The Hungry Mills - The story of the Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861-5

by Norman Longmate (published Temple Smith London)

The heroes of this history are the ordinary working families of Lancashire. From being the most prosperous workers in Britain they suddenly found themselves faced with starvation when the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton to the mills. Thousands upon thousands were thrown out of work. Once well-to-do families huddled in cellars and hovels, begging for food and clothing.

The impoverished workers responded with an extraordinary display of courage and solidarity, and the appeals for outside help were met. Out of the appalling hardship emerged a society better equipped to meet such challenges than ever before. It was a turning point in British social history.

Lancashire it was often said, was clothier to the world and mill-owners liked to dazzle visitors by displaying the enormous range of qualities and designs contained in their pattern books. One American visiting Manchester in 1861 was duly impressed as the pages were turned for his benefit, concluding that they ' furnished a volume of human nature... In one book were oriental figures for China, in another sober patterns for India; a third and a fourth contained tastes of South America and Africa; in a fifth my conductor astonished me by parading before my eyes a number of fearful yellow daubs and glaring mixtures in which brilliant yellow was the favourite shade, informing me that there was great demand for these at Constantinople as they were the usual costume of the harems.'

Already individual places were renowned for particular products, such as Oldham for 'medium counts of yarn' (thread of middling thickness), Bolton and Preston for 'fine counts' and Blackburn and Burnley for the various types of cloth. In general weaving firms tended to be concentrated to the north and north-east of Manchester and spinning firms to the south, but of 2,270 cotton factories investigated at the end of 1861 only 890 were devoted soley to spinning and only 593 exclusively to weaving., The rest making a variety of products or carrying on both processes in the same establishment. The trade was to a remarkable extent concentrated in a single county : of nearly 2,300 mills engaged in cotton production in 1860 more than 1,900 were in Lancashire itself.

The harnessing of steam liberated the industry from the river valleys, so that soon mills were spreading across the upland moors. People learned in due time to respond to the factory bell as the pious villager does to the Sunday chime.

Coal as essential to steam-power as water, proved almost equally plentiful. All the larger cotton towns, with the exception of Preston were situated in close proximity to coal deposits. Coal yielded another by-product in gas.

With gaslight streaming from the broad factory windows from well before dawn, as the clogs of the millhands clattered up the cobbled streets in answer to the summons of the factory bell, till well after sunset, when the workers made their weary way homewards, the mills were crying out for new labour.

The Times September 1862 : For years cotton manufacture flourished so exceedingly in Blackburn, and such fabulous fortunes were amassed in a short time, that there was a general rush to get into it. . . The trade in a very short time not only absorbed the whole town, but spread out into the county districts around and the banks of the Blakewater are covered with great mills right up the valley to Accrington. . . Cotton was everything. In 1760, it was estimated the value of all cotton goods produced in Great Britain had been but £200,000. In 1860 it was £85 million.

The storm clouds gather
Following the outbreak of the American Civil War, in the month of October 1861, the price of cotton advanced at such a rate as as had never been known in the annals of the trade. In this one month of October the price of Middling Orleans rose twopence per pound. This medium- grade cotton, from which the price of other types was calculated, was soon changing hands at a shilling a pound in place of its customary 8d. There was also a sudden increase for the previously neglected Indian cotton Surat.. the pariah of the cotton trade because of its short staples, which rose in the same period from about 7d to 10d per pound

Indian Surat cotton often contained seeds, seed -pods and peebles which added weight to the bales that should have contained pure cotton. The waste from natural causes was double that of American cotton. Even when cleaned of impurities, Surat was much more troublesome to handle than American cotton, due to its dryness and short staple, which made it fuzzier and more like rough wool. To turn Surat into a sufficiently robust thread to work required twelve turns per inch while American needed only eight. Apart from the costly adjustment that needed to be made to the spinning machinery, the thread constantly broke causing not only frustration to the operatives but seriously reducing their earnings, since they were usually on piece work.

By the beginning of November 119 mills in Lancashire were on half-time, 49 had stopped work altogether and nearly 8,100 operatives were known to be out of work. A Wigan firm, employing some 2,500 hands forewarned them of their intention to close the mill, and this was repeated throughout the cotton towns.

Times 2nd January 1862, 'The actual stock of American cotton at the present time is not half what it was twelve months ago, and it is not likely to be replenished, except by the termination of the blockade. . . The supplies received in 1861 represented the crop of 1860 and that crop had been pretty well transmitted to us before the blockade of the Southern ports was established . . . At this time last year 170,000 bales of American cotton were known to be at sea, on their way to our shores, whereas at the present moment there is not a single bale expected. . .Here therefore the pinch will be felt.'

Stocks in Liverpool amounted to only 127,000 bales, against five times as many, 680,000, a year before. People looked to Indian cotton to fill the gap, but there was even less on the way - 200,000 against 270,000 bales - than a year before. With normal British consumption at the rate of 45,000 bales a week, the total stock of all types of cotton in the whole of Europe, not merely Great Britain amounted to 17 weeks' supply on half-time.

'Trade is at a stand-still, in every street shops are closed and those who keep open are doing no business, or next to nothing.'

Report in the Times of a visit to Blackburn, September 1862. 'With all it was the same tale - savings spent, credit exhausted, the pawnshop or the auction room, and last of all, the terrible alternative - starvation or relief. One small street I found occupied entirely by the work people employed at one mill, which had stopped twelvemonth ago. Every family had passed through the last winter without wages, and were now at the end of their resources, dependent on relief of some kind. Most of them had been receiving it for weeks past, but in hardly a single cottage was there more to be found than a couple of chairs and a table, and around walls, a few gay pictures. . . Some of them lying four or five in a bed, others on a bundle of straw, and all had run considerable debt.'

One young woman, about thirty years of age, with a child in her arms, was standing in a bye-street, singing a sweet plaintive voice, a Lancashire song. It was her first song in public, and the tremulous voice and downcast eye, as she hugged with nervous grasp her little one, was very touching. When the song was over, the poor creature looked around with a timid air to the bystanders ...burst into a passionate flood of tears ...Our feelings were turned into a hearty gladness when a strong, brawny, Lancashire lad walked up to the place she had occupied, took off his hat, and saying he would take their money to her, made a collection on the spot.

During 1862 a wave of enthusiasm for helping 'the starving cotton workers' swept the country, affecting all classes and every corner of the land. Every eye is turned towards Lancashire with its population of 500,000 starving operatives. . . every heart is strung to sympathy with the distress existing there, and every hand is contributing to its alleviation.

It began to seem, as the second winter of the cotton famine gave way to spring, that such an ordeal could be endured by such a population without a window being smashed, and barely a stone flung. However March 1863 gave rise to a series of riots at Stalybridge when such hopes were soon dashed.

At the height of the distress, in December 1862, the Guardians or Relief Committees were supporting 485,434 people. By June 1863 the number had dropped to 255,578 and by October 1863 to 167,678. The winter of 1864 brought a further increase of numbers, so that in February 1864 203,164 people were relieved. In the following autumn and winter the figures climbed to 136,268 in October 1864, and to just under 150,000 in November 1864. By December 1864 the total was down to 130,397, by April 1865 the total was 95,763 and May 1865 saw the number drop to 76,000.

The cotton famine had a marked effect upon the number of marriages in the distressed areas. 'A thousand loving hearts were kept asunder by the grim spectre.
Between October and December 1862 the number of marriages dropped by a half from 412 to 181.

The Smokeless Chimney by 'A Lancashire Lady' (Mrs E.J. Belasis)

Traveller on the Northern Railway,
Look and Learn as on you speed;
see the hundred smokeless chimneys;
Learn their tale of cheerless need . . .

Weeks roll on and still yon chimney
Gives of better times no sign,
Men by thousands cry for labour,
Daily cry, and daily pine . . .

Now the things, so long and dearly
Prized before, are pledged away
Clock and Bible, marriage-presents,
Both must go - how sad to say!

Charley trots to school no longer,
Nelly grows more pale each day!
Nay, the baby's shoes, so tiny,
Must be sold, for bread to pay. . .

Soon will come the doom most dreaded,
With horror that appals;
Lo! before their downcast faces
Grimly stare the workhouse walls.

Stranger, if these sorrows touch you,
Widely bid your bounty flow;
And assist my poor endeavours
To relieve this load of woe.

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