Hundreds of Newly Found Poems Reveal the Devastation of the U.K.’s ‘Cotton Famine’

When the American Civil War crippled England’s cotton industry, impoverished workers turned to poetry to convey their plight

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"Home-Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk during the Cotton Famine" Public Domain

During the first half of the 20th century, factories in Lancashire spun threads and churned out vast quantities of woven cloths using raw cotton imported from the United States. The output was such that the English county earned the moniker “workshop of the world.” But after the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and the Northern army blockaded Southern ports, cotton supplies were unable to reach England. Lancashire cotton mills were forced to close, and thousands of workers were left without a source of income.

After they were abruptly plunged into poverty, some workers turned to poetry to convey the devastation of the so-called “Lancashire Cotton Famine.” As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, researchers at the University of Exeter have been scouring local archives to find these poems—many of which have not been read for 150 years. The 300 works that the team has discovered so far are now available to view in an online database, and more will continue to be added as the project progresses.

The poems were published in newspapers, which often had a daily poetry column. “People wanted to listen in on the working classes and follow the lives of real people,” Simon Rennie, a lecturer in Victorian poetry at Exeter University and one of the historians behind the project, tells David Collins of the Sunday Times. “The poems are written as if you are eavesdropping on a conversation.”

Some of the poems were penned in Lancashire dialect, which includes many words that have slipped out of common usage. The database provides helpful commentary on the meaning and context of the poems, and researchers also recorded themselves reading 100 of the works.

Written between 1861 and 1865, the poems featured in the database range markedly in subject and tone. Some are forlorn, like “Christmas, 1861” by W.A. Abram. “Lo! saintly Christmas looketh in,” he wrote, “Seeth Famine sitting at our gates/ Amid despair and squalor/Famine, whose swift arm subjugates/The loftiest mortal valor.”

Others are comic, like an 1864 work poking fun at Abraham Lincoln. When he was young – ‘tis said that he/ Began his occupation/ By splitting rails, out in the west/ Of the great Yankee nation,” the author, who signed his name as “A Joker,” quipped. “And when a man – so snarlers tell/And law was his employment/Then chopping logic, splitting hairs/He made his great enjoyment.”

Though nearly all of the poets were male, many wrote from the perspective of working-class women. The researchers also found a number of poems by middle class women, who sought to raise awareness about the unemployment crisis and promote charitable causes.

The cotton famine poems are valuable to historians because they represent the perspectives of the 19th-century working class, “which, in spite of renewed academic interest in such material, remain underappreciated,” according to the project’s website. The poems also highlight little-known literary talents from the Victorian age. In his interview with Collins of the Sunday Times, Rennie singled out the work of William Cunliam, which he says is “up there with the very best examples of poetry from the era.” Cunliam, whose real name may have been Williffe Cunliffe, wrote in both Lancashire dialect and standard English. His poems often included both appeals for charity and visceral descriptions of poverty. In the 1863 poem “God Help the Poor!” he writes:

“God help the poor! – ye rich and high/With lands and mansions fine/Think of the poor in their cold, bare homes/Can you let them starve and pine?/Think of their shivering rag-clad limbs/And spare, from your plenteous board/A crust, for to fill their foodless mouths;/A mite from your golden hoard.”

In a University of Exeter statement, Rennie also notes that the same phrases, characters and rhythms are repeated across various poems. “This shows there was a vibrant literary culture among Lancashire cotton workers, and they traded ideas for mutual benefit,” he says. “We believe those published in newspapers are talking to each other. They reveal a previously unheard commentary on one of the most devastating economic disasters to occur in Victorian Britain.”

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