UK Heritage

Lancashire and the American Civil War

Adapted by Greg Bayne from the Len Ellison lecture to the ACWRTUK, January 2010.

 

In the early 1860's, the Lancashire cotton industry, which dominated the mid-19th century British economy, was devastated by a political event beyond its control, the Civil War in the United States of America. In April 1861, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Confederate southern ports, the outlet for the raw cotton on which Lancashire's mills depended. Attempts to find alternative sources of supply from India or Egypt had little success. The short stapled Surat cotton proved no substitute for the medium stapled American variety. Deprived of essential raw material, spinning mills and weaving sheds closed down or resorted to short time working. Unemployment mounted rapidly.


Simple historical narratives, however inspiring, often conceal a more complex reality. Economic historians like W. O. Henderson, Eugene Brady and Douglas Farnie, have shown what a contemporary economist, W. T. M. Torrens hinted; that with or without the American Civil War, the Lancashire cotton industry would have suffered a depression in the early 1860's due to massive over production and speculation in the late 1850s.

 

There were considerable stocks of raw cotton in Lancashire during the Civil War, but these were held in warehouses by merchants waiting for a further rise in prices or exporting to overseas markets like New York where a more favourable price could be obtained. Nor was liberal, free trade Lancashire wholly supportive of the Federal cause. As Mary Ellison pointed out, Lancashire men suspected the centralising ambitions of Lincoln which would diminish the political freedom of the southern states of America.

 

The Federal blockade of southern ports was seen as an unwarranted interference with the freedom of trade. There was pressure on the British government to demand its lifting, by force if necessary. On the day of the Prince of Wales' marriage to the Danish princess, Alexandra, cotton mills in some Lancashire towns hoisted the Confederate flag in tribute. Lancashire's liberalism had its limits.

 

As for the working population, their suffering was undoubted, but their peaceable conduct was not unbroken. There was resentment at the controlled, minimalist nature of charitable relief; at the fact that more generous donations appeared to come from outside Lancashire than from its wealthy cotton masters, (President Lincoln sent aid via the ship George Griswold) and at the Poor Law system which set degrading work tasks for those who applied for relief, making no distinction between respectable unemployed and drunken ne'er do well.

 

The cotton industry had developed in Lancashire because it need vast amounts of water to power the water wheels and transport the cotton and finished products. Lancashire had abundant supply of rivers feeding from the hills of the Pennines.

 

The machinery required to spin the cotton was vast and lead to the development of steam engines, line shafts systems in the late 1700, which were copied by most manufacturers of the day. Most manufacturing apart from shipbuilding was produced in small factories; the cotton industry built tall, large mills which were required to house the machines. As the industry developed, the need for employee protection arose and the First Factories Act of 1819 was written specifically to cover cotton mills.

 

Child labour was used in the mills, and the factory system led to organised labour. Poor conditions in cotton mills became the subject of exposes and the Factory Acts of 1833 were written to regulate them:-

 

No child workers under nine years of age

Employers to have an age certificate for their child workers

Children of 9-13 years to work no more than nine hours a day

Children of 13-18 years to work no more than 12 hours a day

Children not to work at night

Two hours schooling each day for children

Four factory inspectors appointed to enforce the law.

 

The rates of pay were the highest in British industry. In 1800 spinners were paid 11s a week. However by 1863 this had reduced to 4s 11d.

 

To transport the finished goods a vast canal system developed, which was later used by many industries. Also the cotton industry accelerated the development of the railway system in the North West.

 

International Cotton was traded from the floor of the cotton exchange in Liverpool and Manchester which turned both towns into vast cities. The Liverpool cotton exchange is still the Headquarters of the International Cotton Association.

 

The cotton mill system was transported over to New England, India and China and of course this lead to the demise on the cotton industry in England.

 

Around the world in the mid 19th century most cotton production was produced in small factories or in peoples home. Lancashire built large cotton mills and there where over 2000 by 1860.

 

The American Civil War was a crucial event in the history of the Lancashire cotton industry. The blockade of the southern ports by the Union Navy cut off the supply of raw cotton on which Lancashire's mills depended.

 

The crisis reached its peak in 1862/3. There were mill closures; short- time working and mass unemployment resulted. Originally most of the UK was of the opinion that the people of Lancashire supported the Union in the American Civil War because of the extreme deprivation in Lancashire. Mary Ellison demolished this myth in her book Support for Secession

 

Richard Cobden and John Bright

click image to zoom

This myth was created by the misconceptions of Richard Cobdenright and John Brightleft who were mistakenly regarded as unique spokespersons for Lancashire cotton industry. Both became famous when they worked closely on the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and as this centred on Manchester they became well known in the North West of England.

 

John Bright was born in Rochdale in 1811. His father had a Cotton Spinning business so he was very interested in the cotton industry from an early age. He was a Quaker, and became MP for Durham, and then because of his anti-war stance he lost his seat and later became the MP for Manchester and Birmingham.

 

Richard Cobden was born in West Sussex in 1804 into extreme poverty in early life. He started a company in London selling calico prints, and he made enough money and then went up to Manchester and formed a company, he became MP for Stockport which he also lost because he would not support the Government during the Crimean War. He later became MP for Bury. However the view of both of these MP's was not shared by the rest of the Lancashire MPs: 13 supported the South, 4 the North while 5 had no opinion.

 

By November 1862, 70% of the labour force, 312,200 out of 446,000 men and women were idle. Many operatives, their savings exhausted, were forced to apply for charitable handouts or for relief from the despised poor law system (The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 allowed parishes to form unions, which would be jointly responsible for the administration and funding of Poor Law in their area.)

 

Such hardships, however, they endured calmly because they believed in the noble cause for which Lincoln was fighting, the freeing of the slaves of the southern plantation owners. From its peak in 1862/3, unemployment fell, but not until the end of the war, in April 1865, was normal working resumed. The cotton industry never regained the dominance it had once held in the British economy.

 

Although the cotton operatives had been calm up to now, in March 1863 several meetings were held. Serious riots broke out in the towns of Stalybridge, Ashton and Dukinfield, triggered by an attempt to reduce scales of relief and impose harsher conditions on recipients of it. This spread panic amongst the local magistracy who feared a return to the Chartist disturbances of the 1840s. "To riot or to rot" appeared to be the gloomy forecast of the future of Lancashire's demoralised cotton workers.

 

In response the Government passed a Public Works Act in 1863 which provided money for local authorities to fund schemes of urban improvement which would provide paid work for the unemployed. This kneejerk legislation proved to be too little and too late. By the time it was implemented, unemployment and relief rolls were falling. Town councils eagerly accepted the opportunity to improve their towns, and several Alexandra Parks were laid out in honour of the new Princess of Wales.

 

Rochdale built the Cotton Famine Road with money from the Public Works act 1863. This road still exist today over the Pennines

 

Recent histories have changed the interpretation of events. Industrial depression would have resulted despite the American Civil War due to excessive production and speculation in the late 1850s. Stocks of raw cotton remained in Lancashire throughout the period but were held in warehouses by merchants gambling on a further rise in prices. Lancashire was not wholly sympathetic to the cause of the Northern states, even demanding British government action to break the blockade. Cotton operatives did not suffer in silence to free the Southern plantation slave.