Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 3: The Christmas Dinner

Welcome to the third day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here:

Today’s poem is taken from the advertisements published in the Ashton Standard on December 20th 1862. The commentary was written by Benedict Hughes, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.


   The Mansion House Committee have made a special grant of money for a dinner on Christmas Day to every unemployed factory operative and every member of a family at their homes throughout the whole of the distressed district.


Our fathers honoured Christmas time

   With good old English cheer,

And carol song, and merry chime,

   Fell gladly on the ear.


The ivy decked the cottage walls,

   And music did resound;

And in the squires’ more stately halls,

   The “wassail bowl” went round.


And tenants gathered round their lord-

   No stranger passed the road;

But from the groaning festive board

   Was charity bestowed.


And now, while famine, pale and cold,

   Ten thousand hearts oppress,

Like noble hearts and hands of old,

   There still are some to bless.


Long may each noble spirit live,

   To help the poor and sad;

Who vie to be the first to give,

   That Christmas may be glad.


And while the feasting multitude

   Sit round the festive board,

They’ll bless the generous and the good

   Who’ve Christmas joys restored.


And oft amid the grateful throng

   Will KILLORN’S dress appear;

And thus, mid plenty’s smile and song,

   Will come true Christmas cheer.



“The Christmas Dinner”, published in an advert for the tailoring firm Killorn and Co., is a remarkable poem; though sadly not due to the strength of its verse. The poem consists of seven four-line stanzas, which each conform to a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The poem’s metre is also exact: lines one and three of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter, whilst two and four are exclusively iambic trimeter. This combination of simple rhyme and simple metre give the poem a plodding, even arbitrary quality, which is not helped by the poet’s weak evocation of platitudinal Christmas values: “And tenants gathered round their lord- / … / But from the groaning festive board / Was charity bestowed.” (9-12). Indeed, we might conjecture that the poem speaks more of a tired clerical pen, than that of a poet.

However, the poem’s literary short comings pale into insignificance once the poem is situated in context. In a short head piece, we learn that the poem is in praise of the Mansion House Committee, one of the charitable funds aiding destitute cotton workers, which “made a special grant of money for a dinner on Christmas Day” for all unemployed factory staff and their families. For most of the poem up until the final verse, the poet eulogizes over the ways in which such acts of charity have “Christmas joys restored.” (24). However finally, in the last verse the iniquitous project of Killorn and Co. is revealed: “amid the grateful throng / Will KILLORN’S dress appear; / And thus… / Will come true Christmas cheer.” (25-8). We see here an ugly conflation of genuine charity and capitalist opportunism. The phrasing is particularly inappropriate: the appearance of Killorn and Co.’s clothing does not simply enhance but trumps charitable relief to bring “true Christmas cheer.” In a stunning piece of advertising expediency, the poet implies that it is Killorn and Co. rather than the good deeds of the Mansion House Committee which really puts people in a festive mood. Perhaps however, we should not be surprised by such a poetic sleight of hand, as it comes directly from a society which still actively endorsed child labour.

Benedict Hughes, University of Exeter. 

Victorian Christmas Card from V&A Museum, London.

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 2: Cowd Winter Is Comin’ Wonst Moor

Welcome to the second day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here:

Today’s poem is by ‘The Blackburn Poet’ William Billington, and was published in the local newspaper of nearby Accrington, The Accrington Guardian, on September 19th 1862.




It’s wearin’ tort t’ back end o’ t’ year,

   Un’t toimes duzend offer to mend,

Bud wossen o’ t’ two, un aw fear

   Meh warp’s welly woven to th’ end;

For aw’ve noather money nor meyt,

   Nor means to keep want fro meh door;

Thin clooas, un nought gradely to heyt —

   Un winter is coming wonst moor.


A werkin mon’s whoam is bud bare,

   Uv his werk or his health chance to fail,

For a koite cannud keep up i’ th’ air

   When id loyses id streng or id tail.

A twelvemon sin aw wur unshoped,

   Un we wor herd howden affoor;

But neaw, when o’ t’ bed clooas is pop’t,

   Cowd winter is comin’ wonst moor.


Meh hert jumps for jhoy uv a neet,

   When aw stur eawt or step ocross t’way

To see sich o’ childer i’ th’ street

   So full o’ thur frolics un play.

God bless ‘em! aw kno, they dornd kno’

   Heaw parents ur pincht un heaw poor;

Un id’s wee luz they downd do – for, oh!

    Cowd winter is comin’ wonst moor.


“God niver sends meawths witheawt meyt”

   A proverb us owd uz id’s true;

Un iv m[?]n oud’nd foe eawt un feyt,

   Hands un meawths ud hev plenty to do,

Id’s o’ lung o’ t’ Merrican war

   Ut cotton is kept frae eawr shore,

War want still keeps hippin’ uz nar,

   Un winter is comin’ wonst moor.


Ther’s chaps wod hez plenty o’ brass

   Con heyt, un see honest men clam;

Bud changes may yet come to pass —

   Their cake is’nd etten to th’ bem!

For Fortun’s a whirligig witch

   Wod sometimes will turn up the poor,

Un deawn into t’ dust wi’ the rich,

   Un mek em feel winter wonst moor.


Id’s nonsense to bother un fratch,

   Un blame me for singing this song;

For weyn o’ run eawr tether to t’ ratch,

   Or shall hev affoor id be long.

There’s theawsands beside me un yo,

    Wod wonst hed loife’s blessins in stoor,

Neaw shiverin’ loike sheep among snow,

   When winter is comin’ wonst moor.


O! t’ grave is a refuge o’ rest

   For us o’ when weyn finish loife’s race!

Bud id dants booath the bravest un best

   To reep i’ deeath’s terrible face;

So a let us keep potterin’ on,

   Un live tho’ wi loie upo’ t’ floor;

Let’s howd up wur yeds wal wi con

   Un face this cowd winter wonst moor.



While not exactly a Christmas poem, Billington’s ‘Cowd Winter Is Coming Wonst Moor’ is a reminder that, for some people, the end of the year is to be dreaded rather than eagerly anticipated. The poet explains how the hardships of poverty – hunger and the lack of fuel and warm clothing –were compounded by the harshness of the winter weather. The Cotton Famine is directly referenced in the fourth stanza, but Billington notes that any circumstance that causes a working man to lose his employment could be disastrous, whether that be that a trade downturn or a failure of health.

The use of dialect and metaphors relating to the cotton industry (“Meh warp’s welly woven to th’end”) suggest the poet’s authenticity as a voice of the working man, and indeed Billington had worked in Blackburn’s cotton factories. Professor Paul Salveson, in his thesis on Lancashire dialect literature, sees the poem as a rallying cry to the working classes to find comfort in their unity as the winter threatens to worsen the crisis. However, Salveson also points to the strong sense of social injustice in Billington’s Cotton Famine Poetry, and there is also a sense of real anger towards those who ‘hez plenty o’ brass’ but do not help the poor. The fifth stanza is almost threatening towards the miserly rich as it imagines a world turned upside down, in which they too suffer the vagaries of fortune and are brought low, made like the poor to ‘feel winter wonst moor’.  Therefore, though the poem ends with the stoicism and determination characteristic of much Cotton Famine Poetry, this was not a poem that encouraged quiet forbearance among the working classes as the best route to obtaining relief.

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 1: Christmas is Coming!

Welcome to our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’ll feature a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here:

Since the Cotton Famine brought misery to thousands of Lancashire folk, it might seem odd that it produced so many poems at Christmas, a time we tend to associate with joy (and, these days at least, plentiful consumption!) However, we only need to think of that most loved of Christmas stories, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to remember that Christmas has also long been a time of charity and love. Cotton Famine Poetry highlighted religious and moral obligations upon the wealthy to help those in need during the festive season, which after all also coincided with the darkest, coldest months during which poverty could be hardest to bear.

Today’s poem is appropriately titled ‘Christmas is Coming’, by ‘M.I.H.’. It was published in the Ormskirk Advertiser on December 15th, 1864. The poem is accompanied by a commentary written by Charlotte Harris, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. The poem, along with Charlotte’s commentary and a reading by Jennifer Reid, will be added to the poetry database in 2019.





Christmas is coming! But not as of yore:

Changed is the aspect that once it wore,

Dimmed is the lustre of heart and eye,

Silent is the lone hearth’s melody.


Hushed is the music sweet voices made,

Still is the room where the children played,

All joyous and glad, round the Christmas tree,

Filling each heart with their mirthful glee.


Vacant the places around the board,

Absent the guests when the wine is poured,

While the yule log around sheds its ruddy glare

To show that our loved ones no more are there.


Christmas is coming! with memories dear,

To hang round the couch of the dying year;

They linger around us, and will not sever,

But, like ivy, cling to the heart for ever.


Christmas is coming! but one star yet

Still shines o’er our path – ‘twill never set, –

‘Tis Bethlehem’s Star, whose radiant gleam

Illuminated the lonely shepherd’s dream.


It points our eye to our home above

An unbroken circle of light and love,

Where reunited friends never sever,

But dwell in that land of bliss for ever.



This festive poem is written in six quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme of rhyming couplets. The line lengths vary between nine and ten syllables.

The poem recounts the particular sadness that Christmas brings when you are grieving or when remembering those you have lost. The sense of change appears to refer to the circumstances of the Cotton Famine. The poem uses traditional Christmas imagery (e.g. ‘Christmas Tree’, ‘yule log’, ‘ivy’ and ‘star’) but in a less traditionally positive way to highlight what has been lost. The personification of the yule log shows that the paraphernalia of Christmas takes the place of those who were once there. The repetition of the titular line ‘Christmas is coming!’ as the opening line of three stanzas within the poem gives a sense of urgency, and highlights that festivities, and life more generally, cannot be put on hold by loss. This is reinforced by the use of the exclamation mark and emphasised by its increasing frequency in the second half of the poem.

The poem ends on a hopeful and peaceful note. Regardless of circumstance, Christmas is a time to celebrate those you love, both with you at home, and in ‘our home above’.

Charlotte Harris, University of Exeter

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on




Cotton Famine Poetry in the Spotlight

As you may have noticed, we’ve been enjoying a huge amount of media attention since our database launched two weeks ago! It’s been fantastic for us to share the poetry with new audiences and to hear from so many people who are as interested in Lancashire’s history and culture as we are. People from all over the world have visited our website, and the database has been used by literally thousands of people in the past two weeks. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from us and that the word continues to spread!

Below are links to the media coverage we’ve had:

David Collins in The Sunday Times, 5th August 2018 requires registration or subscription to read)

Simon talks to Mark Sweeney at BBC Radio Manchester, 6th August 2018 (from approx. 1.46.48)

Alison Flood in The Guardian, 9th August 2018

Simon talks to Mark Mardell on BBC Radio 4’s the World at One, 9th August 2018 (from approx. 40.00)

Simon talks to  Rony Robinson at BBC Radio Sheffield, 9th August 2018 (from approx. 1.09.00)

Simon talks to Paul Ross at TalkRadio, 13th August 2018 (from approx. 4.33am)

Brigit Katz in the Smithsonian, 13th August 2018

Please do keep checking back on the database, as we’ll be adding more content in due course. We’re also planning more events to get the word out and will advertise these once they are confirmed. We are very pleased to say that we are working with the marvellous Manchester Literature Festival on two very exciting events on 21st November this year, including a very special performance by our musical partners Faustus. Please see below for more information and to book tickets – we recommend booking early to avoid disappointment as we do expect these to fill up fast!

Manchester Literature Festival –  Finding the Poetry of the Cotton Famine (workshop)

Manchester Literature Festival – Faustus: Cotton Famine Poems (performance)

The Database is Launched!

On Tuesday night – July 31st – we held the official ‘soft’ launch of the database at the beautiful Portico Library right in the centre of Manchester. This was the day that saw the culmination of more than three years of planning, when the first one hundred Cotton Famine poems were made freely available to the public and scholars alike, complete with images, audio recordings, and text commentary for most of the pieces. So now, if you explore the bar at the top of this page, you can read texts (and read about texts, and listen to them) which have been effectively inaccessible for over one hundred and fifty years, gathered together for the first time.

The launch event was an absolute sell-out, with the free tickets being refused to callers who could no longer access them through Eventbrite for a couple of days before the event. Extra chairs had to be brought in and over a hundred people packed into the small central space beneath the classical dome of the library to hear myself, Dr Ruth Mather, and Jennifer Reid introduce, discuss, and perform the poetry which was such a vital part of the culture of this region during the darkest days of the industrial revolution. We were able demonstrate the database live and show how even this arbitrary selection of the hundreds of texts we already hold shows the cluster of publication through the worst Cotton Famine months of late-1862 / early-1863.

It was a shame that Professor Brian Maidment, who has been so central to this project as Co-Investigator, could not attend, but he had an unavoidable clash with a conference in Canada for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, of which he is president. This felt like the beginning of something which is expanding in various directions. Not only do we have hundreds more texts to add to the database, and hundreds more still to find in archives across the region, but the literary and historical implications of the body of work are now starting to become clearer. On the evening Ruth and I were approached by several people who had ideas and information which will take quite a lot of following up, and we are thrilled that so many people are as enthusiastic as we are about recovering the region’s real poetic heritage. Watch this space for updates on where Cotton Famine poetry is taking us. And of course, you can explore the world of Cotton Famine poetry yourself now. Do remember, this is an evolving resource with a growing cohort of contributors. If you have any corrections, comments, or suggestions, do not hesitate to message us through this site, or email myself at, or Ruth at

We would like to thank Jennifer Reid for her amazing performance on the night, by turns funny and spine-tingling. We would also very much like to thank the Digital Humanities team at the University of Exeter for getting the site ready for the launch date, and the staff at the Portico Library for enabling the event to be such a resounding success.


Looking Forward to the Launch of the ‘First 100’

Over the last few weeks Professor Brian Maidment, Dr Ruth Mather, and I have been busy recording readings of the first 100 Lancashire Cotton Famine poems which are going to be made available to the public in mid-July (keep an eye/ear open for news of a major launch event at Manchester’s beautiful Portico Library on July 31st). This is a relatively small proportion of the total poetry haul we have amassed, and there are still many more to be discovered. However, working with this 100 we have been deeply struck by the formal, tonal, and thematic variety represented by the selection. There are domestic poems in heavy dialect, ‘state of the nation’ texts which have high literary ambition, comic verses which satirise particular elements of society, parodies, diatribes, laments…

But as well as the differences, we have also noticed the patterns which are beginning to emerge as this body of work is being collated and interpreted. The repetition of character types, certain literary phrases, or even poetic rhythms are not evidence of artistic laziness or lack of imagination, but of a vibrant literary culture which is aware of itself and capable of trading ideas for mutual benefit. What we are in fact coming to appreciate is that many of these texts, the vast majority published in newspapers in one geographic region over a few years from 1861 to 1865, are talking to each other. As we hoped when we first began this project in May 2017, we are beginning to reveal a previously unheard commentary on one of the most devastating economic disasters to occur in Victorian Britain.

As for our voices – Brian, Ruth, and me – we hope you will forgive our indulgencies when you come to hear the soundfiles which will accompany the launch of the First 100. We make no particular claims to accuracy, performance quality, or ‘authenticity’. We merely wish to present these poems both as written texts and as oral events, which many if not all were intended to be. We will be happy if in the future people are willing to offer alternative readings. The Lancashire dialect pieces in particular are fiendishly difficult to recite, and we are aware that pronunciation of many terms may be contentious. Nevertheless, we feel that this has been an important exercise, not least because an important part of this project has been to bring alive a significant element of Lancashire cultural history which has lain relatively dormant for over 150 years. The exercise has also been challenging, illuminating, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Dr Simon Rennie


‘The Lancashire Factory Girl’ – Exclusive New Faustus Track!

‘The Lancashire Factory Girl’ by Faustus

Well, as promised, here is another exclusve track from Faustus setting to music original poetry discovered during our research. The poem it comes from was published in the Preston Chronicle in the winter of 1862-63 (29/11/1862) – the harshest season in terms of social and economic hardship during the whole of the Cotton Famine. This is an important context – during this period half of the population of Preston was receiving official Famine relief.

The poem relates, in traditional ballad meter, the story of a young woman made unemployed by the factory closures being forced to sell her possessions one by one in order simply to survive. The way the poem is framed each of these possessions represents a gift from members of her family who have all succumbed to the famine. By the end of the text the young woman notes that she has at least retained her ‘reputation’ or ‘virtue’.

Poems such as these, while following the Victorian fashion for sentimental narratives, clearly serve the purpose of raising the consciousness of readers as to the true cost of the economic deprivation on poor families in the region. There is an implicit appeal for charity, for aid, and really just for work. For us, one hundred and fifty years later, the work functions as a unique window on not just the kinds of actions and behaviours which resulted from the crisis, but on how these were described to people within the region.

As with the previous track, we cannot thank Faustus enough for the work they have done bringing this wonderful text to life. That the author of this poem – ‘H. M.’ as they sign themselves – is actually the factory girl in question, is unlikely, but I was very moved by this piece when I first found it over a year ago. Listening to Faustus’s beautiful rendition brought all of these emotions back and I think this is an extraordinary collaboration between a long-dead anonymous Victorian poet and a phenomenally talented group of musicians.

Dr Simon Rennie

‘Cotton Lords’ – New Faustus Track!

We are delighted to release a brand new track from our musical partners in the Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry project, Faustus. The group have been working on setting some of the texts we have recovered and have produced a fantastic arrangement of this fascinating piece, ‘Cotton Lords’.

The poem was discovered in Blackburn Central Library and was originally published in the Blackburn Times on July 2nd 1864. Actually ‘published’ is not the whole story because the piece appeared in an editorial comment about the kind of poetry that the editors would not publish. In a very real sense, this is the one that got away. It has often been noted that there is not as much anger in Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry as one might expect, and this example perhaps suggests that there was angry poetry written, but it just didn’t get published.

The poem is intensely political and demands that the industrialists who have made money from the workers in the past have a responsibility to feed those workers when work dries up. The line ‘food’s conducive to their health’ is wonderfully sarcastic and a great example of poetic understatement (‘litotes’, to get technical). The last stanza is particularly interesting in terms of fears about female morality in the face of economic deprivation. The poem was original titled ‘Food or Work’ but we agree with Faustus that ‘Cotton Lords’ works better as a song title.


Cotton lords! Lords of creation,

Feed the slaves which made your wealth;

Is not this a Christian nation?

Food’s conducive to their health.


Tho’ you shut your factory gates,

Sell your cotton, stop each loom;

Tho’ war is raging in the States,

The cotton tree twice yearly bloom.


The time will come when you’ll be buying

Cotton for to work each slave;

Food or work for they are dying,

Save them from an early grave.


Save the English maiden’s beauty,

Keep them from immoral crime;

Those that has, it is their duty,

For to help at such a time.

There will be more exclusive tracks from Faustus on this site in the future so keep an eye (ear) out for that. But for now sit back and listen to Lancastrian anger transmitted across the centuries via Britain’s premier traditional music trio.

Dr Simon Rennie





Back To School (Kind of!)

This Monday we had another exciting project event – our first meeting with schoolteachers from across Lancashire, who we hope will get involved with their students in finding Cotton Famine Poetry.
We were very lucky to be able to hold this event at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, thanks to the museum’s helpful staff and to Jessica Forshaw of Lancashire County Council’s Heritage Learning team, who facilitated the event. Jessica gave us a fascinating whistle-stop tour of the museum’s collections at the start of the event, taking us on a journey through the history of cotton production in Lancashire. This was really helpful for us, as it situated the Cotton Famine and the people it affected in a much broader historical context.
Brian, Simon, and I introduced the project, explaining what Cotton Famine Poetry is and how we find it. This lead to very productive discussion with the teachers, as well as Jessica and a representative of Lancashire Libraries who kindly assisted with library-related queries. We were absolutely thrilled with the level of enthusiasm about the project, and gained some really useful insights into how we can help teachers to get involved. It was a really fun event, and will hopefully lead to some of Lancashire’s school students playing a really vital role in uncovering poetry in their own local area.

Simon presents some of the poetry we’ve found.

If you work in a school in Lancashire or Greater Manchester and would like to get involved, please do get in touch with us. We are also always happy to hear from groups that would like us to do an event in their area.
If you don’t already, please also follow our social media channels for regular updates – sometimes with poems!
Dr Ruth Mather.

Project Launch

We’re officially launched!

Last weekend, we were delighted to be able to tell members of the public (who braved the miserable weather to join us at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford) about the project and to treat them to a fantastic performance by our project partner Jennifer Reid.

Simon started proceedings with an outline of the project, explaining the historical background as well as how he first encountered the poetry of the Cotton Famine thanks to BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.  He also gave us a couple of brief readings, including Williffe Cunliam’s fantastic ‘Settlin’ Th’ War’, a fabulous satirical poem in dialect, which mocks the Burnley locals who stood around discussing the state of affairs in America wishing they’d “hurry up, un settle th’ war.” It’s a great poem to highlight the way that the Cotton Famine was a local crisis caused by global events, since Cunliam shows how well-versed Lancastrian people were in the news from America, and situates them in a very local place (Nuttall’s Corner) as they comment on issues over which they had little control. Williffe Cunliam is also a previously uncelebrated (perhaps unknown?) poet, but Simon has been able to trace a William Cunliffe in Burnley who may well fit the bill of our pseudonymous author. This is one of the really exciting elements of the project – the potential to discover poems and poets who deserve much greater recognition and to bring them to wider public attention.

After Simon had finished up with a summary of our planned collaboration with Lancashire schools, I took over to offer more detail on the process of finding the poems and preparing them for publication on our database. I demonstrated some of the difficulties we encounter, particularly where the quality of microfilm images or of the original newspapers themselves makes reading difficult or even impossible. Though the archivists and librarians who look after the newspaper collections we use work hard to preserve them, some damage has occurred before the items were archived, and both newspaper and microfilm necessarily degrade over time. We hope that by making as much of the poetry as possible available – as fragments if necessary – we can help to ensure that they continue to survive in spite of this, and remain accessible for as many people as possible. I finished my talk by explaining the process of transcription and text markup that we use to prepare the poems for digitisation, which also helps us to analyse the poems and highlight their particular features.

After a quick break for brews and biscuits, we resumed with performances of the poems by ‘the pre-eminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region’, Jennifer Reid. Jennifer really brings the poems to life with lively renditions that really demonstrate the way dialect poets animated different characters and found humour even in bleak situations. In the days before TV or radio, these kind of performed poems and songs would have provided much-needed entertainment in working-class communities, and transferred a knowledge of poetry beyond those who were literate to their family and friends, so we love being able to recreate this performative aspect. Jennifer is also a mine of knowledge on Lancashire dialect and ballad traditions, with a vast repertoire of local songs at her disposal – if you do get chance to see her perform, we highly recommend you go along!

We’d like to offer huge thanks to the Working Class Movement Library for hosting us and for providing refreshments, as well as to everyone who came along and took such interest in the project. We hope to do many more events over the coming months, so please do get in touch if you are interested in hosting a talk about the project. For news on upcoming events, please follow us on social media (links below) or drop us a line to be added to our forthcoming email list.

Dr Ruth Mather