The American Civil War was a crucial event in the history of the Lancashire cotton industry. The blockade of the southern ports by the Federal navy cut off the supply of raw cotton on which Lancashire's mills depended. Mill closure, short time working and mass unemployment resulted. The crisis reached its peak in 1862/3. Recent histories have changed the interpretation of events. Industrial depression would have resulted despite the Civil War due to excessive production and speculation in the late 1850's. Stocks of raw cotton remained in Lancashire throughout the period but were held in warehouses by merchants gambling on a further rise in prices. Lancashire was not wholly sympathetic to the cause of the Northern states, even demanding British government action to break the blockade. Cotton operatives did not suffer in silence to free the Southern plantation slave. Riots broke out in 1863 leading to Government intervention to fund public works in order to give paid work rather than relief to the unemployed. As with most historical narratives, that of the Lancashire Cotton Famine is a complex one.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine, 1861 -1865
In the early 1860's, the Lancashire cotton industry, which dominated the mid-19th century British economy, was devastated by a political event beyond its control, the Civil War in the United States of America. In April 1861, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Confederate southern ports, the outlet for the raw cotton on which Lancashire's mills depended. Attempts to find alternative sources of supply from India or Egypt had little success. The short stapled Surat cotton proved no substitute for the medium stapled American variety. Deprived of essential raw material, spinning mills and weaving sheds closed down or resorted to short time working. Unemployment mounted rapidly.
By November 1862, three fifths of the labour force, 331,000 men and women were idle. Many operatives, their savings exhausted, were forced to apply for charitable handouts or for relief from the despised poor law system. Such hardships, however, they endured calmly because they believed in the noble cause for which Lincoln was fighting, the freeing of the slaves of the southern plantation owners. From its peak in 1862/3, unemployment fell, but not until the end of the war, in April 1865, was normal working resumed. The cotton industry never regained the dominance it had once held in the British economy.
Simple historical narratives, however inspiring, often conceal a more complex reality. Economic historians like W. O. Henderson, Eugene Brady and Douglas Farnie, have shown, what a contemporary economist, W. T. M. Torrens hinted, that, with or without the American Civil War, the Lancashire cotton industry would have suffered a depression in the early 1860's due to massive over production and speculation in the late 1850's.
There were considerable stocks of raw cotton in Lancashire during the Civil War, but these were held in warehouses by merchants waiting for a further rise in prices or exporting to overseas markets like New York where a more favourable price could be obtained. Nor was liberal, free trade Lancashire wholly supportive of the Federal cause. As Mary Ellison pointed out, Lancashire men suspected the centralising ambitions of Lincoln which would diminish the political freedom of the southern states of America.
The Federal blockade of southern ports was seen as an unwarranted interference with the freedom of trade. There was pressure on the British government to demand its lifting, by force if necessary. On the day of the Prince of Wales' marriage to the Danish princess, Alexandra, cotton mills in some Lancashire towns hoisted the Confederate flag in tribute. Lancashire's liberalism had its limits.
As for the working population, their suffering was undoubted, but their peaceable conduct was not unbroken. There was resentment at the controlled, minimalist nature of charitable relief; at the fact that more generous donations appeared to come from outside Lancashire than from its wealthy cotton masters, and at the poor law system which set degrading work tasks for those who applied for relief, making no distinction between respectable unemployed and drunken ne'er do well.
"We're mixt wi't stondin paupers too,
Ut wilno work when works t'be 'ad",
complained the dialect poet, Joseph Ramsbottom.
In March 1863, serious riots broke out in the towns of Stalybridge, Ashton and Dukinfield, Triggered by an attempt to reduce scales of relief and impose harsher conditions on recipients of it. This spread panic amongst the local magistracy who feared a return to the Chartist disturbances of the 1840's. "To riot or to rot" appeared to be the gloomy forecast of the future of Lancashire's demoralised cotton workers. In response the Government passed a Public Works Act in 1863 which provided money for local authorities to fund schemes of urban improvement which would provide paid work for the unemployed. This "knee jerk" legislation proved to be too little and too late. By the time it was implemented, unemployment and relief rolls were falling. Town councils eagerly accepted the opportunity to improve their towns, and several Alexandra Parks were laid out in honour of the new Princess of Wales.
Though not the noble tale once told, the Cotton Famine was an important episode in the history of the Lancashire cotton industry. That two histories of it, those by R. A. Arnold and by John Watts, were written before it was over, indicates an anxious desire to justify conduct during it.
"The Cotton Famine is an event that has burnt itself into the history of Lancashire." (London Quarterly Review. January 1865).
R. A. Arnold, The History of the Cotton Famine (London, 1864)
John Watts, The Facts of the Cotton Famine, (London, 1866)
W. O. Henderson, The Facts of the Cotton Famine, 1861 - 1865 (Manchester, 1934)
D. A. Farnie, "The Cotton Famine in Great Britain" in B. M. Ratcliffe, editor, Great Britain and Her World, 1750 -1914: Essays in honour of W. O. Henderson. (Manchester, 1975)
E. A. Brady, "A reconsideration of the Lancashire Cotton Famine" Agricultural History, July 1963, pp. 156 - 162
Mary Ellison, Support for Secession (London, 1972)
Michael Rose, "Rochdale Man and the Stalybridge Riot: the Relief and Control of the Unemployed during the Lancashire Cotton Famine" in A. P. Donajgrodzki, editor, Social Control in Nineteenth Century Britain. (London, 1977)
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