A Song of the Cotton Famine.

At an interview which took place one day last week, after work hours, between Tum and Jim, two Ashton Rickers, and now oakum pickers in the Union Workhouse. Tum said, “Come Jim, sit down, and I’ll sing thee a song of my own composin’; th’ knows I’ve a good vice, and they told me last club neet, after I had sung ‘Spencer, the rover,’ that I had a bit o’ music in me, some said ‘there’s life i’th’ owd dog yet.’ I’ve made this song to th’ tune of ‘O Susannah,’ becose I thowt everybody ud know that. Join chorus, and give it bant.”
I am a cotton spinner Jim,
As poor as poor can be,
For fate has ta’en away the means
That fed my kids and me.
When trade was good, kind plenty smiled,
And comfort did afford,
Both bread and cheese, and other food
That grace a workman’s board.
CHORUS. – O cotton famine,
Come again no more;
For oakum picking is not loiked
By me and mony a score.
As sure as Sunday came again
We had a joint of meat,
Which made our three legg’d table groan,
And so did every seat.
Some home brewed ale to wash it down
And cheer the inner man;
Which armed us for another week
Our work and cares to plan.
O cotton famine, &c.
But now we seldom have a bit
Of wheaten bread to eat;
Inferior food has ta’en its place
Our starving mouths to meet.
My children, oh it breaks my heart
To hear them cry for bread;
My wife, my faithful better half,
Is very poorly fed.
O cotton famine, &c.
The other night I had a dream,
Which after made me cry,
I thought that Kate and me had beef,
And kids an apple pie.
I thought the fire burned clear and bright,
The house was neat and clean,
Contentment shone on every face
As I have often seen.
O cotton famine, &c.
See thi this brawny bunch of fives
Can turn a pair of wheels;
Aye, make good work as well as most,
And has a heart that feels.
Jim, was I ever fined for work,
Or being at mill too late?
No, when the bell went work or clem
I was there at any rate.
O cotton famine, &c.
I used in Sunday duds to go,
As my forefathers did before,
But now I’m in the lurch.
My cloas are hung on gronny’s peg.
My shoon are out at nose,
My hat is now a piteous sight
Which please all mi foes.
O cotton famine, &c.
When first I aust to court our Kate,
A long, long time ago;
I little thowt I should be fixed
In this dilemma now.
Soon as I popp’d the question,
Hoo said th’ needs na spake,
For th’ knows I’m ready ony toime
Thi heart and hond to take.
O cotton famine, &c.
We pair’d and wed in forty-three,
While youth knew how to try;
And such was work for mony a year,
We laid a trifle by.
From first, as true as truth is found,
My wife and me have been
Paid poor rates, shouted loud and long,
God save our gracious Queen.
O cotton famine, &c.
Now I’ve lost mi power, and worse,
I feel a pauper’s shame;
And sometimes tempted to believe
Britannia’s but a name.
‘Twas only yesterday they brought
A mon to join our rank,
Who, like us fifteen months ago,
Had money in the bank.
O cotton famine, &c.
The cloud is thickening o’er our heads,
With gloom and sad despair;
And not a gleam of light appears,
Or end to this affair.
Jim, con to give me ony hope,
These toimes are welly o’er.
And that there is some comfort yet
For factory hands in store?
O cotton famine, &c.
Shall I again permitted be
To send my kids to schoo’,
Where they con larn to read and write,
Do sums by figures too?
A bit o’ bacco now I want
To fill this pipe o’ mine,
For I must have a wift or two
To sooth this woeful whine.
O cotton famine, &c.
Tum smokes, talks to his pipe, and vows “if Jim loikes this song he will try his hond again,” for he feels more satisfied when he is spinning yarn of some sort, and there is now feeling any quantity.

Title:A Song of the Cotton Famine


Publication:Ashton Standard

Published in:Ashton-under-Lyne

Date:November 8th, 1862

Keywords:charity, dialect, domesticity, poverty, relief, work


This song, partly in a dialect and partly in standard English, tells the familiar tale of a formerly respectable family forced to pawn their belongings and struggling to survive through the Cotton Famine. Its introduction states that the narrator of the song is now in the workhouse. Despite the gloomy subject matter, the words are set to “Oh, Susanna” by Stephen Foster. The choice of tune is interesting, given both the racist lyrics of the original and its tradition as a minstrel song. If this is an intentional comment on race and slavery in the context of the American Civil War, no other mention is made of these themes within the poem. – RM.

These lyrics clearly must fit the rhythm of their stated tune, ‘O Susannah’, which is in ballad metre (alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter) but sung at quite a pace. Once you are familiar with the tune and know that the words are intended for it, it is almost impossible not to internally sing the tune whilst reading the piece, and this method was often employed in Victorian popular poetry publication. Part of the effect here is the juxtaposition of two seemingly opposed formal choices – the serious subject matter and the jaunty melody. This contrast is also apparent in the incongruous provincial reference to Ashton Parish Church sung to a famously American piece of music.- SR