Author Archives: Simon Rennie

Cryptic Cotton Famine Poem #1 Answer and Winner Announcement

Well done folks. There were many entries, but actually, although of all of the answers were correctly guessed across the range of respondents, not a single entry got every answer correct. So the four entrants who got 20 out of 21 questions correct had their names go into a hat for the draw and the winner was Timothy. He didn’t send his full details, but we have his email address and we will get the prizes to him.

The full poem (including extra lines not in the puzzle) is below. It was published in the North Cheshire Herald on the 25th of July 1863 and was composed by J. Lee.

Keep your eye out for more cryptic poem competitions!

North Cheshire Herald


‘A Voice Out of the Distress’

Parent of Good, how long, how long

Shall famine, sadness, be the theme of song?

The smokeless chimney and the silent loom

Reflect each day accumulated gloom.

Less hopeful seem the victims of distress,

Who hitherto have borne with noble manliness,

In mercy see this fratricidal strife,

That urges brother on to brother’s life.

Stay this sad war, and early may we see

The gentle reign of peace and industry.

We blame our country not, for neutral place;

For, otherwise, would be to her disgrace;

We know she yearns to give her children food,

And tho’ she gives not, still consults their good.

Oh! thou, who rul’st the nations with a nod,

To whom we can but pray – thou allwise God –

Bring, we beseech thee peace, and rest, and love,

Down from the angelic realms above.



Cryptic Cotton Famine Poem #1

In order to gear up for the imminent massive expansion of our Cotton Famine poetry database (look out for 300 more poems being added later this spring!) we are pleased to announce the inaugural Cryptic Cotton Famine Poem Competition.

Solve the cryptic clues to complete this extract from a genuine nineteenth-century Cotton Famine poem. Use your cryptic solving skills along with your knowledge of poetic and historical context. Don’t bother trying to Google it, this has never been digitised, and was last seen in a local newspaper in the 1860s. It is one of hundreds of poems being prepared for inclusion on the Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine database.

 Message (don’t Tweet and give the game away!) the completed version of the poem including your 21 correct answers to @cottonpoetry, or send it to before April 24th 2020 to enter the draw to win a free Faustus Cotton Lords CD and limited edition fine print lyric sheet. The answer will be published here and on the Twitter account on April 24th along with the Twitter handle of the winner.

1          ‘A Voice Out of the ——–’

2,3       —— of —-, how long, how long

4,5       Shall ——, sadness, be the —– of song?

6,7       The ——— chimney and the silent —-

8,9       ——- each day accumulated —–.

10,11   Less hopeful seem the ——- of ——–,

12,13   Who hitherto have —– with —– manliness,

14,15   In ….. see this fratricidal ——,

16,17   That —– ——- on to brother’s life.

18,19   —- this sad war, and —– may we see

20,21   The gentle —– of peace and ——–.


  1. Misery from Diana’s lock of hair? (8)
  2. Trim part of the book carer (6)
  3. Benevolent deity with nothing inside (4)
  4. Renown about in dearth (6)
  5. What it’s about in the meadows? (5)
  6. Clean fuel and cut down (9)
  7. Imminent machine (4)
  8. Mirror in ref lecture (7)
  9. Dark weaver after gravity (5)
  10. Timothy’s after Queen’s sufferers (7)
  11. Sorrow Street, about in Norfolk town (8)
  12. Carried hear no longer carried (5)
  13. Aristocrat, the French aristocratic… (5)
  14. Clemency? Hear French thanks (5)
  15. Conflict is way common! (6)
  16. Encourages desires (5)
  17. Cold noise different to relative? (7)
  18. Remain supportive (4)
  19. Nobleman gets annual prompt (5)
  20. Hear drops of sovereignty (5)
  21. River attempt to work (8)


Video Documentary – Faustus and Jennifer Reid at Quarry Bank Mill

Back in August of 2019, Faustus and Jennifer Reid played at an event held at the historic Quarry Bank Mill Museum near Styal in Cheshire, and we took the opportunity to film the performances and to interview on film some of the people involved. The resultant mini-documentary is a very useful short introduction to the themes and texts associated with our project, based particularly on Faustus’s five-track CD, Cotton Lords, which was released earlier in 2019.

We were lucky to be able to call on some expert professionals to make the film, including director Rachel Jardine, cameraman Tom Slee, and editor Natasha Martin, all of whom have extensive experience  working with the BBC. The sound for the performance was mixed by Faustus’s engineer, Matt Williams, who also produced and engineered the Cotton Lords CD. Our thanks to go to all of these people for their contributions to this film, which we feel goes some way towards encapsulating many aspects of the research we have carried out over the last few years. Our thanks also go to the AHRC, whose funding made all of this possible. The funding period is over now, but we will be continuing to find poetry, and to add it to this site, with a further full launch of lots of new material scheduled for the end of April 2020. Included in this will be some fascinating American texts collected through the New York Public Library. Watch this space.

Cotton Lords EP Launches

Faustus at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Catherine Harvey Green)

Faustus at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Rachel Jardine)

Simon Rennie at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Rachel Jardine)


Last week traditional music group Faustus launched their exclusive EP CD release, Cotton Lords, at two events in London at the Slaughtered Lamb Inn, Clerkenwell, and in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation Centre. The CD is the culmination of two years collaboration between the University of Exeter’s AHRC-funded Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry project and one of Britain’s most respected traditional music groups. Four of the five tracks on the CD are based on texts already featured on the database, but ‘Wrongs and Rights’ is part of the huge batch of poems still being processed for eventual inclusion. The other four tracks are ‘Cotton Lords’ (known as ‘Food or Work’ on the database), ‘Lancashire Operatives (Starvation)’, ‘Lancashire Factory Girl’, and ‘I Would This War Were Ended’. The CD is an important commemoration of one of the most devastating economic periods in Victorian history and the poetic response of ordinary people.  It includes a booklet of extensive notes giving an overview of the history of the period, an account of Faustus’s involvement with the project, detailed notes on each of the tracks, and lyrics. The CD also contains a bonus video of Faustus’s rousing adaptation of an 1840s Chartist poem, ‘Slaves’.

The launch events in Manchester and London, on the 13th and 15th of May 2019 respectively, were deeply appreciated by attendees, some of whom were Faustus followers and others who were encountering the band’s musicianship and dynamism for the first time. The focus on the five Cotton Famine tracks and a general theme of social commentary from working voices from the past made these events particularly interesting and many people stayed behind afterwards to ask questions of the band and the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Simon Rennie, who had given a short contextual talk before each performance.  The project is extremely grateful for the involvement and support of Faustus – Benji Kirkpatrick, Saul Rose, and Paul Sartin, and sound engineer Matt Williams who produced the CD, and record company Westpark Music’s Ulli Hetscher. People in several countries are engaging with the texts the project has uncovered in various ways, but this collaboration with Faustus, and the legacy of this recording, is a particularly notable and distinctive outcome for our research.

You can buy Faustus’s Cotton Lords EP CD here:

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter


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





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



Project Partners


 Chetham’s Library Workshop, April 22nd 2016

Project Partners

A vital part of a large-scale project like this is its associations with non-academic partners. These individuals and institutions perform different roles in conjunction with the activities of the academic team (myself, Professor Maidment, and Dr Mather), enabling the project to function in itself and to operate as an outward-facing entity. Some partners will provide space for events and important outlets for dedicated publicity, some will provide links with schools to maximise the educational potential of the project, and still others engage with the artistic and performative aspects of the material we are uncovering.

On the 22nd of April 2016, some time before AHRC funding was awarded for the project, Professor Maidment and myself hosted an all-day workshop funded by Exeter University’s College of Humanities Link Fund on the potential of research into Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry. The workshop was held in the medieval space of Chetham’s Library in Manchester, which has become an important partner in the project. With both academic and non-academic input from participants, the workshop’s dual aims were to set out the objectives of the project, and to establish links with potential project partners. Academic papers were delivered by myself, Professor Maidment, Dr Andrew Hobbs (UCLAN – an expert on nineteenth-century British newspaper poetry publication) and Professor Alan Rice (UCLAN – an expert on transatlantic discourse and the ‘black Atlantic’). There was also a sample performance of dialect poetry and song from Jennifer Reid. Also present were representatives from Lancashire County Council’s Museums Heritage Learning Service, the Elizabeth Gaskell Society, the Portico Library, and the Manchester Centre for Regional History (based at MMU). Also present were distinguished scholars and writers on working-class poetry, Dr Brian Hollingworth and Dr Mike Sanders (Manchester University). Discussion with partners centred on the way that this material can be disseminated to the public but also the role of the public, either through individuals or groups, in finding and collating the material. Further contacts were subsequently made with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the Elizabeth Gaskell House, and the traditional music ensemble, Faustus. Below I will briefly list the project’s partners and their roles, providing links to websites where appropriate:


Chetham’s Library – Possibly the oldest public library in continuous use in the English-speaking world, Chetham’s Library is a hidden architectural gem in the centre of Manchester. Karl Marx wrote some of his famous works there and the library holds many important local collections, including the recently acquired Eddie Cass Collection, which contains several Lancashire Cotton Famine novels. The library has supported the project since its inception and we will be hosting more events there.


Elizabeth Gaskell Society – The Elizabeth Gaskell Society is devoted to the promotion of the works of that writer but is also very active in exploring the world and culture around her in the Manchester and Cheshire areas in the mid-C19th. Gaskell and her husband, William, were active in relief efforts for the famine and were deeply engaged in working-class contemporary culture – William was an expert on local dialects. I gave a talk on this project at the most recent AGM of the Society and will be giving another talk at the southwest branch in Bath next May. The society will be hosting events for us.


Elizabeth Gaskell House – Incredibly, the house where Elizabeth Gaskell and her family lived near the centre of Manchester for many years has survived extensive urban developments in the area and has been restored to its former glory as a literary museum and learning space. This is an amazing place to visit and I am lucky enough to be giving a talk there this coming September 20th


Portico Library – Another hidden gem in the centre of Manchester, with its beautiful domed ceiling and original bookshelves, the Portico Library was where William Gaskell borrowed his books (and because women were not allowed to be members of this private library at that time, he got books for the whole family!). The Portico Library will be hosting events and we very much look forward to our further association with them.


Working Class Movement Library – The WCML in Salford is a vital centre for working-class literature and radical history based in the north of England. It regularly hosts events featuring labour historians and literature scholars both academic and amateur, and also many writers. They have an already existing strong association with our partner, Jennifer Reid, and we are hosting our first interactive Cotton Famine poetry event there (with Jennifer) on Saturday October 7th at 1pm.


Manchester Centre for Regional History – Although strictly speaking they are academic partners, Manchester Metropolitan University’s MCRH work to promote regional history study to academic and non-academic audiences. Through our main contact there, Dr Craig Horner, the Centre will provide space for seminar-style events dedicated to the project. The Centre is an important hub for historical regional enquiry and its journal publication, the Manchester Region History Review has contained writing by the leaders in the field (including our own professor Brian Maidment). I am particularly looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with MMU because I studied for my undergraduate degree there and lectured there for a while in the English department.


Lancashire County Council’s Museums Heritage Learning Service – In conjunction with Jessica Forshaw, who represents LCC’s Heritage Learning, we will be designing projects which will enable Lancashire schoolchildren to undertake primary research. They will be able to participate in supervised searches for original Cotton Famine poetry which lies mostly unread in local newspapers in libraries around the region. They will then transcribe the poems and be credited with their discovery on the eventual database we are creating. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the project and we are very grateful to LCC, whose enthusiasm for the scheme was there right from the start. We will also be holding events in some of the amazing industrial spaces in the region, such as Helmshore Mill (


Jennifer Reid – Jennifer is Manchester’s premier ballad singer and is a highly sought-after performer with an extensive knowledge of C19th working-class culture. Amongst other things, she has clog danced at the Venice Biennale (!), and appeared in many radio and TV programmes. As well as working with us in our events, Jennifer is also undertaking vital research into the links between Lancastrian and Bangladeshi industrial song. She will be setting some of the poems we find to song, especially those in Lancashire dialect. We feel very lucky to have her on board.


Faustus – Faustus are one of the most respected traditional music groups in the country, recently winning the prestigious German Record Critics Award and contributing to the staggering success of the folk musical The Transports. My first real association with the group (after being a fan for several years) came in October 2015 when I chatted to their violinist, Paul Sartin, after a gig in Exeter. This led to Faustus recording a setting of a Chartist poem, ‘Slaves’, which then went on to become something of a signature tune (my previous research was into the poetry of Chartism). Our association has continued and the group have worked on musical settings of some of the material we have found and will be recording them soon. We can’t wait. As soon as we hear them, you will.


Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter