Why was cotton so important in north west England?

Cotton and the rise of industrial Manchester

by Dr Emma Poulter

Textile production in Manchester

It was said that there was not a village within 30 miles of Manchester on the Cheshire and Derbyshire side in which the manufacture of cotton was not carried on. Warehouses were being built in the middle of the town to handle the finished goods as they came from the mills that were springing up in the local towns and villages.

Manchester and its surrounding towns had been involved in textile manufacture since the fifteenth century. Until the seventeenth century this had mainly been based around wool sourced from the region, as well as linen yarn imported from as far afield as Ireland.

However, Bolton has samples of cotton yarn and woven cotton which are the earliest discovered in Lancashire. They came from Hacking Hall, just outside Bolton (demolished in 1927) and are believed to be no later than 1640. At this time Hacking Hall was the home of a cotton dealer called John Crompton. The samples were found behind the panelling of the seventeenth century building.

This early example of pure woven cotton is unusual as cotton was first used in large amounts in the region to produce cloth made from a mixture of cotton and linen known as 'fustian'. However, during the eighteenth century this industry changed rapidly to become dominated by the manufacture of cotton textiles, using raw cotton imported mainly from slave plantations in the Mediterranean, West Indies and later America, so that by 1750 pure cottons were being produced on a large scale.

Transatlantic trade in cotton and slavery

These textiles were then used in the bargaining and exchange systems of slavery. By the end of the transatlantic slave trade the British were exporting approximately a third of a million pieces of textiles to west Africa. Salford Museum and Art Gallery have the earliest examples of the sorts of cottons, which would have been made in Manchester for export. Five volumes of large leather bound sample books, which were compiled for the Great Exhibition of 1851, are in the Salford museum's collection and contain samples of cotton dating back to 1769.

It is probable that some of these samples are examples of the sorts of cottons that were being traded with west Africa as part of slave traders cargos (further research is needed to confirm this). According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, until 1770 over 90% of British cotton-exports went to colonial markets mainly to Africa.

Indian textiles

Textiles made in India were also of crucial importance to the transatlantic slave trade as they were in high demand by Africans because of their superiority to British made cotton. A number of sample books at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry indicate that by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cotton products manufactured in Manchester were in demand in India. More research is needed to investigate the reasons for this.