A visual exploration of historical Manchester’s rapid growth into a “shock city” – and how slavery was key to the emergence of Cottonopolis

WORDS :Matthew StallardVISUALS:David BloodANDLydia McMullanMon 3 Apr 2023

Present-day Manchester is home to 552,000 residents, at the centre of a wider region of 2.87 million, the product of three centuries of migration and economic change.

It is a city with a global reputation for its cultural and sporting influence, a long list of world firsts in science and technology, and as a centre of political reform movements.

Cheek-by-jowl with the rising Manc-hattan skyscrapers stand many of the old warehouses and mills, repurposed into modern apartment and office blocks along the outward-creeping fringe of gentrification. A few remnants of the pre-industrial market town remain around the Cathedral Quarter while the grand late-Victorian warehouses and civic architecture recall a time when cotton was king and Manchester was its capital.

Still poorly acknowledged and understood is how essential the system of slavery was to the emergence of Cottonopolis, the world’s first industrial city, and how it can still be witnessed in today’s built environment.

Here is a brief history of the growth of Manchester from a Lancashire manorial town of about 9,000 residents in 1700 to the “shock city” of industrial capitalism by the mid-19th century.

We start with a visual exploration of the city’s development.


US raw cotton exports, lbs


The story of Manchester’s rise is also the story of global industrialised capitalism, and it reveals the essential underpinning role of colonisation and slavery to the processes that completely transformed societies, cultures, and the environment.

As technology advanced, manufacturing moved from the home to mass production, bringing increased transport capacity and connectivity across the globe. Higher levels of productivity required markets and investment, land and labour.

The produce of enslaved labour and profits from slave trading and plantation agriculture drove the Industrial Revolution, created this city, and left local and global legacies we are still only beginning to understand and repair.


The importation of south Asian chintzes and decorated textiles in the 1600s drove demand in Great Britain and particularly in west Africa for cotton manufacturers. With an established skills base and trade links in textile manufacture, Manchester was ideally positioned to meet this demand and the town started to expand.

Technological improvements in spinning and weaving increased productivity and, in 1734, the River Irwell Navigation provided direct shipping to Liverpool, which was fast becoming Europe’s leading slave-trading port.

Raw cotton was imported from the eastern Mediterranean and, increasingly, from the Caribbean, where it was grown by enslaved labourers. It would arrive at the foot of Quay Street on boats laden with goods from across the world, particularly slave-grown sugar.

Until the 1780s, production had taken place in homes or in units with just a few machines. Increased employment opportunities led to the population almost doubling between 1717 and 1758.


Seminal historian Eric Williams, who later became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, outlined in 1944 how it was a “tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester”. Up to 1770, one-third of Lancashire’s exports were used in the slave trade to west Africa and half were sold to the plantation colonies in the Caribbean and North America.

In 1788 the privy council estimated that Manchester exported £200,000 worth of goods a year to west Africa, representing an investment of £300,000 and supporting 180,000 jobs for men, women and children across the wider region. Converted to today’s prices that is £26.9m of exports and £40.3m of investment a year.

Merchants and manufacturers such as Robinson & Heywood, William Hanson and John Parke advertised themselves as specialist “Africa goods” or “Africa checks” suppliers, while Manchester’s key financial institution in the 1790s, Heywood’s bank, was funded by the profits of the Heywoods’ slave-trading activities.


The development of steam power heralded the age of the cotton mill. Manchester’s first was established at Shudehill in 1782, followed by the Salvin’s and Piccadilly mills in the late 1780s.

The construction of the Bridgewater canal provided regular, cheaper coal supplies to power the new machinery and improved transport links to Liverpool.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 proved crucial in shaping Manchester’s future. From that moment, the spread of the plantation slavery complex across North America and the booming Lancashire textile industry became symbiotically linked.

The annual US cotton crop grew from 9,000 bales to 210,000 between 1790 and 1800. During the same period, the number of cotton mills in Manchester had grown from three to 19 and the population had increased to more than 70,000. Even though Britain ended involvement in the slave trade in 1807, the reliance of the town’s development and prosperity on enslavement actually deepened year-by-year.

From virtually zero in 1790, raw cotton from the US made up 40% of British imports in the 1800s, 50% during the 1810s, and 71% in the 1820s.


McConnel & Kennedy’s and Murray’s mills on the banks of the newly built Rochdale canal were some of the first in Ancoats, the world’s first industrial suburb, which emerged in the early 19th century.

Child and adult workers moved between deafening, dangerous factories and cramped slums with poor sanitation and little open space. In 1819, 41% of children born to men working at McConnel & Kennedy had not survived to adulthood. From 1832, regular deadly cholera outbreaks hit Manchester’s working-class communities.

Irish migrants, often pushed into the lowest-paid, most insecure work, had a major impact on the town’s growth and culture. Important centres of Irish residence included Angel Meadow and Little Ireland, near the Chorlton Mills complex.

The Peterloo massacre of 1819 sent shockwaves through Britain, as peaceful working-class protesters demanding universal manhood suffrage were attacked by the authorities. The Manchester Guardian was founded by a group of cotton merchants and manufacturers in reaction to the massacre.


Manchester’s middle classes moved to the suburbs, while the industrial centre became increasingly overcrowded, the population growing by 50,000 over 10 years to reach 163,700 in 1831 – a 132% increase since 1800. British cotton exports had increased almost eightfold in the same period.

The 1832 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway – the world’s first intercity line – further expanded import and export capacity. Manchester also gained parliamentary representation that year, electing Mark Philips, cousin to the Guardian founder and enslaver George Philips, although only one-fifth of adult men were eligible to vote.

The Abolition Act of 1833 replaced slavery in the British empire with a system of apprenticeship, with full emancipation following in 1838. Former enslavers received a total of £20m of government compensation for their former human property which was reinvested into railways, industry, and key local institutions. The formerly enslaved received no compensation.


The success of the Anti-Corn Law League and establishment of the Free Trade Hall in the 1840s burnished the reputation of Manchester’s middle classes as leading proponents of Victorian political and economic liberalism. The working classes formed trade unions and Chartist organisations to advance their rights.

Writers such as Tocqueville and Engels established Manchester’s reputation as the “shock city” of industrial capitalism, detailing the emergence of an entirely new mode of social and economic life and the unprecedented pollution created by mass fossil-fuelled production.

The number of cotton mills peaked at 108 in 1853, the year Manchester was granted city status. The name “Cottonopolis” – literally, the city of cotton – came into use around this time.

The US cotton crop grew by a factor of seven from 1830 to 1860 while UK cotton exports grew five times larger. Meeting labour demands, Manchester’s population reached more than 344,000 in 1861.


As the United States descended into civil war in 1861 over the issue of slavery, 440,000 cotton workers across the north-west of England, and their wider families and communities, experienced unemployment, poverty, and hunger as the Union blockade of Confederate exports created the “cotton famine”.

Public opinion remained generally favourable to abolition thanks to 15 years of organising and campaigning. Abraham Lincoln’s public declaration of thanks “to the working-men of Manchester” for their solidarity is commemorated by the statue in today’s Lincoln Square.

The Union victory in the US civil war led to emancipation in 1865, but slave-grown cotton from Brazil continued to make up a minority of imports until 1888.

Much of the Victorian architectural and transportational fabric of central Manchester today derives from its role in the late 19th century as the commercial and warehouse hub of the wider Lancashire manufacturing region.

Matthew Stallard


Historical maps
All the historical maps in the visual tour have been provided by Manchester Libraries, Information & Archives, with special thanks to Dr Martin Dodge, department of geography, University of Manchester.

The publication date of each historical map shown should be treated with a degree of caution as the street geography and surveying may be older and inconsistent.

The publication dates and full map titles are as follows:

Casson and Berry, 1750.
Green’s map, 1794.
Aston’s map, 1816.
Slater’s map, 1848.
Bradshaw’s map, 1879.

The data for the locations highlighted on the maps has been provided by Dr Matthew Stallard. The visualisation of the locations of the known Manchester business suppliers includes 31 addresses; there are a further five known suppliers for which the addresses are not documented in sufficient detail to include on the map. The addresses are compiled from Manchester directories between 1781 and 1800 and include all Manchester suppliers to 50 voyages owned by the Liverpool trafficker William Davenport, all businesses in the directories specifically listed as focusing on the African market, and the well-documented slave trade suppliers the Hibberts, Touchets, and Rawlinsons.

US raw cotton export data
Source: James L
 Watkins, King Cotton: A Historical and Statistical Review 1790 to 1908 (New York, 1908)

GB/UK manufactured cotton exports
Source: Edward Baines, History Of The Cotton Manufacture In Great Britain (London, 1937).

Satellite imagery
Via Google maps: ©2023 TerraMetrics, CNES/Airbus, Getmapping Plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, The GeoInformation Group


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