In AD 79 the Romans built a fort on the east bank of the River Irwell called Mancunium. In the 14th century the textile trade was enhanced when Flemish weavers settled in the area.

The transformation from a market town to a major city began in 1761 when the Duke of Bridgewater canal began to bring cheap coal to Manchester. By the end of the 18th century Manchester had established itself as the centre of the cotton industry in Lancashire. The merchants brought the raw cotton from Liverpool, sold it to small-time masters in Manchester who then passed it to the spinners working in the cottages. In the 1770s the invention of machines such as the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame completely changed the way that cotton goods were produced.

The machines in the first textile factories were driven by water-power and were therefore built in villages besides fast-flowing streams. By 1790 there were about a hundred and fifty water-powered cotton spinning factories in Britain.

Richard Arkwright was quick to see the significance of the Rotary Steam-Engine invented by James Watt and in 1783 he began using the machine in his Cromford factory. Others followed his lead and by 1800 there were over 500 of Watt's machines in Britain's mines and factories. With the invention of Watt's steam-engine, factories no longer had to be built close to fast-flowing rivers and streams. Entrepreneurs now tended to build factories where there was a good supply of labour and coal.

Manchester in 1750
Manchester in 1750

Manchester became the obvious place to build textile factories. Large warehouses were also built to store and display the spun yarn and finished cloth. The town's population grew rapidly. With neighbouring Salford, Manchester had about 25,000 inhabitants in 1772. By 1800 the population had grown to 95,000. The rich manufacturers built large houses around the Mosley Street area. At first the cheap housing for the factory workers were confined to New Cross and Newtown. However, as the population grew, close-packed houses were built next to factories all over Manchester.

The Stockton & Darlington line opened in 1825 successfully reduced the cost of transporting coal from 18s. to 8s. 6d. a ton. It soon became clear that large profits could be made by building railways. A group of businessmen in Manchester and Liverpool led by William James recruited George Stephenson to build them a railway.

The Liverpool & Manchester railway was opened on 15th September, 1830. The prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, and a large number of important people attended the opening ceremony that included a procession of eight locomotives. Large crowds assembled along the line and when the train entered Manchester the passenger carriages were pelted with stones by weavers, who remembered the Duke of Wellington's involvement in the Peterloo Massacre and his strong opposition to the the proposed 1832 Reform Act.

The Liverpool & Manchester railway was a great success. In 1831 the company transported 445,047 passengers. Receipts were £155,702 with profits of £71,098. By 1844 receipts had reached £258,892 with profits of £136,688. During this period shareholders were regularly paid out an annual dividend of £10 for every £100 invested.

The railway rapidly increased the population of Manchester. By 1851 over 455,000 people were living in the city. Housing conditions were appalling. It was reported that in some parts of the city the number of toilets averaged only two to two hundred and fifty people. Only forty per cent of the children living in this area reached their fifth year.

Manchester is famous for its libraries. The library founded by Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653) was the first free public library in Britain. Joseph Brotherton, a local MP, played an important role in 1849 in helping Salford become the first municipal authority in Britain to establish a library, museum and art gallery. The following year Brotherton joined William Ewart in persuading Parliament to pass the Public Libraries Act.

In 1846 John Owens, a successful Manchester cotton merchant, died and left most of his wealth to help establish a further education college for men that would not have: "to submit to any test whatsoever of, their religious opinions". His Unitarian friends, John Fielden and Thomas Ashton, also raised money for the venture and arranged to purchase the former home of Richard Cobden, in Quay Street, Deansgate. This became the first premises of Owens College when it was opened in 1851.

The Nonconformist business community in Manchester continued to raise money for the project and supported by Charles Prestwich Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, the trustees were able to arrange the building of new premises at Oxford Street. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the new Owens College was opened in 1873. Seven years later, the college, along with those in Liverpool and Leeds, became Victoria University (Manchester University after 1902).

Primary Sources

(1) Eric Thomas Svedenstierna, Tour of Great Britain (1802)

I travelled in the company of Mr. Bourne from Liverpool to Manchester. This town has extended extraordinarily, especially in the last fifteen years, through its cotton manufactures. Several circumstances have united to favour the growth of the cotton industry, among which the general use of the fine, white and light cotton fabric, which has almost supplanted silk throughout Europe, may deserve first place. Next to this comes the invention of the spinning machines. In almost all these machines are driven by steam engines. With such a large demand for coal, it is no small advantage that at even the present high prices, Manchester can have coal at about 50 per cent cheaper than the coal cost a little over 40 years ago, before the Duke of Bridgewater's Canal was finished, from whose coal mines practically the whole of Manchester is supplied.

(2) Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who visited Manchester in 1835.

A sort of black smoke covers the city. Under this half-daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. The homes of the poor are scattered haphazard around the factories. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. In Manchester civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.

(3) James Kay-Shuttleworth, wrote an account of Manchester in 1832.

Frequently, the inspectors found two or more families crowded into one small house and often one family lived in a damp cellar where twelve or sixteen persons were crowded. Children are ill-fed, dirty, ill-clothed, exposed to cold and neglect; and in consequence, more than one-half of the off-spring die before they have completed their fifth year.

(4) Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851)

In this year, 1817, the history of which we are now passing, there occurred an astounding instance of the indifference of the inhabitants of Manchester to an important public right. There had long been a wooden bridge, free to all foot passengers, connecting Manchester with Salford, of very great convenience to crowds of working people, who had to pass to their meals or their work several times a day, from the one township to the other. A number of gentlemen met and resolved, that instead of the old wooden bridge there should be a handsome stone one thrown over the Irwell; and very great was the laudation poured out upon them for their public spirit. A joint-stock company was formed, and an act of parliament was obtained, giving powers to take down the old bridge; but instead of a clause retaining the long established public right, there was one empowering the collection of the toll of a halfpenny from. every foot passenger!

(5) Edwin Chadwick, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842)

It is an appalling fact that, of all who are born of the labouring classes in Manchester, more than 57& die before they attain five years of age; that is, before they can be engaged in factory labour, or in any other labour whatsoever.

(6) Dr. Roberton, a Manchester surgeon, wrote a letter to the Parliamentary Committee on the Health of Towns in 1840.

Manchester is a huge overgrown village, built according to no definite plan. The factories have sprung up along the rivers Irk, Irwell and Medlock, and the Rochdale Canal. The homes of the work-people have been built in the factory districts. The interests and convenience of the manufacturers have determined the growth of the town and the manner of that growth, while the comfort, health and happiness have not been considered. Manchester has no public park or other ground where the population can walk and breathe the fresh air. Every advantage has been sacrificed to the getting of money.

(7) Archibald Prentice, Manchester Times (20th July, 1844)

The houses of the operatives are cluttered together with more regard for the saving of ground-rent than for the comfort and health of their inhabitants. In many districts the crowding of houses into narrow, dark, ill-drained and ill-ventilated alleys and lanes; and the cramming of persons into these miserable dwellings is frightful to contemplate.

(8) Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848)

Berry Street was unpaved; and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in the holes with which the street abounded. Never was the old Edinburgh cry of "Gardez l'eau!' more necessary than in the street. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which over-flowed and stagnated.

You went down one step from this foul area into the cellar in which a family of human beings lived. It was very dark inside. The window-panes many of them were broken and stuffed with rags, which was reason enough for the dusky light that pervaded the place at mid-day. After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down. Quickly recovering themselves, as those inured to such things do, they began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fireplace was empty and black; the wife sat on the husband's lair, and cried in the dark loneliness.

(9) Angus Reach, The Morning Chronicle (1849)

The traveller by railway is made aware of his approach to the great northern seats of industry by the dull leaden-coloured sky, tainted by thousands of ever smoking chimneys, which broods over the distance. The stations along the line are more closely planted, showing that the country is more and more thickly peopled. Then, small manufacturing villages begin to appear, each consisting of two or three irregular streets clustered around the mill, as in former times cottages were clustered round the castle.

You shoot by town after town - the outlying satellites of the great cotton metropolis. They have all similar features - they are all little Manchesters. Huge, shapeless, unsightly mills, with their countless rows of windows, their towering shafts, their jets of waste steam continually puffing in panting gushes from the brown grimy wall. Some dozen or so of miles so characterised, you enter the Queen of the cotton cities - and then amid smoke and noise, and the hum of never ceasing toil, you are borne over the roofs to the terminus platform. You stand in Manchester.

There is a smoky brown sky over head - smoky brown streets all round long piles of warehouses, many of them with pillared and stately fronts - great grimy mills, the leviathans of ugly architecture, with their smoke-pouring shafts. There are streets of all kinds - some with glittering shops and vast hotels, others grim and little frequented - formed of rows and stacks of warehouses; many mean and distressingly monotonous visas of uniform brick houses.

There are swarms of mechanics and artisans in their distinguishing fustian - of factory operatives, in general undersized, sallow-looking men - and of factory girls somewhat stunted and paled, but smart and active-looking with dingy dresses and dark shawls, speckled with flakes of cotton wool, wreathed round their heads.

(10) Angus Reach, The Morning Chronicle (1849)

Abel Heywood, of Oldham Street, is one of the most active and enterprising citizens of Manchester, who supplies not only the smaller booksellers of the town, but those throughout the country, with the cheap works most favoured by the poorer reading classes. The contents of Mr. Heywood's shop are significant. Masses of penny novels and comic song and recitation books are jumbled with a sectarian pamphlets and democratic essays. Educational books abound in every variety.

The sale of Punch is 1,200. The Family Friend sells 1,500 monthly at twopence; the Family Economist 5,000 monthly at 1d. Abel Heywood informed me that the sale of cheap books has decidedly increased in consequence of the Ten Hours Bill. The same assertion was made by another extensive but much smaller bookseller in the vicinity of Garrett Street.

(11) Angus Reach, The Morning Chronicle (1849)

The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy, and most wicked locality in Manchester is called Angel Meadow. It lies off the Oldham Road, is full of cellars and is inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps, and, in the very worst sites of filth, and darkness. My guide was sub-inspector of police - an excellent conductor in one respect, but disadvantageous in another, seeing that his presence spread panic wherever he went. Many of the people that night visited had, doubtless, ample cause to be nervous touching the presence of one of the guardians of the law.

There were no Irish in the houses we visited. They live in more wretched places still - the cellars. We descended to one. The place was dark, except for the glare of the small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room, which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women, and children, on stools or squatted on the stone floor round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive. This not being a lodging cellar, the police had no control over the number of its inmates, who slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw, which were littered about.

Half the people who lived in the den, had not yet returned, being still out hawking lucifers, matches and besoms. They were all Irish from Westport, in the county of Mayo. After leaving, a woman followed me into the street to know if I had come from Westport and was greatly disappointed at being answered in the negative.

(12) Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (1851)

The volumes of smoke which, in spite of legislation to the contrary, continually issue from factory chimneys, and form a complete cloud over Manchester, certainly make it less desirable- as a place of residence than it is as a place of business; and the enjoyment of the inhabitants would be greatly increased, could they breathe a purer atmosphere, and have a brighter and more frequent sight of the sun. But, to counterbalance the disadvantage, they have the privilege of walking unrestrainedly through the fine fields of the vicinity; and thousands and tens of thousands, whose avocations render fresh air and exercise - an absolute necessity of life, avail themselves of the right of footway through the meadows, and corn-fields, and parks in the immediate neighbourhood. There are so many pleasant footpaths, that a pedestrian might walk completely round the town in a circle, which would seldom exceed a radius of two miles from the Exchange, and in which he would scarcely ever have occasion to encounter the noise, bustle, and dust of a public cart road or paved street. The beautifully undulating country between the valley of the Irk and Cheetham Hill; the fine valley of the Irwell, with its verdant meadows; the slope from Pendleton to the plain,

(13) As a young girl in the 1890s Sylvia Pankhurst went with her father Richard Pankhurst, when he was campaigning for the Independent Labour Party in Manchester.

Often I went on Sunday mornings with my father to the dingy streets of Ancoats, Gorton, Hulme, and other working-class districts. Standing on a chair or soap-box, pleading the cause of the people with passionate earnestness, he stirred me, as perhaps he stirred no other auditor, though I saw tears in the faces of the people about him. Those endless rows of smoke-begrimed little houses, with never a tree or a flower in sight, how bitterly their ugliness smote me! Many a time in spring, as I gazed upon them, those two red may trees in our garden at home would rise up in my mind, almost menacing in their beauty; and I would ask myself whether it could be just that I should live in Victoria Park, and go well fed and warmly clad, whilst the children of these grey slums were lacking the very necessities of life. The misery of the poor, as I heard my father plead for it, and saw it revealed in the pinched faces of his audiences, awoke in me a maddening sense of impotence; and there were moments when I had an impulse to dash my head against the dreary walls of those squalid streets. which, commencing between the extremities of Hulme and

Chorlton-upon-Medlock, extends south and west over the greater part of Cheshire; all this scenery, which in any country would be admired, but which has a hundred additional charms to him who is condemned, day after day, month after month, and year after year, to toil in the dirt and smoke of a great town - all this delightful scenery lies open to the pedestrian; and while he strays along through the open field, or wooded park, or the narrow and retired lane, and breathes the pure air of heaven, he feels that all these fields, and parks, and lanes, are as open to him, and to those who hang on his arm, or play by his side, as if they were his own, to have and to hold, as long as trees grow or water runs.

(14) Ida Wells visited Manchester in 1894. She wrote about the experience in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928)

Liverpool has few manufacturing interests. Her importance is derived from her situation as a seaport; her life is purely commercial, and her wealth is derived from handling the produce of other towns and countries.

Manchester on the other hand is an enormous manufacturing centre. There are nearly five hundred cotton spinning firms in and about the city, and these own over eighteen million spindles, more than one-third of all those in Great Britain. There are chemical works and great engineering factories, and the export and import trade of these industries is of great magnitude. Liverpool and the railroads made these burdens too grievous to be borne, besides diverting this trade from Manchester, and the ship canal is the result.

The largest ships bringing produce, cotton and iron to the markets and mills, need not now wait in vexatious delay outside Liverpool to be docked but steaming up the canal, reach Manchester as quickly as they can be unloaded from vessels and on the railroads in Liverpool. In return manufacturers can ship machinery and cotton goods to all parts of the world, direct from Manchester factories at far less cost and delay. Where there was formerly a small stream of water winding in and out toward the sea, there is now a broad, deep canal, twice the width of the Suez Canal, and any two of the largest vessels can sail together abreast along its water.