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Distress in Wigan


From 1861 to 1865, the United States of America was at war with itself. Eleven southern states declared their independence from the USA over the issue of slavery, calling themselves the Confederate States of America. The rest of the USA considered this to be rebellion, and war broke out following an attack on a US military installation in North Carolina.

The British government supported the northern side in the war, enforcing an embargo on trade with the Confederacy. There was some illicit trade with the South. For example at least one warship was built on the Mersey in the pretence that it was a merchantman, its weaponry being fitted once it was en route to America. One great surprise was that Lancashire cotton workers also supported the North, despite the fact that their livelihoods depended on the flow of cotton from the plantations in the South. Being against Slavery was more important than jobs.

Lancashire starved.

The following report appeared in the Preston Guardian on 7 Nov 1863. Although slightly sanitised, it gives quite an insight into the conditions suffered by our ancestors in the Cotton Famine.

THE DISTRESS IN WIGAN.-A very interesting report on the state of the town of Wigan has just been issued by Mr. Richard Lea, one of the secretaries to the Relief Committee. From the statistics the document contains it appears that there are now 1,506 factory operatives in full work, 212 are employed five days, and about 100 handloom weavers are working. As the total number of operatives in the district is 9,910, these figures show that there are still out of employ 8,092 persons. Last week the committee relieved 7,405 persons, principally through the medium of the sewing schools, at a cost of £495 16s. There are 1,368 girls attending sewing schools and 100 young men employed by the guardians on the road, who attend part of their time at an adult school supported by the Relief Committee. The sum which has been subscribed is £57,544 11s. 7d., and the balance now in hand is £1100. One mill has entirely stopped work during the past month, and the number of persons employed is less by 15 than the last return. The report proceeds to state that the high price of cotton had, as was feared, had the effect of reducing very considerably the cotton consumed, as compared with the preceding month - much more so, in fact, than the small decrease in the number of hands employed would seem to imply. Through the rapidly increasing price of cotton and the consequent decrease of the margin between cotton and yarn (for yarn does not advance in the same proportion as cotton) several spinners, that they may keep themselves out of the market the longer, and in order that they may continue to employ some, however few, of their hands, have been induced to lessen the number employed in the spinning department, and, instead of disposing of their yarn, make it into cloth and employ more hands in the weaving department. Thus, while they have been enabled to defer buying cotton at the present high prices, they have also been enabled to keep up the number of hands employed. It is, however, continues the secretary, natural to suppose the spinners holding stocks of cotton purchased a few weeks ago, and before the recent heavy advances took place, considering that the profit of making it into yarn, if any at all, would be so very small, and seeing that if they were to sell their cotton at present prices they would realise so much more, should prefer the latter course to the former comparatively unremunerative one. If such a course be adopted, it can easily be imagined that the state of things in Wigan would be much worse. The relief has of late continued to show an improvement, but as winter approaches each week may be expected to increase the numbers requiring relief. Persons employed in building trades and in other out-door work have begun to suffer, and the children (who formerly worked in factories) of those employed in such trades will come upon the relief books. Still, thinks the secretary, there is no reason to fear that the same amount of distress which existed last winter, either a shown by the books or in individual suffering, will be experienced in the coming winter for several reasons. Through the greater experience of the Relief Committees, many who received relief last year and were unworthy of it, or did no require it, will now be refused. Many others of both sexes have obtained employment - some of the girls as domestic servants, and some have left the town. Another reason to which much importance is attached is that last winter the people were suddenly reduced from a state of comfort and independence to poverty and dependence; whereas now, free habit and in the absence of much mental or bodily exertion they are enabled to live on the amounts they can earn, increased by the allowances of the Board of Guardians and the Relief Committee in comparative comfort. The bells of the parish church will today (Saturday), in compliance with a request from Mottram, ring a funeral peal to the memory of the late Lord Mayor. It is expected this will be general throughout the distressed district.

Eight out of ten adults in the cotton industry were unemployed – along with the children of many others. The other main industry of the town - coal - was geared to produce fuel for cotton mills, so many more families were destitute. Even the Relief Committee only had two weeks’ funding available, and they had already spent two years’ worth at that rate. Note that people were expected to survive on less than they had been given the year before because they were now used to it, and there was now no need to provide the food needed for heavy manual labour.

Wigan had a mixed cotton economy, with spinning and weaving taking place, so there was the possibility of employment in two departments during processing of cotton. Other towns had a more specialised industry. Oldham, for example, was a spinning town, posessing at one time more than half the cotton spindles in the world. They would have had no cushion against the ever-rising price of raw cotton.