After mid-19th century mill workers in Lancashire had organised themselves into unions in an attempt to improve their working conditions, a group of women approached MPs Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, advocates of universal suffrage, to ask for their support for women’s suffrage. When John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Act was defeated in 1867, campaigners in Manchester founded the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Lydia Becker was the society’s first secretary from February 1867, and Richard Pankhurst was a member of its committee. The members circulated pamphlets and raised petitions to parliament and the society’s first public meeting on 14 April 1868 in Manchester’s Free Trade HallThe Free Trade Hall in Peter Street, Manchester, England, was a public hall constructed in 1853–1856 on St Peter's Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre, and is now a Radisson hotel. is widely regarded as the start of the suffrage campaign. At the meeting Lydia Becker, Agnes Pochin and Anne Robertson spoke about womens rights, at a time when women rarely spoke in public.
The society underwent several name changes as it affiliated with other women’s suffrage organisations. It became the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage (MNSWS) in November 1867 when it joined the London and Edinburgh societies in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1897, with about 500 other suffrage societies, the MNSWS joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and changed its name to the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage, and in 1911 it became the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, part of the Manchester District Federation of the NUWSS.
The society opened an office at 28 Jackson’s Row in 1868, and in 1887 moved to premises in John Dalton Street.