Canals and steam-powered cotton mills were how Manchester was transformed from a small disease-infested provincial town into a very big disease-infested industrial city. It all happened in the 1760s – with the opening of the Bridgewater Canal between Manchester and the coal mines at Worsley in 1763, and with Richard Arkwright patenting his super cotton mill in 1769. Thereafter, Manchester and the world would never be the same again. When the canal was extended to Liverpool and the open sea in 1776, Manchester – now dubbed ‘Cottonopolis’ – kicked into high gear and took off on the coal-fuelled, steam-powered gravy train.
There was plenty of gravy to go around, but the good burghers of 19th-century Manchester made sure that the vast majority of the city’s swollen citizenry (with a population of 90,000 in 1801, and 100 years later, two million) who produced most of it never got their hands on any of it. Their reward was life in a new kind of urban settlement: the industrial slum. Working conditions were scarcely better: impossibly long hours, child labour, work-related accidents and fatalities were commonplace. Mark Twain commented that he would like to live here because the ‘transition between Manchester and Death would be unnoticeable’. So much for Victorian values.
The wheels started to come off toward the end of the 19th-century. The USA had begun to flex its own industrial muscles and was taking over a sizeable chunk of the textile trade; production in Manchester’s mills began to slow and then it stopped altogether. By WWII there was hardly enough cotton produced in the city to make a tablecloth. In 1996 an IRA bomb wrecked a chunk of the city centre, but from the wreckage sprung the glass-and-chrome revolution so much in evidence today.