How did money from slavery help develop Greater Manchester?

The Lees family of Oldham

A fortune made from cotton

The Lees family of Oldham were highly successful cotton manufacturers. Samuel Lees established a successful iron foundry in Oldham in 1816, a business that was inherited by his three sons, Eli, Asa and Job. Eli was the most successful of the three, establishing a cotton spinning and weaving business in 1849. The bulk of his wealth was made from the cheap cotton grown by enslaved Africans in the USA.

Eli's son Charles (1840-1894) began working in the family business in the late 1850s, taking it over some 20 years later. By this time, it had become a highly profitable business, providing Charles with the time and resources to pursue his interests and commitments in religion and the arts.

Legacies of slavery

Although the Lees family were commercially successful largely after the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, and the ending of slavery itself in British colonies in 1833, they continued to profit from slave grown American cotton throughout the nineteenth century. Some of the wealth they made was bequeathed for the benefit of all by the donation of art works to the collections of Gallery Oldham and Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery.

Charles Lees helped establish Oldham Art Gallery (now Gallery Oldham) in 1883, loaning works from his own collection of British watercolours for exhibitions and encouraging others to do likewise. He was an advisor to the Art Gallery Committee and used his influence to encourage artists to show their work in Oldham. He was a member of the Fine Arts section of the 1887 Royal Jubilee Committee and in 1889 contributed to the foundation of the Manchester Whitworth Institute (now Whitworth Art Gallery), to which he donated 13 watercolours. In 1888 he made a substantial gift to Oldham Art Gallery of 80 watercolour paintings and drawings from his own collection.