Macrophages are a major component of most solid tumours and can exert both anti- and pro-tumourigenic functions. Although the immunosuppressive/pro-tumour roles of macrophages have been widely examined, significantly less is known about macrophage subpopulations that have potential anti-tumour properties in humans. In the present study, a population of CD169+ macrophages with relatively high expression levels of HLA-DR and CD86 was identified in human hepatocellular carcinoma tissues. The frequency of CD169-expressing macrophages within cancer nests was significantly lower than that found in paired non-tumour areas. In vitro experiments revealed that in the presence of anti-CD3 stimulation, CD169+ macrophages could significantly enhance the proliferation, cytotoxicity, and cytokine production capacity of CD8+ T cells in a CD169 molecule-dependent manner. Autocrine TGF-β produced by tumour-stimulated macrophages was involved in the down-regulation of CD169 expression on these cells. Moreover, the accumulation of CD169+ macrophages in tumour tissues was negatively associated with disease progression and predicted favourable survival in hepatocellular carcinoma patients, which was in contrast to the trend observed for total CD68+ macrophages. Therefore, CD169 might act as a co-stimulatory molecule for cytotoxic T-cell activation, and could define a population of tumour-infiltrating macrophages with potential anti-tumour properties in human hepatocellular carcinoma tissues. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.