vickers aircraft factory in Mosley Road was badly damaged, with the loss of 13 Avro Manchester bombers in final assembly. Trafford Hall was also severely damaged, and it was demolished shortly after the war ended.
In the 1960s, employment in the park began to decline, as companies closed their premises in favour of newer, more efficient plants elsewhere.
In 1971, Stretford Council responded to this decline by setting up the Trafford Park Industrial Council (TRAFIC), membership of which was open to any firm in Trafford Park. One of TRAFIC's early initiatives was to encourage businesses in the park to address its general air of decay, by improving their own areas through landscaping and other environmental improvements.