How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?


The Metropolitan Borough of Oldham lies to the north east of Manchester. It was established in the local government reorganisation of 1974, amalgamating the county borough of Oldham with the neighbouring towns and districts of Chadderton, Failsworth, Shaw, Royton, Lees and Saddleworth. The population recorded in the census of 2001 was 217,393.

Cotton spinning town

The Industrial Revolution transformed Oldham from a small community, largely unknown outside south east Lancashire, into one of the country’s leading industrial towns. It was cotton spinning that was primarily responsible for this dramatic transformation. During the 1800s Oldham established itself as one of the fastest growing of the new cotton spinning towns, even though it was not directly connected to the region’s canal system.

By 1838 the parish of Oldham already contained more cotton factories than any of the neighbouring districts: 213 factories compared to 117 in Rochdale and 82 in Aston-under-Lyne. Its population quadrupled in the first half of the 1800s, numbering 52,820 in 1851. Oldham’s reputation and wealth were built on cotton spinning and related industries, notably textile engineering. By 1911 Oldham boasted 335 mills, their 15.8m spindles representing almost 10% of all the cotton spindles in the world. It deserved its nickname of ‘Spindleopolis’.

Social conditions

The growth of the town was accompanied by many social problems.  Living conditions for the majority of the population were harsh and mortality rates among the poor remained stubbornly high throughout the century. Little of the considerable wealth created in the town appeared to be lavished on it. Oldham had few impressive public buildings. In the words of the London journalist, Angus Bethune Reach, who visited the town in 1850, ‘the whole place has a shabby underdone look'.

American Civil War and cotton famine

The majority of Oldham mills concentrated on spinning coarser yarn, a fact that meant they became increasingly reliant on the USA for their supply of raw cotton. The disruption of those supplies during the American Civil War brought widespread suffering. Attitudes to the war in the USA varied and changed over time. Some workers supported the northern cause whilst others were desperate to find a solution, any solution, that would bring an end to the blockades on the southern ports, and allow the cotton bales to arrive once more in a town desperate to see smoke belching from its factory chimneys.

The idea of allowing the southern states to secede also had its supporters in the town, individuals who did not necessarily support slavery but who believed that the ‘peculiar institution’ was already withering away and would be replaced by the more efficient free labour economy. Many Oldham liberals were also instinctively sympathetic to the notion that the southern states should have the right to determine their own form of government, and not to have a system imposed upon them by force.

Oldham struggled to meet the crisis which by 1862 had thrown thousands of local people out of work. As in other cotton towns, public works schemes were started. Alexandra Park, the town’s first major public park, was created to provide work for the unemployed due to the cotton famine.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.

Watch and listen to Washington Alcott talking about Oldham and the transatlantic slave trade.