‘Before and After: Manchester’s buildings evolution from the Cotton Industry to the 21st Century’

By Ella Walker

Manchester gained its city status in 1853. The urbanisation of the city was a consequence of the boom in the textile industry which saw Manchester become the world’s first industrialised city. Cotton played a huge role in the growth of Manchester. The cotton famine (1862-1863) was a consequence of the American Civil War. A northern blockade of southern ports resulted in the cotton supply to England being cut off.  As a result, workers in the Manchester cotton industry lost jobs and faced poverty. Despite this, many in Manchester supported the fight to abolish slavery. Observing the difference between the buildings and their purposes back then versus now highlights Manchester’s roots in the cotton industry and its evolution as a city over time. It also enables us to see the journey of the working women and men during the period and what each of these buildings meant to them.

The mills of Manchester were the heart and soul of the city’s success, witnessing many key moments throughout their history. The first mill, which is no longer standing, was built in 1783, on Miller Street for Richard Arkwright. The Crusader Mill in Ancoats that was built in 1830, is a key example of how cotton mills of Manchester evolved. Once used to provide the city with a wealth of resources, today Crusader Mill houses luxury apartments. Working class people would have spent a lot of their time in the mill, as they made a living and formed relationships with their fellow workers. Exposed brickwork, original cast iron columns and wooden beams have been left in-tact, honouring the building’s history. The use of the mills today shows the full circle moment of Cottonopolis. From the spinning of cotton in the 19th century, to meeting Manchester’s housing needs in the present day.

The Crusader Mill

One of the most important and renowned buildings is the Manchester Town Hall. This building is situated in the centre of Manchester and has always been the hub of the city. Building for the Town Hall started in 1868 and finished in 1877; after the collapse of the Cotton industry and the famine. What is so important about it, is the architectural elements that gothic-style architect Alfred Waterhouse put in place. He makes numerous nods to Manchester’s cotton history. For example, statues of Richard Cobden and John Bright stand inside the Town Hall. Richard Cobden was a Radical and Liberal politician who campaigned for the Anti-Corn Law league which impacted the working-class mill workers of Manchester. He did this alongside John Bright who was a promoter of free trade policies and a prevalent figure around the Lancashire Cotton Famine. There is also mosaic flooring inside the hall, which includes the iconic bee symbol of Manchester, as well as a border of white strands and stylised cotton flowered on the mosaic floors. Currently undergoing renovation until 2024, the Town Hall continues to provide a central meeting place for workers.

Manchester Town Hall

Finally, the Manchester Free Trade Hall was another extremely important building during 19th Century Cottonopolis. It was constructed between 1853-56 by Richard Cobden; the Radical and Liberal politician. The building, shrouded in history still stands today and is situated on Peter Street, sitting on the site of the historic Peterloo Massacre. It was also the home of the Halle Orchestra. In December 1862 a meeting of cotton workers was held at the Free Trade Hall and their support was pledged to the Federal States of America in their struggles against the South. This moment signified Manchester and Lancashire’s support for President Abraham Lincoln who thanked the cotton workers. A statue of Lincoln stands in Lincoln Square to this day. The Free Trade Hall is now home to popular Manchester restaurant, Peter Street Kitchen and despite the change in interior the original beauty from the exterior of the building can still be seen.

Painting of the Manchester Free Trade Hall
Manchester Free Trade Hall today

Each of these locations throughout Manchester honour the history of Cottonopolis and the industry that allowed Manchester to boom and become a hub of culture.  Although the city and its architecture may evolve, its roots and foundations, honoured through its buildings remain.

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