During the 18th century chintz and printed calicos were imported by the East India Company. Raw cotton was also imported and cotton goods were exported from 1701 onwards.
Edward Baines in his book on History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1836) gives comparative figures. For example: in 1701 1,985,868 lbs (902,667 kg) of cotton was imported and £23,253 (£1,592,365 at 1997 values) of cotton goods were exported. By 1800 this had risen to 56,010,732 lbs (25,459,424 kg) and cotton goods exports totalled £5,406,501 (£149,381,623 at 1997 values). Manchester had a large number of merchants operating in the town at the close of the 17th century.
In 1784 cotton goods account for just 6% of national exports but twenty years later in 1804 it was 42.3%; the result of full mechanisation of the cotton manufacturing processes. This figure had risen to 48.5% by 1836. There were nearly 1600 warehouse units in Manchester in 1815 according to the rate books.
Manchester was well served by the transport essential for effective trading; being connected to the port of Liverpool via the River Irwell and the River Mersey (and later by the Manchester Ship Canal) and in having a railway and canal network.
After 1825 there was a fresh spurt of warehouse building in Manchester which lasted for almost a century. It was during this period that the splendidly imposing commercial architecture of Manchester took shape and gave the city a unique aspect.
There were a number of packing and shipping warehouses in Whitworth Street and Princess Street. Some were built in Italian palazzo style, others showed Classical influences. Lancaster House on Princess Street was one of the most Gothic. Two of the most unusual warehouses were the steel framed warehouse in Piccadilly belonging to Joshua Hoyle (formerly a doll's hospital and now the Malmaison Hotel) and S & J Watts warehouse (now the Britannia Hotel) on Portland Street which has a different architectural style for each of its six storeys (each showing a nautical influence).
Initially, cotton was imported mainly from North America, India and Egypt but the American Civil War hit the cotton industry hard and many mills went onto part time working. The Cotton Supply Association found some alternative supplies of cotton from South America, Africa and the Philippines.
By the latter half of the 19th century English manufactured cotton clothing and products were being exported all over the world. Major customers for cotton exports were mainly European countries, America and Australia; but after the 1840s the U.S.A. copied British manufacturing methods and could look after their own. British custom then centred more on Asia, India, Japan and Africa.
Brightly coloured beautifully designed shippers tickets were attached to each export order to show its destination.
Manchester and Liverpool both had large cotton exchanges where local, national and international trading was carried out. It was generally reckoned that Manchester could make all the cotton Britain would need in a morning; the rest was for export. British cotton fabrics were said to be the best in the world and salesmen travelled all over the globe showing their wares and taking orders.
The cotton trade reached its zenith in 1912 with eight billion square yards of cotton being manufactured and sold.
However, the golden age of King Cotton was over. Trade did not recover after the Great War (1914-1918) partly due to the high price of British goods and partly due to the fact that many other countries had acquired cotton manufacturing machinery for themselves.
During the 1930s the British cotton trade tried hard to re-invent itself. Exhibitions and fashion shows were held to showcase British cotton goods. Cotton clothing and products were widely advertised. An annual Cotton Queen competition was instigated and the winner would travel the length and breadth of the country promoting British cottons.
The tide had turned however. On the eve of World War II one bewildered young Cotton Queen at a British Cotton exhibition commented sadly that '...they were all there, they were all looking, but they weren't buying.'
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