Manchester in the 19th century

Professor Emma Griffin explains how industrialisation, and in particular the cotton industry, transformed Manchester into the United Kingdom’s third most populous city.

At the start of the 18th century, Manchester was a small, market town with a population of fewer than 10,000. By the end of the century, it had grown almost tenfold, to 89,000 souls. In the 19th century, the population continued to grow unabated, doubling between 1801 and the 1820s and then doubling again between then and 1851, to 400,000 souls. This was phenomenal growth transforming Manchester into Britain’s second city. Manchester continued to grow steadily down to the end of the century. In 1901 its population stood at around 700,000; only London and Glasgow were greater in size.


Manchester’s growth rested largely on the growth of the cotton industry, and by mid-century the city typified Britain as the ‘workshop of the world’. Young men and women poured in from the countryside, eager to find work in the new factories and mills. The mills paid relatively high wages and they also employed large numbers of children. As a consequence, families migrating to the city often saw a considerable rise in their incomes. But not all aspects of life in the factories were pleasant. The rise in child labour was of course undesirable from the perspective of child welfare. Factory workers also had to work more intensively than farm workers. Agricultural workers were used to frequent spells of unemployment. Days were by necessity shortened during in the dark winter months and in bad weather men could not work at all. Factory workers were expected to work much more extensively, as the factory owners, having made heavy investment in expensive machinery, wanted to keep their machines running. Employers tried to lure in good workers through higher wages, but they were also very quick to punish any of their workers whose behaviour risked leaving their valuable machines idle.

Information concerning the state of children employed in cotton factories

Double page with testimonies about child labour, from 'Information concerning the state of children employed in cotton factories'

Published in Manchester, Nathan Gould’s Information concerning the state of children employed in cotton factories (1818) provided statistical and documented information on the employment of children in cotton mills.

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The factories provided the most visible evidence for Manchester’s economic growth, but the city offered numerous other employment opportunities for new migrants. Factories needed their operatives, but they also had to be built, their machines had to be maintained, their warehouses organised – it all amounted to a steady stream of employment for those who flocked to the cities. Others made a living transporting raw material and finished goods around – driving horses and carts, building railways, driving trains. Then there was a mountain of work to be done providing for the needs of a large population. The urban workforce needed houses, furniture, bread, shoes, clothes; their demand for the staples of life provided plenty of business for skilled workers. The demand for labour meant that many of the city’s workers were fully employed throughout the year and this helped to drag families out of the grinding poverty that agricultural workers endured.

'The cotton famine – group of mill operatives at Manchester' from the Illustrated London News

Illustration of men, women and children stood outside mill factories, titled 'The cotton famine - group of mill operatives at Manchester', from the Illustrated London News

Workers benefited from continuous growth, but were liable to be laid off when there was a drop in demand or supply, as when the American Civil War cut the supply of cotton from the American Southern States.

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City planning

Better wages were undoubtedly the greatest attraction of city life, but the higher incomes came at a price. City planning was in its infancy and much of the new workers’ housing was erected with little regard to quality. The provision of clean water, sewerage and waste removal was left largely in the hands of private companies and was woefully inadequate to the population’s needs. Hardly surprisingly, Manchester was hit badly by the cholera epidemic of 1831–32. Many homes remained without clean piped water and flushing toilets until the end of the century. The death rate was high, particularly amongst infants and children, and the city was only able to maintain its growth through the continuous influx of new migrants.

The ‘Condition of England’

Many middle-class commentators were alarmed at the unchecked growth of towns like Manchester and struggled to accept the dramatic change in the urban landscape. With characteristic style, the historian Thomas Carlyle deplored the degradation of the ‘working body of this rich English Nation’, and sparked a debate about the ‘Condition of England’.[1] Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, many novelists contributed to this debate, including Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. Dickens’s famous creation, Coketown in Hard Times, was a mill-town set in the north of England and inspired by a visit to the north of England. Coketown was depicted as a miserable place filled with identical and uninspired brick buildings, all covered with soot, thanks to the coal burned in its many factories.

Hard Times page proofs with manuscript notes

Page containing the opening of Chapter 5, from the proofs for Hard Times with Dickens's handwritten notes

In Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) Manchester is portrayed as ‘Coketown’, a miserable city marked by identical buildings covered with soot.

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, with Two Lectures on the Lancashire Dialect by William Gaskell

Title page from Mary Barton; A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton was published in 1848. In the novel, Elizabeth Gaskell sets out her commitment to urban realism, portraying the rapidly-industrialising Manchester of the 1840s. 

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‘Hell upon Earth’

Yet the most enduring legacy came not from these English writers but from a German visitor – Friedrich Engels. Engels was sent to Manchester by his father in order to complete his training in the cotton industry. But Friedrich, already deeply involved in the German radical movement, seized upon the trip as an opportunity to conduct a firsthand study of the lives of the workers the factory employed. The result, The Condition of the Working Class in England, shone a bright light on the most unsavoury consequences of England’s industrial transformation. His account of mid-19th-century Manchester was uncompromising: a place of dirt, squalid over-crowding, and exploitation. The historic heart of Manchester he described as a place of ‘filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness’, it was, quite simply, ‘Hell upon Earth’.[2]

Middle-class commentators took a uniformly bleak view of Manchester, but it is important to note that many working-class inhabitants viewed their city in a far more positive light. In a large town it was possible to attend a night school or to worship at whatever church one chose. It was possible to join a union, or even a political society, and start to shape the society in which one lived. William Aitken described his fellow Manchester Chartists as the ‘sons of freedom’.[3] Manchester may have been dirty, noisy and over-crowded, but for many workers the combination of relatively good wages and a lively cultural scene provided ample compensation for these drawbacks.


[1] Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London, 1843), p. 3.

[2] Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 (London, 1892), p. 53.

[3] William Aitken, ‘Remembrances and struggles of a working man for bread and liberty’, in William Aitken, the Writings of a Nineteenth Century Working Man, ed. by Robert G Hall and Stephen Roberts (Tameside: Tameside Leisure Services, Libraries, and Heritage, 1996).

  • Emma Griffin
  • Emma Griffin is a Professor of History at UEA, where she specialises in the social and cultural history of Victorian Britain. She has published on the history of popular recreation, hunting, and the industrial revolution. Her most recent book, Liberty’s Dawn (Yale University Press) considers the impact of the industrial revolution on the ordinary men, women and children who did the most to make it happen. She is currently working on a history of everyday life in Victorian Britain.

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