Hanging by a thread

The songs and poems from the Lancashire Cotton Famine is a little known literary phenomenon. But now academics and volunteers have created an archive to bring the work to a wider audience

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The Lancashire Cotton Famine, or Cotton Panic as it was more often called, hit Lancashire between 1861 and 1865. It was a result of the American Civil War, accentuated by an economic depression.

Lincoln and his northern Union forces imposed a blockade on the Confederate southern ports of the US, which prevented American cotton reaching Lancashire. The result was that Lancashire’s thriving cotton industry, by then highly mechanised and based on intensive production methods, suddenly found itself without its basic raw material, cotton. Some towns were less dependent on American cotton, with supplies coming from Egypt, India and elsewhere. The blockade affected towns like Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Preston and Stalybridge particularly hard. Tens of thousands of workers were laid off, with no support for them or their families.

One of the unlikely products of the famine was the outpouring of literature – mostly poetry but some prose. There was a practical logic for this. Poems or songs published as “broadsides” at a halfpenny a copy could make all the difference between survival and starvation. Broadside ballad sellers became a common feature in many cotton towns.

This literary phenomenon has been little known outside Lancashire literature specialists. However, academics at Exeter University have initiated an important community-based project that aims to rescue this remarkable story from oblivion. The project is collecting the hundreds of hitherto unknown poems that appeared in local newspapers and broadsides, both in dialect and standard English. Dr Simon Rennie and Dr Ruth Mather are being helped in their research by volunteers from U3A (University of the Third Age).

This project makes freely available a database of poems written in response to the Cotton Famine, along with commentary, audio recitations and musical performances drawing directly on these poems. Project manager Rennie says: “This poetic response is important in that it often represents labouring-class voices from the mid-nineteenth century, which, in spite of renewed academic interest in such material, remains under-appreciated. The study of this material and its digital publication will significantly enrich literary scholarship and historical perspectives of this economic crisis, and provides the opportunity to draw public attention to an episode of history that is little known beyond the scholarly sphere. The project seeks to establish a much more detailed understanding of the nature of Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry: its extent, its intents, and its functions.”

Mather tells Big Issue North: “The project has both literary and historical significance. It reveals how important poetry and song was to ordinary people and that there was considerable engagement with reading, listening to, and writing poetry well beyond what we would think of as the established canon, and also reminds us that culture is important to people who might be struggling to get the means of survival. Making the poetry available online as we have reflects the local, national and global historical importance of the Cotton Famine, and people can use the site to find new perspectives on those events.”

In some ways, the Cotton Famine helped stimulate the emergence of working-class poetry, often written in dialect. Worker-writers such as Samuel Laycock, William Billington and Joseph Ramsbotton gained popularity for their Cotton Famine poems and went on to become household names in Lancashire. Perhaps the most famous poem to emerge from the Cotton Famine was Samuel Laycock’s Welcome Bonny Brid. It’s the song of a father to his newborn child, born into hard times:

“Tha’rt welcome, little bonny brid
But tha shouldn’t ha come just when tha did;
Toimes are bad.
We’re short o’pobbies for eawr Joe,
But that, of course, tha didn’t know,
Did ta, lad?”

The “brid” turned out to be a lass, not a lad – and married a local dialect writer, James Dronsfield. The full poem became enormously popular and was passed down through generations of cotton workers. Harry Pollitt, Droylsden-born leader of the Communist Party during the 1930s, frequently recited the poem at party events. He recalled having learnt the poem from his mother, a millworker.

Few of the poems written during the famine exude any sort of anger. The distress is seen to be caused by purely external events, though attitudes towards the American Civil War were far from uniform. The traditional myth – and it’s a heroic myth – was that the Lancashire workers largely supported the anti-slavery North. The reality, based on evidence from the time,
was that whilst some did, others were pro-South, with many being agnostic.

There was a lot of sympathy for the unemployed amongst Lancashire’s middle classes. The out of work spinner or weaver was seen as the deserving poor, in trouble through no fault of their own. Laycock’s poem God Bless ‘Em, It Shows They’n Some Thowt was an expression of thanks to middle-class men and women who were giving aid to the suffering workers:

“We’n gentlemen, ladies an’ o,
As busy i’th’country as owt,
Providin’ for th’ Lancashire poor;
God bless ‘em, it shows they’n some thowt!”

Many middle-class women helped with sewing classes to keep young women occupied. Another of his poems was Sewing Class Song.

Whilst Laycock’s “famine poetry” tends to be cheerful and uplifting, in contrast to some of his later, more radical, work, other writers took a less conciliatory tone. Joseph Ramsbottom, a dye worker, wrote some hard-hitting poems published in a small volume called Phases of Distress. Some of his poetry exposes the harsh conditions that many unemployed men had to cope with, including oakum-picking, a job usually reserved for prisoners or the feckless. Philip Clough’s Tale is the cry of a proud member of the labour aristocracy reduced to humiliating stone-picking:

“Aw hate this pooin’ oakum wark,
An’ breakin’ stones to get relief;
To be a pauper – pity’s mark –
Ull break an honest heart wi grief.
We’re mixt wi th’stondin paupers, too,
Ut winno wortch when work’s to be had;
Con this be reet for them to do,
To tak no thowt o’ good or bad?”

While the supply of American cotton dried up, some Lancashire spinners brought in additional raw cotton from India, which tended to be very poor quality – the notorious surat, castigated by many writers including Laycock. It features in an imaginative poem written anonymously (signed “An Operative”) and published in JT Staton’s radical local magazine Th’ Lankishire Loominary and dated “Bolton, September 1864”. The poem begins with the vibrant sounds of a spinning mill working
full tilt:

“Hum, whirl, click, clatter,
Rolling, rumbling, moving matter,
Whizzing, hissing, hitting, missing,
Pulsing, pulling, turning, twisting…”

But ends with a sense of exasperation:

“Steam, dust, flying, choking,
Stripping, grinding, brushing, joking;
Full time, short time, no time – so that
Enough’s in a mill with Surat!”

Some songs from the famine years were passed down through generations, often sung by children. In a history of the co-operative movement in Darwen published in 1910, the author, CJ Beckett, looks back on the Cotton Famine and remembers a song sung by his schoolmates coming home from class:

“We’re warkin’ lads fro’ Lancasheer,
An’ gradely decent fooak,
We’n hunted weyvin far an’ near,
An’ couldn’t ged a stroak.
We’n popt both table, clock an’ chear,
An’ sowd booath shoon an’ hat,
An’ borne wod mortal mon cud beear
Afoore we’d weyve Surat.”

While the myth of unflinching support for the anti-slavery cause has been over-played, a few poems seem to suggest a sympathy for black emancipation, including work by the Blackburn writer William Billington. In Aw Wod This War Wur Ended he appears to take a strong class-based position:

“Some factory maisters tokes for t’Sewath
Wi’ a smooth an’ oily tongue,
But iv they’d sense they’d shut their meawth,
Or sing another song;
Let liberty not slavery
Be fostered an’ extended –
Four million slaves mun yet be free,
An’ then t’war will be ended.”

But there’s a twist in the story – there is some doubt as to whether Billington added the final “political” stanza when the poem was first published in 1863, or when it was re-published in his Sheen and Shade collection in 1883.

The writings of Laycock, Billington, Ramsbotton and many more working-class men help us to understand the human responses to a cataclysmic event that devastated Lancashire’s economy and brought poverty to tens of thousands of households. The cotton industry revived once supplies restarted, but the memory of the dark days of the Cotton Panic lived on for generations. Arguably, the bitter memories of those years in the 1860s helped to fuel support for the socialist movement in Lancashire from the mid-1880s.

More details of the project, and access to the database of poems collected so far, can be found at cottonfaminepoetry.exeter.ac.uk. Paul Salveson is author of Lancashire’s Romantic Radical – the life and work of Allen Clake/Teddy Ashton (Little Northern Books, paulsalveson.org.uk). A free interactive workshop about the database takes place on 21 November as part of Manchester Literature Festival (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk). Big Issue North is media partner to MLF

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