Lancashire Cotton Famine

When cotton was king, Manchester’s busy textile mills dressed the world. Because of this, great fortunes were made and ordinary families were fed. But in 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice, took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.

On the other side of the Atlantic, President Lincoln’s Northern Union was waging war against a breakaway of southern states. Having already linked the south with the institution of slavery, Lincoln persuaded European importers that his blockade of slave picked cotton was a legitimate tool in defeating the Confederacy and restoring the union.

Although an extraordinary gesture, the vote would be costly to the mill workers as more of them faced starvation and destitution. Disorder had already broken out in some northern towns, with the army having to read out the Riot Act.

Lancashire Cotton Famine food queue WKPD

Newspaper illustration of people in line for food and coal tickets at a district Provident Society office during the cotton famine

Relief was provided by the British government in the form of benefits; tokens were distributed to a specific value and were handed to traders so that goods could be exchanged to that amount

With the cotton industry on its knees, Lincoln acknowledged the self-sacrifice of the ‘working men of Manchester’ in a letter he sent them in 1863. Lincoln’s words – later inscribed on the pedestal of his statue that can still be found in Lincoln Square, Manchester – praised the workers for their selfless act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”

These words were followed by the arrival of US relief ships packed with provisions sent by grateful Americans as an act of brotherhood between the Union states and Lancashire.

In January 1865 – only a matter of months before Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth – Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. Just as the US Constitution was being rewritten, the Confederate states, already stricken by the embargo, were being defeated by Union forces. By the time the South surrendered, Manchester had dusted down its disused mills and workshops so it could begin the difficult task of recapturing its lost industrial might.