The Cotton Famine 1861-65
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.
To read more about the hard times of the Cotton Famine in the times of Charles Tiplady, click here.