Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Manchester: From Cottonopolis to Creative Industry by John Montgomery

[ John Montgomery is an Australia-based urban consultant and writer. You can see some of his work at his web site Urban Cultures. He was kind enough to provide this essay on some of the transformation of Manchester. – Aaron ]

Manchester is located in the north of England, and jostles with Birmingham as England’s second city. Its prosperity was built on the cotton and clothing industries, trading across the British Empire, notably with India, America and Australia (where, interestingly, bed-linen is still referred to as “Manchester”). Manchester itself became known as “Cotton-opolis”, a status that was only made possible by advanced engineering projects such as the Manchester Ship Canal, extended to Liverpool sea port in 1766. Manchester became the world’s first[1] industrial city, triggered to a great degree by Richard Arkwright’s patent of a steam-powered cotton manufacturing process, derived from earlier inventions such as Hargreaves’ spinning jenny.[2] As well as the new production process, Manchester had access to imported raw materials and markets, plus plentiful local supplies of water and coal. This, plus the fact that Manchester had a repository of weaving skills following the settlement of Flemish weavers in the fourteenth century[3], led to cotton becoming the first industrial revolution.

Manchester: a sky turned coppery by the setting sun; a cloud, strangely shaped resting upon a plain; and under this motionless cover a bristling of chimneys, all tall as obelisks. – Hippolyte Taine[4].

The rapid expansion of industry led, during the nineteenth century, to rapid urbanisation and conflicts would follow over both working conditions in the mills, and housing and public health: it was in Manchester that Engels would write The Condition of Working Class in England. Manchester developed a tradition of trade unionism, the reform of working conditions and social welfare. It also has a strong self-help ethos, particularly in learning and the arts[5]. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, Manchester’s economic growth slowed and began moving towards decline, largely as a result of competition and a failure to continue innovating. By the middle of the twentieth century the industries that had made Manchester great—cotton, engineering, machine engineering—were largely a thing of the past.

Little is left of the world in which Manchester built its reputation. The great cotton Mills and warehouses have become converted entertainment venues, the terraced houses models for sets of Coronation Street. What is left, however, is the energy, the sheer spirit that made Manchester one of the great power-houses of the industrial age. And while that age is gone, Manchester is once again picking up steam. – Nicholas Woodsworth, Financial Times

By the 1980s the city’s economy was in serious decline, the professionals and middle classes were leaving, the city itself was relatively inert and uninteresting. The city fathers embarked upon a policy of attracting the financial services sector to the city, but this was an uphill task[6].

However, several interesting things were happening. Tony Wilson[7], an executive at Granada Television and music industry entrepreneur, established Factory Records, a recording label for what would become the Manchester Bands: the Happy Mondays, Joy Division, New Order. Wilson would also open the Hacienda nightclub and Dry Bar, a new generation urban bar. There was also the beginnings of regeneration in Castlefield, led by local bookmaker Jim Ramsbottom and a team of young development professionals and architects. As well as the redevelopment itself, this would lead to the emergence of a network of design professionals and architects. The setting up of the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture (MIPC), with a brief to research popular culture, was also important. Amongst other things, an early contribution was a major study of ‘The Culture Industry’, published in 1990.[8] There was also a timely recognition of the A/V industries (film, television, photography, video) as an important sector, in a study by Comedia in 1988[9]. All of these events were of crucial importance in what was to follow. The problem was that there was no bigger picture in place, no strategy for developing and sustaining creativity. The proof of this is that Factory Records would later go into liquidation, and even the Hacienda was closed.

In November 1991 Manchester City Council commissioned a major study of the arts and cultural policy of the city[10]. The main purpose of the study was to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the city’s cultural economy. On the basis of this, the City Council asked the consultants to draw up a strategy aimed at maximising the level and cost-effectiveness of investment in arts and culture; ensuring the accessibility of arts and culture to the city’s inhabitants and users; and raising the profile of the city nationally and internationally. As can be seen, the original brief was for a fairly standard arts plan, with the additional goal of raising the city’s profile. The consultants opted to challenge and develop this brief to include the cultural industries (production), the cultural economy (consumption and cultural tourism), café culture, the concept of the 24 Hour City, cultural quarters, the public realm, good urban design and architecture.

The strategy took a year to develop, and was a big investment for Manchester at that time. It was entitled ‘Manchester First’, because it was the first urban cultural strategy of its type in England and Wales, but also because Manchester has always been a pioneering city in theatre, literature, invention and innovation. ‘What Manchester does today, London thinks tomorrow’. The document sets a framework for much of Manchester’s revitalization ever since. Other factors were certainly important – the Olympic Bid in 1992, City of Drama in 1994, the IRA bombing the Arndale Centre in 1996, The 24 Hour City initiative led by the MIPC and Urban Cultures, the redevelopment of the inner area of Moss-side. But the cultural strategy formed the basis of Manchester’s City Pride Bid, several arts lottery projects, the relaxation of licensing laws, the explosion of café culture and the overall drive towards mixed use and the creation of distinctive quarters.

In this way, Manchester endured a long period of economic decline culminating in a slump, but followed by a unique burst of creativity. Reservoirs of creative talent based on traditional skills, cultural innovation and the presence of three major universities in the city were essential to the early growth of the creative economy, as was the emergence of a new breed of locally-based entrepreneurs. The availability of inexpensive property, brought about by suburbanisation and disinvestment from the urban core, as the middle classes fled the city, allowed new businesses to co-locate in previously unfashionable areas.  This in itself helped in the emergence of a network of local design professionals. The backdrop against which all of this occurred included a successful Manchester popular music scene in the 1980s, as well as a reputation for excellence in television production and a longer tradition of theatre and writing.

The emergence of a “creative class” in Manchester in the late 1980s is probably in part a consequence of events of up to 30 years earlier (particularly in relation to popular music, fashion and arts education). For without the presence of such people in Manchester in the early 1990s, the cultural strategy could not have succeeded. The immediately preceding age of cultural creativity was in the 1970s and 1980s, with the emergence of the Manchester Bands. This was in essence a fusion of popular music and fashion in Manchester in the 1980s. The Manchester of the 1980s was also beginning to innovate in television production—the expertise to do so having been built up by Granada Television (where Tony Wilson started as a trainee) and, to a lesser extent, BBC North West. Piccadilly Radio, one of the first commercial radio stations blended production with “Manchester Music” and advertising. Thus the convergence of popular music, fashion, film and television productions (and eventually digital art) was made possible. In addition, historical traditions of live music (the Halle Orchestra and the Northern Conservatorium) and theatre (a pool of actors, stage directors and technicians) and literature (scriptwriters) played their part, as did a steady supply of fine art students, photographers and commercial artists. These were the enabling factors and influences but the creative spark—or trigger—was Tony Wilson with Factory Records, the Hacienda, Dry Bar and Granada Television.

Today, places such as Ancoats, Castlefield, Manchester Northern Quarter and Piccadilly are centres for the creative industries and the arts. Major investments in new facilities has been undertaken, both by the BBC and Granada, and many managed workspaces and conversions now house thousands of small arts and creative businesses. This has been matched by increased investment in cultural facilities and arts venues, such as the Lowry Museum and a cluster of venues at Salford Quays. The Creative Industries and Digital Media sector in Greater Manchester employs around 53,000 people with more than 7,000 businesses. This sector is forecast to grow by 19 per cent during the next decade. Most recently, it has been argued that Manchester’s  creative sector holds the key to realising the city’s ambitions of becoming an internationally renowned city of innovation[11]. Manchester is now the UK’s  largest ‘creative hub’ outside London. In a wide range of sectors from TV to software and from advertising to radio, Manchester has more creative businesses than all other Northern cities put together. The creative industries now account for 6per cent of all jobs in Manchester.

Manchester’s aspiration, set out by its civic leaders, was to be an internationally renowned city of innovation.  To achieve this, the city had to become a place of ideas and creativity, where it was once a home to cotton mills and warehouses. It has succeeded to a good extent by developing its  creative industries, in sectors from computer games and software to radio, television and advertising. These businesses are, moreover, a source of innovation for the whole of the economy. However, the city still has serious problems of unemployment and joblessness to overcome. Manchester is indeed known internationally as a city of creative industry, although it also now has a healthier, more diverse economy, including financial services and retailing. But its new way of ‘finding a livelihood’ is based in good part on creative enterprise.


[1] Urban Cultures Ltd and ppartnerships, Manchester First: A Cultural Strategy’, available Manchester City Council, Manchester 1992.

[2] Hall op cit 1998, chapter 10.

[3] Girouard, M. Cities and People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), Chapter 12.

[4] Taine, H. Notes on England (tr. E. Hyams, London 1957).

[5] Kennedy, M. Portrait of Manchester (Manchester: Robert Hale, 1970).

[6] Driver, P Manchester Pieces (London: Picador, 1996), p14

[7] Tony Wilson was the founder of Factory Records, and also a TV producer at Granada. The film 24 Hour Party People is about him.

[8] The Culture Industry, Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, Manchester 1990. Later re-published by Derek Wynne as The Culture Industry: The Arts in Urban Regeneration, (Avebury, Aldershot, 1992).

[9] Film, Video and Television: The Audio-visual Economy in the North-west, December 1988, Comedia Consultancy, for the Independent Film Video and Photography Association, North West Arts, Manchester City Council, the British Film Institute, Channel 4 and Lancashire County Council

[10] Urban Cultures Ltd and ppartnerships Manchester First op cit, 1992.

[11] NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), ‘Original Modern: Manchester’s journey to innovation and growth’, 2009.

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