“Labouring-class voices remain underappreciated.” The poetry of the Cotton Famine is brought to life by Faustus
It is known as the Cotton Panic.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-1865 was a calamitous depression in the North West’s textile industry. It followed the boom years of 1859 and 1860 which had produced more woven cotton than could be sold, with world markets contracting and speculators stockpiling.
Then the slave-owning Southern States of America demanded secession from the United States of America and declared war in 1861. So, the cotton supply was interrupted at first by a Southern-imposed boycott (based on the belief that it would force the British to take their side in the Civil War) and then by a Union blockade. Lancashire’s extensive cotton mill workforce went from being relatively prosperous to some of the most impoverished workers in Britain. Thousands of operatives emigrated, and there was terrible hardship for those who remained.
Yet on December 31, 1862, a meeting of cotton workers at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall resolved to support the Union in its fight against slavery. Their letter to Abraham Lincoln and his grateful reply is commemorated on the Lincoln statue, now situated in the city’s Brazenose Street.
Despite the hardship, many labourers drew inspiration from their situation to pen moving and satirical poems. This previously-neglected body of poems has recently begun to be collected and archived from Victorian newspapers and other documents in the Lancashire and Manchester area, as well as America, through a major research project led by Lancaster-born Simon Rennie, a professor specialising in working class Victorian Literature, and a team at the University of Exeter. “This poetic response is important in that it often represents labouring-class voices from the mid-19th century, which, in spite of renewed academic interest in such material, remain underappreciated.”
The project will launch fully next year. In the meantime, the recent publication of the first 100 poems aims to make freely available a database of poems written in response to the Lancashire Cotton Famine, along with commentary, audio recitations and musical performances drawing directly on these verses.
That is the background to a Manchester Literature Festival event on November 21 at Manchester’s Central Library where the highly-respected folk trio Faustus, including Benji Kirkpatrick (Seth Lakeman Band, Bellowhead), Saul Rose (Waterson, Carthy, Whapweasel) and Paul Sartin (Bellowhead, Belshazzar’s Feast), will be performing some of their new songs based on material from the archive.
“We made the acquaintance of Simon at a number of our gigs and I got talking to him at the CD stall one evening and he told me what he did,” recalls Sartin. “The bells started ringing when I said to him that we, as Faustus, were looking at new material, and considering setting words to music, particularly stuff to do with working class history.
“Subsequently he came to one of our courses down at Hawlsway Manor, where we were artists in residence in 2016, and put us on to a few publications of Chartist material, which is one of his specialist fields. We set one of those poems, Slaves, to music on our last album [Death and Other Animals] and we just kept up that relationship with him. As part of his day job, he started working with a team looking at the poetry of the Cotton Famine period and one of the remits of the project was not just to archive this stuff but to disseminate it, to rehabilitate it and show it to the public, which involves websites and educational things. He also asked us to set some of the words to music, to bring the words off the page and bring them alive.”
Sartin continues: “For the last year and a half, off and on between our own quite complicated schedules, we’ve been looking through hundreds of poems of that period and finding ones suitable for musical settings. One daunting thing has been that almost none of the poems have any link to any music. A few may have a suggested tune, but I’ve only been able to find two of those tunes in current repertoire anywhere as they’ve either been lost or perhaps the names have changed. So, we’re having to start from scratch and write brand new tunes, which I suppose is quite liberating in a way. But a lot of the poems, and this is not supposed to be a judgement because they’re very valid, are of their time and so is the language, so a challenge for us has been to make the songs comprehensible and amenable to a modern audience.”
He adds: “Some of the poems are in Lancashire dialect and that’s been great fun because Simon, who is Lancastrian, has effectively translated some of the Lancashire dialect poems for us into modern English. Obviously, the dialect has lived on in many ways but some of the words are really archaic and there were one or two that even Simon couldn’t translate. But we’re not going to pretend to be Lancastrians so we’re singing it in our own voices.”
Jennifer Reid, who worked with Edward 11 on Manchester’s Improving Daily project (exploring Broadsides – songs written in Manchester during the Industrial Revolution) has also been involved in bringing this material to a wider public.
Beyond the live performances and the tracks to be found on the website, there will most likely be a commercial release too, says Sartin. “We were initially requested to do an EP of five songs, so that’s certainly going to happen, and we’ve recorded two tracks already with three more next month. But we’re considering the idea of feeding it into a full-length album. We’re not quite sure how that will work yet, partly because we’re all do busy running around doing other things, but there will definitely be a release of some sort, possibly to coincide with our February/March tour next year.
“Historically, we’ve all carved out the year between different projects and the bands we’ve all got. That was partly to work around Bellowhead, which was such a many-headed beast that it took priority. Since Bellowhead folded, things have been a bit more in flux.
“But being part of Bellowhead was an amazing time, and, yes, it was one of the more unlikely success stories of the time. We certainly had a fair few detractors, people saying it would never work, at the beginning, then we put out a sampler EP just to get gigs. That won a BBC Folk Award and things just took off from there. But it all came as quite a surprise, I must say, although a very welcome one. I don’t think we ever expected we’d be playing at the Proms, and that sort of thing.”
Image: Faustus, Luke Pajak.co.uk
Faustus perform as part of their Cotton Lords tour at Manchester Central Library on November 21, 2018.
More information and recordings: http://cottonfaminepoetry.exeter.ac.uk/ or listen here: https://soundcloud.com/university-of-exeter/cotton-lords
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