Forgotten poetry of the Lancashire cotton famine

My research uncovered a window on a regional economic disaster caused by globalisation

November 17, 2016
©Wikimedia Commons
©Wikimedia Commons

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 thi Deawn,” a TV show hosted by the Bolton folk band The Houghton Weavers. But the revival perpetuated the idea that dialect was a cosy, nostalgic, essentially humorous mode of communication. In reality, those who are familiar with the great dialect writers of the 19th century recognise that this vernacular form often contains several levels of meaning and astute social commentary.

Lancashire Cotton Famine dialect poetry by forgotten writers reveals a greater complexity of voice and seriousness of intent than expected. Poems with titles such as “Things tuh think on at this time” (E. Slater), “Hoamly Chat,” or “Settling th’ War!” (Williffe Cunliam) are presented in the vernacular but play off associations with the regional and domestic in order to make broader points about the relationship between poverty, economics and global politics.

In many ways these are very modern-sounding discourses. The last of these examples, "Settling th’ War!", published in the Burnley Free Press and General Advertiser 22nd August 1863, comments on the sense of helplessness felt by a region that recently dominated British industry by satirising the pompous deliberations of Burnley bigwigs on a situation over which they have no control:


Both popular and academic attitudes have swung between the characterisation of mid-19th-century Lancashire dialect writing as being an alternative literature for those who were unfamiliar with standard English spelling and syntax, and the idea that upwardly-mobile writers exploited their working-class roots to create an essentially artificial canon. There may be truth in both of these views, but it is also the case that Lancastrians of this period were increasingly aware of their importance in the global market, and of their position on the cusp of modernity as the industrial revolution reached an apparent point of no return.

For many writers of dialect verse, this means of expression was neither illiteracy nor impersonation, but bilingualism. Poetry always assumes a voice, so to highlight the perceived lack of authenticity of dialect verse is in one sense redundant. It is nevertheless true that some of the most famous writers of Victorian Lancashire dialect verse switched between standard and dialect English depending on the literary circumstances. I found that this was also true of lesser known poets. Both James Bowker and the aforementioned Williffe Cunliam (almost certainly a lazy nom de plume for the Burnley wool-sorter, William Cunliffe) proved themselves adept at dialect verse as well as the kind of conventional Victorian poetry which would sit easily in a standard anthology.

But it is their choice to express the issues of a regional economic disaster in that region’s particular language which remains the most effective, and the most affecting.

Both in the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century Lancashire dialect verse to some extent fell victim to its own popularity, but during the Lancashire cotton famine there was a new seriousness in its function as reporting the local, even as it looks out to a world beginning to be dominated by global economics.