How the cotton famine brought suffering to Farington

Farington Cotton Mill
Farington Cotton Mill
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Reader Bob Jameson has written a piece about the ‘Last Saturday of Farington’, centred around the Lancashire cotton famine 150 years ago.

When people refused to work with cotton obtained by slavery, it lead to 21 months of starvation for families and children in the area.

Farington Mill owner William Boardman did all he could to help his workers, who lived in the cottages built especially for the mill trade in the village.

He stopped asking for rent payments and paid to heat their homes during the destitution, enabling them to survive the worst of it.

This lead to rejoice when two wagons carrying cotton were finally brought into Farington....

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ending of the cotton famine in Lancashire, caused by the implacable refusal of the mill workers to handle ‘slave grown cotton’.

President Lincoln of the USA wrote to the ‘working men of Manchester’, who represented the suffering people of Lancashire that he “regarded their steadfastness in support of freedom, despite their cruel sufferings as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or country.”

Stirring words, well thought out and supremely well-deserved.

During the first third of the 19th century the population of Farington, principally occupied in growing grain and vegetables and cutting turves for fuel, had increased slowly from 400 to 700.

After 1835 when William Boardman built the first phase of his cotton mill, with great foresight adjacent to the proposed railway station, the population more than doubled in a decade.

By 1860, Farington Mill could look back on a quarter of a century of progress. The school, first opened in 1812, had been greatly enlarged and an imposing brick and stone church seating 500 people was consecated in 1840.

William Boardman was an enlightened employer; he built cottages for his workers which were kept in good condition, each year receiving a coat of paint.

He arranged for his mill cashier to run a night school for the further education of his workers, many of whom became educated to a point where they left the mill to obtain better positions elsewhere - with William’s blessing.

Improvements were constantly being introduced and old machinery scrapped. Wages increased, Sunday Schools were instituted and the village grew as a hard-working, God-fearing, house-proud and thrifty community.

In Mrs Eileen Hilliard’s book, ‘An Industrial Community in Crisis’, she quotes from M.T.Baronsky “the Lancashire workers were at the head of the English working class. They had the highest wages and were of all workers the most intelligent and best organised.”

But the seeds of tragedy had been sown and were soon to bring a harvest of famine and destitution. Lancashire had become dependent on American cotton to the exclusion of all others.

In the West Indies it became more profitable to grow sugar, and cotton from India was unsuited to the Lancashire machinery which had developed to process Middling Orleans - grown throughout the Southern states by the use of slaves.

And then came the American Civil War whereupon the South ceceded on the question of slavery, which had been abolished in England in 1807 and throughout the British Empire in 1837.

A large part of the English working people strongly supported the anti-slavery movement and the leading abolishionists William Wilberforce and John Newton, the former captain of a slave ship.

“To surprising degree” wrote Adrian Lewis, historian of ‘The Cotton Industry’, “the cotton workers of Lancashire supported Lincoln on his war against the slave-owning South, even though they knew it would affect their livelihood.”

Cynics might argue that had the workers known to what extent they would suffer, they might have changed their views; the converse was the truth.

Though all went hungry and many starved, and children died from hunger and families sold every piece of furniture they possessed and slept on straw on the floor, they never petitioned Parliament for a change of policy in order to ameliorate their hardship.

There were no riots and public order was maintained without any extra police presence.

At meetings organised by Confederate Agents to put forward the South’s case, their view was opposed by ordinary mill workers whose simple question, “Do we believe that people, whatever their colour, should be in chains?” was answered by a resounding ‘no’ from the thousands that packed into every meeting.

Added to this were the many young Lancashire men who crossed the Atlantic to fight on the Federal side.

The British Government tried to pursue a neutral policy to avoid alienating either side, although its sympathies in tune with the Times and most other newspapers were with the South.

The Ruling Cliques and big businesses were just as committed in word and deed to the Confederacy. Feelings ran high over the building in Britain’s shipyards and blockage busters and two war ships all for the South.

The North and Great Britain were within days of open warfare over the Federal Government’s condemnation of Britain’s policy as treachery and war was only avoided by a peacemaking visit, instigated by Queen Victoria’s husband enabling President Lincoln to declare “One war at a time is enough” and conflict was averted.

When in January 1862 the mills generally reduced the working week from six days to four days, with proportionate loss of earnings and the certainty that after six months the mills will would stop entirely, The Economist wrote “poverty during the first period, starvation afterwards.”

Even this was out of date with the facts as by this time in Preston one quarter of the mills had already stopped and another quarter were on short time.

Farington Mill stopped in September 1862 and for a while the prudent were able to exist on their savings and what little alternative work they could find, but early in 1863, the available help proved insufficient.

The absence of wages to the cotton workers was affecting the whole community. The Catholic Priest Dom. James Ignatius Dewhurst said that “the people have no means of supporting me and often I am unable to guess how my next meal is to be procured.”

Private charity was the only answer to the workers’ needs, and this proved difficult to implement due to the workers’ pride, epitomised in The Famine Song -

“I’d work but cannot - starve I may.

“But will not beg for bread.

“God of the wretched hear my prayer

“I wish that I were dead.”

Relief Committees were set up in most towns and twice a week each operative received two quarts of soup and a 2lb loaf. Some of the mill owners long after their mills had stopped gave each employee two days’ wages a week.

Girls and women were given sewing and children and young men were sent to schools - and paid for attendance.

Some men went to work in the stone yard breaking the hard Cumberland stone for road building, to their evident distress.

Said one: “Will these hands ever be fit again to work in a factory?”

Possessions were gradually sold. Firstly the furniture except for one chair and one bed, then the family’s ‘Sunday Best’ clothes, and finally the remaining chair and bed.

Williams Boardman did what he could. To his tenants he cancelled the rent on their cottages and supplied fuel for heating for all.

The distress and destitution lasted for 21 months until, as the Preston Herald reported “on Wednesday, April 30, 1864, a rumour started that cotton was on its way from Liverpool to the mill and that work would then be resumed.”

All that day the villagers kept anxious watch but it was not until the Thursday when two wagons of cotton arrived at the railway siding.

The shouts and acclamations of the spectators at once announced to the inhabitants the glad tidings.

Soon the village began to show signs of rejoicing and Union Jacks flags and shawls were hung gaily from every window.

About 1pm a large number of women, preceeded by music, went down to the railway siding and with hearty vigour pushed the wagons with their welcome load up the steep and slippery incline into the factory yard.

This done, the crowd numbering now some hundreds sang the Doxology to the tune Old Hundreth. Those who supposed that these operatives would not gladly embrace the opportunity of once more earning their breads by the sweat of their brow should have seen the tears of gratitude which rolled down their pinched faces as they sang:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

“Praise Him all creatures here below,

“Praise Him above Angelic Host,

“Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

In many villages in the north of England, the anniversary of the saint to whom the village church is dedicated is commemorated by ‘Walking Day’, when the church members would process, with a brass band, around the village boundary stopping from time to time to sing a hymn.

Such was the case in Farington, but in 1865 the Walking Day was changed to Saturday closest to May 1 and named ‘The Last Saturday in Farington’ to commemorate the end of what the then Earl of Derby called “The greatest calamity of modern times.”