Printed advert for McConnel & co of Ancoats, Manchester.
Collections Founders and Funders

McConnel and Kennedy

A blog by Courtney Jones as part of the Founders and Funders exhibition.

Two key benefactors of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution were James McConnel and John Kennedy, owners of the McConnel & Kennedy cotton spinning mills in Manchester. As key pioneers of Manchester’s cotton industry, they drew much of their wealth from slave-produced commodities. This money fuelled the expansion and development of their business and generated the wealth which they put into the Institution which later grew to form a key part of today’s University of Manchester. 

Photograph of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution on Princess Street, Manchester, c1855 (UPC/2/383)

The Manchester Mechanics’ Institution 

The Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was established in 1824 and became the largest mechanics’ institution in England outside of London. In 1826, James McConnel and John Kennedy contributed £600 towards the cost of establishing the Institution, remaining active supporters and donors for the rest of their business careers. [1] 

The Institution was the creation of a small group of Manchester’s business leaders, who, like McConnel and Kennedy, were keen to foster engineering, popular education and intellectual culture. Working closely with other benefactors, they provided the Institution with important connections with their native Scotland. 

Setting up the Mills  

McConnel and Kennedy were both born and grew up in Kirkcudbrightshire, before being apprenticed as machine-makers in Lancashire. Their partnership began in 1795 with the founding of their business in the Ancoats area of Manchester, which became the world’s first industrial suburb as their enterprise rapidly grew in scale. Their factories were tactically built in close vicinity to the Rochdale Canal which provided excellent transport access to cotton supplies from Liverpool and weaving mills across Lancashire that received the cotton thread they spun. [2] 

The site consisted of Old Mill, Long Mill and Sedgewick Mill, where the company specialised in cotton spinning and the manufacturing of cotton production equipment. McConnel was responsible for managing the buying, selling, correspondence and accounts, whilst designing and making mules and machinery were central to Kennedy’s duties. [3] 

Advert for McConnel & Co., Cotton Spinners & Manufacturers’ Directory, 1891. Courtesy of University of Leicester Special Collections, MAN10007

The McConnel & Kennedy factories were among the earliest and most significant cotton spinning firms in Manchester in the late eighteenth century, foundational to the city’s later status as “Cottonopolis”. By 1812, they ran the largest mill in the town. The growth of the cotton industry in Manchester was central to the boom in the regional economy, boosting demand for an ever-growing workforce. The mills provided work for local men women and children, employing about 1,200 employees by 1816. Manchester also acted as a commercial epicentre, where cotton was transported and displayed, before being exported via Liverpool’s port to markets across the globe. [4] 

McConnel & Kennedy had strong business connections with a range of different manufacturing companies across Britain, where they would buy machinery and equipment for the mills. These links reveal how cotton produced by enslaved people in North America, South America, and the Caribbean provided wealth and employment opportunities in Nottingham, York, Wolverhampton and Lancashire, as the slave-produced commodities directly funded manufacturing businesses across the nation. [5] 

Manchester and the Sea Islands 

McConnel & Kennedy ordered raw cotton to be shipped from US ports to Liverpool, which  received huge volumes of cotton from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Liverpool was an essential partner in the development of Manchester and Lancashire’s manufacturing industries, providing an initial mainland port for the reception of slave-produced materials, from where they were then transported to Manchester to be processed to produce cloth and fine yarn. The invoice below displays details of exports of Sea Island Cotton to Liverpool from Charleston amongst McConnel & Kennedy correspondence. [6] 

Letter from BH Green to McConnel & Kennedy, Charleston, December 1817 (MCK/2/1/24)

To ensure the success of their business, McConnel & Kennedy prioritised the importation of “highly prized” Sea Island Cotton to be used in their mills. Of higher quality than typical cotton imported from the Americas, its long fibres of Sea Island cotton produced a silkier cloth “unmatched on world markets”, popular with manufacturers in Manchester.  Writing to McConnel & Kennedy in 1807, broker Thomas Hindley of Charleston commented on his experience of seeing “many of the planters of the fine cottons from the Southward”, noting the exceptionalism of the production which received little complaints. Demand for Sea Island cotton grew rapidly during 1820s, seeing exports to Britain from Charleston and Savannah increase dramatically. [7] 

Exports of Cotton detailed in letters of William Houldsworth to McConnel & Kennedy, 1822 (MCK 2/1/28/3)

Harvesting Sea Island Cotton  

Enslaved people on Sea Island cotton plantations worked under the “task” system. Men, women, and children laboured together on cotton plantations which relied upon a brutal system of control and torture to “push” individuals into working at high rates of planting and picking. The skills of enslaved women on the plantations were indispensable, as their work provided “essential contributions to the southern economy”.  Observers often noted that women were able to pick more cotton than men, and separated cotton from the seeds neatly their fingers with delicate care.  They acquired the tasks of planting, picking, drying, ginning, moving and packing the produce, demonstrating greater care in preserving its quality. [8] 

Experiences of the mill’s commodity producers  

Alongside their harvesting duties on the field, enslaved women were also required to fulfil essential  domestic duties, playing a vital role in caring for their families and community. Their roles provided them the opportunities to foster and preserve African American customs and as well as advance forms of resistance. This cultural resilience empowered them to resist in the face of the enslavers’ project to suppress personal agency and cultural expression. [9] 

An illustration of enslaved labourers carrying cotton to the gin on a U.S. plantation in 1854. Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, NW0074

Our Cotton Connections 

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. The wealth this generated subsequently supported the development of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution with McConnel and Kennedy helping to fund its establishment through their contribution of £600. 

McConnel & Kennedy receipt for the purchase of Georgia cotton, 5 March 1796 (MCK 3/5/1/1)

We can also see how slave-produced commodities provided jobs and wealth in and around Manchester, shaping the lives and labour of generations of working class people in northern England, who endured their own struggles for survival, representation, and cultural expression. McConnel and Kennedy’s strong business networks across the country further reveal how the slave-produced commodities underpinned Britain’s economic development, reflecting the permeation of the influence of enslaved labour in the nation’s foremost businesses. 

The records documenting the importation of Sea Island cotton to the McConnel & Kennedy mills allow us to trace direct links to the communities and experience of enslaved people whose labour was to the making of Manchester as the world’s first industrial city and the Institution as its classroom. 


[1] Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, Archive of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, 1824-1891. University of Manchester Library. MMI/2/1

[2] Peter Maw, Terry Wyke and Alan Kidd, ‘Canals, Rivers and the Industrial City: Manchester’s Industrial Waterfront, 1790-1850’, Economic History Review, Vol. 65, No.4 (2012), p. 1511. 

[3] Tiger Richie, ‘From Ancoats to the Sea Islands: Manchester’s Mills and Experiences of Enslavement’, Global Threads website Paul Anthony Custer, ‘The M Yarn: Price and Social Imagination in Early Industrial Britain’, Enterprise and Society, Vol. 15, No.3 (2014), p. 417. 

[4] McConnel & Co. | Science Museum Group Collection. University of Manchester Library, McConnel and Kennedy, miscellaneous, MCK/2/2/5

[5] John Rylands Collection, McConnel and Kennedy, Letters sent by McConnel and Kennedy, MCK/2/2/3  

[6] See figure 5 and 6. See also Letters from John Speakman & Co, Savannah, MCK/2/1/26. Ronald Bailey, ‘The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States’, Agricultural History, Vol.68, No.2 (1994), p. 41. 

[7] See Letters from Hindley and Gregorie of Charleston, 1809, MCK/2/1/5/15. See also Letters from Miller and Currie of Savannah, MCK/2/1/17. S.G. Stephens, ‘The Origin of Sea Island Cotton’, Agricultural History, Vol.50, No.2 (1976), p. 391. See figure 6, letter from Thomas Hindley of Charleston to McConnel and Kennedy, 1807, MCK/2/3/13. See letter from William Houldsworth of Charleston, MCK/2/1/28.

[8] Julia Floyd Smith, Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860 (Knoxville, Tennessee, 1985), p. 45. Daina L Ramey, “‘She Do A Heap of Work’: Female Slave Labor on Glynn Country and Cotton Plantations”, The Georgia Historical Society, Vol.82, No.4 (1998), p. 722. Charles Lyell, A Second Visit to the United States of North America, Vol. 1 p.255.

[9] Josephine A Beoku-Betts, ‘We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah’, Gender and Society, Vol. 9, No. 5 (1995), pp. 535-555. 

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