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Oh when the cotton brokers came marching in


Oh when the cotton brokers came marching in

Image sources: Alamy and ICA

This morning I strolled over Exchange Flags in Liverpool's bustling business quarter, dodging sharply dressed workers on my pursuit for a peanut butter and banana breakfast smoothie. My, how times have changed. The same day in 1808 marked an unforgettable milestone in the city's famous cotton trading history.

Cotton fresh beginnings

On March 7th 1808, the Liverpool cotton brokers moved their operations from the top of Castle Street into a purpose built Exchange Building just behind the Town Hall. Much to the relief of Castle Street shop owners, the brokers took up offices in the new Exchange square headquarters but let's just put ourselves into context before we go any further...

With geography on its side, Liverpool has always been in super close proximity to Lancashire (only about an hours drive) which was a huge benefit back when the Lancashire Cotton Towns were up and running. Brokers from all over the world flocked to Liverpool, with some of the most affluent cotton traders settling down on the leafy perimeters of Sefton Park.

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Cotton coming into Liverpool from across the pond
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Brokers busy at the Lancashire Cotton Towns

In it's early days in the business of trading, cotton had been arriving into the city from the Middle East via London but the turn of the century brought new plantations in the West Indies, Brazil and America. Thanks to another turn of geographical good luck, Liverpool had existing trade links with all of these places which took cotton trading up to a whole new level.

In 1784, 8 bags of cotton were unloaded in Liverpool's illustrious port but fast forward less than 40 years and this 8 bags exploded into half a million bags every single year. By 1850 cotton was the largest and most significant trade in the city, taking up more than half of imports and exports. Now that's some impressive year on year growth, right?

A leg up from from innovation and invention

Amidst this glorious (and now very much famous) rags to riches story, the city and it's network of hardworking cotton brokers received a little help here and there though technological advancement and industrial evolution. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny which enabled workers to spin more than 8 spindles at a time and produce yarn waaay quicker than before.

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James Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny
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Bales of cotton ready to leave the West Indies

The appointment of a certain Mr John Holt as chief cotton broker was also a great move for business. While all of the other traders were brokers in various other trades, Holt had built a career in corset making, which gave him an extensive knowledge of fabric - West Indian cotton to be precise. His ability to sniff out good quality cotton lead him to become high up in the importing and buying processes with a 1% commission to boot.

The traders bed down at the Exchange

So the brokers had a top team, they had the equipment to put a rocket up production so now all they needed was a shiny new HQ from where they could run their operations and that's where the Exchange Building came in. This became the hub of activity for the city's cotton market and became more advanced when the telegraph and the telephone was thrown into the mix.

In 1906, a purpose built Cotton Exchange was erected which is where we're based today! It definitely looks a little bit different these days (I doubt the brokers tucked into a Starbucks every morning) but it was here that direct cables to New York, Bremen and Bombay were installed which again, revolutionized their way of doing things tenfold.

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The Liverpool Cotton Exchange building then and now
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Cotton brokers trading in Exchange Flags square

Despite having a brand spankin' high-tech headquarters, the traders still preferred to gather outside in the square to discuss deals and the latest trade goings on. Strange people... but we wouldn't be where we are today without 'em so lets give three cheers for the Liverpool cotton traders and March 7th 1808!