Food or Work

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.

Title:Food or Work


Publication:The Blackburn Times

Published in:Blackburn

Date:July 2nd, 1864

Keywords:class, gender, hunger, politics, poverty, work


This poem is composed broadly in ballad meter (alternating tetrameter and trimeter) but there is often an extra syllable in the trimeter and the meter switches between iambs and trochees. The poem as you see it here is possibly incomplete because it was actually published not in the poetry column, as were the vast majority of the poems on this site, but in an editorial! The piece was titled ‘Dealing with Rejected Correspondents’, and these stanzas were presented interspersed with some rather high-handed criticism and inappropriately jovial descriptions of editorial office life. This is, in fact, an example of what the Blackburn Times would not publish, but in presenting this the newspaper has furnished us with a rare example of explicitly political, indeed confrontational, Cotton Famine poetry which is intensely class conscious. The direct address to the ‘Cotton Lords’ is one of the few we have to the textile industrialists whose varied response to the crisis had such a direct effect on the fortunes of so many ordinary Lancastrians.

The process by which Faustus choose which Cotton Famine songs to set is quite organic, so the fact that this poem was chosen by Paul Sartin has pleased us very much. As indicated on Faustus’s website ( I send the group poems in bulk and they sift through them trying them for musical possibility and lyrical appropriateness. Paul was clearly inspired by the passion in this piece and the title ‘Food or Work’ has been changed to the more iconic ‘Cotton Lords’ for the song title (with that first stanza acting as a refrain). The song has become a firm favourite in Faustus’s set, quite apart from their involvement with this project, and the last time I saw the group perform they opened their concert with its arresting three-part harmony. We are delighted for this anonymous, probably working-class, Victorian poet that a century and a half after they read of their rejection in their local newspaper their words are being sung by one of the leading folk bands in Britain, read by the public, and studied by academics across the world. – SR