Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

Rochdale and cotton production

by Washington Alcott

Cotton production and the canals

The expansion of the cotton industry in Rochdale from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries was influenced mainly by cotton production. The cotton trade influenced the development of transportation routes into and out from this area, mainly via the canal networks.

During the vibrant days of economic trading between British merchants to the west African coast, the town of Rochdale was one of the main market centres for cloth in northern England. This attracted a large number of merchants into the town to obtain supplies for foreign markets. The majority of cloth found in the Rochdale market came from the thriving cotton industry that existed in the town. The area was well suited to the production of cotton. The cotton cloth from here then became a central link for products and services in Liverpool and Manchester.

Cloth traders from several areas in England would visit different markets mainly in the town centre of Rochdale to purchase cotton, silk and calico. These traders sold their products on in other markets and some directly to manufacturers exporting to the west African coast, who would exchange the finished cloths for enslaved Africans to be taken to the Americas. 

Coloured dyes

Dye work developments in Rochdale were a thriving sector. The dyes produced here were not only for the local industry; large quantities were sold on to cotton merchants and dye suppliers in Manchester who exported cotton, linen and silk to west Africa. Many of the suppliers of dye in Manchester were prominent investors in insurance and freight businesses in Manchester and London for ships travelling the transatlantic slave route.

Some of the direct suppliers of cloth to Liverpool slave traders also came from Rochdale. The Liverpool traders spared no efforts to obtain cloth from as many markets as possible for the ships travelling to west Africa.

Rochdale canal

The Rochdale canal, completed between 1798 and 1804, was designed to make river craft payloads, from both sides of the Pennines,  more efficient and profitable. The investments in this project were paid for from different sources, but some of the major investors were slave traders and cotton merchants. We should also note that funding which came from financial institutions were monies directly and indirectly earned from the profitability of trading in slave-grown products.

The Rochdale Canal runs for 33 miles between Manchester and Rochdale and was initially designed to transport coal and raw material, effectively linking Manchester to international trade routes for sources of raw cotton and the finished cloth products. The canal also transported tons of coal, grain, salt, cotton and wool.

Other investments

Another aspect in which Rochdale was linked to the activities of the slave trade was through direct investment in the cotton trade from a number of investors who had a hand in the trade. Not all the slave traders' returns went back into mercantile economic activities. Those who did not plough their money into banking, insurance and shipbuilding would invest in mills and warehousing in particular in the town. One spending example was the Higher Mill, a finishing mill built by William Turner in 1789 (water powered), but was modernised throughout the years and was later converted into a textile museum.

James Duckworth who started out as a tea seller became a prominent cotton warehouse merchant who had premises on Whitehall Street, John Street and Water Street. From these businesses he prospered very well and opened many shops in villages in the Rochdale area. The Turner family was also another prominent business enterprise which began with the Turner brothers and was formed in 1871.

John Bright

John Bright and anti-slaveryOne of Rochdale's efforts in the abolition movement was led by John Bright, a mill owner who campaigned for the ending of slavery, but opposed efforts to end child labour. He and Richard Cobden gave numerous anti-slavery lectures in Rochdale, highlighting the connections and similarities with workers in the cotton mills. Both men also encouraged wide-ranging support for the anti-slavery campaign of American president Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.

The area was also graciously recognised for its support in the liberation struggle against slavery, when cotton workers in Rochdale mills refused to handle slave-grown cotton in support for the blockade of the southern states cotton exports. During the cotton famine (1862-3), the people of Lancashire received donations of food carried from the USA by the ship George Griswold, specially donated by President Lincoln. One of these barrels (the only remaining one) is now on display at Touchstones Rochdale http://www.link4life.org.

Anti-slavery activities

Rochdale's anti-slavery activity reflected a similar trend in other north west boroughs at the time. There were individual abolitionists who led speeches and public meetings, and cotton workers who supported public campaigns as well as demonstrating direct and indirect actions to support local and national measures to abolish slavery and promote a free-grown cotton trade.