The causes of the civil war in America are debated to this day. Certainly the problem of slavery was at the heart of it, but the right of the southern states to secede from the Union and go their own way was also an issue. The impact of the conflict on the Lancashire cotton industry took some time to take effect.
On 17th April 1861 Fort Sumter fell to the Confederate forces. There had been a 4 months supply of cotton in Liverpool on New Year's Day 1861. During the next months imports continued as normal and a 5 month supply had been accumulated. It was a generally held view that the war would not last long and that stocks were sufficient to see the industry through.
The North blockaded the southern ports, but cotton prices remained steady throughout that year and only at the end did speculators in cotton become active. However by October 1861 mills in Lancashire began to run on short time, or to close altogether and applications for help to the poor law unions began to flood in.
By the beginning of 1862 soup kitchens were being set up. By July the enormity of the situation was becoming apparent. By the end of the year one third of the population of Blackburn was dependent on assistance from Relief Committees.
It was autumn of 1862 when the distress began to bite in Darwen. On September 15th a meeting was held in the board room at the Peel Baths,when clergy and principal employers met to examine the situation and decide how to provide relief.
Relief was usually provided by issuing tickets requesting traders to supply the bearer with provisions to the value of the amount specified. Relief was rarely given in cash. Emigration was an alternative to relief and agents from the Federal States came to Lancashire to recruit for their own cotton industry and for the Federal army. A less drastic alternative was taken by those who went to work in the woollen industry in Yorkshire. It is estimated that 4,000 operatives left Blackburn.
Sewing classes were set up for young women and educational classes for single men. Projects such as the construction of the Broad Walk in Corporation Park and the repair of footpaths in Darwen were carried out by the unemployed. Money was raised throughout the country and abroad. Everyone from the Queen to the boot-black boys of London contributed.
On the 31st of December 1862 at a meeting of cotton workers at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester support was pledged for the Federal States of America in their struggle with the South. On the 19th of January 1863 Abraham Lincoln sent an address to the cotton workers of Lancashire thanking them for their support.
The worst consequences that might have been feared to result from the famine: death and disease never happened. The efforts to avoid this were strenuous on every level; local, regional and national. Compare this with the potato famine in Ireland which lasted from 1846 to 1850, when a million people died of hunger and disease and millions more were evicted from their homes and forced to emigrate.Had lessons been learned? Were the authorities concerned because Lancashire was on the mainland and they were afraid of the consequences of leaving thousands of desperate and hungry people with nothing to lose to fend for themselves? Was it just prejudice against the Irish?
The American Civil War ended in 1865. By May 1865 the work of the distress committees was coming to an end. In Blackburn only 25 cases were dealt with in that month compared with 460 6 months earlier.
This was the outbreak of the American Civil War, which cut off supplies of cotton for Lancashire by the policy of the North to blockade the Southern ports. During the four years that the war lasted - The Cotton Famine - there was great distress in Blackburn, and relief works were started to find employment for cotton operatives who had been thrown out of work. A sewerage scheme, road mending and paving, quarrying, and construction of pathways in Corporation Park above the Broad Walk were all carried out by the weavers.
Some of the street works then carried out are still visible at Warwick Street, near Blakey Moor but most of them have been lost in town redevelopment, or have been resurfaced. Classes were started to provide instruction in dressmaking, needlework and straw hat making for women weavers, and English, book-keeping and mathematics for unemployed male operatives. A large amount of welfare benefit was provided in the form of clothing, bedding, corn and flour, but for many weavers, the most lasting memory of the Cotton Famine was queuing at the soup depot to receive a pint of soup and a slice of bread for a penny.
After 1863 systematic distribution of bread, meal, bacon and coal was undertaken, on a different day of the week for each district or ward of the town. By the end of the American Civil War, the manufacturers had lost an estimated £28,000,000, while the weavers' lost wages and losses by shopkeepers totalled £30,000,000. These figures were for the whole of Lancashire and amounted to nothing less than a calamity.
In Blackburn, several factory owners were bankrupted, including the owners of Carr Cottage Mill, Dewhurst Street, Fisher Street, Greenbank, Shuttleworth's Moss Street, and one of Blackburn's largest employers, William Eccles and Son, who had a work force of 1500 at Wensley Fold and Commercial Mill, Nova Scotia.
by J. S. Miller
The cotton famine of 1861 to 1864 was a setback, otherwise the industry expanded throughout the latter part of the 19th century towards a peak just before the first world war. The number of power looms installed increased from 463,000 in 1874 to 786,000 in 1912. Lancashire dominated the industry in this country, employing 90% of the workforce. Spinning predominated in the south and east of the county and weaving in the north. Blackburn was foremost among the weaving towns. As J B Priestley remarks in his book 'English Journey':
'A dhootie is the loincloth of India, which even Gandhi did not disdain to wear, and it is also the name of the cheap cotton fabric from which these loincloths are made. Blackburn expected every man to do his dhootie. This fabric was manufactured in the town and the surrounding district on a scale equal to the needs of the gigantic Indian population. So colossal was the output that Blackburn was the greatest weaving town in the world. It clothed the whole vast peninsula. Millions and millions of yards of dhootie cloth went streaming out of this valley.'
Blackburn and many other mill towns were dependent on foreign trade. Exports from this country peaked just before the world was plunged into war in 1914. In retrospect the signs were there already; the textile industry in America was equipping itself with modern machinery and Japan was just emerging as an exporter of cotton cloth. Most manufacturers were complacent however. Lancashire cotton was pre-eminent and at the heart of Lancashire producing cloth that would encircle the globe was Blackburn.
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Darwen and The Cotton Famine Thirty Years Ago: 1862-1864
Honorary Secretary of the local Relief Committee
With a brief summary of the operations of the central relief commitee throughout the cotton district.
"The Author, or compiler, of this small volume, has for many years past purposed it's production at some future period; and feels now that unless the purpose is at once put into execution, it will not be performed at all.
He commends the little book to all who take any interest in it's record; to his friends, the comparatively few survivors of the once large Darwen Committee; to those who yet remain of the subscribers to, and recipients of the bounty whose story relates; and chiefly to the new generation, the descendants, children and grandchildren of those who suffered bitter privations, and manifested the patience fortitude, and the endurance which won for them a Spartan reputation throughout the English speaking world; and for which they will be esteemed by all honorable men as long as the Cotton Famine remains.
To the critical reader, who may justly find fault with the loose manner in which the facts are thrown together, he must plead his inexperience in the art and mystery of authorship.
For the interesting facts narrated in the first two parts, the writer is chiefly indebted to a volume entitled "Facts of the Cotton Famine," by the late Dr. John Watts, of Manchester; himself a member of the Central Commitee, and a man to whom many classes of the Lancashire population are for ever indebted, as a pioneerof education, a promoter of Mechanics' Institutions, and other instruction both of the young, and those of older growth. To that he begs to refer such readers as may wish for further information on the subject.
For the facts of the last part, to which indeed the others are but intended as an introduction, the writer is in his own authorirty, having gleaned them from personal recollections, or from his manuscripts of the time, including the minute book of the Darwen Committee still in his possession.
He merely adds that the production has been a labour of love, as was the work of which it tells the story, not to himself alone, but to all those who took part in it."
S. A. N.
The book is available to read in the Community History Department of Blackburn Library.
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