Why Did the Industrial Revolution Start in Manchester?

Manchester today is a city renowned for a long history of innovation, where the citizens’ imaginations seem to fire like nowhere else. Whether it is in the cause of social justice, the creative realms of music, art, or literature, or in the hard sciences, Manchester seems to push things forward. And there is no better illustration of this than in the city’s ties to Britain’s Industrial Revolution. 

While the significance of industrial megacities such as Glasgow and Newcastle is not in doubt, Manchester is widely accepted to have been Britain’s first industrial powerhouse, the engine room for the seismic changes that were to take place. 

Why is this? Join us today at Manchester Bites as we discuss why Manchester became the home of the Industrial Revolution.

And while you’re here, be sure to check out our Canals to Canapés Manchester food tour, which takes guests around the cobblestone streets of Manchester’s former industrial suburbs and includes 10 tastings.

Anita Street in Ancoats Manchester.

The Conditions for Revolution

Before discussing Manchester’s starring role in the Industrial Revolution, it is perhaps best to outline some of the wider changes to European society that made the whole thing possible. The first major shift comes from changes to the nation’s overall population. 

In the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had a modest population of about nine million; one hundred years later, by the mid-nineteenth century, the population had doubled

This rise in population rates seems to be broadly linked to the dramatic fall of death rates: growing awareness of medical concerns began preventing infant mortalities and early deaths among adults. And, so, with more citizens came more demand! More food was required, more clothing, more jobs.

This boom in numbers drove the need for innovation: new farming techniques, a new organisation of labour. Manchester offered the perfect conditions for such industrial innovation! 

In Manchester, there were canals and raw materials for production, such as iron ore and coal. In 1769, Richard Arkwright opened his first Manchester cotton factory, employing around 600 people. If there was one material at the centre of the revolution, it was king cotton. The invention of a variety of mechanical looms and weaving tools like the ‘spinning Jenny’ meant that the slow process of cotton production could be sped up inexorably.

Within only a few years, Manchester’s population grows and grows as workers regard it as the greatest of industrial cities. 

Manchester is a City of Firsts

So, what came out of Manchester’s revolution? Why does the city remain so proud of its industrial roots today? Why would L.S. Lowry’s 20th-century paintings of rainy Manchester factory districts give so many people pleasure? Why do they continue to evoke a wistful nostalgia to this very day? 

In part, it is certainly due to the solidarity that came with being an industrial centre. 

While the factories and heavy industry boosted the wealth of their owners, the economic growth ironically meant that more men and women (and even children) were forced to work in exhausting, dangerous conditions. 

But from these enormous workforces of downtrodden people came champions for the people! From campaigns against slavery to the suffragette movement calling on votes for women and the earliest animal rights groups, Manchester’s citizens have known how to get politically organised to fight for what they believe in.

The other source of pride lies in the city being the home of so many firsts — the machinery of production, Britain’s first canals, the first passenger railway, the first submarine, atomic theory, and even league football. 

And all of these things are inextricably bound to the Industrial Revolution and Manchester’s place in it. 

Innovation Continues in Manchester

In 2004, the world’s thinnest material (one atom thick!) was designed by two Manchester University scientists, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim — a sure sign that the city’s knack for ingenuity is not on the wane.

In fact, the 20th century was a time of wild inventiveness for Manchester. The proud Mancunian author, Anthony Burgess, penned game-changing novels like A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers. And a seemingly endless string of musicians revitalised British culture again and again: Joy Division, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Smiths, and Oasis, among others.

The right socio-economic conditions may have set Manchester’s journey to being an industrial powerhouse on course, but by all appearances, the wheels remain in motion right up to the present day.

If you have any questions or comments concerning this blog or our tours, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Anita Street in Ancoats Manchester.