Cotton Waterway; 100 Years of Manchester and Its Ship Canal

By Farnie, Douglas | History Today, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Cotton Waterway; 100 Years of Manchester and Its Ship Canal


Farnie, Douglas, History Today


Modern Manchester has for long served as a touchstone for different views of the world, polarising opinion between the critics of the city and its apologists. One keen debate between the city's defenders and its opponents was provoked by the projection in 1882 of the Manchester Ship Canal. The construction of that waterway was an achievement without any precedent in British history. It was, however, one thoroughly consonant with the history of a town which had been transformed by the advent of a new industry into a unique centre of business enterprise.

The long-term expansion of the cotton industry between 1776 and 1926 created in the Lancashire region such a concentration of manufacturing activity as the world had never seen before. The increase in production stimulated a rapid and sustained growth in population. Lancashire rose in status during the eighteenth century from the fifth most populous county in the kingdom to the second. Manchester similarly rose in status during the years 1775-1801 from the seventh most populous town to the third. It attained both economic and social pre-eminence as the |metropolis of the manufacturing world' (Peter Gaskell, 1833), |the heart of the industry of the United Kingdom' (Friedrich Engels, 1845) and 'the metropolis of the middle class' (Matthew Arnold, 1868). Its primary function always remained that of commerce. Its dominant figure was the merchant, its central institution the Exchange and its typical building the warehouse.

The distinctive feature of the Manchester market became its export-orientation, developed under the influence of the foreign merchants who flocked to the city, especially from the 1820s. They provided the indispensable link between the industrial hinterland of the city and the world market. The mill towns of the hinterland developed in two main phases, first in the spinning trade and then from the 1850s in the weaving trade. They formed the living cells within the bustling hive of industry which covered one-ninth of the area of the county and formed the domain of |Cottonia' (The Times, August 19th, 1864). The industry expanded upon the basis of small-scale enterprise because of the external economies made available by some 700 auxiliary trades, including engineering. It acquired more separate business units than any other manufacturing industry and for long remained a model of perfect competition.

Manchester exerted a hypnotic fascination upon outside observers. It acquired from the 1790s a largely negative image which darkened in hue during the struggle for the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s. The city then became an active manufactory of agitation and a positive Mecca for the manufacturing, radical and Dissenting interests. The fervour of such supporters was only reinforced by the sneers of Disraeli at the Manchester school' of political economy 1846) and of Carlyle at the |pig philosophy' of laissez-faire (1850).

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville had been struck by the contrast between the two faces of the city and by the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. From this foul drain ... the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world'. When Dickens visited the city in 1843 he reputedly conceived the idea of a contrast between avarice and charity as the central theme of A Christmas Carol. Engels was inspired by his sojourn there in 1842-44 to write The Condition of the Working Class in England. Marx himself paid twenty-four separate visits to the city between 1845 and 1880 during the composition of Capital. Judgements passed upon Manchester were not wholly negative, however. In 1830 Cobbett had praised |this wonderful hive of industry, perseverance, ingenuity, intelligence and talent of all sorts' while Cobden had felt compelled in 1844 to defend in Parliament |the much maligned region of tall chimneys and smoke'.

The integrating commercial function of Manchester earned it such neutral names as Cottonborough (1851), Cottonopolis (1854) and Yarndale (1872). …

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