On this day … 13 May 1865

According to Anthony Hewitson in his History of Preston, the Preston Relief Committee, which had been supporting the town’s unemployed mill workers during the Cotton Famine, brought its activities to an end, signalling that life was returning to normal.

The committee had begun its work at the beginning of 1862, shortly after all the town’s mills closed down, starved of cotton because of the American Civil War.

Hewitson’s account of the committee’s operations reads like an accountant’s balance sheet. For example, he writes that in the worst week of the whole period, just before Christmas in 1862, the committee ‘relieved’ 22,565 persons, at a cost per head of one shilling and eight and five-eighths of a penny. That fraction comes straight out of the Gradgrind school of public charity.

His account is packed with such statistics. He breaks down the total spending of £131,000 to show how much was spent on food for the poor:

The Relief Committee spent the main portion of their funds in food, viz., 1,298,288 sixpenny loaves (weighing in the aggregate 2,300 tons), 6,558 loads of flour, 1,286,845 quarts of soup, and 386,053 quarts of scouse [a stew].

His statistics continue: 167,423 items of clothing and bedding were distributed costing £26,543 16s. 6d., and 15,046 tons of coal were donated by colliery owners with the committee spending a further £5,969 3s. 6d. on fuel.

All this work meant that a ‘tremendous strain was put upon the Poor-Law Guardians’. Hewitson praises the ‘very laudable work’ of that ‘excellent body’ the relief committee, and names all forty-six of its members, all men. One of members was the Preston banker Richard Pedder. For the stark contrast between the opulent life of Mr Pedder and that of the family of one of the starving operatives see:
Poverty and privilege in 1860s Preston

Illustration of working-class house interior from volume 2 of Edwin Waugh's Collected Works
An illustration from volume two of Edwin Waugh’s Collected Works gives a good impression of the sort of accommodation in which Preston’s unemployed mill workers were living.

Another and more empathetic journalist/historian, Edwin Waugh, visited the town at this time, and included a lengthy account of life in Preston during the Cotton Famine. He was deeply moved by the distress he discovered as he was conducted around the town. His verdict: Preston ‘… has seen many a black day [but] it has never seen so much wealth and so much bitter poverty together as now.’

His book is made up of a series of moving accounts of the sufferings of Preston’s starving mill workers at the height of the Cotton Famine. Where Hewitson reaches for the statistical report to tell the extent of the poverty faced by the unemployed, Waugh supplies dozens of individual stories to show the suffering they underwent.

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