Historically in Lancashire, Salford's early history is marked by its status as a Royal caput and the judicial seat of the ancient hundred of Salfordshire, to which it lent its name. It was granted a charter by Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester, in about 1230, making Salford a free borough. During the early stages of its growth, Salford was of greater cultural and commercial importance than its neighbour Manchester, although most contemporary sources agree that since the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that position has been reversed.
Salford became a major factory town and inland port during the 18th and 19th centuries. Cotton and silk spinning and weaving in local mills attracted an influx of families and provided Salford with a strong economy. Salford Docks was a principal dockyard of the Manchester Ship Canal. By the end of the 19th century Salford had an enlarged working class community and suffered from chronic overpopulation. However, industrial activities declined during the 20th century, causing a local economic depression. Salford subsequently became one of contrasts, with regenerated inner-city areas like Salford Quays next to some of the most socially deprived and violent areas in England.
Salford has become a centre of higher education, home to the University of Salford, and has seen several firsts, including the world's first unconditionally free public library, and the first street in the world to be lit by gas, Chapel Street in 1806. Salford's MediaCityUK became the headquarters of CBBC and BBC Sport in 2011, joined by ITV Granada in 2013.
The name of Salford derives from the Old English word Sealhford, meaning a ford by the willow trees. It referred to the willows (Latin: salix) or sallows that grew alongside the banks of the River Irwell. The ford was about where Victoria Bridge is today. Willow trees are still found in Lower Broughton. Salford appears in the pipe roll of 1169 as "Sauford" and in the Lancashire Inquisitions of 1226 as "Sainford".
The earliest known evidence of human activity in what is now Salford is provided by the Neolithic flint arrow-heads and workings discovered on Kersal Moor and the River Irwell, suggesting that the area was inhabited 7–10,000 years ago. The raw material for such tools was scarce and unsuitable for working, and as a result they are not of the quality found elsewhere. Other finds include a neolithic axe-hammer found near Mode Wheel, during the excavation of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1890, and a Bronze Age cremation urn during the construction of a road on the Broughton Hall estate in 1873.