Steam engine used at Durn Mill

Why was cotton so important in north west England?

Of all the goods associated with the transatlantic slave trade, cotton was the most important in the Greater Manchester region. The north west had a long history of textile production from the 1400s, based mainly on wool and linen.

With the availability of cotton grown by enslaved Africans in the Americas, cotton processing and production soon became the most important local industries and led to the regional development of towns such as Bolton, Oldham and Rochdale. Raw cotton was grown by enslaved Africans in the Americas and imported through Liverpool for processing.

Textiles from Greater Manchester were cheaper but also superior in quality to those made in the rest of Europe. They were an essential part of the wealth generated by the transatlantic slave trade. Cloth made in the north west was re-exported for trade with Africa where light woven goods, silks and cotton were popular on the west African slaving coast. Cotton goods were also sent to the plantations in the Americas. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm estimates that until 1770 over 90% of British cotton exports went to colonial markets mainly to Africa. Other sources state that Britain had a virtual monopoly on textile exports to the Americas at the time of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and from 1815-1840 about a third of British cotton exports went to America after which the proportion steadily declined (Robin Blackburn, 1997). These, figures, along with considerable exports to Europe and Asia, brought about massive industrial growth in Britain.

Lancashire was perfect for making cotton cloth. The damp climate made the cotton fibres less likely to snap during spinning. There were also many engineering works making spinning and weaving machinery and local coal supplied the boilers firing the mill engines. The region’s long tradition of small scale textile production meant a ready supply of skilled labour, although growth was so rapid that additional labour, including children, had to be brought in from outside Lancashire.

The importance of the cotton industries continued in the north west long after the British abolition of slavery. Cotton grown in the southern states of the USA, where slavery was still legal until 1865, was critical to the expansion of the north west of England and its industrial growth. 

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