The Lancashire Cotton Famine, 1861-1865


“The Cotton Famine is an event that has burnt itself into the history of Lancashire.” (London Quarterly Review. January 1865).

My Entwis(t)le ancestors originated in the Entwistle, Darwen, Haslingden, Blackburn areas of Lancashire. Whilst researching my family tree I have noticed that the most frequent occupations of my ancestors were farming, cotton weaving and coal-mining, sometimes all within the same households. I’ve often wondered how these people fared during the shortage of raw cotton – what became known as the Cotton Famine – of the 1860s.

In April 1861, US President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Confederate southern ports, the outlet for the raw cotton on which Lancashire’s mills depended. This sparked a depression overseas.

The exact reasons for the onset of the Civil War between the northern and southern states are still disputed but the war was not expected to last very long. In Lancashire the mills had already stockpiled a four month supply of raw cotton and at first they were able to add to this. Some merchants even speculated by holding raw cotton in warehouses, waiting for a further rise in prices or exporting to overseas markets like New York where they could get a better price.

Unfortunately, the cotton supply soon stopped entirely and attempts to find alternative sources from India or Egypt had little success because the short-stapled Surat cotton proved no substitute for the medium-stapled American variety. Without raw materials, production ended by October 1861; mill closures, mass unemployment and poverty hit northern Britain. By November 1862 three fifths of the labour force of the ‘cotton towns’ was idle. Only after they had drawn their savings from the bank, sold what few valuables they had, and pawned their clothes and bedding did cotton workers go to the Relief Committee or the Guardians. Undoubtedly many others left for other towns or went even further, to the colonies.

One man who made many visits to Lancashire during the bad years was Edwin Waugh, a dialect poet who was a correspondent for the Manchester Times and Examiner. He often repeated stories of life in the cotton towns. Particularly relevant during our current winter (2014) is his story of how on one of his visits to Blackburn he witnessed the despatch of twenty unemployed men to help build new drains and dykes at the scene of a disaster in Lincolnshire where vast floods near Kings Lynn had engulfed 32,000 acres of farmland. The men were eager to go, being offered the princely pay of 3s.4d. a day in place of the normal shilling.

SA Nicholls title page

An interesting source of information about how our forebears were affected can be found in this little book, by SA Nicholls, published in 1893, which I found in Blackburn Library

S.A. Nicholls had been Honorary Secretary of the Darwen Relief Committee during the Cotton Famine and Part III of his book is based on his personal recollections and manuscripts of the time of the Famine, as well as the Minute book of the Darwen Committee. What follows is my own summary of Nicholls’ work. Similar relief efforts were made in other Lancashire towns but I’m particularly interested in what was happening in my home town, where most of my ancestors and their families would be living in the mid-19th century.

In 1861 Darwen had over 16,000 residents, 33 cotton mills, 2 print works and 8 collieries. [On the census over 500 entries relate to men, women and children named Entwistle and living in Darwen. Of these, more than half were employed in the cotton industry, mostly as weavers but also a few spinners and related occupations such as winders and sizers.]

It was by the autumn of 1862 that distress became obvious in Darwen. A meeting of representatives of the clergy and the employers was convened in September in the Board Room at Peel Baths, and a General Committee was formed with local sub-committees for the 14 districts. It was noted at the time that the amount of distress was not yet great but that some local people were in need of immediate relief.

The Committee decided to meet every Monday and 28 Visitors were appointed. Their role was to discover people needing help and also to ask the better-off to subscribe funds. This part of their job involved going to places of employment which were still working full time and ask for weekly contributions to the relief fund. It was decided to give relief to make up a total income of 1s 9d per head.

Relief was usually provided in kind – for example, tickets: ‘supply …… with provisions to the amount of ……… and enter on the back of this ticket what you supply, with the price of the article.’

Any tradesman could accept these tickets. At the month’s end the tradesmen would send the tickets to the Secretary of the Relief Committee for checking and on to the Treasurer for payment. This relief would be paid as extra to that provided by the Board of Guardians. After the first month the Committee realised that relief other than food was needed – for example, clothing and bedding. £100 was allocated and every article was stamped ‘Lent by Darwen Relief Committee’. This was not so much to ensure return but to stop the items going to the pawnshop. The £100 allocation was soon increased to £600 and clogs were added to the list of necessary items.

In December 1862 a coal committee was formed and rent began to be a problem. Some landlords refused to let tenants delay payments, other landlords were more willing but were often themselves weavers who had invested their savings in bricks and mortar and faced ruin as tenants defaulted on their rent. Sometimes three or more families crammed into one tiny cottage, dividing the rent between them. The relief basis was changed to depend on family size: 1 person 2s 6d; 2 persons 2s 4d each; 3 persons 2s 2d each; 4 persons 2s each; 5 persons 1s 10d each.

Sewing class
Sewing class for the poor

Sewing classes began, held on 5 days a week in the Mechanics Institute which was then over the old Market House in Church Street. Some material, after stamping, was taken to operatives’ homes for sewing.

These classes encouraged mill girls to improve their skills – a factory inspector recalled being astonished that ‘one third of the females knew nothing of sewing upon their first attending the classes’. They were taught by ‘ladies’ how to make clothes for themselves, for which material was provided, often allowing them to replace those garments that they had sold for food. For attending the classes three days a week, each woman received one shilling or a good square meal.

A loan library was set up by the Irish Society for reading books. At this time the Baptist Church in Bolton Road had just been opened, leaving William Street School’s upper room empty. It began to be used for classes. Some benches and desks were already there and others were borrowed from the Mechanics Institute. A grant was applied for to the central committee in Manchester from the Australia Fund and two masters were appointed. The school was open from 9am to 9pm during the week, and on Saturday mornings. Lessons lasted for 5 hours and then the premises were used for recreation. They were kept warm and well-lit – a welcome change from the poor conditions of the worker’s homes during this period of distress.

Relief work
Relief activity

In February 1863, numbers attending the classes decreased and the junior master was dispensed with. By March numbers had increased again to 60. This was because work on footpaths had begun and men had to be attending school to be taken on to footpath work. These ‘Industrial Classes’ taught basic literacy and numeracy (many of the men could not write their own names) as well as useful trades such as cobbling. Such classes not only kept the unemployed off the streets, but the system of payment ensured that the proud weavers did not feel they were receiving charity for nothing. Then footpath work began to be recommended by Visitors without the need for the men to attend the school so numbers fell again and by May 1863 the school closed.

Footpaths were not being well maintained by the ordinary local authorities and it was suggested that relief work should be done on them. Similar work had been done in the 1825 ‘dole-time’. A surveyor was appointed to assist in proper supervision of this work. The work was popular with the unemployed men and all who could gain admittance to the scheme did so. By May 1863 other relief was not so necessary and expenditure by the Relief Committee on footpaths exceeded all the rest. At the end of May the men were passed to the Board of Health and in June the footpath equipment was passed over too. Expenditure had been £749 15s 2d.

By the end of 1862 looms in Darwen were beginning to run again but using raw cotton from Surat in India. This was of poor quality, often dirty and mixed with foreign objects like goats’ hair and jute. Even when cleared of impurities it was difficult to handle, being dry, brittle and short-staple which made it fuzzier and more like wool. More steam was needed in the mills to try and damp it down, bringing discomfort to the workers. A material that was forever breaking meant time spent piecing instead of spinning and weaving, so wages were lost. Some weavers preferred to stay on relief rather than struggle with Surats but they were made to work or their relief was stopped.

At Christmas the Lord Mayor of London provided an 8d dinner for 2000 people in Darwen. Mr Duckworth, the Lord of the Manor, gave £100 and the Relief Committee decided to give dinners to needy non-recipients of relief. There were tea parties for the Men’s School and sewing class members. Uttoxeter in Staffordshire sent £144 to Darwen. Other donations from around the country included some strange things e.g. venison, deer’s’ heads, clothes such as opera cloaks, crinolines, hunting clothes etc.

The word ‘famine’ conjures up a picture of thousands of people dying of starvation as in the Irish Potato Famine, and those of Africa too often seen on our news programmes today. This did not happen in Lancashire, there was mass hardship but even in the terrible December of 1862 many of the cotton operatives were working full time though they were earning lower wages than in the good times due to the poor material they were using. The word ‘famine’ was used to describe the lack of raw materials. It is true that supplies from America were lost, but they were partly replaced from the Empire.

Whenever you find your ancestors listed on the 1861 census as working in the cotton industry, try to imagine how they might have fared over the following few years. Maybe they transferred to another industry; maybe they left their hometowns forever to avoid the poverty that had become widespread in the early 1860s.

A bare cottage, everything pawned?

[Eileen Cowen, Editor and Member 241]

First printed in Twissle Times Issue 57, March 2014