England: Manchester′s Industrial Past | Terra Incognita | DW | 24.07.2009
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Terra Incognita

England: Manchester's Industrial Past

Today, most people associate Manchester with the city's famous soccer teams. But a century ago, it was the world's first truly industrialized city -- and the very cradle of the industrial revolution -- thanks to cotton.

The Spinning Jenny revolutionized the textile industry

The Spinning Jenny revolutionized the textile industry

During the 19th century, Manchester was nicknamed "Cottonopolis." The city in northwestern England was indeed the international center of the textile industry and cotton spinning.

In nearby Styal, the Quarry Bank Mill was the largest cotton-spinning factory in Britain. The facility, founded in 1784, is today one of the world's best-preserved factory colonies of the industrial revolution.

Visitors to the mill's living museum can step back in time and witness how the industrial revolution came about.

"Between 1770 and 1840, cotton was the fastest growing industry in Britain," says Josselin Hill, the Quarry Bank Mill's manager.

This wouldn't have been possible without the Spinning Jenny. James Hargreaves invented this device in the 1760s. The prototype allowed one person to spin 16 threads of cotton instead of the previous one. The Spinning Jenny soon developed into industrial sized machines, spinning hundreds of threads in large factory halls. An industry was born.

A new social structure evolved

According to Hill, a number of factors contributed to developing the cotton industry in the area. There was a certain familiarity with textiles and plenty of rainfall to power the waterwheel, she says.

Großbritannien Webereimuseum in Manchester

The Quarry Bank Mill is a museum today

"You've got a damp climate, as cotton spins better when it's damp, and with the development of steam power, you've got plentiful supplies of coal," Hill says. The proximity to Liverpool also enabled easy access to world trade, she adds.

The rise of the cotton industry heralded a whole new social structure. Cities such as Manchester were born as people moved from the countryside to find work at cotton mills like the Quarry Bank Mill. Infrastructure -- like railways, canals and roads -- had to be built to feed the factories and export their products. The banking industry too developed as a result. What's more, a precursor to the modern welfare state emerged, Hill says.

"They set up regular medical examinations for their employees, a dental and optical clinic, so they really were, still in the 20th century, taking care of the workforce," she says.

Weaving shed was hard on the hearing

Today, visitors to the mill can also experience what it looked and sounded like in a weaving shed.

Blick in einen Ausstellungsraum des Quarry Bank Mill Museums in Manchester

Spinning rooms are very loud

"Yet given today's health and safety requirements, we ask our visitors not to spend any more than 15 minutes in this room, because of the noise," Hill says.

But employees used to spend many hours a day, six days a week in weaving sheds.

"Many workers had hearing impairments as a result," Hill says. "What was developed within the mills was a sign language, and also the ability to lip read very clearly. So if you wanted to tell a story to somebody, don't do it when a weaver can see what your lips are saying!"

The textile industry disappeared by the 1960s

The cotton industry in northwestern England was so all-encompassing that when the American civil war stopped the export of cotton from the southern states in the 1860s, cities like Manchester were ravaged by famine. No cotton meant no work for hundreds of thousands of people here. But with the end of the war, cotton flowed freely again, and the industry grew to become the envy of the world.

But it was not to last. Peter Cockroft worked as a weaver when it all ended for good. After years of decline, Manchester's textile industry was all but gone by the 1960s. Today, Cockroft is a guide at the Quarry Mill museum.

Vorführung im Quarry Bank Mill Museum in Manchester

Peter Cockroft shows how cotton was woven in pre-industrialized times

"It was a massive industry and literally employed millions of people," Cockroft says. "Not just in the mills, but in the other industries, too: the dyeing, the printing and the bleaching."

He says it was a bit sad when it all ended.

"They were just coming in with big skips, and just smashing your looms up," Cockroft recalls. "Most people in the textile industry were usually in it for life." Where he worked, there were two or three generations of different families all working in the same place.

Understanding the past

In the 1950s, machines like the one Cockroft now runs for tourists began being exported to India and Pakistan. Like most large-scale production, the textile industry was soon entirely shifted to the cheaper labor markets of the Far East.

It marked the end of an era for this part of England.

The northwest has since successfully reinvented itself through IT and service industries. But for anyone wanting to understand how our modern, industrialized societies came about, this is as good a place as any to start the journey.

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  • Author Lars Bevanger (July 2007)
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  • Author Lars Bevanger (July 2007)
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  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/Bjp2