by Charlotte Derbyshire
Oldham had grown from a small market town into an industrial metropolis during the Victorian period to become ‘The cotton Spinning Capital’ of the World. Advancements in transport and machinery allowed Oldham to be perfectly placed to take advantage of the economic boom that was created by an abundant supply of cotton. Migrant workers were attracted to the Oldham cotton mills to seek employment in the new industry and thus contributed to Oldham’s growth from a small market town into the industrial giant it became. The Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society have compiled a database of Oldham’s cotton mills and it highlight’s the phenomenal pace and breadth these were erected during the period: http://www.oldham.mlfhs.org.uk/archives/Mills.php
Eighty percent of the raw cotton that was span in Oldham was slave grown cotton imported from the southern states of America. During the American civil war of the early 1860’s the Northern States and President Abraham Lincoln put blockades on all cotton leaving the southern states in a bid to force the South to stop slavery. However, Abraham Lincoln’s motives are questionable, in The Oldham Standard of September 7th 1861, a letter to the editor J.Paul Cobbett says “The pretence , on the side of the North, of liberty for Black men, was utterly hollow, and you have seen, when the open rupture came, that the Northern party had no idea of yielding their right to partake in the riches of the slave states.’ Then in an article dated 24th September 1864 it is reported that ‘The cry of freedom for the slave was a bait to catch the unwary, Secretary Seward’s speech at Auburn distinctly tells the world that the North is not fighting for emancipation, but for the Union.’
The American crisis put a stop to cotton being imported into Britain and caused a knock-on effect in the British cotton industry. Supplies of raw cotton became short in supply. The mills in Oldham started to operate at half-time or stopping work completely. The Oldham Standard newspaper reported that ‘By 11th January 1862, the shortage of cotton had become so acute that the mills began to close down or run on short-time.’ The Economist published on July 7th, 1862 that there could only be hopes for two days work a week for the rest of the year.
There is evidence that two other factors that exacerbated the American situation. The first was that technological advancements of existing machinery had progressed and there had been an over-production of cotton items, and the second factor was that through over-production a surplus had been stockpiled. So, with the ‘crisis’ in America, cotton manufacturers could afford to suspend work at their mills as they had a supply that could sustain them for a while. The fluctuation of the cotton supply and that American cotton was hailed as the best quality, manufacturers could hike the prices of their surplus stock up and made a profit. Therefore, due to these factors and the blockades, the cotton mill workers of Oldham became unemployed and unable to make ends meet.
Due to the distress of the cotton workers and increasing claims coming up before the Poor Law board, discussions began to tackle the problem. In the Oldham Chronicle of January 1863 there were discussions for workers to emigrate to New York that caused much controversy and riot had broken out in the neighbouring village of Stalybridge in that winter also. The workers were encouraged to subscribe to local charity drives and local relief committees were set up to administer these charitable funds to anyone deemed ‘The Worthy Poor’. Robert Rowlinson, a prominent engineer, was tasked with looking into finding employment for the distressed operatives. His ideas were to engage the workers in public works such as sanitation and sewerage, road building and public parks. This gave birth to The Public Works (manufacturing districts) Act 1863. Rowlinson was charged with supervising government loans to Local Authorities for these purposes.
The well documented cotton-famine road of Rochdale which appeared in The BBC’s Black and British aired in November 2016 was one such project. Oldham also had its equivalent, but it has been left to become mostly unknown today other than a few Saddleworth Moor Ramblers. The only real information that can be found is that it is called The Cotton Famine Trail, or the road to nowhere. It is not a road in the sense that The Rochdale one was cobbled and wide enough for horse and cart, Oldham’s is just a two-track trail cutting along the Pennine bridleway near the Greenfield to Holmfirth road A365 and remained uncompleted. For a description of how to access the trail please see https://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walk-2634-description however, this uses the name Cotton Famine road and shouldn’t be confused with the Rochdale road.
The idea for a municipal park had been in discussion in Oldham Town Council since 1846. Municipal parks were a new fashion in Victorian society, the thinking behind it was the commemoration of public figures and in improving the general constitution of the working class. Parks and libraries were seen as a way to educate with a view that the working class could self-improve.
In 1863 Oldham Town Council took advantage of the low government loan rates granted by The Public Works Act. £30,000 was borrowed and Swine Clough Estate, an area of agricultural land, was purchased. A competition was held for designs of the park, the plans submitted by William Henderson, Woodhouse and Potts of Oldham were accepted. Nearly sixty acres of park was constructed by Oldham’s distressed cotton workers and was officially opened on a rainy August day in 1865 by The Mayor Josiah Radcliffe. The Oldham Chronicle on 2nd September ran a full-page article on the opening of the park, there was a procession that included the 31st Lancashire Rifle Volunteers, The Corporation band, members of The Clergy, and County Magistrates, Body of Police and even The Temperance Society amongst many others. The Opening day was widely publicised in the local press, Manchester press and even made it into The London Illustrated News (see illustration below.)
For further photographs of the park’s Victorian features take a look at: https://opa.cig2.canon-europe.com/s/cp/GQ4jZy254gK
(Photos reproduced with kind permission from my creative director Kirstie Chapman.)
Oldham has its roots in an industry that made men rich while keeping other men in slavery. Although that is not a nice thought for Oldham’s civic pride and idea of British values that is being pushed in local schools at the moment, it is a testament to the pride of Oldham’s working class and multicultural links within the community.
“As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could truthfully be asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic.” (Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, October 14, 1861.)
GUIDE FOR FURTHER READING
For Information regarding Alexandra Park please see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001338 and also https://www.oldham.gov.uk/info/200393/parks_countryside_and_canals/676/alexandra_park
For General information on the Cotton Famine and Slavery history of Manchester please see: http://www.revealinghistories.org.uk/home.html
For Information on British Manufacturing history please see: https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Main_Page
Hard Times by Charles Dickens and Mary Barton (A Manchester Tale) by Elizabeth Gaskell are excellent works of literature offering a general theme and insight into Victorian attitudes.
Arnold, A R Art. IV.-(1.) the history of the cotton famine (1865). . London: Hodder and Stoughton
BBC 2, Black and British: A Forgotten History. Aired on 23/11/16.
Beckert, Sven. (2014) Empire of Cotton, a new history of global capitalism
Canny, Nicholas and Louis, Roger (2001) – Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume 1: Origins of Empire
Ferguson, Niall. (2003) Empire How Britain made the Modern World.
Heaton, H. (1935). The Lancashire cotton famine, 1861-1865. W. O. Henderson. Journal of Political Economy, 43(4), 565-565. 10.1086/254822
Morgan, Kenneth (2007) – Slavery and the British Empire
Rose, M. E. (1980). Norman Longmate, the hungry mills. the story of the Lancashire cotton famine 1861–5. London
Temperley, H. (1977). capitalism, slavery and ideology. Past and Present, 75(1), 94-118. doi:10.1093/past/75.1.94
I have extensively used The Oldham Archives for The Oldham Standard and The Oldham Chronicle newspapers on microfilm and also owe the Archive ladies huge thanks for their help. The details can be found here: https://www.oldham.gov.uk//info/200276/local_studies_and_archives