The first industrial suburb
As we walk around central Manchester today, we perhaps don’t always appreciate how much of its built environment is a legacy of its global cotton history. Some of its most familiar architectural features were once mills and warehouses used to store, manufacture, and sell cotton, and the network of streets, rivers, canals, and railways came into being as part of the process of placing Manchester at the centre of worldwide cotton trade networks.
A number of the largest industrial complexes, made up of multi-storey spinning mills, were built in Ancoats where many of these buildings still survive today, often as modern, luxury apartments – a far cry from their original use and the lives of their inhabitants.
cOTTON MILLS ON UNION STREET IN ANCOATS, 1820.
The mills depicted above, Old Mill, Long Mill and Sedgewick Mill were situated on Union Street (now Redhill Street) in Ancoats, three of the six factories owned by James McConnel and John Kennedy. McConnel and Kennedy specialised in cotton spinning and the manufacturing of cotton production equipment.
Their business was founded in 1795 and employed 312 workers by 1802. In 1816 the number had grown to 1,020 when it was one of only four businesses to employ over 700 people in Manchester. They employed men, women, and children on long hours in dangerous and harsh conditions, with women and children paid at particularly low rates.
The mills largely imported cotton cultivated by enslaved people, at first from the Caribbean, later mainly focusing on the United States and, to a lesser extent, Brazil.
“When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 8,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the 125 million of dollars’ worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”
Anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Parker Remond, 1859.
The firm had merchants who shipped the raw cotton from ports like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans to Liverpool, from where it was transported to Manchester. This cotton was then processed to produce fine yarn and cloth.
Sea Island cotton
“She says de sea island cotton was so costly that it was handpicked by slaves and placed in hundred pounds sacks … and de growers reap a rich harvest.”
Lavinia Heyward, South Carolina, daughter of Peter Jones and Rachel Bryant Jones, describing what her mother relayed to her. Full text here.
McConnel and Kennedy particularly focused on importing highly-prized Sea Island cotton, a variety with particularly long fibres (long-staple), grown in the coastal islands and Low Country regions of South Carolina and Georgia.
Sea Island cotton is sometimes referred to as black seeded cotton. Due to its long fibres, it was particularly popular with Manchester’s manufacturers as it could produce a silkier cloth than the short-staple variety, yielding a stronger, finer and more expensive final product.
This story traces the global threads connecting the mills and warehouses of Manchester to the enslaved people who produced the highly-prized Sea Island cotton, focussing particularly on the experiences of enslaved women on cotton plantations.
Picking under pressure
Sea Island cotton was harvested from September to December. During this period, enslaved people were frequently forced to work on rest days and throughout the night. On average, it took fifty to sixty days of labour to produce one bale of Sea Island cotton. The harvesting process was more taxing than that required for the short-staple variety. It demanded more hoeing, bruised easily and had to be picked before the bolls had fully opened, as too much exposure to the air and the elements damaged the fibres.
Given the extra time it took to cultivate Sea Island cotton, there were huge time pressures on enslaved labourers. It was particularly difficult and dangerous to pick from the thorny, spiky bolls. If the lint was damaged, it would affect the quality, and therefore the price enslavers could demand for the cotton. Women were frequently considered the best pickers because it required such precise, vigorous and agile hand movements, better suited to those with smaller hands. The amount of cotton that could be picked in a day varied depending on ability. One woman testified to being the fastest in her plantation:
“I pick two and three hunnert pounds a day and one day I picked 400.”
Mary Kincheon Edwards, a formerly enslaved woman from Austin, Texas. Full text here.
While the quickest pickers could harvest up to 400 pounds of short-staple cotton in a day, only about 100 pounds of Sea Island cotton could be delicately extracted.
“Any slave run way or didn’t done task, put em’ in barn and least cut they give ‘em (with lash) been twenty-five to fifty. Simply cause them weak and couldn’t done task!”
Gabe Lance, a formerly enslaved man from Sandy Island, South Carolina. Full text here.
In the dehumanising system of plantation slavery, enslaved people were referred to by enslavers as ‘hands’, reduced by a calculation of the labour and profit they could provide to their most valuable body parts. Plantation owners described pre-pubescent girls as “half hands”. After puberty, women were known as “full hands”. Tasks were set according to ability. For example, a ‘full hand’ would be expected to pick twice as much cotton as a “half hand”. The amount of cotton picked was monitored by overseers and plantation owners.
“Boy, you are a stranger here yet, but I called you in to let you see how things are done here, and to give you a little advice… I never whip at first; I always give him a few days to learn his duty.”
Charles Ball recounting an overseer bringing him into a barn to watch women being whipped. From Fifty Years in Chains or, the Life of an American Slave. Full text here.
A brutal method employed to monitor and increase productivity was the use of quotas. Quotas were enforced by the impending threat of torture. Each day cotton sacks where weighed; if the target was not met, it would result in physical punishment. If the targets were met or exceeded, they would often be increased.
This method of coercion became known as the pushing system. The threat of violence was used to “push” enslaved people to discover new strategies that would increase the amount of cotton that could be picked and processed. However, enslaved people came up with innovative ways of meeting quotas and avoiding punishments, such as wetting the cotton and hiding rocks within it before it was weighed.
cotton being carried to the gin by enslaved people, 1853.
Ginning and singing
While the most physically able women worked in the fields, others often worked in the gin houses. This was where cotton was sent to be processed after it was picked. In the gin houses cotton was first checked for dirt and damaged fibres, then the cotton seeds were removed. Often a cotton gin was used to do this, however, because of the delicate fibres, in the Sea Islands this was sometimes done by hand instead. Next, the fibres were sorted according to their length and texture.
“We four chillum have to pick seed out the cotton. Work till ten o’clock at night and rise early.”
Sabe Rutledge, a formerly enslaved man from Burgess, South Carolina. Full text here.
It was then re-examined before being packed and taken via boat to the ports, where it was sent on to England. On the whole, women where in charge of sorting through and organising the cotton before and after it was ginned, while men were in charge of machinery.
“The old cotton gins on de farms were made of wooden screws, and it took all day to gin four bales o’ cotton.”
Josephine Bacchus, a formerly enslaved woman from Marion, South Carolina. Full text here.
Women’s work in the gin houses was considered “lighter” than field work. Therefore, it was common for pregnant women, elderly women, and children to work alongside one another within them. This space provided a place for different generations of women to build community bonds and share knowledge and experience. Women utilised this space to sing and talk, giving advice and sharing stories as they worked.
The second shift
Alongside agricultural work, enslaved women were also expected to take care of domestic responsibilities within enslaved communities.
“Most of de grown slave women knocked off from field work at dinner time on Saturdays and done de washin’ for de rest of de slaves.”
Jane Johnson, a formerly enslaved woman from Columbia, South Carolina. Full text here.
Enslaved women were expected to cook, clean and look after children in whatever time they had free. This meant that young girls were expected to start work at a younger age than boys. Women were also expected to take on extra work for plantation owners, for example sewing and making quilts, candles and soap. This work would often be completed at night, as on the whole, women had virtually no free time during the rest of the day.
“When I was a little small girl, I would stay dere home en play bout de yard en nurse my mammy’s baby while she was workin in de field.”
Agnes James, a formerly enslaved woman from Clauseens, South Carolina. Full text here.
Enslaved people wove sea grass baskets to help with both domestic and agricultural work. This unique and traditional style of weaving originates from West Africa and was passed down, often by women, through many generations in the Sea Islands and Low Country. Each basket is unique in design, according to the task it was made for. The baskets were used when harvesting cotton, rice and indigo. They were also used to store food and water.
Sweet grass baskets where often woven by older, less physically able women who were no longer able to take on the most exerting field work. The baskets are still made today and are an important feature of Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage.
A culture to celebrate
The South Carolina Low Country and the surrounding Sea Islands are home to Gullah-Geechee people. Due to the isolated location of the islands, enslaved people retained a particularly strong link to their West African heritage, maintaining traditions that were passed down through generations. The survival of these unique traditions speaks to great resistance and resilience in the face of a constant system of oppression.
Gullah-Geechee people developed distinctive artistic customs, culinary practices, and a unique creole language, which is still spoken today and much preserved and cherished through storytelling, singing, ring shouts, and spirituals. These unique practices are intimately connected to religion, a central part of Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage. You can view a video on the development and importance of Gullah music at this link.
On first listen, the rousing and beautiful strains of Gullah-Geechee song may seem to have very little to connect them to the sounds of traffic and bustle in central Manchester. The banks of the Irwell and the Ashton Canal may be four thousand miles from shores of the Sea Islands but in the few remaining archives of cotton manufacturers, like McConnel and Kennedy, we can trace shipments of Manchester cotton to the exact plantations it was grown upon – a few remaining single threads running from Ancoats to Carolina, and from there to West Africa, tracing where much of the wealth that built those mills, warehouses, roads, canals, railways, and many public institutions was drawn.
Find out more
National Museum of African American History and Culture, NMAAHC Receives Piece of Sea Island History With Slave Cabin Acquisition.
Library of Congress, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938.
Revealing Histories, Cotton Mills, Ancoats, Manchester.
This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.