The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

Flour barrel

Made in the USA, 1860s

Object number 1909.145
Donated to Rochdale Library, transferred to Rochdale Museum, 1909

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Flour barrel

This barrel was sent as part of an aid package to the millworkers of north west England, by Abraham Lincoln and the people of New York and Philadelphia. On 9 February 1863, the relief ship George Griswold docked at Liverpool, carrying boxes of bacon and bread, bags of rice and corn, and 15,000 barrels of flour, destined for the starving people of Lancashire in recognition of their support of the northern states during the American Civil War. It was greeted on the dockside by an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 4,000 people.

The north west of England was directly affected by the American Civil War. The region needed raw slave-produced cotton from the southern states, and when Lincoln blockaded southern ports to prevent transatlantic export and bring down the Confederate economy, Lancashire mills stopped working. It led to widespread unemployment and great hardship in what became known as the 'Lancashire cotton famine' of 1862-63.

Yet, the majority of the region's millworkers supported the northern cause, despite the hardship they were facing. Rochdale MP Richard Cobden, and fellow politician and local mill owner John Bright, were both outspoken in their condemnation of slavery, giving well-attended public speeches in the town. Cobden acknowledged the fortitude of local millworkers, stating that:

‘The conduct of this district, of its working population, will stand out all the more honourably before the country when it is known under what circumstances you have borne yourselves so manfully as you have. I don’t believe there is any other part of the country where the same number of men would have borne so courageously the same amount of privation’.

The Rochdale Observer regularly printed pro-north letters from Rochdale-born people resident in the USA, and made its own position very clear in 1862:

'We earnestly and religiously pray that the war may result in the uprooting of that accursed system of slavery which has led to it. We bid God-speed to those who seek its abolition and would add, with emphatic feeling that we shall regard a vast amount of present evil and suffering as fairly compensated, if slavery be destroyed.'

The Co-operative movement, which started in Rochdale, provided practical and moral support during the cotton famine. The Rochdale Co-operative store, corn mill and manufacturing society donated £1,500 towards the relief of the unemployed, setting up soup kitchens and organising educational workshops and activities. The Co-operative cotton mill also managed to open longer and pay its workers more than any other mill in Rochdale.

This barrel is the only one remaining from the voyage of the George Griswold, and was displayed for many years at Bright Brothers mill in Rochdale, before being donated to Rochdale Museum. It bears the inscription:

'I am one of the thousands that were filled with flour and sent by the Free States of America in the ship George Griswold to the starving people of Lancashire whose miseries were caused by the aggressive and Civil War of the slave owners in 1862-3-4'

This information was provided by curators from Touchstones Rochdale.