How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?

Bolton and cotton manufacturing

by Washington Alcott

Several towns and cities in the north west of England became prosperous during the late 1700s and early 1800s, as a result of dealing with slave–grown produce. Bolton became a thriving manufacturing town at the turn of the century. This growth was mainly due to its extensive involvement in the processing of cotton.

The town supported slavery directly and indirectly, through the development and expansion of the cotton industry, direct investment in plantations in the Caribbean, and in support for the manufacturing industries in Manchester through production of goods for African markets.

Investors in the processing of cotton exploited Bolton’s geographical advantages to develop cotton mills in the town for imported slave-grown cotton. Bolton had a good source of natural free flowing water, which cotton manufacturers utilised to power their mills and wash the cotton, though the process became more mechanised later on using steam power and the 'spinning mule', invented by Bolton born Samuel Crompton. We should also remember that many local hand-loom weavers lost work as a result of these changes.

Raw cotton supplies

Like many other cotton production areas in England at the time, Bolton depended on imported raw cotton to meet the demand for cotton goods. This demand was met mainly from three regions in the world: the Middle East, the West Indies (Caribbean) and the Americas. Whilst check cotton was the main cloth supplied to Africa, manufacturers in Bolton were able to supply a range of non-check materials to supplement west African demand. These materials included silk and calico.

Technological developments

The Bolton cotton industry production was boosted significantly by technological investment. Three major investments were significant:

  • The establishment of the Ashworth Mill (further enhanced by Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule).
  • The introduction of the Peter Drinkwater Mill in 1780, which used a steam engine in 1789.
  • The development of the power loom by Edmund Cartwright followed by the dressing frame by William Radcliffe in 1803, which enabled power looms to operate continuously.

Bolton’s cotton investors, men such as Thomas Marsden, invested widely in the cotton trade and so were effectively supporting the transatlantic slave trade. These slavery related investments brought significant benefits to the town, including money for research and investment in cotton milling technology, and the expansion of a range of markets in the town as manufacturers became more wealthy. These markets included a broad range of goods from the colonies and Africa.

Wealthy Bolton families

Bolton’s investment in the Caribbean slavery system was mainly through two families: the McConnels and the Kennedys. These wealthy families had numerous slavery connections. They invested significantly in machines to provide greater power for the spinning of cotton in Bolton. They also directly financed cotton warehouses in the area. They owned plantations in Barbados and Jamaica, and a profitable sugar refinery in Britain.

As Manchester’s links with transatlantic slavery intensified, Bolton had a small but significant role in the production of check cloth made in Manchester for supply to the west coast of Africa. Many businesses in Bolton became major suppliers to Manchester, providing non-check material that would be used in west Africa for clothing and bedding, furniture, dyes, ink and bonding material.

There were also some merchants from Bolton who invested in aspects of the Manchester economy that had direct links to transatlantic slavery. These areas were mainly banking, insurance and warehousing.

James Watkins and Bolton

Former slave James Watkins came to live in Bolton and his landlord, a printer, agreed to publish his autobiography. This biography is now held at Bolton Museum & Archive Service (see Watkins visited local millworkers to petition their support for the anti-slavery movement, emphasising the connection between the cotton industry and slavery. Watkin’s anti-slavery campaign amongst local workers did not fall on deaf ears. The workers gave him their support. He made the plight of enslaved people known across many areas of the borough.

Bolton activists and abolitionists

Bolton workers were known to be the most revolutionary of all during the heyday of the cotton trade. There was a long history of labour troubles and strikes in Bolton. One of the earliest examples of labour unrest was the machine-breaking riots of 1780. In these riots, workers smashed several machines of prominent mill owners such as Thomasson and Ashworth. Between 1810 and 1823 there were widespread strikes by mill workers in Bolton. The strikes were at first protests against working conditions in the mills and later they were against the loss of jobs from the mechanisation. Two of the strikes that were particularly damaging to the Bolton area took place in 1818 and 1823. From the widespread strikes in 1818, damage estimated at £30,000 took place at several mills owned by Ormrod and Hardcastle. The 1823 Bolton strike affected both spinners and weavers, and several spinners were sentenced under the Combination Laws, which had been brought in to make many trade union activities illegal.

While Bolton’s manufacturers and its population were busily profiting from the spoils of transatlantic slavery, they did not entirely turn their heads away from the evil of this activity. Following the passing of a law to end the trade by the British in March 1807, agitation to end slavery grew. In 1820 many of the emancipated slaves from the colonies who were now in Bolton spoke out against the poor conditions that existed in slavery. Bolton citizens gathered a petition in 1820 which called for the total abolition of slavery in the British colonies.

Even though most people in Bolton were not involved directly in slavery or in owning enslaved people, a large number of people living and working in Bolton had indirect involvement because they worked in the cotton industry, consumed sugar or smoked tobacco.