UCL Grand Challenges


Cottonopolis—Manchester's Global Threads

A collaborative public heritage project re-evaluating built environment in Manchester in light of historical relationships with enslavement and colonisation.

an image of cotton

3 October 2020


Grant: Grand Challenges Special Initiatives - Place
Year awarded: 2020-21
Amount awarded: £7,500


  • Matthew Stallard, Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership
  • Matthew Smith, Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership

A collaborative public heritage project between UCL's Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership and the Science and Industry Museum (SIM), Manchester. Through engagement activities and original research the project created a series of publicly-available outputs which re-evaluate aspects of the built environment in Manchester and relevant SIM collections in light of global historical relationships with enslavement, colonisation, racialisation, resistance, and lived experience.

The project recruited a team of seven researchers, all current or recent postgraduate students, from a range of disciplines, with successful applicants invited to take part in a formal commissioning process, with extensive project documentation and guidance and a fortnightly series of group workshops, one-to-one meetings, and research advice which allowed them to explore common themes and ideas, discuss their own areas of interest, and to create a team vision for the final set of case studies. Each researcher was then invited to complete scoping research, present to the team, and deliver a written pitch for one or two case study commissions. We then worked with the researchers on ten successful commissions to create historical case studies.

The ten Global Threads case studies range across the full duration of Manchester’s cotton economy, and explore lived experiences, material culture, solidarity, and resistance which link locations in the city and region with locations in the Caribbean, United States, and South Asia. While individual narratives spin off into specific threads, taken as a whole the archive tells a single, interwoven global story linking industrialisation, colonisation, enslavement, and migration. The case studies total over 20,000 words of new, high quality public history content with many including previously unpublished or not widely-known sources, stories, and archival documents which offer new insights for both specialist and general readers. By outlining through storytelling and first-hand experience the ways in which Manchester’s trade and produce were inseparably linked to experiences of enslavement and colonisation, the platform makes understanding of complex economic and social processes accessible and relatable. Additonally, the project also generated impact by building strong and lasting links with a prestigious heritage institution and a team and network of researchers and future collaborators in Manchester.

The Global Threads platform was publicly launched in early 2022 and has continued to generate impacts. 

Impacts and Outputs

The Cottonopolis project exhibition panel at the Grand Challenges, Grand Impacts exhibition, 2023