Frederick Engels was sent to Manchester, centre of the Industrial Revolution, to dispel his radicalism. Instead it made him the revolutionary he is remembered as today, Neil Faulkner explains.

In 1814, the year before Waterloo, a German visitor wrote of a city where he had seen ‘hundreds of factories … which tower up to five and six storeys in height. Huge chimneys at the side of these buildings belch forth black coal vapours, and this tells us that powerful steam-engines are used.’

He was describing Manchester – the first industrial city in the world. Between 1773 and 1801, its population had trebled from 23,000 to 70,000. By 1799, it boasted 33 textile mills, and by 1816, no less than 86.

Half a century later, the population would be 300,000, and most of the city’s eventual total of 172 mills would already have been built. So dominant was the city’s output of cotton textiles that, when they were sold on the other side of the world, they were known simply as ‘Manchester goods’.

Three converging rivers provided water-power and transport links. A network of canals, docks, and warehouses facilitated the first phase of Manchester’s industrial revolution.

Then came steam-power and railways to underwrite a second phase of development. The first steam-powered mill was operational as early as 1789, and a railway link with Liverpool was completed in 1830.

The speed of innovation and the exponential increases in the mass of goods produced were without historic precedent. Manchester represented an economic revolution – a revolution that would transform human experience more completely than anything that had happened since the Agricultural Revolution almost 10,000 years before.

Why now, and why here? In the 17th century, the English Revolution had ended the rule of an embryonic absolute monarchy and the lords and bishops who supported it, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy controlled by a parliamentary assembly dominated by gentry and merchants.

England’s ‘bourgeois revolution’ made possible a rapid expansion of commercial farming, overseas trade, and empire-building. Wealth poured into great port-cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool.

Of particular importance was the ‘triangular trade’. Commodities were exported to West Africa and exchanged for slaves; these were transported across the Atlantic to work on sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations in the Americas; the products of the plantations were then carried back to Britain and Europe for sale.

Richard Arkwright - pioneer of the factory system

In 1750, Bristol was England’s second city, with a population of 45,000. It filled with dockyards, warehouses, and terraces of rich townhouses owned by the Georgian merchant-bourgeoisie. Bristol grew fat on slavery.

The accumulation of commercial capital made possible by the Revolution did not simply enrich the landowners, merchants, and bankers of Britain’s new ruling class. It also fostered communities of scientists and engineers whose inventiveness began to open up new possibilities for yet further enrichment.

The Greeks had invented a steam-engine, but had never built one; the idea had remained a blueprint. Ingenuity was not enough. A process of competitive capital accumulation was necessary to turn a clever idea into a labour-saving device.

This is what happened in 18th century Britain. A drip-drip of quantitative change – increasing commercial wealth – suddenly tipped into a new dynamic of industrial growth driven by innovation and investment.

As early as 1698, for example, English inventor-entrepreneur Thomas Savery had built and patented a simple steam-engine. More efficient engines followed rapidly. That of Thomas Newcomen, invented c. 1710, was used to operate beam-pumps in coal mines

When James Watt developed a yet more efficient engine (in 1763-1775) – cutting coal consumption by 75% – far more widespread industrial use became economical. Watt worked with Birmingham metal-goods manufacturer Matthew Boulton to develop, patent, and sell a succession of engines.

Around the same time, Richard Arkwright, a pioneer in the use of water-power in the textile industry, was making the first experimental use of steam-power in Manchester. Arkwright was the inventor of the spinning frame and the carding engine. His pioneering combination in textile mills of power, machinery, and semi-skilled labour represents the origin of the factory system.

Originally, Manchester’s cotton magnates had grown rich on the ‘putting-out’ system, with spinners and weavers working in their own homes, many in the small towns and villages of the surrounding countryside.

Young Frederick Engels - Manchester textile executive and internatonal revolutionary

Mid 18th century Manchester was a city of merchant townhouses and workshop dwellings. The latter were three-storey houses in which the upper floor was designed as an individual workshop. A single wide window maximised light so that a skilled worker could operate a hand-loom or spinning-jenny.

The factory system, on the other hand, offered huge economies of scale. Mass production based on mechanical power, labour-saving machinery, and a cheap workforce of semi-skilled operatives (including many women and children) made possible huge increases in labour productivity and output.

Competitive pressure drove down the wages of hand-loom weavers and squeezed the profits of cotton merchants reliant on putting-out. The workers were eventually forced into the mills. The merchants invested in steam-engines and spinning frames.

Manchester changed from a city of workshop-dwellings, canals, and waterfronts into a city of back-to-back tenements, textile mills, and railways. As it did so, life for many of its fast-rising population became increasingly oppressive.

This darker side of the Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on a 22-year-old German sent by his father to work in the family firm, which owned a textile mill in Manchester.

Observing the city in 1844, he concluded that ‘350,000 working people of Manchester and its environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages. The streets which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition, laid out without the slightest reference to ventilation, with reference solely to the profit secured by the contractor.’

The young man’s father had sent him to work in Manchester partly in the hope it would cure him of his radical leanings. It had the opposite effect. Frederick Engels, soon to become the lifelong friend of Karl Marx, was converted to revolutionary socialism.

Not only that. In the new industrial proletariat Engels described so well in his seminal sociological study The Condition of the Working Class in England, he detected something more than mere wretchedness.

The workers, massed together in factories and slums, were already a political force. Engels arrived when England was being convulsed by the first great mass movement of the industrial proletariat. Hundreds of thousands were rallying to the Chartists.

The potent mix of poverty and resistance that Engels discovered in Manchester would feed into his and his collaborator’s understanding of history, human conflict, and the mechanics of social transformation. The result would be Marxism: the theory and practice of international working-class revolution.


Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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