The area now occupied by St. Ann's Square was once known as Acresfield. The earliest record of this field, which comprised four large 'Lancashire acres', occurs in 1222 when the regent for Henry III granted a licence to Robert Greslet or Grelly, the first Norman baron to settle in 'Mamcestre'. Grelly was lord of the manor, and requested a licence to hold an annual fair on the eve and feast of St. Matthew. The licence was extended, when the king came of age in 1227, to include 'the morrow of St. Matthew' (the following day) as well. This was intended to last in perpetuity.
Acres Fair was the only fair held by Charter in Manchester, and it initially served the farming communities of Lancashire and Cheshire as a market for the sale of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. It grew into an important event with additional benefits for the whole village, which was all that Manchester amounted to in the 13th century.
The field, surrounded by hedges and ditches, was common land over which the villagers enforced their grazing rights, except on the days of the fair. When Manchester began to grow into a town in the 17th century, pressure for development was put on Acres field.
In 1708, the Act of Parliament that granted that St. Ann's Church might be built also stipulated that a space 30 yards wide should be reserved for the fair. This became St. Ann's Square, named after the reigning monarch and Lady Ann Bland, the lord of the manor and patron of the church. The church, consecrated in 1712, was Manchester's third after the Church of St. Mary (which is now the Cathedral) and the Cross Street Chapel. The Square also served as the principal place for the hiring of servants. During the 1745 Rebellion, Bonnie Prince Charlie reviewed his troops in the Square.
Acres Court or Ackers Gates was a narrow passage leading from Market Street to St. Ann's Square, and was one of the entrances to the fair, where toll gates controlled admission. Acres Fair served the community for 650 years. It was moved in 1820, first to Shudehill and then to Campfield, Deansgate, where it remained until it was abolished in 1876.
St. Ann's Square conservation area has been home to the Manchester Cotton Exchange for over two centuries. It first opened in 1729, the second building being erected slightly further south, on the site of the present one, in 1809. The third and current Royal Exchange building was constructed in 1874, boasting the largest trading floor in the country. This building was extensively altered between 1914 and 1921, badly damaged by bombing during World War II, and repaired in subsequent years. It was finally closed in 1968, but by 1976 had been adapted to other uses, one of which was the provision of a home for a theatre of national repute. The building was again badly damaged by the terrorist bomb explosion in 1996, but it was fully repaired and it reopened in 1998.
The building on King Street known as Old Exchange was built in 1897. Its predecessor on the site provided temporary accommodation for the Cotton Exchange around 1800, hence its name. Most buildings on King Street were built or rebuilt during Victoria's reign, the main exception being nos. 35-37, the last surviving Georgian mansion in central Manchester. It was built as a residence in 1736 by Dr. Peter Waring, and became a bank soon after his death in 1788. Following severe internal alterations in the 1970s, the building continued in use as a bank, but was further remodelled in the 1990s to become retail shops.
The buildings around St. Ann's Square and along King Street developed into the most fashionable shopping district in Manchester, maintaining that status to the present day. King Street was the first city centre street to be given over to pedestrian use, in 1976, and the Square followed in the early 1980s. Both have been restored with more appropriately designed schemes in the 1990s.