The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

Oldham and cotton industries

by Washington Alcott

Cotton transformed Oldham from a small town into a major industrial centre. In the middle of the 1700s the economy of the town and its surrounding rural areas relied on hatting, coal-mining and the woollen trade.



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It is impossible to put an exact date on the introduction of cotton to the area but by the 1740s Manchester merchants were distributing cotton 'roving, spinning and weaving' work that could be done at home to provide an extra income.

Slave-grown cotton

At first this cotton came from the eastern Mediterranean and India, but by 1800 cotton was imported in increasing amounts from the American south. This cotton was entirely slave-grown and linked the town of Oldham and the north west region to the transatlantic slave trade economy.

Technological advances made it possible to spin cotton on an industrial scale. Many factors made Oldham an attractive area for mill building: its coal, rivers, climate, transport links and a ready supply of labour. Several small scale enterprises were founded before 1800, and the industry established itself after 1815, when an end to years of war created a booming economy.

Cotton spinning

Slowly Oldham established a specialism as a spinning town. But it still contained several weaving firms who doubtless helped to supply the 'check' cotton cloth for the export trade in west Africa. Many absentee plantation owners with estates in the West Indies, became major investors in the north west cotton industry. As the spinning industry grew, the town increasingly relied on raw material supplied by the slave plantations of the American south. It was at this time that many of the town's prominent families, such as the Lees, the Platts and the Radcliffes, gained their initial wealth in businesses linked to cotton.

In 1860 Oldham was in receipt of nearly 8% of America's slave-grown cotton crop. To express this in human terms, it took over 200,000 enslaved African workers to feed Oldham's mills that year. The best estimate would mean that for every person in Oldham working in a cotton mill there were eight enslaved Africans further down the production line. If a mill owner employed 500 hands, then his wealth also relied on 4,000 enslaved workers in the Americas.

Lancashire cotton famine

The American Civil War caused much distress in Oldham, as the supply of cotton was interrupted and many mills laid off workers. During what became known as the 'cotton famine', the town was home to several soup kitchens, whilst charitable donations of clothing and blankets were distributed to the needy. The Borough Council also borrowed money from a special government scheme set up to create other jobs for the unemployed. This included £57,000 for road and street improvements, £29,000 for a new sewage works and £34,000 to create Alexandra Park near the town centre.

Despite their hardships many cotton workers pledged solidarity with the enslaved Africans on the plantations. At one public meeting several workers declared that they would rather starve than support slavery.

James Johnson settles in Oldham

After the Civil War one former enslaved African settled in Oldham. James Johnson had escaped from a plantation during the war and worked his passage to England. He married an Oldham woman and worked as a blacksmith whilst also gaining recognition as a preacher.

Oldham's most spectacular growth came in the economic booms of the 1860s and 1870s. However, most of the mills that survive today were built after 1900. By 1900 Oldham could accurately claim to be the largest cotton spinning town in the world. Although much of this expansion came after the abolition of slavery, there is no denying Oldham's links to this part of the past.