Riots, Rebels and Rhymes

Upheaval and expression in the Lancashire Cotton Famine

by Cameron Christie

Pandemonium at Stevenson Square 

Tuesday 10th March 1863. The British press and establishment were absorbed in the pomp and frivolity of the future King Edward VII’s marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Meanwhile in Manchester, thousands of laid-off workers and their families were enduring hunger and deteriorating living conditions caused by the decline of cotton imports during the United States Civil War and the subsequent closure of mills across Lancashire. 

In a gesture of solidarity and bid to maintain British support, the United States government sent food aid on the George Griswold and Achilles ships to support the starving mill operatives and their families. However, instead of simply passing out the food to those who were in need, the local authorities decided to celebrate its arrival and the wedding of the Prince of Wales by holding a parade in Stevenson Square.

Stevenson Square, about 1891.
Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives.

A stage was set up with decorations and a Reverend. C. W. Denison was recruited to lead the crowds in the singing of hymns. However, exasperated at these botched priorities, the crowd grew impatient and began to disrupt proceedings. According to newspaper reports from the period, an unnamed speaker climbed on the stage stating that he:

“did not wish to be appear ungrateful to the American people for their gift of the bread, but he wanted to know why it was brought into that square, instead of being sent to the proper quarter – the quarter that people have had to avail themselves of for the last nine months.” 

Excerpt from the Blackburn Times, March 14 1863, reporting on the riot in Stevenson Square.
British Newspaper Archive.

The reports help us to imagine the anger that the crowd felt when much-needed food was being paraded publicly in what appeared to be an exploitation of their hunger by the British government to boost their political relationship with the Union and celebrate a lavish royal wedding. After long months of deprivation, suffering, and unanswered pleas for help to authorities and mill owners the crowd began to take matters into their own hands. Protestors charged at the carts carrying the bread, grabbing loaves and hurling them at speakers and officials.  

Flour barrel carried on the ship George Griswold which arrived in the UK in 1863.
© Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service. Find out more here.

In many of the stories and memorials that form our public memory, Manchester and the cotton workers of Lancashire are often celebrated as being steadfast heroes, enduring years of grinding poverty while remaining in support of the war against slavery across the Atlantic.

Famously, President Abraham Lincoln’s letter of thanks to the people of Manchester for their solidarity is commemorated with a statue, constructed in 1919 and now located in Lincoln Square. As the riot in Stevenson Square shows, however, perspectives were in fact far more diverse and contested. This story explores some of these complexities through dialect poetry written at the time and newspaper reports of public meetings held in the city.

Statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Square, Manchester.
Flickr, Claire and Ben, CC BY-NC-ND.

Reliance and hardship 

When we think of the protagonists of the United States Civil War, the cotton mill workers of Lancashire may not be the first people that come to mind. However, their reliance on the global threads woven by the transatlantic cotton trade triggered a period of extreme hardship and poverty for thousands across the county. 

In the months following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, eleven southern states seceded from the United States and formed themselves into the new Confederate States of America. The societies and economies of the Confederate states were predominantly built upon the system of racial slavery and their leaders feared Lincoln’s election would bring limitations on the spread of enslavement into the American West and ultimately lead to abolition. 

In 1860, over 80 percent of the raw cotton that sustained jobs for workers and created great wealth for owners in Lancashire was grown by people enslaved on American plantations. It was shipped to British ports, chiefly Liverpool, then distributed to the region’s mills. Designed to starve the Confederate States of their primary source of international trade, when war broke out in April 1861 the United States blockaded all ports attempting to ship slave-grown cotton to Europe. As imports dried up, hundreds of mills were forced to reduce their operations or shut down entirely, the crisis becoming known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine. 

For the 500,000 Lancashire factory operatives and their families, unemployment, hunger and a lack of alternative jobs meant life became grindingly difficult. As abolitionist campaigners fought to keep British support for the anti-slavery cause, government policy was heavily criticised for forsaking the livelihoods of the cotton workers for this moral objective, particularly as they failed to provide adequate financial support to the out-of-work. 

Dissent at the Free Trade Hall 

The Free Trade Hall on Peter Street was a major centre of 19th century political life. In the 1850s, it hosted a wide variety of political meetings where topics such as Parliamentary representation, the abolition of slavery, and workers’ rights were debated.


the free trade hall, about 1860.

Science Museum Group Collection.

On the 6th April 1863, a meeting to discuss the building of ships in Liverpool for the pro-slavery Confederacy was held at the Free Trade Hall. The Confederates used steamships known as “blockade runners” to outrun the Union navy and bring exports of cotton to Britain. On their return journey, the ships carried supplies, including weapons, to the Confederacy. 

At the meeting, the practice was broadly condemned by everyone except a certain Joseph Barker, who argued that the Confederacy should be recognised as an independent nation. Barker had been an outspoken abolitionist and had even published a biography of former slave Frederick Douglass in the 1840s.  

During the Cotton Famine, however, Barker’s concern shifted to the plight of the working-class in Britain and the deteriorating living conditions they were enduring. He prioritised this struggle over solidarity with the abolition movement and began to claim that the only way to bring slavery to an end was to co-operate with the Confederacy to persuade them into gradual change.  

Two months later, on the 3rd June, another meeting was attended by several thousand people. Several Christian ministers argued that any peace achieved in America would be false if it did not bring an immediate end to slavery. However, this view was not held by everyone in the meeting, as newspaper reports show:

“Several fights occurred. Cheers were given for ‘Jefferson Davis’, ‘General Lee’, and ‘the South’, followed by similar demonstrations for ‘President Lincoln’ and ‘the North.’”

Manchester Guardian, June 5, 1963.

It is clear from newspaper reports that there were a number of Confederate sympathisers who often attended these meetings to shout and heckle from the crowd. Likely many would have been organised and led by Confederate agents residing in the city with the clandestine support of numerous merchants, manufacturers and others with vested interests in the continuation of slavery and resumption of cotton imports. Joseph Barker again made an appearance, causing enough disruption to find himself ejected from the hall.

Excerpt from Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, June 6, 1863.
British Newspaper Archive.
Excerpt from a report by the Cork Daily Herald, June 9, 1863.
British Newspaper Archive.

The following evening, Barker attempted to make his speech again, this time at the Corn Exchange. According to newspaper reports, he was heckled throughout by working people. Incidents like these public meetings and the events at Stevenson Square demonstrate the great danger to the abolitionist cause posed by the failures of the political and ruling class to support workers and the powder-keg of hunger, poverty, and anger that could potentially be unleashed.

Aw Wod this War Wur Ended 

Throughout the Cotton Famine, some working people turned to the tradition of writing and reciting poetry in Lancashire dialect to draw attention to the hardships being endured and build resilience, support, and understanding through their sharing and publication. Their poems provide us with unique insights into the experiences and views of working people, which so often go undocumented. Their use of the Lancashire vernacular worked to legitimise an authentic working-class perspective and establish an identity distinct from the ruling classes.  

Writers like William Billington, Samuel Laycock and Joseph Ramsbottom travelled to mills to recite their verses. They also published them in local newspapers. In Frettin’, written in 1864, Ramsbottom offers an affecting insight into the anguish of a struggling factory operative: 

Aye, why noa do’t? – it ill ud tell

O’ those wur left beheend, aw fear 

It’s wrong at fust to kill myself, 

An’ wrong to lyev my childer here.

Oh why not do it?

It’s for those I’d leave behind I fear

It’s wrong to kill myself

And wrong to leave by children here

Extract from Frettin’. Read the full poem here.

Mill workers often earned wages relatively better than workers in other industries but during the Cotton Famine they struggled to provide even the basic necessities for their families, relying on ragged schools and other charitable organisations for support.

A pair of child-sized clogs provided by Charter Street Ragged School in Manchester’s Angel Meadow district, about 1880.
Science Museum Group Collection. Find out more here.

William Billington’s poem, Aw Wod This War Wur Ended, was first published in the Blackburn Times in October 1863. It reflects on the United States Civil War and its impact on the people of Lancashire. The poem’s final stanza demonstrates the division of opinion in the county: 

Some tokes for t’North, an’ some for t’South

Wi’ o smooth an’ oily tung,

Bud iv they’d sense they’d shut their meawth,  

For boath on ‘em’s i’ t’ wrung! 

An’ it’s nooan reyt to let em feyt, 

If t’ world hes wisdom lend it, 

To set these two crookt people streyt, 

An’ then t’war ud be ended! 

Some talk for the North and some for the South, 

With a smooth and oily tongue, 

But if they had sense, they’d shut their mouth, 

For both of them are wrong! 

And it’s not right to let them fight. 

If the world lent his wisdom, 

Then set these two crooked people straight, 

And then the war will be ended!

Extract from Aw Wod This War Wur Ended. Read the full poem here

Here, Billington portrays a sense of exhaustion and frustration, and of divided loyalties. People were desperate for work, with many families unable to keep a roof over their heads or feed their families. There was a strong distrust of politicians, leaders and business owners, who Billington describes as having “smooth and oily tongues”. 

In 1882, a revised version of the same poem was published. Its last stanza was edited to deliver a much more explicitly abolitionist message:

Some factory maisters tokes for t’Seawth 

Wi’ a smooth an’ oily tongue, 

Bud iv they’d sense they’d shut their meawth, 

Or sing another song;

Let liberty nod slavery 

Be fostered an’ extended— 

Four million slaves mun yet be free, 

An’, then t’ war will be ended 

Some factory masters talk for the South 

With a smooth and oily tongue, 

But if they had sense they’d shut their mouth, 

Or sing another song. 

Let liberty not slavery,  

Be fostered and extended 

Four million slaves must yet be free, 

And then the war will be ended. 

Extract from Aw Wod This War Wur Ended. Read the full poem here

So why did Billington or his publishers edit his poem to sound more abolitionist twenty years later? 

Maybe he regretted his own past position and wished he had been more strident in expressing abolitionist support. Perhaps he wanted to celebrate Lancashire workers’ sacrifices and identify them as firm supporters of the abolitionist cause, to build up a radical tradition and memory to aid in the working class struggles of the 1880s. 

His original wording indicates that far from being either pro or anti-slavery, the attitudes of Lancashire’s mill workers were far more nuanced. The portrayal of working class, abolitionist solidarity against pro-slavery factory owners in his 1882 version obscures the division of opinion and the complexity of the conflict occurring between the ruling class and the workers. Billington’s use of the phrase “oily tongues” makes more sense in his original version, to suggest a sense of general mistrust of all political motives. 

Despite abolition being a moral cause, many saw the abolitionist rhetoric of the Union as superficial and an attempt to mask the political motivations of the American and British governments. This problem of superficiality in debates surrounding anti-racism still resonates today. Some politicians and businesses are often happy to tell use the rhetoric of anti-racism without necessarily taking deep and long-term steps to make institutional and societal changes. 

George Floyd mural in Stevenson Square, 2020.
By David Dixon.

Today, Manchester’s Stevenson Square remains a site of political protest. In 2020 a mural depicting George Floyd was created there by street artist Akse as a symbol of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a reminder that, 150 years after the abolition of slavery in United States, racism and racial inequality remain deep issues for society. It is vital that we develop more complete and inclusive historical narratives to help us understand in more detail that past social struggles were far from simple and straightforward, similarly to the complexities and competing motivations of today’s movements for change. 

Find out more 


Cotton Famine PoetryPoetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

Revealing Histories, The American Civil War and the Lancashire Cotton Famine. 


Simon Rennie, This ‘Merikay War’: Poetic Responses in Lancashire to the American Civil War, 2020. 

Janet Toole, Workers and slaves: class relations in South Lancashire in the time of the Cotton Famine, 1998. 

Rosalind Hall, A Poor Cotton Weyver: Poverty and the Cotton Famine in Clitheroe, 2003. 

This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.