Monthly Archives: August 2017

Searching for Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry

Searching for Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry, like any research based around identification, collation, and interpretation, is in equal measures exhausting and thrilling. Most examples of this kind of poetry are held in local newspaper archives, and because they were largely written by ordinary people in response to a particular historical event (these poems are, in this sense, ‘occasional’) they have remained ‘hidden’ there since they were published. The archives are kept for the most part in local libraries, and in most cases they are preserved on microfilm. For the researcher this means a seemingly endless parade of microfilm readers of varying quality and functionality which range from the relatively high-tech all-singing all-dancing flavour, to the kind of machine which would look comfortable in a 1970s episode of Dr Who. It also means the development of a dab hand at wheeling the film back and forth, either electronically or manually, depending on the reader. Of course, we are lucky that we are searching for poetry, which looks very different on the page from prose (surely one working definition of poetry) and so stands out from the millions of surrounding words in the newsprint. We are also lucky that many Victorian newspapers preferred to publish their poems in the same place on the page week in week out.

Legibility is an issue. We should be thankful that local authorities have funded the copying of rapidly decaying local historical newspapers and that we have these images, but the quality of reproduction is not always of the highest. Smudges, paper curls, folds, and slanted images are our sworn enemies, and sometimes we must battle these with our knowledge of Victorian diction and rhyme in order to fill in the gaps. And we should always remember that often, this is all we have. There are two myths which should be dispelled. The first is that this kind of material is being rapidly digitised by some benevolent literary body with endless financial and human resources, and the second is that the British Library holds copies of everything that was ever published. Neither of these are true and hence the preservation aspect of our work is particularly important. Every time one of these poems is converted into a digital file through Optical Character Recognition, or in the case of our illegibly smudged little friends, actually transcribed by hand into a digital text, I breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course, the pay-off for all this work is the kind of text I have provided an example of above, which was discovered by Francesca Howard, an intern who worked on this project early on. This piece was published in the Blackburn Standard on October 15th 1862 and explicitly comments on the ongoing American Civil war and calls for its immediate end, identifying it as the direct cause of the ‘distress’ in Lancashire, as well as its bloodshed and horrors. Its condemnation of ‘fratricide’ is strikingly even-handed, and there is no sense here of partisan support for the anti-slavery cause of the Union to which British workers were traditionally thought to be sympathetic. The poem is clearly pacifist in a religious manner, but the sixth stanza is striking in its outrage that the globalised trade in cotton has been interrupted by war. Tantalisingly for me, ‘J. R.’ could be the great Mancunian dialect poet and journalist of the time, Joseph Ramsbottom, but until we find the text in some kind of corroborating context, this is just speculation.

The next blog entry will detail some of the partners of the project who are helping us to bring these texts alive again in various ways. We are grateful to all of these individuals and institutions, but for the moment I will just leave you with links to the websites of two of the musical partners to the project, who will be working to set some of the texts to music, for live and recorded performance. More details will be forthcoming…



Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter


More Blackburn Times

Last week, I returned to Blackburn Central Library to finish scouring the Blackburn Times for Cotton Famine poetry. As Simon mentioned in his post, our previous Blackburn visit was very productive, and my return visit didn’t disappoint. I am now in the process of going through more than 50 printouts from the Blackburn Times microfilm, exploring the various themes and transcribing the poems that haven’t printed very legibly. Transcribing can be a tricky task, given the small print size, and we are hoping that computer software will be able to do some of this work for us, but it is proving very useful in prompting me to look in depth at the poetry we’ve collected.

I started looking at the paper from the beginning of 1861. Though this was prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, it revealed some of the difficulties that the cotton trade was already experiencing before the blockade of southern American ports stopped the supply of raw cotton. For example, a poem called ‘Those Who Have Money and Those Who Have Not’ contrasted the life experiences of rich and poor, highlighting the potential rifts between the working classes and their wealthier employers, while William Billington’s ‘Let Us Labor One and All’ was published in the context of strikes over pay reductions in Blackburn in early 1861. These poems suggest that all was not rosy between employers and employed prior to the severe shortages which followed.

The contrast between rich and poor remained a theme throughout 1861, with a poem by John Baron entitled ‘A Lay For the Poor’, published on November 2nd, railing at the injustice that ‘Those who live on the fruits of our toil’ managing comfortably while working people struggled. William Billington’s ‘The Cry of the Crowd’ (published May 10th, 1862) likewise wondered how workers who had brought their employers such wealth could be ‘cast aside as useless things’. Other poems were, however, rather less politicised. Some were passive, even despairing, in tone, such as W.A. Abram’s ‘Aspiration’ (November 1st, 1862), which expressed the ­­­narrator’s fear that death would arrive before the better days which workers hoped for.

One of the themes that has really stood out for me is the representation of home and family in the poems. This may be because my previous research looked at home, gender, and politics, but I couldn’t help but notice how frequently the poems referenced wives and babies in particular. Women and children were positioned as dependents, with the men as the primary workers, although one of the poems, entitled ‘The Lancashire Famine: A Contrast’ (January 17th, 1863), acknowledged that men and women, old and young, were all employed in the mills prior to the crisis. For the most part, though, the poems present men as the providers, troubled less for themselves than for their ‘weeping wives / And helpless offspring’, as David Little’s ‘The Voice of Want’ (August 16th, 1862) put it. Another recurrent image in the poems is the pawning of treasured household items, often those intimately related to family life or which suggest the respectability of the family. Items mentioned include Bibles, clocks, and a portrait of the narrator’s late mother, with items sometimes specifically described as marriage gifts. Hearths and beds, which symbolise both warmth and family life (as the heart of the home, and the marital bed), are also frequently referenced. One of the few dialect poems I’ve come across so far is by W.A. Abram, entitled ‘The Beddin’s Goan’ (November 29th, 1862), and narrated by a wife and mother who explains to her husband that the bedding needed to be pawned to pay rent, leaving the family without warmth and comfort as winter approaches. Although this is not dwelt upon in the poem, the landlord’s insistence that he ‘mut hev his brass’ again hints at class conflict, with a property owner refusing to take account of the crisis in which his impoverished tenants found themselves.

A final theme worth noting is that of the American Civil War, which is conspicuous by its absence from much of the material. The majority of the poetry relating to war is of a general character, usually deploring all war, as did William Billington’s ‘Bullets and Blood’ (October 18th, 1862). Those poems which relate specifically to the American Civil War are frequently taken from other publications, such as Punch. Two exceptions include Richard Rawcliffe’s original poem, ‘England and the American War’, published on October 24th 1863, and ‘Old Abraham, The Splitter’ by ‘A Joker’ (October 29th, 1864), which take very different positions on the war. The former calls on Britain to aid the North in ridding America of the ‘foul stain’ of slavery, while the latter mocks the idea that emancipation was the aim of the war, expressing scepticism regarding Lincoln’s pledge ‘The Negro’s chains to sever.’ Mary Ellison, in her book Support for Secession (1972), argues that many deprived Lancashire workers discounted the idea that the Civil War was about slavery, enabling them to support the restoration of trade with the South. I’m interested to see whether this is borne out in the poetry we find from the Cotton Famine poetry, if more writing specifically relating to the Civil War emerges.

I’ve been really pleased that the Blackburn Times has yielded so much fascinating detail, since, as Simon mentioned, I’m from the town myself. Scouring the microfilm, annotating, and transcribing the poetry has offered me a great introduction to the project, demonstrating just how much Cotton Famine poetry can tell us about a critical period in Lancashire’s history.


Dr Ruth Mather

University of Exeter