29th November 1862. Cotton Famine.

The 1851 census stated that about half a million were employed in cotton calico manufacturing, printing and dyeing.

However overproduction, falling demand and a cotton famine in the 1860.s due to the American Civil War, was to cause widespread famine in Lancashire where the once prosperous workers were reduced to penury. Many emigrated to Australia or moved across the Pennines to the Yorkshire woollen industry.

Below The Illustrated London News dated Today 1862 shows unemployed cotton workers selecting clothes and footwear which had been donated. The working men of Darwen, it was reported were to be seen wearing hunting coats and riding boots, the acquired attire of the ‘toffs’.

The plight was demonstrated by a letter to the Times on April 23rd 1862 by Charles Tiplady a Member of the Blackburn Relief Committee and headed ‘Distress in Lancashire’ which stated that though the Government had sent £1,000 via the late Sir Robert Peel the hand-loom workers put their woes down to the use of steam power-looms.

1862 queuing for food and coal tickets from Provident Society Office.

1862 queuing for food and coal tickets from Provident Society Office.

The American civil-war had divided the nation, on the issue of slavery, into the northern Union states and the southern, cotton producing Confederate states, whose exports were blockaded by the North.

Manchester and the cotton towns such as Blackburn, Preston and Leigh however, even though suffering dire poverty and relying on poor relief, with the mills closed as a result of the cotton famine, refused to compromise and stood firm.

At the end of December 1862 workers attending a meeting at The Free Trade Hall, Manchester in support of the Union, even sent a letter of support to ‘His Excellency’ Abraham Lincoln.(1)

However many mill-owners and workers were resentful of the Union blockade, seeing the war as one of Tariffs against Free Trade, with attempts to ‘run the blockade’ from Liverpool and London; soon 70 thousand bales were reaching Liverpool and many a Confederate flag was to be seen in some areas.

However there was conflict when in 1862/3 with 7,000 unemployed there were riots at Staleybridge over the allocation of vouchers instead of money for relief, resulting in the Hussars being sent from Manchester and the reading of the Riot Act.

By 1863 there was a trickle of raw cotton coming in, to be swallowed-up by Manchester, but next year the first large consignment arrived at Wooley Bridge in Glossop, the price of which had risen in four years from 6 ½d to 27 ½d. [old money].

A Punch cartoon by John Tenniel (10th October 1863) pictures Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston steering the British ship of state between the perils of Scylla (craggy rock of grim-faced Union leader Abraham Lincoln), and Charybdis, a whirlpool foaming and frothy showing a likeness of Confederate,Jefferson Davis. A shield emblazoned ‘Neutral’ hangs on the Ship’s thwarts.

(1) They received a message from Lincoln, whose statue stands in Manchester’s main square.


Watt J 1866. Facts of the Famine. Manchester.





About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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