My research uncovered a window on a regional economic disaster caused by globalisationby Simon Rennie / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
In spring 2015 I was in the market for a new literary research project when I heard a Radio 4 “In Our Time” broadcast about the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-65. One of the panellists referred to the phenomenon of “Cotton Famine Poetry,” and my ears pricked up. I began to read the famous Lancashire dialect poets who had written on the subject—Edwin Waugh, William Billington, Samuel Laycock, and Joseph Ramsbottom—and found a rich seam of poetic social commentary.
I also found almost no critical material that related specifically to these poets’ engagement with the Cotton Famine. In academic circles this means one of two things: either there is nothing of interest here, or a gap in the research has been discovered. As my research unfolded and I began to tap into extensive unread archives documenting a much broader written cultural response to a regional economic disaster, I realised the latter was the case.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine was caused to a large degree by the Union blockade of Confederacy exports during the American Civil War (1861-65). Three-quarters of Lancashire’s cotton imports came from the Southern states, and the sudden break in supply led to mass unemployment in the most industrialised region in the world. Although the history of the Lancashire Cotton Famine has been well documented, the poetic response to this event and its unique global-local discourses has received scant attention.
This is largely due to the fact that apart from the few collections by well-known dialect writers mentioned above, the texts are scattered across local newspaper poetry pages. There may be over a thousand poems in existence which relate to the Lancashire Cotton Famine and its devastating effects on the region. Of these, perhaps 10 to 15 per cent are in variants of Lancashire dialect. The term “variants” is appropriate here because, at least in the mid-Victorian period, there was no agreed spelling of the phonetic representation of Lancastrian speech; individual poets created their own linguistic codes.
There was something of a revival of interest in Lancashire dialect in the 1960s and 1970s, when provincial comedy and entertainment first made its way onto British television screens. In the northwest the most successful example of this was arguably “Sit…