Manchester’s Colonial Past

The below worksheet was adapted from Postcolonial Manchester by Lynne Pearce, Corinne Fowler and Robert Crawshaw (Manchester University Press, 2013); it was devised by Dr Sarah Ilott, Research Assistant, North-West Writers into Schools.

Manchester is a relatively young city, with an age of just over 150. It is often described as ‘the first industrial city of Europe’ and it is a place that was completely transformed by the industrial revolution. Manchester used to be the centre of cotton production and trade and came to be known as ‘Cottonopolis’ (meaning ‘cotton city’). As the cotton industry grew, so did Manchester, swallowing up the surrounding towns and villages.


It is important to remember that the cotton industry depended upon the slave trade for its growth. The slave trade arose as a result of European colonialism. From the sixteenth century onwards, Western European countries including Britain, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands were building distant colonies in Africa and the Americas. As they established these colonies they would then exploit the natural resources and bring across slaves to work on plantations growing things like cotton. This cotton was then exported to Liverpool, where the raw cotton was sold to mill owners and industrialists to turn into finished products. Finished products such as spun yarn (cotton that has been spun into a thread that can be used for sewing or weaving) were then traded at the Manchester Royal Exchange and exported around the world.


Research activities:

  • Can you think of buildings whose names show a connection to Manchester’s colonial past? You might need to look up the names of countries that Britain colonised in order to do this!
  • Did you know that Manchester had a direct connection with the slave trade? Is it something that is openly discussed by your family or friends? Why, or why not?