Page showing directors of the Manchester Mechanics' Institution 1828.
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Thomas Robinson

A blog by Jeevan Kaur Sanghera as part of the Founders and Funders exhibition.

A Merchant of Manchester 

Thomas Robinson (1756/7-1831) was a Manchester based merchant listed amongst the Board of Directors for the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution in 1828.  His son, Samuel (1794-1884), a cotton manufacturer and a notable scholar of Persian, is acknowledged as one of the biggest contributors to the Persian collections now held at the John Rylands Library. These highly valuable books were donated to the Owens College Library before Samuel Robinson’s death in 1884. [1] 

Benjamin Heywood listed as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Manchester Mechanics Institution from List of Directors of Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, 1828 (MMI/2/1)

Whilst it is evident that the Robinsons were closely connected to the early establishment of what is now the University of Manchester, at first glance, their involvement in the Transatlantic slave economy may seem a little unclear. We tend to associate Liverpool’s traders, not inland-based merchants like Robinson with imports and exports across the Atlantic and there is also no evidence on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to suggest that Thomas Robinson or his father, Samuel (1713-1768), owned any ships involved in the capture and trade of enslaved African peoples. [2] 

Manchester and the Slave Trade 

By searching several town directories it becomes clear that Thomas Robinson was deeply involved in Manchester’s booming textiles industry (the city later became known by the name ‘Cottonopolis’). It is here that Robinson’s link to the Transatlantic Slave Economy becomes clear. From the directories, it appears that Robinson was partnered in business with the notable enslaver family, the Heywoods, several of whom were also prolific in the establishment and funding of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution and Owens College. The Heywoods invested in at least 133 Liverpool slave trading voyages between 1745 and 1789 and the profits of their investment in enslavement undoubtedly helped fund this company

The company, Robinson & Heywood, is listed in directories from the 1780s. In Bailey’s Northern Directory of 1781, they are listed as ‘check manufacturers’ based in King Street, and later, in a 1788 City Directory, they are noted as ‘manufacturers of African goods’ based on Back Mosley Street. Through further exploring Thomas Robinson’s business interests, we can further begin to understand how he, a provincial merchant, connects the early institutional history of the University of Manchester to the Transatlantic slave economy. [3] 

The commercial organisation of the cotton industry in eighteenth-century Manchester and its connection to Transatlantic enslavement was extensive, with multiple goods and target markets. In producing checks, Robinson & Heywood operated as part of a large group of Manchester manufacturers who supplied traders of enslaved people from across England with textiles to send to Africa. This notably includes the Bristol-based trader, James Rogers, who they supplied in the 1790s. [4] 

Upon arrival on West African coasts, ship captains would trade these checks, amongst a wide range of other British manufactured goods for African captives. Upon selling these enslaved people, captains would return to Liverpool with cargos of slave-grown produce, including cotton.  Manufacturers, including Robinson & Heywood, would then buy this cotton to produce more checks and sell these back into this circular, exploitative market. 

In 1806, Manchester became the first town in Britain to produce a pro-abolitionist petition, which included signatories from manufacturers and merchants involved in the cotton industry. Many, including Thomas Robinson, had immense financial self-interest in the continuation of the Transatlantic slave economy. As a result, the Robinson & Heywood company, alongside 109 other Mancunian businesses and businessmen, signed a rival 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. [5] 

Robinson & Heywood’s signature on the Petition Against the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill 1806. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Archive

Mancunian Pro-Slavery Networks 

The pro-slavery culture connected to the establishment of the University of Manchester was not simply fostered directly by the business interests of people like Thomas Robinson, but also by their cultural networks and family ties.  For example, the Robinson family attended the non-conformist Cross Street Chapel which attracted the elite of Manchester’s merchants and businessmen, including the Heywood and Hibbert families who were also connected to the early establishment of the university. [6] 

Although many people involved in congregations like the Cross Street Chapel were abolitionists, there were a lot of families involved in the Transatlantic slave trade, cotton manufacture and in trading commodities produced by enslaved people in the Caribbean, such as sugar. Furthermore, they were also extensively bound together by ties of marriage and family. 

The Robinsons were directly connected to and financially benefitted from family connections who directly invested in slave voyages seen in the Robinson and Heywood family tree. For example, his mother Margaret was a Hibbert, from a family heavily involved in the trade of enslaved African people, plantation ownership, and cotton manufacture. In 1816, Robinson’s daughter, Sophia, married the banker, Member of Parliament, and President of Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, Sir Benjamin Heywood, part of the prolific enslaving family and Robinson’s business partners, the Heywoods. Robinson’s son, Samuel married Mary Stewart Kennedy in 1835. Mary was the daughter of John Kennedy of the McConnel and Kennedy mills where cotton grown by enslaved people was used. Importantly, what these connections meant was that whilst Robinson’s business was local to Manchester, he had international connections to enslavement through this network. [7] 

Thomas Robinson became an incredibly wealthy man through his dealings and connections with the Transatlantic slave economy. When his son and heir, Samuel died in 1894, his wealth was documented as £53,429 19s. 11d – which is nearly £5 million at today’s value. As the Robinsons amassed their wealth, their interests and those of their kinship network also aligned with ventures connected to the growth and importance of Manchester and its cotton industry. Hence, Thomas Robinson’s involvement in the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was grounded in and facilitated by his financial and familial connections to Transatlantic Slavery. [8] 

[1] Report of the Directors of the Manchester Mechanic’s Institution, May 1828: With the Rules and Regulations of the Institution. Manchester: R. Robinson, 1828. Samuel Robinson,_1885-1900/Robinson,_Samuel 

[2] Peter Maw. ‘Provincial Merchants in Eighteenth-Century England: The ‘Great Oaks’ of Manchester,’ English Historical Review, Vol. 136 (June 2021), p. 580. 

[3] Bailey’s Northern Directory for the year 1781 (Warrington, 1781). A directory for the towns of Manchester and Salford, for the year 1788 (Manchester, 1788). 

[4] David Richardson, Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and its Abolition (London, 2022), p.89. Letters between Rogers and Robinson & Heywood are cited in The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Duke University Press, 1992. 

[5] Sami Pinarbasi, “Manchester Antislavery, 1792-1807”, Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2020), p. 350. “Petition Against the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill 1806” 

[6] Katie Donington, The Bonds of Family: Slavery, Commerce and Culture in the British Atlantic World (Manchester, 2019), pp. 13-29. Unitarians 

[7] Familiae Minorum Gentium, Vol. I. (London, 1894), pp. 270-271, 278. “England, Cheshire, Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1606-1900,” database, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1733 – 1761 > Act Books – > image 376 of 533. Cheshire Record Office, Chester. “England, Cheshire, Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1606-1900,” database, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1751 > A – Y > image 495 of 657. Cheshire Record Office, Chester. 

[8] £53,429 19s. 11d 

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