The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

The Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee

Lachlan McLachlan, about 1869
Photographic print on paper

Object number 1929.54

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The Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee

Slave-grown cotton from the southern states of America provided 70% of all the raw material fuelling Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Cotton fabric manufactured in the north west made up half of Britain’s exports, and at least 16% of all Britain’s jobs depended on this trade. The Lancashire cotton famine, which was a direct result of the blockade of southern ports during the American Civil War, cost Lancashire mill owners about £30m. The effect on the whole community was devastating.

Relief committees were set up all over Lancashire to help feed and support unemployed mill workers and their families. Members collected and distributed charitable donations and relief usually came in the form of tickets, which could be exchanged for food, clothing and other goods.

Richard Cobden was invited to join Manchester's Central Relief Committee in April 1862. In his first speech, he described the spread of the cotton famine, explaining how landlords and shopkeepers had become caught in the same poverty trap as the unemployed mill workers. He reminded members that the mills of Lancashire had, for many years, fuelled national prosperity, and urged them to persuade friends in the south of England to support the relief effort. Reports of the cotton famine soon began to appear in the Illustrated London News. When a letter appeared in the Times newspaper, from ‘A Lancashire Lad’, describing the distress he had witnessed, large amounts of money were raised in London for the Lancashire relief committees.

This print shows the Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which brought together the mayors of the affected north west cotton towns and distributed grants of money through the regional committees. The image shown above is a detail of the full print, which identifies the individual members of the committee and is taken from a painting designed by Manchester artist Frederick J Shields and painted by Arthur Hughes. A photograph of the painting is held by Touchstones, Rochdale. For the full image click on view more images.

This information was provided by curators from Manchester Art Gallery and Touchstones Rochdale.