Why was cotton so important in north west England?


The Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale was created in the local government reorganisation of 1974, amalgamating the county borough of Rochdale with the neighbouring districts of Heywood, Middleton, Littleborough, Wardle and Milnrow. In the 2001 census the population numbered 205,233.

Wool and cotton textile centre

Rochdale was described in the 1600s as ‘a pretty neate towne built all of stone’. Its prosperity was derived from agriculture and textiles. It was recognised as an important centre for the production of woollen textiles as well as the making of hats. Located on the flanks of the Pennines, Rochdale was to grow as the cotton industry began to boom in the last quarter of the 18th century. Spinning mills were built in the Pennine valleys where the water supply was reliable, stone easily quarried and there was a readily available labour force with experience in manufacturing textiles.

Transport links

The construction of the Rochdale Canal was a response to this growth in industry and commerce, helping to reduce the costs in carrying cotton from Liverpool. By the early 1840s the opening of the Leeds-Manchester Railway provided a further stimulus to the industrial development of the town and surrounding villages.

The rapid expansion of the parish was most obvious in Rochdale itself, where the population increased from some 29,000 in 1851 to over 83,000 in 1901. As in other textile towns, modern forms of local government eventually replaced the old parish systems. Rochdale became a municipal borough in 1856.

Co-operative movement

Rochdale was not a pure cotton town. It continued to rely on its traditional textile products, notably flannel, as well as investing in the new cotton factories. Change was ongoing, but not without costs. The first half of the 1800s was a period of social tension and protest. Rochdale had a turbulent labour history. However, it was to be best remembered as the place where, in 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened their first store, an act which proved to be a decisive moment in what was to become a worldwide co-operative movement.

Anti-slavery stand

Nonconformity was strong in Rochdale and religious dissidents came to play an important part in local politics. Rochdale was active in the petitioning of parliament that resulted in the passing of the 1833 abolition act. It also continued to protest once it became clear that the 1833 act would not result in the swift abolition of slavery. John Bright was to become the town’s most famous politician. One of his earliest public speeches was made at an anti-slavery meeting in a Methodist chapel in Rochdale in 1838. He joined other speakers in detailing the ineffectiveness of the 1833 act, arguing that it was too easily avoided by colonial planters, leaving many enslaved Africans even worse off than before abolition. 

John Bright

John Bright and anti-slaveryAlthough the town was not without its critics who saw it as a place ‘given over to the dehumanising work of money making’, Rochdale was one of the principal communities supporting the cause of the northern states in the American Civil War. In this it followed John Bright, whose eloquent speeches helped to reduce support for the southern states. Most people in Rochdale regarded Bright as a man above ordinary politics, a moral hero who was to be remembered with a marble bust in the town hall and a portrait statue in the main park.

This information was provided by Terry Wyke.

Watch and listen to Washington Alcott talking about the relationship between Rochdale and slavery.