A project to find, collect, and interpret poetry associated with the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-65) is gathering pace at Exeter University. Ruth Mather from the university explains the history prior to the launch of recordings of the poems in July.

The Lancashire Cotton Famine 

On April 12, 1861, civil war broke out in the United States of America, and a fierce conflict between the northern Union and southern Confederate States raged for the next four years. It was a war with devastating consequences, not only for the American people but also for the cotton workers of Lancashire. Lancashire’s 2,300 mills, employing around 400,000 people, were reliant on the cotton plantations of the American south for almost all of their raw material. When, early in the Civil War, Unionist forces blockaded the ports of the south, supplies of cotton dried up and Lancashire’s mills slowly ground to a halt in what became known as the Cotton Famine, the Cotton Panic, or simply the Distress.

By October 1861, it was clear that Lancashire was facing a crisis. In towns like Blackburn, Ashton-under-Lyne and Preston, whose economies were heavily reliant on cotton, demand for poor relief had already reached the usual winter peak and continued to rise, as factories first ran on shorter hours and then closed altogether. Including dependants alongside cotton operatives and ancillary workers such as engineers, as many as four million people may have been affected by the shortage of cotton, though this estimate is perhaps too neatly symmetrical with that of the number of enslaved people in the United States whose fate was also tied up in the outcome of the Civil War.

Poetry and the Press

The Cotton Famine, Manchester, 19th century,Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The Cotton Famine: Distributing tickets for bread, soup, meat, meal, coal etc. at the office of a District Provident Society, Manchester. 19th century The Illustrated London News Published: 1862 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/The majority of Lancastrians who suffered the effects of the Cotton Famine did not have a vote at the time but they did find ways to have a public voice, and it was one they employed extensively and creatively. Researchers at the University of Exeter are now uncovering hundreds of poems written during the Cotton Famine which offer a unique insight into everyday life and culture in Victorian England.

At the time, the poems were published in local newspapers across the county, copies of which survive in local libraries and archives and cover a range of themes. The majority detail the terrible poverty in which unemployed cotton operatives and their families found themselves, with heartrending accounts of pawning family heirlooms to feed starving children, and the shame and fear involved in seeking relief. Others, however, discuss the morality of war and slavery, connecting their own tragedies with events across the Atlantic. Most poets opposed slavery, though some desperately sought an end to the American Civil War at any cost, even if that meant British military intervention on the side of the slave-owning south. The poems offer a unique insight into how it felt to live through an economic crisis on this scale, and represent emotions ranging from grief, loss and anger to resignation and hope.

Many of the poets came from the ranks of the unemployed cotton workers. Some, such as William Billington of Blackburn or Rochdale’s Edwin Waugh, were already established poets by the time of the Cotton Famine, but others are less well known and some remained anonymous or used pseudonyms such as ‘A Blackburn Weaver’ or ‘Lankishur Lad’. Anonymity and pseudonyms make it difficult to determine much about the background of the authors, so we cannot say with certainty that they were all definitely factory workers, or ascertain the gender or age of the writer. The majority adopted the voice of a working man with a young family, though in some cases a woman’s point of view is offered.

The Cotton Famine itself provided opportunities for working class people to take up writing. In addition to enforced leisure time, many men and women received further education in the charity schools set up to occupy unemployed workers, and living through this historic crisis provided ample subject matter for aspiring poets. Poetry by working class writers, and by more prosperous observers, was used to raise awareness of the difficulties faced in Lancashire and to raise additional funds.

A New Resource for Cotton Famine Heritage

Poems uncovered as part of the project will be made freely available online so that this important part of Lancashire’s cultural heritage can be accessed by anyone with an interest in a fascinating period of history. The launch of this resource will be celebrated with an event at Manchester’s Portico Library on July 31, 2018, with short talks and poetry performances.

By Ruth Mather

(Main image: The Cotton Famine, Manchester, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London) 


Portico Library, image by Paul HusbandRuth Mather is a post doctorate research associate at University of Exeter. 

For more information, please visit the project website.