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At that time, it seemed a place in which anything could happen—new industrial processes, new ways of thinking (the Manchester School, promoting free trade and laissez-faire), new classes or groups in society, new religious sects, and new forms of labour organisation. It attracted educated visitors from all parts of Britain and Europe. A saying capturing this sense of innovation survives today: "What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow." Manchester's golden age was perhaps the last quarter of the 19th century. Many of the great public buildings (including Manchester Town Hall) date from then. The city's cosmopolitan atmosphere contributed to a vibrant culture, which included the Hallé Orchestra. In 1889, when county councils were created in England, the municipal borough became a county borough with even greater autonomy.
An oil painting of Oxford Road, Manchester in 1910 by Valette.
Although the Industrial Revolution brought wealth to the city, it also brought poverty and squalor to a large part of the population. Historian Simon Schama noted that "Manchester was the very best and the very worst taken to terrifying extremes, a new kind of city in the world; the chimneys of industrial suburbs greeting you with columns of smoke". An American visitor taken to Manchester’s blackspots saw "wretched, defrauded, oppressed, crushed human nature, lying and bleeding fragments".
The number of cotton mills in Manchester itself reached a peak of 108 in 1853. Thereafter the number began to decline and Manchester was surpassed as the largest centre of cotton spinning by Bolton in the 1850s and Oldham in the 1860s. However, this period of decline coincided with the rise of city as the financial centre of the region. Manchester continued to process cotton, and in 1913, 65% of the world's cotton was processed in the area. The First World War interrupted access to the export markets. Cotton processing in other parts of the world increased, often on machines produced in Manchester. Manchester suffered greatly from the Great Depression and the underlying structural changes that began to supplant the old industries, including textile manufacture.
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