The name is first recorded as "Mowel" around 1270 AD, and is believed to be derived from either the Anglo-SaxonMūga-hyll, meaning "heap-hill", with copp = "head" added later, or the Common Celtic ancestor of Welsh moel (= hill), with Anglo-Saxon copp added later.
At the village's summit, men once quarried stone to make into querns, used since the Iron Age for milling corn; this trade ended during the Victorian period. The village also has a long history of coal mining. A 65ft rock feature called the Old Man O'Mow sits in one of the quarry areas and is believed to be the site of an ancient cairn. The most dominant feature is Mow Cop Castle which is a folly of a ruined castle at the summit of the hill, built in 1754. Both Mow Cop and Old Man O'Mow are under the management of the National Trust and sit on the walking route of the Cheshire Gritstone Trail. The village was served by a railway station which was opened by the North Staffordshire Railway on 9 October 1848.
Since the late 20th century, Mow Cop is known for its Killer Mile, a one-mile road race from the railway level crossing on the western side of the hill, up to the castle. The race was first organized in the early 1980s by John Britton, and sponsored by ICL (Kidsgrove). It continues today, organised by the Mow Cop Residents' Association. Mow Cop Runners, a local running club founded in 2009, meet at the Ash Inn and organise The Mow Cop Hill Race, a 6.5 mile fell race. The climb is also well known among local cyclists and features in the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs in Britain.