Industrial Manchester, England; 1760-1825

Manchester, England
is widely known as an illustrative example of the industrial revolution, from the positive aspects of economic growth and technological advances to the more negative qualities associated, like over crowding and social stratification.  How does a city become such an industrial powerhouse in relatively short period of time?  From a climate conducive to the cotton trade to existing canals and transportation mechanisms, Manchester was primed to become an efficient industrial city once cotton mill technology caught up to the existing infrastructure.  Manchester and its upper class quickly prospered, and separated themselves from the newly developed and rapidly growing working class.  The social stratification was epic, as was the overcrowding.  Working conditions were abysmal, inspiring scholars at the time to write several now-famous works critiquing the working conditions and the working class' plight.  

Table of Contents

Causes of Revolution in Manchester
Between 1700 and 1750 most cotton weaving was done in the house/cottage then sold to Fustian masters, who purchased finished product from the different houses in town. In 1733 the fly shuttle was invented which increased the amount of fabric you can weave. This was one of the first machines used to weave on a large scale, but workers scared of losing their jobs burned his factory to the ground.1 The first factory containing multiple machines used for cotton was made in Northampton and was powered by water. In 1764 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame and the spinning jenny, further automating cotton production. In 1780 after his largest factory was burnt down, he moved to Manchester and built a factory that could hold 600 workmen. The industrialization of cotton production had officially begun.2

“If Britain had had to depend on her roads to carry her heavy goods traffic the effective impact of the industrial revolution may well have been delayed until the railway age.”  -Phyllis Deane, Historian3
Canals were essential for the distribution of coal throughout Manchester and the rest of the UK. Before the prominence of the railways, canals were the only cheap mode of transportation allowing for the movement of massive amounts of cargo with ease. Had the canals not have connected vast quantities of coal with foreign raw materials; Manchester may not have become the industrial center of northern England.4

Noted Transportation Advances Include:

Bridgewater Canal

Bridgewater Canal

Considered to the world’s first true canal, it connected Runcorn, Manchester and Leigh in North West England. It was constructed to transport coal from the mines in Worsley to Manchester. Previous transportation methods by way of packhorse and other various rivers were inefficient and costly.  Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, whom hired James Brindley to engineer the route, funded the Canal. The determined path would begin underground at Worsley heading southeast through Eccles, then head south as it passed over River Irwell. Once it crossed over the river, the canal would follow south along Trafford Park and then finally east toward Manchester. The aqueduct necessary to cross River Irwell was completed in as little as 11 months from September 1760 to July 1761.  The total price of construction cost the Duke $261,000, yet the canal helped cut prices of coal within Manchester by half. When it was completed, the canal allowed one horse to pull 30 long tons of coal per trip; more than ten times more cargo than was previously possible by cart. Along with transporting large amounts of goods, the canal also helped alleviate water deep within the mines, allowing Francis Egerton to withdraw more coal. 5

Mersey and Irwell Navigation (M&IN)

A Lancashire salesman selling his wares along the Mersey River first realized the benefits of converging both the Mersey and Irwell rivers at Manchester. In 1712, a local engineer by the name of Thomas Steers surveyed the area and located eight necessary locks to transport the boats. Yet because of the lack of funding, the project was shelved until 1721, whereupon King George I approved of the plan; although construction of the canal did not begin until 1724. Because of the winding nature of the two rivers, official completion of the canal did not take place until 12 years later in 1736. 6

The Revolution itself: "COTTONOPOLIS"

Because of the dominance of Manchester in the textile industry throughout the 19th century, the city became known as Cottonopolis. English cotton mills first appeared around 1776, using water wheels powered by nearby rivers and streams. The first large mill was built along the Thames river, followed by the construction of similar mills throughout the north and east parts of the city.7 Because of the vast amount of waterways around Manchester, the city was an excellent place for textile production.  

Richard Arkwright owned one of the first mills in Manchester in 1783. Being destroyed in WWII, much of its history was lost, yet historians speculate that a Newcomen atmospheric engine powered the mill.

Yet with the improvements to the steam engine made by James Watt, productivity in textile mills skyrocketed. By 1816 there were 86 cotton mills throughout the city producing goods at a previously unheard of pace. By 1825 this number had increased to 104 cotton spinning mills with 110 steam engines located throughout the city10.

"We may see in a single building a 100 horse power steam engine (which) has the strength of 880 men, set in motion 50,000 spindles. The whole requires the service of but 750 workers. But these machines can produce as much yarn as formerly could have hardly been spun by 200,000 men...” wrote Edward Baines when describing the productivity that could be generated by the new engines.

Another factor that led to the growth of productivity in Manchester was the large influx of people that migrated to the city. With the work force mushrooming from 17,000 in 1760 to 180,000 in 1830 7. This arrival of new workers greatly influenced the amount of cotton being transported into the city to be woven into high-quality fabrics. These workers consisted of men, women, and even children; starting their work at six in the morning and were not able to return home until their 13 hour work day was completed11. In 1772, cotton was being imported at a rate of 2,000 tons per year, and then exploded to 45.2 thousand tons per year by 1816.8

To sell their goods, merchants met at the Royal Exchange. Thomas Harrison built the first modern Royal Exchange in Manchester in 1809, yet the first Cotton Exchange wasn’t constructed until 1829. The building concealed upwards of 11,000 members within its walls whom met every Tuesday to barter their goods. 

This unrestrained capitalism was a foreign and modern idea that many people had never encountered. People travelled from all over the world to experience first hand this new, powerful economic system.9

Effects of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester

While there is no doubt that the growth of industrialization in Manchester was very prosperous, this increased economic output did not come without associated negatives. This section discusses the overcrowding, poor working conditions and social stratification that developed as a direct result of the industrial revolution in Manchester. However, not all of the developments in Manchester that happened because of the industral revolution were bad, some of the world's most noted thought on the working class developed at this time too.


Artist depiction of Manchester overcrowding

The population of Manchester in 1773 was only 22,481, but with the removal of legislation allowing for an exponential growth in cotton imports, this number was to rise drastically. The introduction of large factory mills as well as Crompton’s Mule machines in any other available spaces created jobs that were largely filled by immigrants, but housing was climbing at a much slower rate than jobs. Mills started becoming electric in 1785, further increasing the output of cotton, and as a result additional industries appeared in Manchester to cater to the ever-growing cotton industry.13 The installation of these resources encouraged the exploitation of Manchester’s coalfields to the west and as a result, created opportunities for employment for those seeking work. As coal production became more and more expedited due to accelerated industrialization, it became the driving fuel of almost every industry operating within Manchester and made the city a center for materials production, especially in regards to the textile industry.14  These expansions in the Manchester economy meant that in 15 years the population had almost doubled to 42,821. Housing was at a premium, with multiple families commonly living under the same roof. Health and hygiene became a serious problem. Mills and factories ran on coal, creating black clouds of soot that covered the city and even towns nearby. It was exacerbated however in the working class, fevers and cholera swept through cramped, overcrowded living quarters, streets were covered in excrement from horses, and they worked long hours with poor nutrition. Manchester’s economy hinged on its main industry, and so when supplies became scarce, many of its occupants could only eat by way of soup kitchens. The water supply was always insufficient, so they resorted to collecting rainwater in lead cisterns and using that for cooking and cleaning.10 These conditions sparked the beginning of the workers rights movement in Manchester, but they didn’t slow its growth: by 1823, its population reached 108,000 people.

Working Conditions in Industrial Manchester

As factories worked to maximize output and therefore profit, the working conditions worsened.  There were no labor laws, which meant that men, women and children could work extensive hours with little to no regulation for their health, safety or well being.  Shifts could be as long as twelve hours, with people working very close together with very heavy machinery.  The machines all required careful attention and frequently malfuctioned, causing injuries to the operators.  During the summer months, despite increased heat in the factories, shifts would sometimes be even longer because that was the height of both cotton production and daylight under which to work.  At first, Manchester was known to have good relations between workers and factory owners, but because efforts to maximize profits grew faster than the labor union movements, these historically good relations began to decline.16  

The industrialization of cotton resulted in the defining of the city’s social class structure. Due to Manchester’s status as a large manufacturing center within mainland England, its population was comprised mostly of lower working-class. A local government body was formed to address issues in town, but a minimum income level was set as a requirement to hold any position ensured that small business owners and industrial-wage workers were ineligible. Given this fact, a large divide between the working-class citizens and the middle- to upper-classes developed. Along with this divide came political discrimination: during the visit by the Duke of Wellington for the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railways,—which came about as a method of transporting coal and other resources to and from the collieries and the city—his train was stoned by crowds composed of working-class citizens who disagreed with his opposition to political reform that would give working- and lower-class citizens the right to vote. The reform was intended to reorganize Parliament to reflect the industrial demographic changes in industrialized areas such as Manchester.17 The clash between the lower- and upper classes led to an attempt to withhold voting rights from anyone but the upper class.18 Poor acts made it illegal to be homeless or to beg, and combination acts made it illegal to collectively bargain, meaning that an employee who couldn’t afford to live on his wage could be fired for organizing, and then when he was on the street he would be thrown in jail for sleeping outside. In response to these working conditions, the working-class organized gatherings to speak on how they would enact change. The Manchester upper class would have these shut down time and time again until 1819, when 60,000 people rallied for worker rights and were charged by the army. Eleven people died and over six hundred were wounded.

Thought in Manchester

The importance of developing the mind was apparent early as Manchester grew in size. In 1770 the first central library was founded, and five years later a theatre and a grammar school for children was built as well. The first official society of thought was founded in 1781- “The literary and Philosophical Society,” but without a permanent location, they had to be based out of local taverns. Within half a decade a formal College of Arts and Sciences was founded, and expressly stated that it was absent of influence from either religion or political affiliation. Not soon after the governing body in Manchester instituted mandatory Sunday school programs as a means of instilling in the masses basic Christian morals as well as skills in reading and writing.

Industrial Manchester is known to have piqued the curiosities of many now famous philosophers. In 1844 Frederich Engels wrote his now-famous “Condition of the Working Class in England,” which he was prompted to write upon observing some of the atrocious living and working conditions being endured by the working class across England, and in Manchester particularly.

“The town itself is peculiarly built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people's quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that by unconscious tacit agreement, as well as with outspoken conscious determination, the workingpeople's quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle-class; . . .” - Frederich Engels, 1844.
It goes without saying that Engels' observations influenced his thought, and therefore his later works, including The Communist Manifesto which he wrote with Karl Marx. The atrocities suffered by the working class in Manchester did not just inspire scholarly thought for outsiders like Engels, but also sparked internal movements. Poor acts made it illegal to be homeless or to beg, and combination acts made it illegal to collectively bargain, meaning that an employee who couldn’t afford to live on his wage could be fired for organizing, and then when he was on the street he would be thrown in jail for sleeping outside. In response to these working conditions, the working-class organized gatherings to speak on how they would enact change. In 1816, workers enraged with conditions gathered and agreed to march on Parliament with nothing but their blankets on their back, to demand labor-law reform. Most of the workers were arrested on the way down and as a result never stood in front of lawmakers. The gentry labeled the March of the Blanketeers as “traitorous conspiracy” and in 1817 suspended habeas corpus. In 1819, 60,000 people rallied for worker rights and were attacked by the army. Eleven people died and over six hundred were wounded. The Suffragette movement, one of the first campaigns to help women obtain the right to vote has roots in Manchester, as women began fighting for their rights. Women began to realize that in order to really advocate for their rights they would need to have real representation, and that starts with the right to vote. The first Trade's Union Congress was also held in Manchester, further underscoring the development of though across all classes in Industrial Manchester.19


  1. W.H. Thomson, History of Manchester to 1852 (Altrincham: St Ann’s Press, 1967), 203. 
  2. Paul Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, An outline of the beginning of the modern factory system in England. (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1962), 204.  
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  13. Barbara Freese. Coal: A Human History. (New York: Penguin Books) 2003. 
  14. Transactions of the Manchester Geological Society. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1841.
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  16. Eric Hopkins, "Working Hours and Conditions during the Industrial Revolution: A Re-Appraisal." The Economic History Review, Blackwell Publishing. 18 (1982):1.
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  18. Barbara Freese. Coal: A Human History. (New York: Penguin Books) 2003. 
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