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Manchester and Liverpool: A Tale of Two Rival Cities

A Tale of Two Rival Cities is on BBC One, Monday 17 May, 7.30pm

The rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool runs much deeper than today's petty squabbles over football or music.

In a special BBC programme A Tale of Two Rival Cities (Monday 17 May), presenter Stuart Maconie revisits an age when cotton was King and two northern cities ruled the world.

In the battle for the lucrative cotton trade, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution took on the might of the world's greatest port to bring ships 36 miles inland to Manchester.

The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 was an act of such breathtaking defiance that, some say, caused a rift with Liverpool that has never been healed.

It is a story of slavery, cotton, money and power and can be told through objects in the region's museums as part of the BBC's 'A History of the World' project.


If Liverpool's wealth was built on the back of slavery, Manchester's was surely created in its dark satanic mills.

Ship in Dry Dock in Salford, Manchester Ship Canal c. 1900
The Ship Canal brought the sea 36 miles inland to Manchester

Quarry Bank Mill, on the outskirts of the city, was one of the country's original water-powered mills and exists today as a working museum.

It shows how the raw cotton picked by slaves in the southern States was spun into yarn on spinning wheels and then woven on looms.

It remained, however, a cottage industry until some key developments to speed up the process: the spinning jenny; the flying shuttle; Arkwright's water frame and Samuel Crompton's spinning mule.

Indeed, the very first cotton threads spun on Crompton's mule still exist at Manchester Art Gallery.

These advances in spinning technology helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution which in turn mechanised Manchester's mills, earning the city the name, 'Cottonopolis'.

It's said that, at one time, the mills of Manchester clothed a quarter of the world's population.


Despite Manchester's growing status, the city - unlike its rival Liverpool - still had no representative in Parliament and, in the early 1800s, peaceful protests were organised calling for the vote.

Satirical cartoon of the Peterloo Massacre, 1819

The most infamous of these was on 16 August 1819 when 80,000 people gathered on St Peter's Fields to demand the right to vote.

Sword-wielding militia charged the crowd on horseback, killing 15 people and leaving hundreds injured. It was to become known infamously as the 'Peterloo Massacre.'

Later, the American Civil War threw a spanner into the works of Manchester's thriving cotton trade and left thousands of people out of work and starving.

Fought in part over the use of slaves in the Confederate states, the supply of baled cotton arriving at Liverpool docks soon dried up.

Up to 20,000 died in the Lancashire cotton famine (1861-1865) yet, despite this extreme hardship themselves, Manchester's mill workers continued to support the boycott of slave-grown cotton.

The American president Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter of thanks to the people of Manchester, which still exists at Manchester Central Library.


The transport links, however, that initially united and profited Manchester and Liverpool, ironically sowed the seeds for their intense rivalry.

 Punch cartoon ridiculing plans for the Manchester Ship Canal (1882)
A Punch cartoon mocking the Ship Canal plans to connect Manchester with the sea (1882)

The world's first inter-city passenger railway connected Manchester with Liverpool was opened in 1830 and promised to improve business and trade between the two cities.

However, the death of the Liverpool MP William Huskisson, who fell under the wheels of the Rocket locomotive, marred festivities on the opening day and proved a bad omen.

High import taxes placed by the Port of Liverpool on goods destined for the mills forced landlocked Manchester to think around the problem.

Inspired by the recent building of the Suez Canal, a plan was hatched to connect Manchester with the sea and, in 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal was built bringing ships into Salford.

The press mocked the plans for 'Manchester-sur-Mer' but, in by-passing Liverpool with arguably the greatest feat of Victorian engineering, Manchester had shown its spirit for innovation and independence.

And though sea trade soon declined, affecting both cities, Manchester found new commercial ways to thrive as Liverpool's maritime status gradually faded.

It is the source of a rivalry that still exists today.

'A Tale of Two Rival Cities' is on BBC One, Monday 17 May, 7.30pm


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