Sublime Heroism

How Lancashire mill workers stood proudly against slavery despite personal hardship and earned the gratitude of a famous American president
Words: Jonas Holdsworth,
Photographs: Joe Nash

Lancashire is a county whose wealth was built on cotton. The mills were the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and their product, cloth, relied on imports of bales of cotton through the port of Liverpool. By the mid-point of the 19th century the manufacture of cotton goods had made Lancashire mill owners wealthy and Manchester was busily gaining the soubriquet ‘Cottonopolis’. But, as the boom years of the 1850s came to and end, Lancastrians began to wonder if big trouble might be in store for their core industry.

In America, the great centre of cotton production, civil war was looming… In 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free and turning a war which had been about the southerners ‘rebelling’ into one over the issue of slavery. After this Britain’s sympathies were with the Northern states. We had endured a long controversy over the issue of slavery and had finally ended this inhuman system in 1833. There was no chance the British government was going to start supporting it now!

The sudden dearth of cotton – the Cotton Famine as it became known – came as a massive blow in Lancashire.

…Within months Lancashire had some of the most impoverished towns in England.

There were those in the county who questioned our support for the Northern states in the US civil war, as it was their blockade which was doing so much damage here. But overall the sympathies of the mill workers stayed loyally behind the cause of the slaves. After all, the anti-slavery movement had a long history in Lancashire, dating back to the days when Britain was one of the leading countries in the international slave trade.

In 1788 the first petition of Manchester folk demanding an end to the slave trade had been presented to Parliament. By 1792 Manchester had produced 20,000 signatures out of a total population of 75,000 people. Even after Britain had stopped her own role in the slave trade ordinary working folk still gave their support to the cause of freeing those slaves who still existed around the world. After all, if you worked long hours in difficult conditions in a Lancashire textile mill to earn enough money to keep your family fed and clothed, the thought that in other parts of the world slaves were picking cotton (or sugar cane or tobacco) for no wages at all was enough to inspire your ardent sympathy.

 

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The suffering caused by the Cotton Famine could be overcome in those towns whose mills specialised in working with long-fibre cotton from Egypt. Those reliant on short-fibre American cotton, however, had to fall back on the schemes dreamt up by relief committees who initially organised soup kitchens for the poor and needy. By 1864 the situation had become so desperate in parts of Lancashire that Parliament passed a new law, the Public Works Act, which authorised local authorities to borrow money to employ men in creating facilities for the community. This enlightened move has created monuments which still endure to this day. One remarkable example is beautiful Alexandra Park in Oldham. The labourers who created it were made unemployed by the Cotton Famine, and the fruits of their toils are still enjoyed by Oldhamers to this day.

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But perhaps the most remarkable of all the public works still surviving form the job-creation schemes of the Cotton Famine era is the unique Cotton Famine Road near Rochdale.

During 1863 Rochdale recorded 19,374 workers receiving – outdoor relief – in other words relying on charity. The project which gave many of them work was the ambitious transformation of a moorland path, more than 1,500 ft above sea level, into a surfaced road with robust stone setts making it capable of withstanding traffic and weather for centuries to come. The Cotton Famine Road is now used by walkers and cyclists, most of whom are unaware of its origins in the 1860s when civil war in America brought the local cotton mills of Lancashire to a standstill. Incidentally, it is sobering to think that such a remarkable part of our Lancastrian heritage lies under threat from quarrying. Let us hope that the Cotton Famine Road remains with us for future generations to discover…

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The slaves of America might never have been freed had countries like Britain selfishly sided with the southern Confederates. We wisely sided with the Northerners in the US Civil War. How could we do otherwise? After all Lancashire folk had been protesting about slavery for decades and even the Cotton Famine did not make them abandon what was right. Lancashire folk have always been resilient, charitable, generous and stubbornly opposed to oppression and injustice. Abraham Lincoln described these qualities in poetic terms: ‘sublime heroism’.

Excerpted from the article in: The Lancashire Magazine, Jan. 2013

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