Lancashire Cotton Famine

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Industrial Revolution

The Lancashire cotton famine was a brutal reminder of how hard life can be

The Lancashire cotton famine during the early 1860’s, is an example of how, even during the mid C19th, world events impacted on global trade and economics.

    • The Lancashire cotton industry had a unique role to play in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. 
    • Cotton above all else enabled the revolution to take off.
    • In its turn this impacted on the economic growth in America, on slavery and in part the American Civil War.

The Lancashire Cotton Famine – Cotton versus Wool

By 1810, cotton had overtaken wool to become Britain’s single most important source of income and it retained this position until the end of the C19th.

    • Incredibly, during the Napoleonic Wars it became Britain’s biggest export and in 1830 it exceeded all other exports combined.
    • The wealth of the Nation could be said to depend upon cotton.
    • The Lancashire cotton mills provided employment for hundreds of thousands of workers, so when, in 1861, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Confederate southern ports, the effect on the Lancashire mills was fairly immediate and severe.
    • Raw cotton, the staple of the industry was backing up in the cotton fields of the Southern states.
Lancashire cotton famine

Queuing for food

Meanwhile, English merchants were stock piling the cotton in English warehouses, waiting for the prices to rise, futures trading C19th style.

    • The result for the workers was catastrophic, within 18 months, three out of five workers were unemployed, the poor relief system struggled to cope and the government were forced to inject money into the Lancashire economy but it was all too late.
    • By the end of the war in 1865, the damage had been done and the cotton industry struggled to revive.

So many economic lessons can be learnt from a historical event such as the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

That we now live in a very connected world we take as read but historically, during the ages of the Industrial Revolution and then the Age of Empire, we were just as connected and the saying  ‘When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold’  was as true in the mid C19th as now.



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