On this day … 11 May 1861

Three items on one page of the Preston Chronicle perfectly captured the hopes and anxieties gripping Preston at the start of the American Civil War.

The first reported a petition to Parliament, noting the ‘alarming state of affairs in America’. The petition urged the Government to invest heavily in Indian agriculture to allow that country to grow cotton ‘of as good quality as that now furnished by the restricted and costly slave labour of the United States‘ to supply the needs of Preston’s mills.

Be warned. The report is all one sentence of 213 words, which must have taxed the concentration of the paper’s readers.

No mention, by the way, is made of the fact that India had a flourishing cotton industry producing textiles of a quality that Europe could not match, until it could no longer compete with the cheap cotton products flooding in from Britain’s mills. Instead of being an exporter, it became an importer of cotton goods.

A second item suggested Preston’s mills would soon be operating on short time, and noted that Mr Bashall had already closed his Wellfield Mill.

The third item was concerned with a meeting of the Preston Anti-Slavery Society at the Friends’ Meeting House on Friargate, which heard an optimistic report from America that the northern States were sure to win because of their military and financial superiority. The audience was also told that slaves were fleeing north to freedom in their hundreds.

Before long, Preston realised there was little cause for optimism, as the picture shows, for what came to be known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine arrived, closing the town’s mills and lasting until 1865.

Cotton Famine in Preston
The Distress in Lancashire – Mill-Hands at work on Preston Moors 1862. Engraving c.1862 from The Illustrated London News: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/6630794799/

The Chronicle is one of the best sources for the history of nineteenth-century Preston, and is available for free on line to anyone with a Lancashire library card.

𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐫𝐞𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐬:


A petition to the House of Commons is in course of signature among the millowners and factory operatives of Preston, stating that the alarming state of affairs in America renders a serious diminution in the supply of cotton from that country imminent, and pointing out that if British skill, enterprise, and capital were directed to the development of the agricultural resources of India, that country would be speedily rendered capable of supplying cotton of as good quality as that now furnished by the restricted and costly slave labour of the United States, and praying that the House will adopt such measures as will contribute to the development of the agricultural and commercial resources of India, so as to enable that country to compete, on equal terms, with the United States of America, especially in the production of cotton; and praying that such measures may include the sale of land in fee simple; the establishment of efficient courts of law, which, while giving protection to the riyot [tenant farmer], shall afford security to capital, and the means of enforcing the just fulfilment of contracts, and the construction of all necessary public works, such as roads, railroads, canals or water ways, tanks, reservoirs, and works of irrigation, and particularly the opening of the navigation of the River Godavery.


It is probable that very shortly many of the cotton mills in the town will run short time, it being generally considered that a reduction of the hours of labour is the only way to meet the deficiency consequent on the American crisis. We understand that Mr. Bashall, of Wellfield Mill, has given notice to close his mill altogether.


A meeting of the friends of this society was held at the Friends’ Meeting House, Friargate, on Wednesday evening last. The principal point of interest was a letter read by a minister present, from a clergyman, who resides in America, close upon the borders of the seceding states, in which he expressed his firm conviction that these states which were withdrawing from the Union must, before very long, succumb to the superior strength, both in a military and financial point of view, of the northern States. It is stated in the anti-slavery papers, which have arrived by the American mail, that the negroes in the slave States are not as apathetic on the subject as the public have been generally given to understand. About five hundred of them have already “improved the occasion,” and escaped from that part of the country where they were held in bondage.


Page Four of the Preston Chronicle on Saturday 11 May 1861

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