The History of “Manchester”

If you've ever shopped for bed-linen or table cloths while travelling outside of Australia, you may have been met by a confused look from the shop assistant when you asked for the “Manchester Department”.

Manchester is a word that is used commonly throughout Australia to describe bedding, sheets, towels, pillowslips, table linen and similar items, yet this is not the case elsewhere. In fact, the use of the word Manchester is one that is unique to Australia and the reasons why quite curious. During the 18th and 19th centuries, settlers in Australia were unable to grow cotton crops successfully, while plantations and cotton mills had yet to be developed. This meant Australians needed to import bedding and other cotton goods from overseas.

Back in Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution was bringing change, quickly turning Northern cities into productive zones, and improving the economy by trading, import and export. One of the cities most influenced by this up-growth in industry was Manchester. The sheer number of textile mills in Manchester and the surrounding area led to it being nicknamed “Cottonopolis” and a large proportion of the cotton goods exported from Manchester at this time ended up in Australia. Merchants and traders would wait at the Australian ports for ships to arrive and buy wooden crates packed with cotton items, which they would then sell on, with the aim of making a profit. Each of these crates, chests or boxes would have been marked with the word “Manchester” as this was their point of origin.

It is not clear whether the merchants thought that Manchester was the word for the items of bedding within the boxes, or simply found it easier to use the term to describe their array of goods. Whatever the true story, Manchester soon stuck as a word to describe a wide range of cotton goods such as pillow-covers and sheets, and remains one which is widely used today.