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Manchester's Textile Industry in the 1800s

Updated July 20, 2017

Referred to as "Cottonopolis," Manchester, England, became the hub of cotton manufacturing during the 1800s. Born of inventions such as James Hargreaves's "spinning jenny" in 1764 -- which allowed one person to spin 16 threads of cotton simultaneously -- and aided by advances in water-powered manufacturing, Manchester's cotton and textile processing heralded a golden age for the city. It became one of the largest and most productive cities of the newly industrialised world.

From Piece-Work to Industrial Process

The first full-scale cotton mill opened in 1776 and heralded a shift in cloth production from individual spinners and weavers working at home to large, custom-built factories. The fast-flowing rivers of Lancashire offered free hydropower to these behemoths and the availability of a low-cost, local labour force spurred growth and economic development. By 1830 more than half of all British exports were cotton textiles made in Manchester, with the bulk of the textiles heading to colonial markets, mainly in Africa. As the factories grew in size and number, so did demand for warehouses and residential areas to house workers. The geography of the region began to change significantly as neighbouring valleys and hamlets were absorbed into the resource-hungry metropolis. Manchester's access to a developing network of canals and waterways facilitated a skyrocketing rate of growth in the export of cotton products and textiles.

The Work Force

The population of Manchester and environs leapt from 17,000 to a staggering 180,000 between 1760 and 1830 as economic migrants streamed in from outlying areas, including famine-stricken Ireland. With inexpensive housing for factory workers expanding to eventually include most of the city, the Mancunian tradition of broad cultural diversity was firmly established.

The Changing Landscape

Manchester's rise as the locus of the newly booming economy brought with it changes to the geo-social landscape. In physical terms, the distance between individual towns shrank as Manchester expanded ever closer to Salford, Bolton, Stockport, Rochdale and Oldham. During the 1880s, as production methods became more efficient and Manchester's core expertise specialised, spinning and weaving began to overflow into these neighbouring towns. Paralleling its physical growth, Manchester's reputation also grew as a crowded and unhealthy place to live. High rates of poverty and substandard housing conditions prevailed for the majority of textile workers, even as the regional prosperity continued its upward climb. Indeed, by 1851 almost half a million people were living in the city, yet the SchoolNet website reports that the ratio of toilets to people was estimated in some areas to be as low as 1:125.

The Textile Industry Legacy

Britain's largest manufacturing centre also became a hub of financial and commercial services. In 1826, Manchester welcomed to the city a branch of the Bank of England, and 1830 saw the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. As a nexus of regional and national transportation, Manchester gained access to powerful new technologies and economic markets. By the close of the 1800s, the city was thoroughly cosmopolitan, with a vibrant intellectual community, a burgeoning art scene, and strong sense of cultural identity.

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About the Author

Writing professionally since 1997, Amanda Mitchell's articles have been published in collaborative works such as "Queering the Canon: Defying Sights in German Literature and Culture." In 1994, Mitchell gained a Bachelor of Arts in French and German studies from Nottingham University before pursuing a Ph.D. in contemporary German literary studies from the University of Central Lancashire in 1997.