Exhibition promotion graphic reading Founders and Funders how slavery built a university
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Founders and Funders

An introduction by Dr Kerry Pimblott to the Founders and Funders: Slavery and the building of a University exhibition

The Race, Roots & Resistance Collective’s Network on the Legacies of Slavery at the University of Manchester

Coinciding with the University’s bicentenary, the Founders and Funders: Slavery and the building of a University exhibition is part of a broader effort to re-centre Manchester’s emergence as the world’s first industrial city within the historical context of the rise of modern capitalism fuelled by the global trade in cotton textiles and underpinned by systems of racial slavery and colonial expansion. 

This history is not new. However, in the wake of the global upsurge in #BlackLivesMatter protests in 2020, municipal leaders and institutions have been challenged anew to acknowledge and redress the legacies of slavery and colonialism across the city region. In the three years since, several Manchester-based institutions, including the Science and Industry Museum, the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, and The Guardian, have all undertaken collaborations focused on examining these histories and, in the case of the Scott Trust (owners of The Guardian), delivering a proposal for a programme of restorative justice. 

Also spurred by #BlackLivesMatter and a series of earlier student-led campaigns such as Decolonise UoM, the University of Manchester published the Race Matters Report (2020) in which senior leaders committed to “undertake analysis of the key connections between early benefactors of the University and the global slave trade”, resulting in a public statement and official report in March 2022. These developments are part of a wider international movement to critically examine the historical connections between universities and slavery as well as their contemporary legacies. Exemplified by the work of the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, a transnational collaboration of more than 100 universities, this movement has gained increased support from UK institutions since 2020 with similar initiatives undertaken at the Universities of Glasgow, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Bristol and Aberdeen, among others.

Founders and Funders builds upon these developments with the aim of advancing our collective understanding of how profits from slave trading, ownership of enslaved people, and manufacturing with slave-grown cotton funded the cultural and educational development of the University of Manchester and the wider city region. In the process, we hope that the exhibition’s findings will serve as a resource for a more sustained, uninterrupted dialogue about how this history and its far-reaching and destructive legacies should be addressed in the places we live, study and work.

Embedding Reparative Principles in the Research Process

Among those legacies are longstanding and well-documented structural inequalities in the discipline of History in the UK, which have created barriers to access and participation for Global Majority students, particularly Black students from African Caribbean backgrounds. In turn, these racial inequalities have powerfully shaped what histories are told and who is involved in the telling. 

Created with those legacies in mind, Founders and Funders will be the first student-led exhibition to be hosted at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. The exhibition represents the culmination of more than two years of research conducted by a diverse team of postgraduate researchers from the University of Manchester History MA programme. 

The project began in the team-taught Race, Migration & Humanitarianism module in which students receive a grounding in the global history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, colonisation, and anti-colonial movements before examining the multiple and complex legacies of these world historic phenomena in the present. Since 2021, all students in this module have participated in a series of special workshops on the University of Manchester’s links to historical slavery and had the opportunity to undertake a final assessment on the topic.  

Prompted by the students’ initial findings, we launched the Emerging Scholars Programme in the summer of 2022. The Programme seeks to address what has been described as the “broken pipeline” from postgraduate study to careers in the academic and heritage sectors, by providing paid research internships to a team including a plurality of Global Majority students along with structured mentorship and support from a broader network of curators and historians based at the University of Manchester as well as the University of Liverpool’s Centre for the Study of International Slavery and UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. The Emerging Scholars Programme was funded by the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures Social Responsibility office. 

Over the past year, we have recruited six talented postgraduate researchers – Nancy Adams, Faiza Azam, Jaden Haynes, Katie Haynes, Courtney Jones, and Jeevan Kaur Sanghera – to lead on the next stage of the research and exhibition curation.

Postgraduate students visit the John Rylands Research Institute as part of the Emerging Scholars Programme in Summer 2022.

Researching Links to Slavery 

As Founders and Funders team member Jaden Haynes writes, “like so many other U.K. cities, Manchester has fallen short in retelling its full history – especially that associated with the enslavement of people of African descent”. The work of our Emerging Scholars has made important inroads into addressing these gaps in our collective understanding by tracing wealth that founded the University of Manchester to four crucial and interlinked aspects of the transatlantic slavery economy:

  • The profits from slave trading voyages
  • Manchester-made goods made specifically for slave trading
  • The ownership of enslaved people and plantations
  • The importation of, and manufacturing with, slave-grown cotton

Each case study produces original and vital new knowledge and detail through a forensic process of surveying primary evidence drawn from the University’s own records of donations and institutional management. This highlighted individuals who had made significant financial and personal contributions to the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution and Owens College – the original two institutions from which today’s University of Manchester traces its foundation.

Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was founded in 1824 by a group of businessmen and manufacturers, including Sir Benjamin Heywood, James McConnel, and John Kennedy, all of whom are subjects of research underpinning this exhibition. Owens College was founded in 1851 through a large bequest from merchant and manufacturer John Owens, followed by numerous further donations over decades, including those from Murray Gladstone and Samuel Robinson, also investigated by our team.

The researchers drew across a wide range of primary sources, biographical material, and academic studies to paint a picture of the business, cultural, and social activities of the selected benefactors. Finally, the researchers synthesised these personal and Manchester-based histories into their holistic global context in the complex and inseparable web of transatlantic colonisation, trade, and industrial development.

On top of this groundbreaking investigative work, the team have also provided scholars with a number of important new research findings that greatly develop our understanding of the familial networks which tied five of our six key individuals closely together with each other and many of the other key players in Manchester’s commercial and cultural life, as well as tracing a hitherto unknown direct linkage between John Owens and a specific community of enslaved people in South Carolina.

The Slave Trade

Nancy Adams investigated Manchester’s premier banking dynasty, the Heywoods, particularly Sir Benjamin Heywood, president and major benefactor of the Manchester Mechanics Institution. The Heywood family invested in at least 133 Liverpool slave trading voyages between 1745 and 1789, which carried an estimated 42,000 enslaved African captives, 6,000 of whom died before those ships arrived in the Americas

As Adams explains: “The vast profits from investment in the Transatlantic slave economy gave the brothers the means to establish a bank in Liverpool. Manchester customers encouraged the Heywoods to establish a bank in the town, and by the 1780s most of their credit was committed to cotton merchants. Those slave trading profits were fundamental to Manchester’s economic development and the growing demand for slave-grown cotton”.

The Heywood’s Manchester ties went much deeper than finance. Jeevan Sanghera traces their business partnership with another Mechanics’ Institution founder, Thomas Robinson, as manufacturers of “African goods” – Manchester-made textiles specifically created to be exchanged for enslaved people on the coast of West Africa. In spite of a growing clamour for abolition, the partners remained active lobbyists for the continuation of the slave trade:

“the Robinson & Heywood company, alongside 109 other Mancunian businesses and businessmen, signed a Petition from Manufacturers and Merchants of Manchester against the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition bill in 1806. In signing they stood against growing support in Manchester for the abolition of the trade in enslaved African people. Clearly, Thomas Robinson considered his business financially dependent on the continuation of enslavement – he did not want the exploitative trade to end”.

Keeping it in the Family

The work of Sanghera and Adams on Robinson and Heywood has also provided a considerable breakthrough in our growing understanding of how the complex of commerce, industry, and investment that drove Manchester’s emergence as the world’s first industrial city was dependent upon generations of familial and financial ties. [1] 

As this family tree featured in the exhibition illustrates, five of the six families of founders and funders whose links to the University of Manchester are traced in this exhibition – the Heywoods, Robinsons, McConnels, Kennedys, and Gladstones – were connected to each other by marriage within just three generations, as well as to many of the other elite business dynasties of Cottonopolis. 

Through this network, we can see how the profits from plantation ownership, slave trading, and supplying textiles to the slave trade flowed into and funded the growth of the cotton industry and how funders, such as Samuel Robinson – son of Thomas, son-in-law of John Kennedy, brother-in-law of Sir Benjamin Heywood – brought generational wealth drawn from the transatlantic slavery economy to support the foundation and growing of the university. 

Slave-Grown Cotton

Courtney Jones explains how the “forced labour of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans in the Sea Islands provided the raw material that spurred the emergence of Manchester as the world’s first industrial city. With this, we can see how the slave-produced materials of Sea Island Cotton generated wealth which had direct links to the Manchester Mechanics Institution with McConnel and Kennedy helping to fund its establishment through their contribution of £600”.

Research into the McConnel and Kennedy archive at the John Rylands Library has uncovered a range of materials which allow us to trace the supply chains which underpinned the development of Manchester’s largest manufacturing complex, which employed 1,200 men, women, and children by 1816. Order books have been uncovered showing raw cotton being brought to Manchester for spinning into thread from Georgia, the Caribbean, and South America in the 1790s and later letters show direct contact and negotiation around purchase and importation with South Carolina and Georgia merchants.

The team’s research has also found how profits from trading slave-grown produce were critical to the foundation of Owens College in 1851, which was funded through a gift of almost £100,000 from the estate of Manchester businessman John Owens. Owens invested heavily in importing slave-grown goods from North and South America, as well as the cotton manufacturing establishment of his business partner George Faulkner.

Katie Haynes finds that “invoices from the US show that he was mainly buying from Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Savannah, Georgia; the hubs of a rapidly-growing cotton empire. In these places, chattel slavery and cotton went ‘hand in hand’”.

While the university’s and city’s links to enslavement across the southern United States are clearly extensive, a unique and impactful finding of Haynes’s research is the forensic tracing from records in the John Rylands Library of a shipment of cotton imported by Owens to the plantation where it was planted, tended, and picked:

“William Harrison Ellison was an enslaver from a wealthy family in Fairfield County, South Carolina. Ellison’s plantation was one of the larger plantations in South Carolina with 94 enslaved people living there at the time of the 1860 Federal Census. The names of the enslaved people are not included, all that is shown is their ages and sex”.

This drawing of a single thread all the way from Manchester to a Fairfield County points the way for us to begin to understand the historic legacies that link the University to enslavement in more than simply financial ways but through tangible appreciation of individual and community experiences that we can recover from records of the past and trace into the present day.

Land and Labour

Slavery-derived wealth continued to support the development of the University beyond Owens’s founding bequest – most significantly through the purchase by Murray Gladstone of the very land upon which the institution’s oldest buildings, including the Whitworth Hall and the John Owens and Beyer Buildings, still stand today.

As Jaden Haynes explains: “the Gladstone family were one of the richest and most powerful in 19th century Britain . . . Given Murray’s essential financial role in the extension and relocation of Owens College, the now-John Owens building is built on land directly funded by slave and plantation ownership. It is physical evidence of the legacy of slavery at the University of Manchester”.

The £29,100 (£2.8million today) that Murray spent on the property he donated in 1868 was inherited from the fortune built up by successive generations of involvement in the Transatlantic slavery economy, most notably in the enslavement of over 1,000 people of African descent. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the Gladstones were one of the most lucratively compensated families by the government. 

It was on the Success plantation in Guyana owned by Murray’s uncle John Gladstone that the Demerara Uprising began in 1823 in which more than ten thousand enslaved people participated – a connection to the University which is also explored in the Founders and Funders exhibition.

Reckoning with how Slavery shaped a City and a University 

In a recent article for The Guardian’s ‘Cotton Capital’ project, University of Manchester’s Professor of Public History David Olusoga described how the newspaper’s ties to wealth accrued from the enslavement of people of African descent left “an unpayable debt”.

“By the very nature of the scale and horror of the crime, any response will never be enough. But that doesn’t mean that we throw up our hands and do nothing. Acknowledging this history is the first step, and engaging with those with whom we share it, is the next.” [2] 

The city of Manchester and the University have only recently begun to acknowledge this history. Only five benefactors are featured in this exhibition, and further research on the institution’s links to the transatlantic slavery economy as well as the longer history of colonialism is needed. It is our hope that the University and other institutions across the city will continue to support this type of research, embedding reparative principles that serve to strengthen the pipeline into academic and heritage sector work for Global Majority researchers at each stage. 

During the exhibition’s run, our Emerging Scholars in partnership with other members of the Legacies of Slavery at the University of Manchester Network will be hosting a number of free events and activities focused on exploring the exhibition’s findings and the question they pose for the city of Manchester and the University: “What should we do next?” 


[1] The genealogical work of our team adds to and significantly extends the work of: Katie Donington,The Bonds of Family: Slavery, commerce and culture in the British Atlantic world (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

[2] David Olusoga, ‘The Ties that Bind Us’, The Guardian, Special Issue ‘Cotton Capital: How Slavery Shaped the Guardian , Britain & the World,’ 28th March 2023 –  https://www.theguardian.com/news/ng-interactive/2023/mar/28/slavery-and-the-guardian-the-ties-that-bind-us

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