To the south of the town there are extensive tracts of prehistoric and Roman remains, including settlements, burial sites and trackways. However no evidence for these periods has yet been found within the town itself.
Medieval Manningtree appears to have been deliberately planted in the first half of the thirteenth century, presumably by the lord of the manor; there is a reference of the grant of a market to the manor of Sciddinghou in 1238 and the town itself is first recorded in 1248. The town was intended as a new port, and achieved some success in local trade, transhipping provisions to the fleet in Harwich and as a fishing port supplying Colchester. The town layout suggests some form of deliberate planning based on the market in the High Street and the Quay. The dog-leg plan of South Street immediately to the south of the town raises the possibility that there had been a town enclosure.
The quality of the sixteenth century built environment suggests that the town underwent a financial boom in that century. In the early nineteenth century Manningtree was a major centre of the Essex malt industry with five separate sites in operation. The Lawford Works was also a major employer with three complexes producing leather and iron goods on the west side of the town. This industrial activity necessitated the construction of small terraces of workers’ housing and more substantial managers’ dwellings. In the late nineteenth century the erection of the huge Mistley maltings in the neighbouring parish effectively eclipsed the production of malt in Manningtree and parts of the Lawford Works appear to have gone into decline about the same time.