Threads: Manchester

Manchester City of Literature project


In 1781 Richard Arkwright opened the world’s first steam-driven textile mill in Manchester. The arrival of steam power was the beginning of the mechanisation that enhanced textile industries in Manchester into the world’s first centre of mass production.

As manufacture switched from the home to factories, Manchester became the most productive cotton spinning centre in the world and by 1871, 32% of global cotton production took place here.

The commercial centre of ‘Cottonopolis’ was the Cotton Exchange’s trading hall, which now houses the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The number of cotton mills in Manchester peaked at 108 in 1853. As its numbers declined, more cotton mills opened in surrounding towns. As manufacturing in Manchester shrank, the commercial centre: warehouses, banks and services for the 280 cotton towns and villages within a 12-mile radius of the Royal Exchange grew.

To facilitate this industrial boom, Manchester became an important transport hub. The Bridgewater Canal made it possible to transport goods in bulk to its terminus in Castlefield. Raw cotton came through the port of Liverpool from the West Indies, southern states of America and Britain’s biggest colony the Indian subcontinent (after supply from US states stopped due to civil war). The world’s first intercity railway between Manchester and Liverpool opened in 1830.

Growth meant the city boasted an enormous working-class population, one who bravely demanded the vote in 1819. After the Peterloo Massacre sent shockwaves around the world in reaction to the brutality against peaceful workers living in terrible conditions, the Manchester Guardian was founded by a group of merchants and manufacturers.

Industrial workers applied principles of protest to unfair taxes, child labour and social reform and so the injustices of slavery resonated with them. Manchester soon became a powerful force in mobilising mass protest against slavery. 11,000 Mancunians signed the 1787 petition in support of abolition.

Abolition expedited the case for emancipation for the workers, and was pivotal in winning the Second Reform Act of 1867 which allowed thousands of working men to vote for the first time; almost doubling the electorate. Cottonopolis continued to thrive until WWII made cheaper fabrics more accessible. Cotton and social reform are inextricably threaded together in Manchester.


… [Manchester] this famous great factory town. Dark and smoky from the coal vapours, it resembles a huge forge or workshop. Work, profit and greed seem to be the only thoughts here. The clatter of the cotton mills and the looms can be heard everywhere …

— Johanna Schopenhauer, Sämmtliche Schriften, Frankfurt, (1830)




The Great Fire Of Oxford Mills, 6 August 2019
by Hafsah Aneela Bashir


Midnight brought with it the grand collapse
The sixth floor of the cotton mill too tired and old
let go
The haunch of its neck trapped against the roof
A rib cage of old metal beams expanding with the heat
could do nothing as rows of cardboard boxes
set themselves on fire


It did not matter now
the 11 o’clock grand buffet, celebrating the mill owner’s success
Endless extended family sat along two white tables
As the fifth-floor windows shattered from the pressure
Fire-crews with a small hose full of tears
aimed at the empty sockets of the building


10 o’clock below, against the edge of a cordoned pavement
the mill owner and his wife stood side by side
an exact 5 inches apart
The crackle of fire, a gold glint in their eye
The townspeople behind, watching
as the building creaked and groaned
contemplating if now was the time to blow


At 9 o’clock – the wife gave birth to the mill owner’s fifth child
Who rode his bike around the foot of the mill
Stood at the side lines yelling foul at the factory workers
playing football on the green next to the carpark
packed with trucks
ready to deliver the day’s orders


At 8 o’clock the bricked mouth of the mill housing the generators
exploded – the townspeople wept
as a mushroom plume gathered high into the indigo sky
The mill owner’s wife warned
it’s only a matter of time


At 7 o’clock the weavers in the walls of the fourth floor
Kicked the spindles and hoisted their dresses in the air
It did not matter now, as they loosened their hair
that they danced in the belly of this beast,
fox trotting in flames with their blackened boots


Outside, at six o’clock
the mill owner silently watched
as demolition companies and insurers, surveyors and voyeurs
slyly passed around business cards,
parroting so sorry this has happened, so sorry


At five o’clock the mill owners older three sons arrived
with bouncy castles and mountain bikes
school certificates and the usual fights
Three lads in scruffy shorts eating ice cream at the mill doors
racing up the spiral staircase
to see who could sprint the fastest to clear all six floors


At four o’clock the mill owner’s wife asked him
Why if we’re on fire here, do we always try to put out a fire there?
as the fire crew summoned for water
from a neighbouring district
ignoring the mill owner’s plea to use the canal nearby


At 3 o’clock the mill owners wife gave birth to their daughter
The siren of four fire engines signalling the news
Only a small fire, they said assuring the mill owner
Nothing to worry about, so they sent back two
the black smoke from two burning buildings down
stinging their eyes as they spoke


At two o’clock the mill owner’s wife waited too many hours
Residents, distraught as they evacuated Gibson Terrace homes
The workers worried they’d have to sign on the dole
Reporters tweeted and the young, snapchatted the blaze
The mill owner watched his life’s work burn, in a daze


At one o’clock, each huge Mecca machine
melted into the floor
Cotton rolls stacked like tinder
fanned the flames some more
It didn’t matter now how the red-hot safe, hidden
burned their marriage document or hard-earned money
The floors decided to descend
exhausted by the weight
as the mill owner closed his eyes
whispering, QadarAllah, this is fate… this is fate


At the stroke of 12, just as a man down the road
unknowingly sparked a flame opening an oven door,
a young groom and bride faced each other in the mill’s grand hall
Standing an exact 5 inches apart
The warmth of love reflecting a fire in their hearts
The townspeople watched the mill owner as he asked if she’d oblige
To accept the love he had for her and agree to be his wife
As the beams crashed down around them, fire engulfing her bouquet
no-one heard their answers and the fire raged for days


Ash, debris, grey dust and broken concrete
Metal fencing, an eery silence, now on Oxford Street East
How long before the people
of Ashton Under Lyne forget to say,
There used to be a grand old mill here
With one of this town’s first quilters, called B&A


Hafsah Aneela Bashir is a Manchester-based poet, playwright and performer originally from East London. Founder and co-director of Outside The Frame Arts, she is passionate about championing voices outside the mainstream.

Winner of the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship 2019, she was writer-in-residence with Manchester Literature Festival, is an Associate Artist with The Poetry Exchange, an Associate Artist with Oldham Coliseum Theatre and a Supported Artist at The Royal Exchange Theatre. Creating socially engaged work, her play Cuts Of The Cloth was commissioned for PUSH Festival 2019. Her debut poetry collection The Celox And The Clot is published by Burning Eye Books.




by Keisha Thompson

Let me spin you a tale about a steam-driven spindle
It’s 1781, we are on Miller Street in Manchester
This spindle is called Arkwright – first of its kind. 

All good stories start like this. 

This one will make your head spin like this little
spindle stepping out of home life into a factory
followed by many others to put bread to win. 

The stories we spin. 

What were the things we told ourselves to keep going
until we owned a third of the globe’s cotton production?
How could it not be a good thing? Who was complaining? 

All good stories sound like this. 

You just have to put a spin on it as this little spindle would say,
I’m from Cottonpolis and that meant something.
Those proud words held up like a Velvet packing House. 

The stories we spin. 

The sun was certainly shining down on this labyrinth of towns
This mecca of warehouse, so long as you could imagine beyond
a coal-peaked cloud or peculiar smell of foreign blood in the canals. 

All good stories sound like this 

until things grind to a halt like spool in a case when it’s collected
too much dust. You have to pull it out. Hold it up to the light.
Give it a blow. Just a little bit of human decay. It will find a new

home. The stories we spin

until things are spinning out of control like the trading dials under
The Royal Exchange Dome. The algorithm of greed. Those spinning
wheels had us spinning on our heels, spinning in circles, spinning 

in our graves. All good stories sound like this. The stories we spin. Will catch up with us one day. 


Keisha Thompson is a Manchester based writer, performance artist and producer. Keisha is Artistic Director and CEO of Contact, Manchester, Chair of radical arts funding body, Future’s Venture Foundation, an ITC board member and recipient of The Arts Foundation Theatre Makers Award 2021.

With thanks to Manchester Archives for supplying the images.


Royal Exchange, Manchester