How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?


Manchester’s transformation from market town to industrial city occurred in the decades from the 1770s to the 1850s. The built-up area was initially confined to the township but as the population increased, industry and housing spilled over into the adjoining townships. The establishment of the borough of Manchester in 1838 reflected this relentless urban growth. Manchester was designated a city in 1853. Continued urban development led to further extensions of the municipal boundaries in 1890 and 1904 and again in 1931. The present-day city of Manchester covers an area of 11,612 hectares. In the 2001 census the population numbered 392,819.

Textile centre

Centuries of involvement in the manufacturing and selling of textiles established Manchester as the leading commercial and manufacturing centre in south east Lancashire. In 1773 the population of the township was approaching 25,000 and rising, though at that date the town did not have a modern cotton mill. This was soon to change. The growth of the factory-based cotton industry in the following decades was the engine that transformed the town into one of the country’s largest and most important cities. A new landscape of factories, warehouses, canals, railways and terraced houses was created. It was, by any standards, a spectacular transformation. Cotton mills in which the machinery was powered by steam not water began to be erected in the 1790s, massive industrial buildings that became the iconic symbol of the new industrial age. These mills demanded ever-increasing quantities of cotton. Raw cotton imports which amounted to 48 million lbs (more than 21 million kgs) in 1770-79, totalled a phenomenal 1,664 million lbs (more than 750 million kgs) in 1820-29. Pressures were put on suppliers.

Slave-grown cotton

The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in the 1790s contributed to the opening up of the southern USA as a major supplier of raw cotton to Europe. The exact volume of slave-grown cotton coming into Manchester and its satellite cotton towns is not known but it must always have been very significant. The growth in economies based on slave labour in the Americas followed the expansion of the Lancashire cotton industry. Cotton, however, was not to be the focus of consumer boycotts in the same way that sugar and rum were in the abolitionist campaigns during the late 1700s, in spite of Manchester’s prominent role in mobilising public support for the ending of slavery in British colonies.

Transport networks

Manchester was the largest urban area outside London in 1801. Its economy was more diverse than other cotton towns and its growth was boosted by its willingness to innovate. It was the centre of a network of canals which transported the food, coal and other raw materials essential for the urban economy. In 1830 Manchester also became the inland terminus of the world’s first modern railway. By the 1840s two more railway stations were opened - London Road and Victoria - confirming 'Cottonopolis' as one of the hubs of the new railway age.

Social change and slums

Such unprecedented economic change was accompanied by profound social change. Manchester was depicted as a city of contrasts: a place of enormous wealth that was also a byword for poverty and squalor. Whilst the centre of ‘Cottonopolis’ boasted impressive public and commercial buildings, a short distance away were to be found some of the country’s worst slums. Visitors who came to see and make sense of this new and raw industrial world left with a multiplicity of images, positive and negative. Manchester had the power to shock. Visiting Manchester in 1835, the French political thinker, Alexis de Toqueville, noted:

‘From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.’

For those individuals who were able to go inside a cotton mill or who went on market day to gaze at the merchants and agents at the cotton exchange there was also admiration. Other observers were more critical, focusing on the industry’s problems, not least the employment of young children and the long working hours of the factory system. However, for most people, the origins of the ‘white gold’ that was fed into the carding machines in the factories did not appear to be a particular cause of concern.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.