From Cotton to Council Houses: Manchester after the Industrial Revolution

Written by Rachael Raftery. Edited by Emma Ward.

Manchester. The ‘second capital’ during the Industrial Revolution, a huge industrial centre known as ‘Cottonopolis’ in its Victorian heyday, and fondly remembered for its innovation in canal technology. Since then, however, Manchester has come to typify twentieth-century urban decay. It has an image as ‘invariably gloomy’, it is known as the ‘rainy city’, and it is a city where ‘chavs’ in grey-trackies are considered far from out of place.


I write this not because I believe it; Manchester is, of course, much more than the image thus conjured. It’s a city of culture and economic importance – indeed, it is often referred to as the ‘second capital’ in the present day.


In this article I will not go over the story of Manchester’s spectacular rise to industrial greatness. In fact, I wish to counter the supposed subsequent demise, typically put down to the experience of the wars, which caused northern England to be stereotyped as a place of deprivation and poverty in comparison to the prosperous south.


Of course, there was economic and political distress after war, however all was not lost. Such issues prompted local government towards a more democratic and inclusive civic culture. Policies focused on grand projects, such as the Wythenshawe housing estate, innovative tram system and new Central Library – projects that boosted employment opportunities and public morale.


Significant steps were taken to demolish inadequate housing and to construct state-subsidised replacements. Manchester was indeed home to some of the poorest housing in the country in 1918. New suburban council house schemes were therefore rolled out to remedy this situation.

19th Century Slums


Lord Earnest Simon donated land at Wythenshawe to the city of Manchester in order to aid them in this purpose. Simon was particularly interested in improving housing for the working classes. Manchester’s famous Wythenshawe Estate provided suburban homes specifically for the working classes: 40,000 inhabitants occupied over 8000 homes in Wythenshawe by 1939. What was once farmland was transformed into one of the largest housing estates in Europe. Simon claimed there were no cellar dwellings remaining in Manchester and while there had been 10,000 back-to-back houses prior to 1938, there were by then, less than 40: ‘Really bad slums, which are still common in other cities, do not exist in Manchester’. The Manchester City News compared the old slums with the new suburbs: ‘Instead of dreary, depressing long rows of houses opening onto the street front…and backing onto narrow, dirty passages… we have… houses into which the sunlight can penetrate… with good gardens and plenty of space’. Wythenshawe was intended as a ‘garden city’ where an overspill population could be rehoused, away from the squalor of industrial Manchester.


Impressive transport networks were also established. Manchester’s buses carried 6.9 million passengers in 1925, increasing to 20.2 million in 1929, and by 1938 at least one tram passed through the main shopping street in the city centre, Market Street, every twenty-four seconds.


Manchester Central Library was completed and opened by George V in 1934. The library held one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, which made it second in size only to the British Library’s reading room. George V declared to the crowd: “In the splendid building which I am about to open, the largest library in this country provided by a local authority, the Corporation have ensured for the inhabitants of the city magnificent opportunities for further education and for the pleasant use of leisure”. Its unique Romanesque architectural style – in a circular form like the Pantheon – drew crowds and families to its doors.

Manchester Central Library


Next to the library, the Town Hall Extension was opened. The extension included a new council chamber, Gas and Electricity Departments with their own showrooms, cinemas, demonstration rooms, and a 200-foot ‘Rates Hall’ where people paid their taxes. These buildings are noteworthy not only because they reflected ambition not normally associated with northern England in the 1930s, but also because of the inclusive and democratic civic culture fostered by the projects. These buildings were considered the ‘Civic Centre’ of the city and represented ‘Modern Manchester’.


More recently urban regeneration projects have continued. Castlefield has undergone a process of gentrification, as stylish apartments for young professional couples have replaced previously derelict buildings belonging to the Manchester Ship Canal Company. Concern for the city’s heritage played a large role in these developments, as it was realised the buildings were too valuable to simply demolish. Salford Quays, previously the site of Manchester Docks, was also rebranded and developed. In 2007, the BBC moved 5 of its departments to a new development on Pier 9, to be called MediaCityUK.


Today these developments, along with stylish bars and clubs along the canal side at the Locks show that Manchester’s spectacular industrial rise has not been forgotten, yet neither is the city living in the shadow of its past. The cotton industry lost its importance in the national economy after the war, and it is undeniable that difficulties occurred. Yet the end of ‘Cottonopolis’ did not result in the abandonment of the ‘second capital’ leaving poor working-class people crowded in derelict terraces and forgotten about for years to come. Instead, following the war local councils took the setback in their stride, developing numerous regeneration schemes, which have clearly established a successful tradition in the city. These projects eased economic distress and boosted morale, meaning Manchester never got ‘left behind’ in the South’s wake, but was able to continue to be a forward-looking, modern and successful city.