Why was cotton so important in north west England?

Cotton Mills, Ancoats, Manchester

Water power

The first generation of cotton spinning mills were water powered and located in areas where there was an abundant and regular supply of water. Manchester’s first cotton mill dates from 1783. Located on Miller Street, it was built for Richard Arkwright and was water powered. It was in the 1790s with the introduction of steam driven machinery that Manchester began to develop as an important centre for cotton spinning.


Ancoats was one of the districts in which monumental multi-storey spinning mills were built in the late 1790s. Two massive mill complexes began to be constructed in Ancoats on land in Union Street (now Redhill Street), adjoining the proposed Rochdale Canal. They were built by two Scotsmen who had moved to Manchester to find their fortunes. Adam and George Murray had bought land on Union Street and by 1798 began erecting the first section of what was to become one of the country’s largest cotton mills. On an adjacent block, James McConnel and John Kennedy also erected a cotton spinning mill. In less than 20 years their original mill had become part of an extraordinary industrial complex. The buildings were audacious in their size, eight storeys high. Inside the mill, row after row of carding and spinning machines were powered by steam engines.

Canal link

The Murrays’ mills, unlike McConnel and Kennedy, had a direct link to the Rochdale Canal. The canal was one of the means by which the all important raw cotton reached the mills. McConnel and Kennedy specialised in fine spinning which demanded high quality cotton, usually coming from the Americas. By 1816 both Murrays and McConnel and Kennedy were employing over 1,000 operatives, and their mills had become one of the wonders of the new industrial society.

Child labour

Such mills employed children for a number of unskilled and semi-skilled tasks, including cleaning machinery. This employment of young children in textile mills became a cause for concern, and beginning with the passing of the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act in 1802, legislation was introduced which attempted to regulate the working conditions and the number of hours pauper children worked in the cotton factories. The 1802 Act in Child LAbour was chiefly the work of the Bury textile manufacturer, Sir Robert Peel (1750-1830). Peel was a partner in a highly successful textile business, Peel and Yates, which signed the 1806 Manchester petition against Wilberforce’s Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill.

Reform and 'white slavery'

The debate over the employment of children had many parallels with the campaign to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Factory reformers attempted to boost public opinion against the employment of young children by depicting them as ‘white slaves’. Thus when the factory reformer, Richard Oastler, presented evidence on the abuses suffered by children working in cotton mills to a government enquiry in 1832, he was following a familiar line of argument in suggesting that conditions in the textile factories were comparable to those found on slave plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas:

‘The demoralising effects of the system are as bad, I know it, as the demoralizing effects of slavery in the West Indies. I know that there are instances and scenes of the grossest prostitution amongst the poor creatures who are the victims of the system, and in some cases are the objects of the cruelty and rapacity and sensuality of their masters. These things, I never dared to publish, but the cruelties which are inflicted personally upon the little children, not to mention the immensely long hours which they are subject to work, are such as I am very sure would disgrace a West Indian plantation...’ Oastler’s evidence in the Report of Committee on the Labour of Children in Factories, 1832.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.