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In the late 18th century, something happened in Manchester, United Kingdom, that had never occurred anywhere before – the city experienced what would later become known as the Industrial Revolution. It was not a true revolution, characterized by sudden change, but rather an evolution over about seventy years from around 1770 to 1840, which took Manchester and nearby towns from a rural based society to a manufacturing one. In the process, the structure of family life changed completely, from one dominated by agriculture and cottage industries in the country to one of large factories in ever expanding cities and towns. But why did it start in Manchester?

The answer lies in its association with cotton. As early as 1282 a cottage industry existed in Lancashire, making articles of linen cloth and wool. By 1600, production extended to other fabrics such as cotton wool and fustian, or coarse cotton, made of raw materials from the Near East. A hundred years later, cotton became the most important industry in the Manchester area due largely to its moist climate and lime free water, making fiber easier to weave than in other parts of the country. Larger markets and better transport facilities led to strong growth in both the cotton industry and in the Manchester population between 1730 and 1770. The colonies of North America, for example, became not only an important supplier of raw cotton but a market for finished goods.

England had been a major producer of wool, coal and tin, and had well established trade links with Europe since medieval times. But industry was conducted from homes either in the countryside or in villages, and in the case of mining, by small local firms. In the mid 18th century all cotton was still hand spun. A series of inventions during the second half of that century had far reaching ramifications, not only for the cotton business but for society in general.

Rapid expansion of the industry meant the spinners could not produce enough weft on their linen warps to keep the weavers in work. This problem led to the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves, a former weaver of Blackburn. The jenny enabled a person to spin several yarns at once. Successive jennies soon became too large to fit into the village homes of spinners and had to be placed in workshops or factories. Economies of scale were kicking in, where large scale production meant far greater output for a given level of inputs compared with home industry.

Around 1770, Preston barber Richard Arkwright developed the water frame, to be driven by water power in a factory. When Samuel Crompton of Bolton introduced his spinning mule in 1779, a combination of a jenny and a water frame, the burgeoning factory system grew quickly. Factories, large and small, sprang up all over Manchester and surrounding towns. Steam power, first used in 1787, enhanced this growth as it meant factories no longer relied on water power and were not confined to locations beside streams often in the countryside. Growth was also boosted by the expanding overseas markets in Europe and elsewhere. The nearby town of Liverpool became a major port. Further improvements in road and river transport contributed to the rise of large scale industry.

Cotton workers throughout Lancashire and other English counties found they could no longer compete with the new cotton mills. Carding and spinning – traditionally undertaken at home by women and children – were done almost solely in factories by the 1790s. The weavers hung out but their pay diminished dramatically over ensuing decades and they too were forced to abandon their home based handlooms. Thousands of families had no choice but to leave their villages and migrate to the cotton towns and cities to obtain work. The population of Manchester grew from 15,000 in 1750 to 90,000 in 1800, making it the second largest urban area in England behind London.

The downside was that living and working conditions were atrocious, disease was rampant, education and literacy fell away as children worked full-time in factories, and local government services were virtually non-existent. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that these things gradually improved as a result of political pressure by various groups, including the fledgling trade union movement.

A similar industrial transition took place in other parts of Britain from the early 19th century before spreading to Europe, the United States, and later throughout most of the world. But it was in Manchester, United Kingdom, that the conditions were right for it to lead the way in creating an industrialized world that was to dominate society for most of the 19th and 20th centuries before service industries became dominant.