Today marks the twenty-second installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.
Our twenty-second Center of Progress is Manchester during the first Industrial Revolution (1760-1850). Sometimes called “the first industrial city,” Manchester epitomized the rapid changes of an era that transformed human existence more than any other period in history. Manchester was among the earliest cities to experience industrialization. The city’s metamorphosis wasn’t easy, as it entailed working and living conditions far below those that we are used to today. But Manchester ultimately helped to uplift humanity by paving the way to the post-industrial prosperity that so many of us now enjoy.
Today, Manchester is the fifth most populous city in the United Kingdom. The city is famous for its soccer team, Manchester United, which has won more trophies than any other English football club (i.e., soccer team). Nicknamed the Red Devils, Manchester’s is among the world’s most popular and highest-earning soccer teams. Manchester is also known for its large research university, where the atom was first split in 1917. The University of Manchester operates the Jodrell Bank Observatory, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its substantive impact on research during the start of the Space Age. Manchester has also made notable contributions to music, producing groups such as the Bee Gees, who were among the best-selling musical artists in history. Much of the city’s architecture dates to the industrial era, with many prominent warehouses, factories, railway viaducts, and canals still remaining.
The area where Manchester now stands has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age, originally by ancient Celtic Britons. Around the 70s CE, Romans conquered the area. They called the outpost Mamucium. That is thought to be a Latinization of the prior name for the settlement in Old Brittonic, which likely meant “breast-shaped hill.” Mamucium eventually became known as Manchester, with the Old English -chester suffix coming from the Latin castra, meaning “fortified town.” After the Romans departed Britain, the settlement of Manchester changed hands among several kingdoms during the middle ages and the Norman conquest of the area. Manchester first became known for the cloth trade in the 14th century, when a wave of Flemish immigrant weavers who produced linen and wool settled in the town. By the 16th century, Manchester’s economy revolved around the wool trade. A cottage industry, wool production was a slow and painstaking process that took place within individual households.
Manchester was a flourishing but small market town before the Industrial Revolution, with a population of fewer than ten thousand people at the start of the 18th century. As technological advances increased the efficiency of the cloth business, the city’s growth began to take off in the 1760s. The city’s canals, cotton-friendly climate, and location allowing for easy transport of goods into and out of the city, all destined Manchester to become a key industrial center once the right technology arose.
The Industrial Revolution is often said to have begun when the spinning jenny was invented in Oswaldtwistle, 25 miles northwest of Manchester, in 1764 or 1765. The spinning jenny was a frame for spinning wool or cotton with increased speed by using multiple spindles. It represented the first fully mechanized production process. Then, in 1771, another new invention, the water frame, was installed in a Cromford factory 50 miles southeast of Manchester. That invention used a water-wheel to power a spinning frame. Around 1779, in Bolton, which is located 15 miles northwest of Manchester, the inventor Samuel Crompton combined aspects of the spinning jenny and the water frame into the “spinning mule.”
The spinning mule greatly sped up the process of producing yarn. In fact, versions of the spinning mule are still used today in the production of yarns from certain delicate fibers such as alpaca hair. Water-powered textile mills making use of the new technology soon popped up across the region.
In 1781, just two years after the spinning mule’s introduction, the development of viable steam engines then enabled the growth of larger, more powerful, steam-powered textile mills. Steam power was a game-changer. While humanity had known about steam power since Hero of Alexandria (mentioned in our eighth Centers of Progress installment) demonstrated the phenomenon as a novelty in the first century CE, finally gaining the ability to harness steam in a practical way was the pivotal moment of the Industrial Revolution. Improved steam engines led to the swift industrialization of England’s cloth industry, allowing the spinning and weaving of textiles with a rapidity never before achieved.
Manchester opened its first cotton mill in 1782—the five-story Shudehill Mill that is also sometimes called Simpson’s Mill. It made use of a thirty-foot water-wheel and cutting-edge steam power. By the year 1800, Manchester was described as “steam mill mad,” with over forty mills. By that same year, the city’s population had grown almost tenfold from the start of the 18th century, reaching around eighty-nine thousand souls. Between 1801 and the 1820s the population doubled. By 1830, Manchester boasted ninety-nine distinct cotton-spinning mills.
That year, the world’s first modern railway, “the Liverpool and Manchester” (L&MR) opened and supercharged Manchester’s already-booming textile industry. It did so by speeding up the importation of raw materials from Liverpool’s ports into Manchester’s factories, as well as the export of finished textile products out of Manchester. The 31-mile-long L&MR was both the first railway to exclusively serve steam-powered automotives and the world’s first inter-city railway. It was also the first railway to use a double track, operate fully on a regular time-table, employ a signaling system, and transport mail. By the end of the first Industrial Revolution in 1850, Manchester was home to some 400,000 people. The erstwhile obscure market town had become second only to London in importance within Britain and came to be called that nation’s “second city.”
The swelling of the population was driven by an inpouring of young men and women from the English countryside and from Ireland, drawn by the promise of work in the new factories and mills. Compared to back-breaking agricultural labor or lives of domestic servitude (in an era when many employers beat their servants with impunity), many people found even the famously harsh working conditions within the mills to be preferable to their other options. Mills paid high wages compared to opportunities in rural areas, and most migrants to the city saw an appreciable rise in their incomes. Gradually, and for the first time in history, a large middle class emerged.
That is not to make light of the working environment within early Industrial Revolution-era Manchester’s factories, which saw long hours, high rates of injury and the frequent use of child labor. Although it must be noted that child labor was not an innovation of the Industrial Revolution—it had tragically existed since time immemorial among the poor. In fact, it was only during the Industrial Revolution that living conditions improved so much that child labor began to come under scrutiny, resulting in Britain’s 1833 Factory Act. The Act is thought to be the world’s first anti-child labor legislation. Other acts followed.
If you could visit Manchester during the first Industrial Revolution, you would probably enter the city via steam-powered locomotive and your first sight of the city would be its bustling train station. You would emerge from the station into a city defined by a skyline of industrial smokestacks that the poet William Blake famously described as “dark Satanic mills.” In 1814, the British civil servant Johann May described that skyline as a sign of technological progress:
“Manchester [has] hundreds of factories … which tower up to five and six storeys in height. Huge chimneys at the side of these buildings belch forth black coal vapours, and this tells us that powerful steam engines are used. The clouds of vapour can be viewed afar. The houses are blackened by it.”
The sound might have been deafening. The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocquevillle described Manchester in 1835 by noting that the “crunching wheels of machinery, the shriek of steam from boilers, the regular beat of the looms… are the noises from which you can never escape.” And among the people in the streets you might have observed various protestors. The city was at the vanguard of radical political movements ranging from women’s suffrage and anti-Corn Law advocacy to communism.
The German political philosopher Friedrich Engels came to Manchester in 1842. He worked there as a cotton merchant by day and opined about the state of the city’s poor by night, culminating in the publication of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. One passage on Manchester’s slums reads,
“In a rather deep hole … surrounded on all four sides by tall factories … stand two groups of about 200 cottages, built chiefly back to back, in which live about 4,000 human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, offal, and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions.”
What Engels failed to notice was that for the first time in history, such abject levels of poverty were actually in decline—within his own lifetime the average Englishman became three times richer.
Penury had always been the default state for the vast majority of humanity. Then, suddenly, average incomes not only began to rise, but rose exponentially. The famous hockey-stick chart, perhaps the most important graph in the world, illustrates the dramatic shift. Humanity has produced more economic output over the last two centuries than in all of the previous centuries combined. That explosion of wealth-creation soon led to a massive decrease in the rate of poverty and improvements in living standards. Not long after incomes took off, life expectancy followed. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls the change the “Great Enrichment.”
Engels lived in Manchester on-and-off for three decades. In Manchester, he was visited multiple times by his friend and fellow German philosopher, Karl Marx. Moved by the state of the poor in Manchester and other factory cities, and failing to recognize the ongoing Great Enrichment, the two men developed a political philosophy that aimed to create a workers’ paradise.
Their proposed solutions tragically led to far worse suffering—including food shortages, gulags, 100 million deaths, and psychological scars that still echo to this day, with heightened dishonesty and lower trust persisting in formerly communist areas. Ironically, Marx and Engels’ goals of shorter work-days and higher incomes have been achieved within a market economy .
As the quintessential industrial city, there is no doubt that Manchester earned its nickname, “the workshop of the world.” As a key early center of industrialization, Manchester underwent an at-times difficult transition with profound effects. The unprecedented prosperity created by industrialization eventually allowed for the improvement of working conditions and the heightened living standards that characterize post-industrial affluence. For helping to weave the fabric of the modern world, Manchester is deservedly our twenty-second Center of Progress.