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