Join the Global Threads team and listen to conversations about how we completed our research and learn how you can uncover more details and narratives about Manchester’s important place in the history of industrialisation, globalisation, colonisation, and enslavement.
Our team set out to learn more about stories, lives, and places connected to Manchester’s cotton economy. To do that they had to get to grips with Primary Sources that could give them insights into experiences that have often been underrepresented.
Primary Sources are any types of item, document, or information source created at the time we are studying or by someone with direct experience or knowledge of a subject or event.
In this conversation we learn about the many types of sources used and the research approaches the team adopted in order to bring together a diverse array of places and people into a one narrative.
Researching Under-Represented Stories
LISTEN to Global Threads team members discussing the challenges of finding sources on lived experiences of those who leave few traces in historical documents
What do you think the benefits are of writing social histories, characterizing daily experience, the experience of working people, over the kind of histories which is top-down, focusing on political leaders?
I think it’s interesting to understand the lives of people, the lives of the many rather than just the rich people at the top. Learning more about the lives of everyday people means that you get a much better insight and a more holistic view of history rather than just rich people.
I guess it’s a lot harder to find these things, which is why we’ve got a lot more top-down history and especially, finding stuff published about people who weren’t able to write is a lot more difficult when I’m looking at most history books.
Definitely I found that as well, it was a real struggle. It’s one thing to be like, “Oh yeah, I want to write about the lived experience of working people in a city in these years”, and it’s another thing to find those lived experiences. It’s not it’s not as simple as just Googling someone’s name. You’ve got to develop a sense of it, or an image, based off descriptions from various people.
And written by people we don’t necessarily trust to have written the most accurate descriptions!
Also, when I was doing newspaper research, taking into account maybe these newspapers have different political motivations and are going to try and characterize something in one way or another.
Another difficulty I found of writing about food was I would find a cook book which had amazing detail on the history of certain foods, but obviously none of it would be referenced and it would be a random cookbook from the 80s, it didn’t have that much information about the author. So I would be reading something really interesting, but I’d have to go and try and cross-reference it with stuff I could verify was definitely accurate. It was interesting, but quite difficult.
Objects and Images
An important source for the Global Threads team was the collection of objects and images held by the Science Museum Group, many of which are housed at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Many of these unique items allow us to appreciate the lives and places connected to the cotton industry in personal and evocative ways.
An excellent, free to use, resource related to enslavement is the Slavery Images platform, which includes as much detail on the dates and source of each image collected as the compilers can find to help us understand the image’s context.
Lots of online archives and search engines also allow us to discover historic images, but making sure we can locate information on an image’s source is essential if we are to use these depictions to learn more about historical lives, places, and experiences.
LISTEN to discussion about the difficulties of ensuring our primary material comes from reliable and verifiable sources
Some images were really hard to track down the original source because they were online and they would be on Wikipedia or on a different article talking about the Irish migrant worker experience, but when I tried to find the source for it just like wouldn’t exist. So I went through quite a few images trying to find something that was not copyrighted or actually was traceable in terms of, “where did this thing actually come from?”, to verify that it was actually something from that period and not just something that someone threw together more recently.
That was definitely a process of trial and error in terms of finding the images and also finding their sources. It was a lot easier to find newspaper quotes and also information in quotes from people like John Doherty and other Irish trade union activists.
Newspapers are an excellent way to find out what was happening in a place at a certain time. Online databases allow you to search for specific words, terms, and names through thousands of newspapers – although sometimes poor scans mean that some articles aren’t searchable this way. It pays to experiment with different search terms and phrases and combinations of words.
If you know an event happened on a particular date in a particular place, you can go to the newspaper issues around that date and see if reports were made. This also allows you to explore what else was happening at this time – what the major issues and events were that people were taking part in or talking about.
As with all sources, it is important to question newspapers
Who is writing this and who is their audience?
What point of view are they trying to put across?
What might they have left out?
Which people or which subjects are not being talked about, and why not?
Members of Manchester public libraries can get online access (in the library) to the Manchester Guardian (1821 onwards), Manchester Courier (1825 onwards), Manchester Mercury (1752 to 1830 – most issues), and Manchester Times (1828 to 1900) here.
LISTEN to more reflections on research resources and techniques from the Global Threads team
I did find some really excellent books at the UCL library. There was one on John Doherty, who was a very influential trade union activist who was active at that time, had a lot of influence over over Manchester’s Irish politics. And he was a migrant worker as well. So that was really, really helpful in terms of getting down into it.
I would do the thing where I would track the sources through the sources that the author used and then would actually try to find if they mentioned a newspaper article or something. I’d look that up and try to see if I could find it. I definitely checked out a lot of newspapers! Manchester Times was a great source that would mention different events that had happened.
I was definitely more focused on newspaper articles. I went on the British newspaper archives and spent hours just searching them and then changing the different search terms to narrow it down and try and get to a few keywords and then see if like certain names would come up, which was definitely a good way of going about it.
Newspapers was the primary of source of information, especially for the Frederick Douglass study, although that actually had a lot more wider reading because he is a more famous figure. So I could base it more on my secondary reading, I could do some wider reading and get more depth from that.
Online archives are an excellent place to discover books published before 1900 with many thousands available to be freely browsed, downloaded, searched, and shared.
Our team found books such as those written by visitors and travellers to different locations, reports, diaries, and accounts of social conditions, and biographies and autobiographies from interesting figures.
Every writer, of course, has their own point of view, biases, and blind-spots to consider, particularly when it comes to the type of judgements they might make about others – often we learn as much about the ideas or prejudices of a writer as we do about the people or place they are writing about.
Understanding the experiences and lives of people who were enslaved was also an important focus for some of our team members. Wherever possible they looked to narratives written by formerly enslaved persons or recorded testimonies.
For British authors and narratives of Caribbean enslavement, there are useful links on the British Library’s website and this chronological list of Early Caribbean Slave Narratives.
From a United States perspective, a large proportion of published narratives of enslavement are freely available on the Documenting the American South archive here.
LISTEN to Global Threads team members sharing their online archives and primary researching experiences
I found books that were written as the observations of vicars or religious people that moved to live in places in the Caribbean and had written down the observations of the everyday lives of enslaved people and the enslavers. They were where I found a lot of stuff about just everyday life experience, they were really helpful.
When I worked on the study looking at Elk Mill I looked at old accounts and I had a lot of information on who worked at Elk Mill and saw some oral history testimonies as well. But I also found some materials such as the cotton they used and weaving practices as well so it was great to include them in my case study. And as for looking up when Gandhi came over to Lancashire, it was quite well documented in newspaper articles. So it was great to use those and for that case study – mainly newspaper articles for the second one.
Finding Sources in Manchester
Manchester has many places where you can find original material on the many aspects of the city’s cotton connections and histories.
The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archive is open to the public on the Lower Ground Floor of Manchester Central Library, where you can browse a large collection of books and request archival materials. You can explore their collections here and some material is digitised online here.
Manchester Central Library has a large Local History section in Archives+ on the Ground Floor, next to the café, and a wide variety of collections on Manchester people and places which you can search here.
If you are looking for specific companies or individuals, you can also look through this list of Manchester Central Library archives on the National Archives catalogue here.
A number of our researchers also used collections held at the John Rylands Library, such as that of McConnell and Kennedy, which includes information about mill workers and their families, as well as the business practices of the mill owners. You can search the full catalogue here and explore some of their digitised materials online here.