A city built on cotton

Cotton Exchange

Cotton Exchange © Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries

Liverpool has been shaped by the many people and places involved in the cotton trade.

Liverpool is a cosmopolitan city and the global nature of the cotton trade contributed to this. There were brokers from all over the world based here in the 19th century, including Germany, Prussia, Russia, Greece, the USA and India.

Many of Liverpool’s famous names were made from cotton, including the Rathbones and the Holts. Wealthy cotton merchants and brokers lived in fine houses. Many lived around Sefton Park in the late 19th century.

The cotton trade in Liverpool could not have functioned without the many others who enabled it to run smoothly. The dockers, warehousemen, carters, clerks and message boys were all vital. There is a popular myth that cotton bales were used in the foundations of the Liver building. This is probably no more than a story, but it shows how important cotton is to Liverpool’s history.

Why Liverpool?

Cotton was the largest and most important trade in the city, accounting for almost half of the imports and exports that went through the port.

In the 17th century, cotton came into Britain through London from the Middle East. In the 18th century, the new plantations in the West Indies, Brazil and America started to grow cotton. Liverpool had existing trade links with these areas, and so cotton began to arrive in the Mersey.

The first American cotton was unloaded in Liverpool in 1784. There were only eight bags. Less than forty years later, half a million bales were arriving each year from America. Other countries also supplied cotton, including Brazil, Egypt and India. By 1850, cotton accounted for almost half of the city’s trade. Over 1.5 million bales were imported.

The finished goods from Lancashire mills were also exported from Liverpool, accounting for almost half of the total exports in 1901.

Exchange Flags

‘The pavement was white with the fluff of cotton samples’

The cotton merchants and brokers met on Exchange Flags to do their buying and selling.

In 1808, an Exchange Building opened, but while cotton brokers took offices there, they preferred to conduct their business in the open square.

The cotton market continued to meet out of doors until the 1880s. The Flags were a place to meet and swap information about the cotton market. New technology like the telegraph and telephone played a major part in moving the cotton men indoors.

A purpose-built Cotton Exchange was commissioned and completed in 1906. This was a state of the art building, with telephones and direct cables to the New York, Bremen and Bombay cotton exchanges.

Next: find out about trading rules.