How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?

Manchester Royal Exchange

Cotton centre

Manchester's position as the world's first industrial city was based on one commodity: cotton. Manchester became an important centre for the spinning of cotton during the Industrial Revolution but, more importantly, it was also the commercial centre of the industry. This was evident in the numerous warehouses in the city and, above all, in the Manchester Royal Exchange. 

Manchester Exchange

Manchester’s first exchange opened in 1729 but it had closed by the end of the 1700s. As the cotton industry boomed, the need for a new exchange was recognised. The first modern exchange, designed by Thomas Harrison, was completed in 1809. It was located at the junction of Market Street and Exchange Street, overlooking the Market Place. As the cotton industry expanded, the pressures on space led to demands for a much larger building. A new exchange, incorporating the original building, was completed in 1849. When Queen Victoria visited Manchester in 1851 she was received not in the town hall but in the new exchange. Following this visit the building took the title of the Manchester Royal Exchange, a large sculpted royal coat of arms being added to the exterior.

Global trade

The Manchester Royal Exchange and the Liverpool Cotton Exchange were at the very heart of the Lancashire cotton industry. In Liverpool it was the raw cotton that was traded. In Manchester it was spun yarn and woven fabrics that were traded, cotton goods that were exported across the world. In the 1700s such goods were sold to countries in Africa, part of the infamous triangular slave trade, which culminated in enslaved Africans growing and harvesting the cotton that was then carried back across the Atlantic to supply Lancashire’s mills. Even after Britain had abolished slavery in its empire in 1833, slavery continued in some colonies whilst British merchants traded with countries such as Brazil where slavery remained part of the economic system.

Wealth of Manchester

Manchester grew richer as the industry continued to expand. One consequence was the demand for an even larger and grander cotton exchange. The exchange was extended in the early 1870s; the building including a grand entrance on Cross Street. The interior was equally impressive and Mancunians boasted that the trading floor was ‘the biggest room in the world’. ‘Change, as locals referred to it, was the landmark public building of Victorian Manchester, and no visit to ‘Cottonopolis’ would have been considered complete without seeing the ‘parliament of the cotton lords’. On market days one could see the merchants, brokers and commission agents strike the deals on which the work of tens of thousands in textile Lancashire depended.

Expansion and decline

The long boom of the industry continued and by the early 1900s the pressure was mounting, once more, for an even larger building. In 1914 the Bolton architects, Bradshaw Gass and Hope were appointed to oversee a massive extension of the existing building. This was not completed until after the war. When King George V opened the new Manchester Royal Exchange in 1921, the fortunes of the Lancashire cotton industry were about to change. Decades of almost unbroken growth and healthy profits were to be replaced by the loss of markets to foreign competitors, contraction, unemployment and the closing of cotton mills. Membership of the Manchester Royal Exchange also declined.

Royal Exchange Theatre

To add to the industry’s problems, the Exchange was bombed during the Second World War. Cotton continued to be traded until 1968. The building then had to find a new role. This was realised in 1973 with a pilot season for the opening of the Royal Exchange Theatre which now dominates the famous trading floor. The theatre fully opened in 1976 and was remodelled to the present layout after the 1996 IRA bomb. Today, the walls still show the information boards, providing details of cotton prices on the final day of trading, as a reminder of the building’s long and central contribution to the history of cotton industry in Lancashire.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.