Dark Satanic mills? The archaeology of the world’s first industrial city

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By 1850, Manchester had a population of 300,000, and most of its 172 textile mills had already been built. Cotton goods were known simply as ‘Manchester goods’. Now, archaeology is adding new insights. We report on ten years’ digging of Manchester’s industrial history.

In 1814, Johann Georg May wrote: ‘Manchester is famous throughout the world as the centre of cotton manufacture. There are 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.’

May, a civil servant and factory inspector, had been sent by the Prussian government to study British industry which was already a model for others. May was clearly impressed by the industrial power he witnessed.

Others noted a darker side. Another German, Johann Heinrich Meidinger, a Frankfurt merchant, visited a few years later in 1820. ‘Manchester is a sprawling town with few beautiful streets and buildings — mostly nothing else apart from warehouses and factories. Among the workers one sees a large number of pale and poorly-dressed people who live on buttermilk, oatcakes, and potatoes.’

This darker side had a profound impact on yet another German. He had been sent by his father to work in the family firm, which owned a textile mill in Manchester, partly in the hope it would cure him of his radical leanings. It had the opposite effect. The 22-year-old Frederick Engels, soon to become the lifelong friend and colleague of Karl Marx, was converted to revolutionary socialism and inspired to write a classic work of social description, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.

He concluded that the ‘350,000 working people of Manchester and its environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages, that the streets which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition, laid out without the slightest reference to ventilation, with reference solely to the profit secured by the contractor.’

Industrial take-off

A plan of Arkwright's Mill, Manchester's first cotton mill, on Green's map dating from 1794.

How do these contemporary images match up the hard evidence of the city’s physical remains? Though the University of Manchester has been at the forefront of archaeological research in the city since the 1880s, it is only in the last ten years that investigation of industrial heritage has taken off. The construction boom saw 12 rescue projects in 1999, 21 in 2002, and no less than 30 in 2007. There have also been research excavations and community projects, such as Dig Moston and Dig Manchester, and, in 2005, a joint Time Team and Manchester University project on the site of Richard Arkwright’s famous mill.

Archaeology confirms that Manchester was a modest place in Medieval times. In 1500, of 34 market centres in the North West, it was one of the smaller. It grew slowly in the Tudor and Stuart periods, doubling its population in the century between 1563 and 1664. Thereafter, it expanded rapidly: in the next century, between 1664 and 1773, the population increased sevenfold to 23,000. Then it exploded, trebling in the space of a generation to reach 70,000 by 1801. By this time, there were 33 textile mills in the city: Manchester was a product of the Industrial Revolution of the second half of the 18th century.

Why Manchester? Three major rivers — the Mersey, the Medlock, and the Irwell — converge where the city emerged. Despite this, Manchester did not acquire corporate status until 1838. This made it technically not a town at all, but, as Daniel Defoe described it in the 1720s, ‘one of the greatest, if not really the greatest, mere village in England’. As another English commentator explained in 1816, the absence of borough regulation ‘induced strangers to add their stock of property, industry, and talent to the growing prosperity, [raising] the town and trade of Manchester to its present consequence on the national scale’. Manchester, in short, was built on free trade.

Lasting significance

Manchester’s industrial heritage is of global significance. It was here that the world’s first industrial city was built. Its early development as a commercial centre of the cotton industry is represented by the merchant houses, workshop-dwellings, canals, waterfronts, and warehouses of the 18th century town. Its later development as a mass-production centre is embodied in the mills, canal arms, railways, warehouses, and back-to-back terraces of the 19th century city.

These varied remains are neither dark nor satanic, but they do reflect the impact of industrialisation. At long last, some of this important heritage is being explored, recorded, preserved, and put on display.

Further Information

Mike Nevell’s book, Manchester: the hidden history, is available from The History Press, £17.99, ISBN 978-0752447049

For an extended version of this article, see Issue 242 (May 2010) of Current Archaeology.

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