In Our Time: The Lancashire Cotton Famine

Before I listened to this episode of In Our Time I had no idea that the American Civil War had caused hardship to so many people in Britain. The cessation of cotton imports from the Southern USA after war broke out led to the cotton mills in Lancashire shutting down, and several hundred thousand of people became unemployed. And yet the directly affected workers were still overwhelmingly on the side of the Northern USA, and for the ending of slavery. Discussing this on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (University of London), Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia) and David Brown (University of Manchester).

The cotton industry was one of the biggest industries in Britain during the 1850s and 1860s. Cotton was imported and made into textiles in mills in the new industrial towns like Manchester and other places in the North West of England. Nowadays factory jobs are low status, and low paid, but at that time these jobs were skilled labour and were well paid. The factory production of textiles replaced the older piece work system, where weavers worked in their own homes. In the new system there were potential jobs for the whole family, from quite an early age, so families were relatively well off as compared to their rural counterparts.

The south of the US had a climate that was particularly suitable for growing high quality cotton, and so 90% of the cotton that entered Britain came from the slave plantations in the US. Thus the outbreak of war in 1861 had the potential to cause significant disruption to the cotton industry. The North blockaded the ports of the South preventing the export of cotton - and the South also didn't make much effort to break the blockade because they misjudged the mood of Britain vis-à-vis the continuance of slavery. At first the lack of cotton imports didn't cause many problems. The owners of the mills had been able to see which way the wind was blowing and had stockpiled cotton in case there was a problem. This was only an extension of normal business practice - having reserves in case the harvest failed was common practice. But by 1862 these reserves were running out and mills started to first slow down operations and then shut down all together. At first families could attempt to minimise the effects. As they were relatively prosperous they might well have savings, and providing they could keep one member of the family in a job then that income plus savings might tide them over for a while. Eventually, however, the hardship affected most mill workers and their families.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph the South had misjudged the political and economic situation in the UK and the public antipathy for slavery. They had assumed that the UK government would intervene to protect the cotton supply, so decided to hasten that by not trying terribly hard to break through the blockade. However cotton wasn't the only important part of the British economy, and some of the other key pieces relied on trade with the North (for instance a lot of the nascent financial industry was heavily invested in Northern US business opportunities). There were also other potential sources of cotton - a bit of lead time was necessary to diversify and to improve the quantity & quality of these alternatives, but they were viable in the long term. Politically speaking the Establishment did have some sympathy with the South (a sort of fellow feeling for another aristocratic based system). But other factions in Parliament were more radical and more anti-slavery. The Government as a whole were also inclined to caution - intervening on the losing side of a civil war could be disastrous for future relations. And their caution was wise - after a while it became clear that the South were losing.

The general public was quite well informed about what slavery in the Southern US meant. There were articles and editorials in newspapers, and ex-slaves would tour the country giving talks and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. Some escaped slaves even had their freedom bought by funds donated by mill owners & their workers. The strength of anti-slavery feeling was such that during the Cotton Famine a mill workers' association wrote to Lincoln to encourage him to continue the fight against the slave-owners, despite the effect it was having on their livelihoods. Their general sentiment was that while it was awful to be out of work, it was more important for slavery to be eradicated.

Obviously public opinion wasn't completely one-note, there are exceptions to every generalisation and there were also pockets of pro-South feeling in Britain even outside the Establishment. One place that was more pro-South was the city of Liverpool. It was here that the cotton arrived, so there were representatives from the South living there and working as factors involved in trading the cotton. This meant more contact with Southerners as people rather than as the far away subjects of anti-slavery speeches. The experts suggested that this is one of the roots of the Liverpool/Manchester rivalry - different parts of this cotton industry with different priorities finding themselves on opposite sides of a conflict (ideologically even if not actually).

The consequences of the Cotton Famine on British culture were surprisingly far reaching. For instance it began changing the way the public and the Government thought about welfare. When several hundred people were suddenly out of work the existing poor laws were found to be inadequate. One reform brought in after this was that legislation was passed to allow councils to employ the unemployed to build public works. And rather than letting people starve or putting them in workhouses (which would've been completely overwhelmed) funds were raised to be distributed amongst the unemployed so that they could buy food.

The dignity and unselfish way that the workers behaved during this period of hardship also changed the way the working class were thought and talked about at the time. There was a feeling that obviously the "working man" would riot if he had no food nor employment, and would be unable to see past his own needs to that of other people. But during the Cotton Famine there was only one riot - and that was when one town decided to distribute funds as tokens rather than money to "save" the people from the temptation of misusing the money. It was the disrespect that caused offence. And as mentioned above the mill workers were to a large extent pro-North and anti-slavery in sentiment, despite their own hardship. The overall behaviour of the mill workers during this period undermined one of the main arguments against extending the franchise to all men. Clearly the common man actually was capable of seeing beyond his own self-interest to the bigger picture. So although change didn't happen immediately, the seeds of it were beginning to be sown.

So from a conflict over slavery on the other side of the world came the first steps towards universal suffrage and a welfare state! Not something I had previously realised.