How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?

Slave-grown cotton in Greater Manchester museums

by Dr Emma Poulter

Too many people treat the history of cotton textile production as if the source of cotton was the moon, and not mainly (though not exclusively) the system of slave labour using people of African descent in the southern USA.

US systems of slavery and cotton production

Cotton is integral to the story of the Industrial Revolution and the wealth on which Manchester was built during the late eighteenth and the majority of the nineteenth centuries. Yet where this cotton came from is rarely discussed. We know, for example, that in 1860 US cotton accounted for over 88% of the cotton imported into Great Britain and that enslaved Africans produced this cotton.

Cotton created enormous wealth for Manchester but it also resulted in massive exploitation of slave-labour on the plantations and, although under very different circumstances, in the cotton mills across the region where men, women and children worked long hours in dangerous conditions for poor pay.

Museum evidence

The wealth and prosperity of industrial Manchester is reflected for example, in the collections made by industrialists housed at the Manchester Museum, Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery. At the Museum of Science and Industry there are numerous examples of the merchants and manufacturers who made their money through cotton, with objects, records and machinery belonging to these various businessmen, such as the agreement between Arkwright, Smalley and Thornly regarding the original patent of Arkwright's Water Frame spinning machine. Evidence of the people who made and worked this machinery and lived through events such as the Lancashire cotton famine are housed at the People's History Museum.

Collections made by mill workers, mainly of botanical specimens, can also be found at the Manchester Museum. The cotton products made in Greater Manchester during the late eighteenth and in the nineteenth century are shown in sample books at Salford, Bolton, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Whitworth Art Gallery. Examples of twentieth century fabric made for export are at the Whitworth Art Gallery and Bolton, the stamps and labels used to brand these products being found at Bolton, Rochdale and the Museum of Science and Industry. These twentieth century items indicate the continuation of trade between Britain and west Africa after the abolition of the British slave trade and show how Africa remained an important market for British made products.