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.

In Our Time: The Corn Laws

In 1815 the British government passed a law fixing the price of grain at a higher than market price. This was the first of the Corn Laws, and it sparked rioting by those most affected – the urban poor. The laws were to last until the late 1840s, when they were finally repealed under pressure from manufacturers concerned about the effect on trade. The three experts who talked about these laws on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (Oxford University), Boyd Hilton (University of Cambridge) and Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey (London School of Economics).

They started the programme by giving us a bit of context. Britain in 1815 was at the start of the process of industrialisation and just coming to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. So there was concern about how the economy was going to adjust to the new demands of peace and industry. There was also concern over political instability in Europe, and worries about the spread of revolution to Britain (it’s not that long after the French Revolution after all). And the industrialisation of Britain was also shifting population and the balance of power more towards the growing manufacturing cities of the north, which was generating pressure for reform of Parliament and extension of the franchise.

So against this backdrop the landowners, who were the major interest represented in the Parliament of the time (both in terms of who has the vote and in terms of how many MPs come from which areas of the country) vote through a law that protects their profits from grain growing. During the war it was harder to import grain, so to feed the country more & more marginal land was forced into cultivation. Now that peace has broken out the landowners are worried that grain imports will force down the price of grain and the profits they make & the rents they can get from their tenant farmers will be reduced. The law was openly protectionist in nature and the landowners who passed it felt it was their due for supporting the country during the war.

Right from the start didn’t go as well as they had hoped. Britain wasn’t actually able to be self-sufficient, but the hope was that for the 4 or 5 years out of 6 when the harvest was good enough then British grain would be enough. And for the other 1 or 2 years in this cycle when the harvest failed then grain could be bought in from the Eastern European farmers and prevent famine. But as one might predict (with the benefits of a cursory, but 21st Century, knowledge of economics) without the market always being there the farmers of East Europe turned to other crops or other ways of making their living, rather than growing surplus corn just in case they could sell it to Britain. So further laws were passed trying to sort this situation out whilst still protecting the interests of the British aristocracy.

Into this situation comes the Great Reform Act of 1832. This extended the franchise to men with less property (one now needed land or a house to the value of £10). And the boroughs were redrawn – the system had been kept the same for about 400 years previously, despite changes in population. Previously there were areas (“rotten boroughs”) where there was little population but they had an MP, and places such as Manchester (a new and growing town in this period) had no representation. This reform changed the balance of power, and the industrialists started to campaign against the Corn Laws. From what the experts on the programme were saying this didn’t have much to do with the plight of those poor who couldn’t afford to buy bread. Instead it was about trading the goods that the manufacturers were making. If Britain wasn’t importing grain then it was hard to get other countries to buy Britain’s exports, which hurt the profits of the industrialists and the country’s economy as a whole. And it was about how if food is expensive, then people buy less clothing or other goods, and again less profit for the boss and less economic activity in general.

The Anti-Corn Law League was formed in 1838, and attracted many supporters. They were working towards a plan for repealing the Corn Laws after the planned 1848 election – involving propagandising to the country in general and the electorate in particular, and getting their sympathisers elected. The Anti-Anti Corn Law League (real name the Central Agricultural Protection Society – CAPS) was formed in 1844 to campaign in support of the Corn Laws. Schonhardt-Bailey gave us some figures to demonstrate something of their reach – the Anti-Corn Laws League started off with about £5,000 worth of subscriptions, and grew by 1845 to ~£250,000 worth of subscriptions. The CAPS had about ~£2,000 worth of subscriptions at that point. The CAPS were handicapped in a couple of ways – firstly their senior figures (like the Duke of Richmond) were the sort of people that fit contemporary stereotypes about useless & wasteful aristocrats, whereas the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League were charismatic and good persuaders. And the CAPS membership and support base was drawn from people who felt it wasn’t appropriate to take politics “out of doors” – i.e. politics was something that happened primarily in Parliament and between the Members of Parliament. So they had an ideological opposition to drumming up support amongst the electorate & the population at large.

Robert Peel, eventually responsible for repeal, properly enters this clash of ideologies in 1841 when he becomes Prime Minister as the leader of the Conservative Party. The programme digressed a bit to talk about Peel’s background here, as he’s the man responsible in the end for driving through repeal. Peel’s father had been a self-made man, who then became a baronet. Peel himself had been educated at Eton & Oxford, so brought up with the members of the elite, and went into politics. He was ideologically a good fit for the Conservative party of the time, but didn’t feel at ease with them – because he wasn’t part of the old aristocracy he was an outsider in some ways. The Conservative Party was generally in favour of the Corn Laws – they represented the old landed interests. Peel himself voted against repeal several times in the early 1840s, although the experts suggested that he’d always been in favour of repealing them. This probably wasn’t for the same sorts of reasons as the industrialists wanted to repeal them. The suggestion is that Peel saw the Corn Laws as protecting the short term interests of the landed aristocracy at the expense of their long term protection. Effectively he was spooked by the rioting and opposition of the general public to these laws, and believed that as long as these laws existed they kept inflamed the possibility of revolt like in France only half a century earlier. You might have hefty bank balances from your grain profits, but will that help you if the mob burn your house down?

The experts were saying that Peel started by introducing legislation to weaken the effects of the Corn Laws – they believed this was an attempt to avoid looking like he was betraying his party. The plan seemed to be to reduce the laws, and then win the 1848 election on the back of these partial repeals which would then give him the mandate to repeal the Corn Laws fully. But this isn’t how it played out, instead in 1846 Peel brought repeal to the table at Parliament, and managed to persuade sufficient of his party to support him to bring it about. The experts were suggesting perhaps he came to believe his party wouldn’t win the planned 1848 election, so wanted to get this done when the Conservatives would reap the political benefits. Apparently the language used around the issue at the time was fairly religious and overblown (with talk of martyrdom and so on), so perhaps Peel was also swept along by a feeling that it would be the right thing to do to politically die for his faith in repeal.

After the Corn Laws were repealed and a Free Trade approach to the economy was now employed. The experts said that the next couple of decades were very prosperous for Britain – with ample harvests, and plenty of growth in the economy. They also said that this didn’t have much to do with the Corn Laws or Free Trade – it was mostly a result of climatic conditions favourable to agriculture. But because of the presumed cause & effect – repeal of the Corn Laws –> prosperous Britain – this shaped the future of Britain. Free Trade was now seen in many circles as proven to lead to a booming economy.

The programme ended quite abruptly, as Bragg realised they were running out of time – one of the problems with this being a live show I guess. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. I’m not surprised it happened to this one, it was one of those subjects I thought might be a bit dull in advance but turned out to be fascinating once it got going.

In Our Time: The War of 1812

I knew that there was a war in 1812, but it was mixed up in my head with Napoleon & Moscow and I wasn’t really sure who was fighting in the 1812 war … but it turns out it was a war between the British & the United States of America. My lack of knowledge of it seems to be indicative of how important it actually was to the UK (as opposed to the US) but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

The programme was split into three sections – first the context, then the war itself and then a brief discussion of the aftermath & what the war meant to the countries involved. A major part of the context is the on-going war between Britain and France. Partly it was fought via trying to force the US to trade with one or the other party, and imposing sanctions when they disobeyed. But another part of that context is that the British were in dire need of sailors to man their warships, so pursued deserters (or those they could tenuously claim had deserted) even when said men were no longer British citizens. So British Navy ships would stop US ships in international waters, and board them to look for “deserters” who’d then get taken back & put to work in the British Navy. But these so-called deserters may not’ve been deserters at all and may’ve become naturalised US citizens. Or maybe were US born US citizens who’d been impressed into the British Navy at some point in the past despite not being British.

The incidents that actually kicked off the war were two fold – reflecting both parts of this context. Firstly the British said that the US was no longer allowed to sell salted fish to the West Indies, because the British wanted the Canadians to supply it instead (which would keep the money in the Empire). And a US warship (as opposed to a US merchant ship) was boarded by British Navy forces, 4 men were killed and 4 “deserters” including native born US citizens taken off to the Navy. These insults combined with a sense that if the US didn’t defend its honour then it would be forever walked over by other countries, lead to the US declaring war on Britain.

The war itself Bragg described as desultory. Not many battles, the biggest battle actually happened after peace had been negotiated (in Belgium) but before the two forces in America could be told. There were three main areas where there was fighting – Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the Atlantic ocean/coastline. The US believed at the outset of the war that would be able to just march some of their militia into Canada and the Canadians would lay down their arms and join the US – not entirely a foolish idea for the US, they’d just acquired part of Florida through a similar campaign. But the Canadians didn’t, and the US invasion was pushed back. An attempted land invasion of the US by Canadian militia met equally little success though – both militias being good at defending their own territory but less good at invading.

In the Great Lakes region of the US the British were backing the Native Americans, in particular the Shawnee who tried to unite the various Native American tribes to push the white settlers out of their lands. This was ultimately unsuccessful even with British backing, and this conflict was a major factor in the later campaigns against the Native Americans pushing them out of their lands (including the Trail of Tears). Andrew Jackson who was president when the later persecution of Native Americans was carried out became a war hero during this war partly because of his successful battles against the Creek Indians.

The naval arena was the area where the British had by far the upper hand – their army was bigger too, but the British Navy was the première Navy in the world at this time. However two of the biggest successes for the US came in this area. The Battle of Baltimore, which has been memorialised by the poem that turned into the national anthem of the US (the Star Spangled Banner), and the Battle of New Orleans which occurred just after the peace treaty was signed. However the British did have successes as well – they successfully captured Washington after the local militia fled from the British Army force (that heavily outnumbered them as well as being better trained & armed). Originally the intent was to levy a fine (I think that’s what they said) as an indication that the town was captured, but as the Army marched into the town under a white flag they were fired upon – at which point they put to death the people in the house which had fired on them, and burnt down the various government buildings including the Presidential Palace & the Library of Congress. The experts were keen to point out that with the exception of the house which had fired on the army there was no damage done to civilian buildings.

The war came to an end after about 3 years mainly because the tensions that had lead to it went away – Napoleon was no longer ruler of France and Britain was no longer at war with France. Which meant that they weren’t so worried about US trade, nor were they so worried about tracking down deserters. Public opinion in Britain was also against the war – as being a waste of money & men, for no good reason. Peace was negotiated at a meeting in Belgium, and Burk summarised the treaty as saying not much of anything – nothing had changed since before the war & the treaty didn’t really mention any of the things that the war had been about. The other two disagreed with that as a general statement – but they did agree that from the point of view of Britain Burk was right.

From the point of view of the US this had been much more significant – it was almost a second War of Independence, and they felt they had asserted their right to be treated as a sovereign country. And as the news of one of their biggest victories in the war (in New Orleans) reached the majority of the country at the same time as news of peace did, it looked awfully like they’d won the war. Rather than it having been a bit of a damp squib that fizzled out. And from the point of view of the Native Americans it had been a disaster, which lead to public support for their persecution.