The Poetry Of The Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-65): Tracing Poetic Responses To Economic Disaster

Ruth Mather (, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Our project will make freely available a searchable webapp, built in eXist-db ( ), containing a database of poems responding to Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-65, along with audio recitations and musical performances drawing directly on these poems (Rennie, 2017). This poetic response is important in that it often represents labouring-class voices from the mid-nineteenth century, which, in spite of renewed academic interest in such material, remain underappreciated (Goodridge et al, 2012 provides a useful introduction and bibliography). The study of this material and its digital publication will significantly enrich literary scholarship and historical perspectives of this economic crisis, and provides the opportunity to draw public attention to an episode of history that is little known beyond the scholarly sphere. The project seeks to establish a much more detailed understanding of the nature of Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry: its extent, its intents, and its functions. To date, there is no critical literature specifically addressing the poetry written and published during the Cotton Famine, though the period is touched upon in Brian Hollingworth’s anthology Songs of the People: Lancashire dialect poetry of the industrial revolution (1972: 98-113).

The project draws predominantly on the local newspaper collections of Lancashire’s various civic archives and local studies centres for material. Though some of these newspapers have been digitised in collections such as the British Newspaper Archive and Gale Historical Newspapers, the majority are in hard-copy or microfilm format, so that users attempting to access the poetry encounter practical obstacles relating to both geography and the preservation of materials. Additionally, as the archives and local studies collections in Lancashire are significantly under-resourced, there are long-term concerns about maintenance of the equipment and staffing levels required to ensure that access to these significant historical collections is sustainable. The recovery element of our project therefore aims to ensure long-term, free-of-charge access to a near-complete repository of Cotton Famine Poetry without the requirement to visit multiple archives or local studies centres. As the recovered poems have been transcribed by hand, we are also avoiding replicating the Optimal Character Recognition errors which have been incurred by some of the existing newspaper databases (Joulain-Jay, 2016).

Alongside the vital recovery and collation of this material, the experience of the investigators in the field of labouring-class poetry enables a simultaneous critical analysis of the poetry as it emerges, focussing on local, regional, national, and international fields of interest. We encounter a wide range of poetic styles, written both in Lancashire dialect and standard English, which demonstrate the sophisticated literary engagements of their authors. In terms of subject matter, the poems describe not only the direct, local experience of the Cotton Famine, but also offer more abstract reflections on issues including work, poverty, war, slavery and abolition. We want to determine the extent to which political dissent is present in the poetry, and to what degree opposing discourses relating to slavery and the American Civil War were articulated through literature of this type. We are already beginning to establish that a significant proportion of Cotton Famine poetry represents a labouring-class address to a regional and national middle-class readership, and part of our analysis will involve mapping a transatlantic discourse between the Lancastrian labouring classes and writers on both sides of the American conflict. The popular narrative of the Cotton Famine has Lancashire textile workers staunchly supporting the North in spite of the deprivation caused by the war, because of their strong support for abolition. Early analysis of poetic responses suggests a more complicated engagement with the American conflict, including some elements of support for the south (see also Ellison, 1972). We hope that by making the poetry freely available online, we encourage its further use as an important historical and literary resource for understanding some of these complex themes.

The digitisation of a large and varied body of work such as this presents both challenges and possibilities, and this paper will reflect upon the difference that digital methods make to our interpretation of the material and the ways in which it can be used. The process of marking up text for the database enables us to make our editorial decisions in presenting this body of work transparent, and to group similar poems and themes for the reader’s ease of analysis. Nonetheless, in so doing, we impose our own interpretations upon what was a fluid form - often orally transmitted, and published in different versions across different media. A key concern in presenting this material has been the desire to ensure its usefulness for scholars who might have different approaches and questions to our own. In forcing us to grapple with these challenges, the use of digital methods has encouraged us to make explicit our own methodologies and thought processes, and enabled the creation of a resource that could be considered more intellectually ‘open’ than the traditional analogue anthology.

The design of our webapp therefore reflects our desire for a flexibility which in turn offers better representation of a literature which was originally available in multiple, sometimes changing forms. Some poems were written to be read or sung aloud, while others endeavoured to capture in writing the transient forms of local dialect, and different variations of the same poem appear across the newspapers. The use of XML enables us to continuously add layers of interpretation as they occur in the data for macro analysis, while marking up at word-by-word level enables a careful close reading in which we are forced to be conscious of the decisions we are making about the presentation of material.

An important part of the project is its public-facing element, including the involvement of school groups in finding and transcribing the poetry. We also welcome submissions of potential Cotton Famine poetry from members of the public, local historical societies, and educational projects with an interest in this material. Managing the upload and editing of these submissions, and ensuring that appropriate credit is given, is one of the tasks that the project team has taken on, and it is likely to present its own set of challenges: gathering this data provides an opportunity to involve the public in undertaking research and giving them insights into this process, but we also need to ensure that the results are useful and worthwhile for the project’s outputs. At present we are not planning to train people beyond the team in how to encode in TEI, but giving contributors a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the database and offering an introduction to how we create and structure our digital materials (and why) has the potential to enable further discussions and may encourage contributors to get involved with digital humanities activity beyond our immediate project. We feel that this is an important step in ensuring that contributors gain an understanding of what happens to their data once they submit it, and how it is transformed into what they see in the final digital publication. We will discuss these challenges and how we intend to maintain interest and engagement amongst our contributors.    

At this stage of the project, in which we are making key decisions about how to manage our own data and that from our external contributors, we would welcome discussion and comments from the wider digital humanities community on how we can ensure that our resource is an effective tool for both research and teaching. We hope, too, that the challenges that we are encountering and some of our proposed solutions might prove helpful for others working with comparable datasets or audiences.

Appendix A

  1. Ellison, M. (1972) Support for Secession: Lancashire and the American Civil War. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Goodridge, J. et al (2012) ‘Introduction’, Labouring-Class Poets Online.
  3. Hollingworth, B. (1972) Songs of the People: Lancashire dialect poetry of the industrial revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  4. Joulain-Jay, A. (2016) ‘Dealing with Optimal Character Recognition errors in Victorian Newspapers’, British Library Digital Scholarship Blog, July 20 th 2016.
  5. Rennie, S. (2017) The Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-65)