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The Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-5)

During the American Civil War, the supply of cotton to the UK stopped, and the Lancashire mills and factories that relied on it shut down, causing sudden mass unemployment on a scale previously unknown. The cotton industry was the hub of the industrial revolution, and whole families would work in the cotton mills, meaning that the loss of income hit even harder. It is estimated that almost a fifth of the population of the UK were affected by the lack of cotton.

In the 1860s, there were 200 local newspapers in Lancashire, which reported on regional but also on national news, and many of these papers also published a daily or weekly poetry column. In response to the crisis, many people including former cotton workers wrote poems about their situation, which were published in these regional newspapers. These poems told the everyday stories of people’s lives, but also raised awareness of the plight and called for relief aid.

This ‘Cotton Famine poetry’ has not previously been collected together and interpreted, so the Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-5) project, funded by the AHRC and led by Dr Simon Rennie, aims to identify these poems, collect them together from their disparate locations in regional archives, and interpret them, making them freely available in a searchable text database developed by Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab. The database will include audio recordings of the poems.

Many local libraries hold regional newspaper archives, and the project has also been running programmes to get schoolchildren and members of the University of the Third Age involved with their local heritage by searching their local archives for cotton famine poems.

Although the cotton famine has been well-documented by historians (though it remains little-known as part of the UK's history) the poetic response has never been fully explored, and one of the aims of the project is to raise awareness of it and inform the public about this particular period of history. When completed, the Cotton Famine project will have created a searchable online database of between 900 and 1,100 poems, with a ‘soft launch’ in July 2018 making the first 100 poems available.