Papers of McConnel & Kennedy and McConnel & Co.

  • Reference
      GB 133 MCK
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      Condition: all of the volumes in this collection have been rebound, however, some of the letter books are badly faded due to exposure to damp. Some of the loose letters are in a very fragile condition for the same reason.

Scope and Content

The collection comprises correspondence, both incoming and outgoing; a variety of financial records, although unfortunately the survival of these documents is somewhat sporadic; a few legal documents; and some interesting miscellaneous items relating to employment conditions and government interest in the cotton industry.

These documents have enormous research potential. McConnel & Kennedy were one of the earliest and most important large scale cotton spinning firms in Manchester, and the archive is a unique example for the growth of the cotton trade, especially with regard to the amount of capital necessary to run the business. The social and economic historian will find valuable information regarding the structure of the labour force, attitudes to women, and to wage rates. Banking and accounting are areas of research currently receiving attention from business historians. The papers provide evidence for the growth of regional banking and show how business raised capital at a time of enormous commercial change. The correspondence of Heywood Brothers, Hill Hamilton and Robert McGavin all contain information which is useful in this regard. The archive also contains information on the spread of technology. The firm was amongst the first to acquire a steam- engine from Boulton & Watt and many other manufacturers visited the factory to see the engine in operation. This collection will interest to those seeking information on the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and to the local and family historian.

Manuscript, with a small amount of printed material.

Administrative / Biographical History

The partnership of McConnel & Kennedy was founded in 1795 by James McConnel and John Kennedy, and within twenty years the firm had become one of Manchester's most prominent concerns. Both men were born in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, and both were initially apprenticed as machine-makers in Lancashire. This system was the traditional route by which enterprising individuals could establish themselves in business. Although both men were to remain in Lancashire, they retained links with Scotland both by trading with Scottish firms, and later, by investing capital in Scottish enterprises.

James McConnel (1762-1831) moved to Chowbent, Lancashire, where he served an apprenticeship as a machine-maker with his uncle William Cannan and his partner Mr Smith. In 1788 he moved to Manchester where he worked for Mr Egelsom in Newton Street. He then set up in business as a machine-maker and manufactured two mules for a customer who failed to pay, leaving McConnel with the equipment. This was an important event. As he was faced with incurring a huge loss, McConnel decided to use the mules himself, thus embarking on the career which was to secure his fortune. He married Margaret Houldsworth, sister of Thomas, one of his main business rivals. In 1804 he purchased a plot of land in Ardwick where he built a house costing £7,000. He also purchased land in Scotland. Although McConnel was not passionate about politics, he was by nature a Whig, and served as a Commissioner for the Highways. In 1826 he contributed £600 towards the cost of establishing a mechanics' institute. He remained active in the business until his death.

Less is known about John Kennedy (1769-1855) than his partner. He retired from the business in 1826 and devoted his time to technical and mechanical pursuits. He was involved in the construction of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway and acted as an umpire at the Rainhill Trials in 1830. In 1803 he joined the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and wrote several articles for the Society on the cotton trade, the Poor Law and the influence of machinery on the working classes.

In 1791 the two men entered into partnership with Benjamin and William Sandford where they worked as machine-makers and mule spinners. The partnership was established with just £650 capital, most of which was put up by the Sandfords, and was managed by McConnel and Kennedy, who each drew an annual salary of £40. Following the dissolution of the partnership in 1795, each partner received £816 capital and McConnel and Kennedy formed a new partnership, which also focused on machine making and cotton spinning. Initially, they rented space in a building at Shooters' Brook, but by 1797 they were able to purchase land at the junction of Union Street and Henry Street which was adjacent to the Rochdale Canal. New buildings were erected in 1805 and 1818, and in 1817 they purchased a further building from Colonel Sedgewick, which was known as the Sedgewick Mill. There was to be no further building work until 1868. Gas lighting was installed in 1809, ahead of the first public supply which was available in Manchester from 1817.

There are several reasons which help to explain the success of the partnership. First of all, they were able to build and maintain their own machines. Secondly, the age of machine spinning was still in its infancy, and buildings and machines were small, making it possible to start up in business with very little capital. By 1820 it had become more difficult as relatively large sums of capital were needed in order to purchase the equipment necessary to be competitive. Thirdly, they concentrated their efforts on spinning fine counts of cotton, usually between 100 and 200, when the industry's average was only 40. This enabled them to meet the demand of manufacturers producing high quality garments such as those which have made Paisley famous. Finally, they possessed sound business sense and ensured they dealt only with reliable clients in order to keep the risk of bad debts to a minimum.

At first emphasis was placed on machine making, but by the close of the eighteenth century, the firm was devoting its efforts exclusively to cotton spinning. Spindleage increased from 7,464 in 1797 to 78,972 in 1810. The firm invested in steam engines which were supplied by Boulton & Watt of Birmingham, and in a fire extinction system supplied by the same firm. The value of the firm's assets can be gauged by the level of the insurance premiums. Profits were extremely high, averaging 26.5% between 1799-1804 and rising to as much as 30.3% by 1809. After this, profits remained constant at around 10-15%. The reasons for such high levels of profit in the early years were twofold. Firstly, demand was outstripping supply and secondly, the Napoleonic War caused a shortage of cotton on the continent enabling firms to sell their goods for twice the amount paid on the domestic market.

The firm was a major employer; in 1802 it employed 312 people, and although statistics are incomplete, we know that in 1816 they employed 1,020 people, being one of only four firms employing over 700 people in Manchester. Wages for skilled spinners were comparatively good, and although the firm did use child labour, they did not rely heavily on apprentices. In terms of welfare provision, the firm did pay for medical treatment for employees and provided some housing. Evidence exists in the correspondence which shows that contributions were given to hospitals and to the St Clements Sunday school.

McConnel & Kennedy imported their raw cotton through Liverpool. The type they used was Sea Island, a very high quality crop, but one which was prone to failure and confined to a small geographical area of the United States of America. Trading difficulties with the United States caused by their support for France during the war with Napoleon, prompted the firm to use the services of brokers such as Thomas Hindley, who informed them of the state of the market, the anticipated size of the cotton crop and the consequent prices.

Initially, Scotland was the main centre for production of high quality cloth and McConnel & Kennedy traded with agents and manufacturers in Glasgow and Paisley. Ireland and Lancashire were their other major outlets. In terms of the domestic market, growth in these areas was rapid up until 1815. Later the Nottingham lace industry became the firm's main domestic customer.

The export market was important to McConnel & Kennedy between 1805 and 1820. The French cotton industry was destroyed by recession in 1810-1812 and the rest of Europe lagged behind Britain in terms of industrialisation. During the Napoleonic War, the so called `continental system' aimed to prevent Britain exporting to Europe, but for those prepared to risk running the blockade, levels of profit were high. The firm employed agents in Germany, Switzerland and the Mediterranean ports. The most prominent of these agents were Alexander Barclay, who sold to Germany, and Michael Weiniger, who supplied the lucrative Swiss market. From 1820, the firm concentrated their efforts on the domestic market as increased levels of competition made the European market less profitable.

Upon the retirement of John Kennedy in 1826, McConnel took his two eldest sons, Henry and James, into partnership and the firm became known as McConnel & Co. William McConnel joined his brothers as a partner upon the death of their father in 1831. At this point in time the firm was in a very strong position; in 1833 they employed 1,553 people, over 200 more than any other spinning firm in the district. However, difficult times lay ahead for the cotton industry. Between 1837 and 1843 a depression in trade caused the firm to loose £36,000, but production was continuous, as was the case during the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War.

The archive does not contain much material for the later years of the firm, but a brief outline of the firm's subsequent history may prove to be of interest. In 1851 McConnel & Co. joined with four other firms in purchasing at £30,000 the patent rights to a new combing machine made by Heilmann. This device was revolutionary and very valuable to fine cotton spinners as it was able to separate the long fibres which were necessary to produce high counts of yarn. Henry retired from the firm in 1860 and James followed suit the following year, leaving William in sole command. His son John took over in 1878 but William retained an interest in the firm until his death in 1902. Following the Companies Act of 1862, the firm acquired limited liability status in 1865. From 1885 agencies were established in all foreign countries trading with the firm, thus building on a tradition established in the early days when the firm used agents in Scotland, Ireland and Nottingham. In 1898 McConnel & Co. joined in the formation of the Fine Cotton Spinners and Doublers Association with several other firms including their early rivals, the Murray Brothers and the Houldsworths. The Association was, in essence, formed to control the market and fix prices. All the firms retained their own identities, but following the 1914- 1918 war, the firm of McConnel & Co. was slowly subsumed by the amalgamation.


The material in this collection was originally catalogued at Manchester University Library, although only in summary form. The letters, receipts, and other papers, were found in tin trunks, one for each year, with the papers being tied up in bundles or threaded through with string. The trunks probably date from the 1820s. Original order has been retained where possible during cataloguing and the collection has been arranged into standard archival classes. The main sources of information used in this head note are the published works listed below, but for a fuller bibliography, see the guide to the Library's textile related collections.

The collection is arranged as follows: 

  • MCK/1 Legal Records
  • MCK/2 Correspondence
  • MCK/3 Financial Records
  • MCK/4 Miscellaneous Papers

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Custodial History

This collection was originally deposited in the University of Manchester Library and transferred to Deansgate following the merger with the John Rylands Library in 1972.

Related Material

The Library has a substantial amount of published and unpublished material relevant to this collection:

The Cotton Mill Survey Archive (GB 133 CMS) contains plans and research notes on the firm.

Plans of all the Spinning Factories within the township of Manchester. Bound manuscript volume, dated by watermarks to 1822, includes plans of McConnel and Kennedy's mill (in custody of John Rylands University Library).


A century of fine cotton spinning, McConnel & Co. Ltd

C. H. Lee,A cotton enterprise 1795-1840 a history of M'Connel & Kennedy fine cotton spinners, (Manchester University Press, 1972).

John F. Wilson,British business history, 1720-1994, (Manchester University Press, 1995).

Geographical Names