The Cotton Famine

The Dire Effects in England

If ever the mutual dependance of the American South and Lancashire needed proving, that proof was provided by the American Civil War.

As the South fought Lancashire starved.

N.B. For the American reader who may be unaware of the poverty in Britain in the mid 19th Century, that great English author Charles Dickens wrote of it ; Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol", and "Oliver Twist" are two prime examples.

There is a certain perverse irony in the fact that as the people of central Lancashire were starving, the merchants and traders of Liverpool, less than 40 miles away, were becoming richer by the day, thanks to the blockade.

As the Alabama escaped from Liverpool, in July of 1862, the local and national press were carry long and moving accounts of the poverty and distress in the cotton towns of Lancashire. All these towns lie within 40 miles of Liverpool.

With the Union blockade in place,cotton shipments, apart from the few ships that manged to get through the blockade, virtually ended. By November of 1861, 49,00 bales of cotton at 400lb had been delivered. By November of 1862 this figure was down to 18,000 bales. In the same period the numbers of mill workers on full time reduced from 583,950 to 121,129.
On short time 165.600
Out of work 247,230

They called it "The Cotton Famine," and it was beginning to bite, and bite hard. It was now obvious to all that the continuing war across the Atlantic, would further reduce cotton supplies. A fact that would ultimately lead to more Cotton Mill closures, thereby adding to the already horrendous sufferimg of the unemployed cotton workers.

  • In Ashton Under Lyne 9,600 were now living on the rates (more a charity than welfare in the 1860`s).

  • In Blackburn the numbers were 10,600 in the last week of May, which rose to 11,500 four weeks later.

  • In Manchester, over the same period, numbers rose from 12,700 to 14,200.
    In Preston from 11,800 to 12,100.

  • In Stockport from 5,400 to 6,000.

  • In Burnley for instance, out of 13,000 mill workers 10,000 were out of employment, and not receiving any parish relief, and were effectively "paupers".

    How did they manage to survive?

  • A reporter from the Times newspaper discovered that money withdrawn by millworkers from saving accounts came to a total of 4,500. At the same time 3,500 was withdrawn from Building Societies (Credit Unions in U.S.?), While during the same period the paltry sum of 458 was raised in voluntary contributions. It was clear that wherever possible, millworkers where doing everything they could, to escape the dreaded "Workhouse".

    In the British Parliament the MP Gilpin stated that although he did not wish to represent the situation too darkly, it would be extremely difficult to paint TOO black a picture.

    "The sufferings hitherto endured by the poor operatives were bad enough, but they were as nothing as compared with the probable amount of poverty and destitution which would come upon Lancashire during the winter."

    A visitor from London toured Lancashire, recording what he saw;
    In Stockport he found a woman living in one of those mean, single-storeyed courtyard houses. Everything had been sold, except the bed and its covering, and her cooking pots. her five children were with her, but not her husband. he had obtained 9 shillings and 11 pence worth of provisions on credit, and when he was unable to pay the debt, had been thrown into gaol.

    The visitor asked the woman if she received any relief

    "Yes, Sir, I do, and very thankful I am for it; bit I have only 3 shillings and 6 pence a week (less than a dollar in 1862), and what is that? In good times my master used to make 1 to 1 and 5 shilings a week (5 to 6 dollars), and then we thought we could only just live but now see what we have come to"

    Everywhere he went he found the most appalling poverty, yet the operatives he visited answered his questions, however impertinent, politely and cheerfully. at one house he was received kindly, and only afterwards did he learn that the woman had just returned from burying her child.

    He found the same story everywhere he went. Some families sold everything, and moved into already overcrowded friends houses, to save on rent. Many were helped by local traders, who allowed almost unlimited credit. Others, especially butchers, simply went out of business themselves, and began sinking towards the poverty of their former customers.

    There was much bitterness at the failure of the millowners to help. In wealthy Preston, for example, less than 200 was raised for the relief funds, and only 48 out of the 71 cotton mills contributed.
    The greatest bitterness however, was reserved for the Labour Test. The poor who appled for relief had to show their willingness to work. Men who were indoor workers, badly clothed and close to starvation, were sent out in mid-winter, on jobs such as stone breaking. It was not merely cruel, in some cases it was fatal.

    One preacher attempted to bring the plight of the people of Lancashire to the notice of the Government of the day, but met with little success.

    "The operatives suffer then, in consequence of a National policy; therefore the relief of that suffering should also be national.......

    The government of this country owes a deep debt of gratitude to the quietude of Lancashire."


    The following quotations, taken from the book "Hungry Mills, The story of the Lancashire cotton famine 1861 - 5," by N. Longmate, are very harrowing, and at times moving. They give, in extremely graphic detail a vision of how life was for these poor unfortunate souls.

    Published in "The Times" April 1862

    There have been families who have been so reduced that the only food they have had has been a porridge made of Indian meal. They could not afford oatmeal; and even of their Indian meal porridge, they could only afford to have two meals a day......
    An old woman was visited. On entering the lower room of the house the visitors saw that there was not a scrap of furniture; the woman, ever stricken, sat on an orange-box before a low fire; and to prevent the fire going out, she was pulling her seat to pieces for fuel, bit by bit.
    The visitors looked upstairs
    There was no furniture there - only a bit of straw in the corner, that served as a bed for the woman`s four children.

    Stockport - December 1862.

    It is not the operatives alone that are suffering from this crisis; the entire human machinery in each district is at a standstill. Clerks, shopkeepers, mechanics, warehousemen, tradesmen of every grade - all whose businesses depended on the operatives, are also involved in the same ruin; and despair and perplexity are written on the countenances of these once prosperous people.
    No words can possibly estimate the destitute condition which eighteen months of forced idleness, and the almost entire stagnation of business, had produced amongst them....
    Step by step want has overtaken them, like an army cut off from its supplies; and the charity of the world now stands alone between 500,000 men and starvation.

    I was astonished at the dismal succession of destitute homes and the numbers of struggling owners of little shops, who are watching their stocks shrink gradually down to nothing and looking despodantly at the cold approach of pauperism.... now and then the weekly visitor from the Relief Commitee calls. he lifts the latch and finds the door locked. The house is empty and the people have gone - the Lord knows where.

    In the course of his round this visitor called upon a certain destitute family which was under his care, and he found the husband sitting alone in the house, pale and silent. His wife had been "brought to bed" two or three days before and the visitor enquired how she was getting on. "Her`s very ill" said the husband. "And the child?" continued the visitor "how is it?" !It`s dead" replied the man "It died yesterday." He then rose, and walked slowly into the next room, returning with a basket in his hands, in which the dead child was decently laid out. "That`s all thats left of it now." Said the poor fellow. Then putting the basket on the floor, he sat down in front of it, with his head between his hands, looking silently at the corpse.