A Lancashire Manufacturer and the Cotton Famine

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Among documents purchased from Shaw’s Bookshop of Manchester is a collection of letters written to William Horrocks of Farnworth, near Bolton, while he was a medical student in London (DP 412). The 179 letters were written by William’s father, George Horrocks, a cotton spinner and manufacturer, and brothers Joseph, Henry and James between 1 October, 1859, and 13 December, 1866. They are a valuable source of information to students of the cotton industry, as they cover the period of prosperity which preceded the outbreak of the Civil War in America, the chief supplier of raw cotton, in April, 1861, and the period of depression which followed.

In his letter dated 14 February, 1860, which reflects the prosperity of the cotton industry, George Horrocks describes to William the new mills that were being built in the Farnworth area. “Trade is very brisk all over Lanc, and York. S. Hardman, Esq. Has got his new mill nearly finished. Thomas Nuttall and A. Long Co. Has begun to build a grand mill said to outstrip all about here, Engine House for two 40 Horse Engines. Wm. Openshaw and Co. Is going to build a grand spinning near Moses Gate station.”

Determined not to be left behind his rivals, George Horrocks made improvements to his own mill in 1860. In his letter of 14 July he tells William that he has just bought four new carding engines (for the opening out, straightening and cleaning of raw cotton), and that the cost of these and their installation would be nearly £200. On 16 October however, William’s brother Joseph writes of improvements to the mill on a larger scale: “My father has just bought 6 throstle frames containing about 1200 spindles from Thos. Barnes and Co. He is about to put them in the top room. The warping mill is shifted in the furthest corner of the top room and the stairs leading to the top room have been shifted nearer the corner whey they stood. Our Henry (another brother) now boasts that he has further to go into the mill to his work than any other person on the premises and you know his brag.”

By 3 December George Horrocks has begun to operate his new machinery, and writes: “I started my first throstle on Saturday driven by a new 2 ½ in. Diameter polished shaft; all polished Drums in large pullies, bored, and turned, with conical keys to fit the shaft all made in true and balance, the whole of the scheming of each plan and the calculating of the size and exact place of each pully with swing pullies is entirely my own.” The new throstle frame was able to produce more yarn of a higher quality in less time than the machinery it was replacing. “The spindles run about five thousand revolutions per minute and will clear to me about five pounds per week thank God.”lthough George Horrocks considered himself to be making adeqauate improvements to the mill he was not progressive enough for his partner, Robert Dearden, and their partnership, which had stood for seventeen years, was dissolved in November, 1860. In his letter of 16 October Joseph tells William of Robert Dearden’s discontent: “R.D. told my father last Saturday but one that he had no prospect whatever, and what he will do is unknown to me. It is reported that he will take a mill built by Rhodes, in Worsley Road on the site of Hardman’s old spindle shop. It is newly built and wants filling with machinery.”

On 23 November George Horrocks, delighted and optimistic that the dissolution has been finalized, writes to tell William that he has bought Robert Dearden out for £1,500: “I have no harder to work, but my work is sweet because I now reap the whole benefit.”

Although 1860 was, on the whole a prosperous year for the cotton industry, it was not with setbacks. In his letter dated 17th January George Horrocks informs William that he has had the boiler and flues cleaned, and repairs carried out to the steamhouse wall while the workers were on strike. Necessary maintenance work of this nature would have meant closing the mill, in any case. He is, nevertheless somewhat alarmed by the attitude of the workers: “All kind of work people are rather independent round about Bolton and here and in many other pleases I hear of.” In October he is faced by a demand for a rise of 6d per cut by the weavers, which Joseph tells William he will give, but will be stricter with them in return: “If any come late they will be fined.

Industrial disputes were not, however the only disruptive factors which affected the cotton industry before the outbreak of the American Civil War. On 3 February 1860, George Horrocks writes to say that the mill is at a standstill, because he had run out of raw cotton, and 20 bales which he had purchased were waiting at the station unable to be delivered because of snow and ice.

Despite minor setbacks, however, the cotton industry enjoyed relative prosperity in this period. George Horrocks wrote confidently to William on 26 March, 1860: “The trade of cotton spinning and manufacturing will never die out so long as children are born stark naked. If they begin to tumble into the world clothed from head to foot and an umbrella a piece a few spindles and looms may stop.” He was totally unaware of the dangers of relying on one source, America, for raw cotton, and what the result would be if that source failed.

Although the American Civil War did not break out until April, 1861, the price of raw cotton rose considerably in January of that year, and on 7 February George Horrocks complains to William that his profits have not increased as a result of the installation of the new throstle machinery as he had hoped because of the high price of raw cotton. This increase in prices was because merchants with a stock in hand were able to sell raw cotton off at a high price after the secession of the Southern states from the Union in the autumn of 1860 when civil war, and a possible disruption of supplies appeared inevitable. At the same time there was no increase in the price of manufactured cotton goods, and the demand was beginning to fall off. Some mills stopped production before the Civil War began, as George Horrocks writes on 21 March: “Messrs. Martin, Johnson and Jones Mill is entirely stopped having their hands turned out because of a reduction of 5 per cent and in consequence they tell me to push on as fast as I can, and I am doing I tell you, there are many thousand turned out in Bolton.”

The situation deteriorated after the outbreak of the war, and on 5 June, 1861, George Horrocks writes: It is of no use me harping upon dear cotton though I should be very glad if it was cheaper and my coffers more full of good cash, cash, cash.” A fortnight later he has tried to cut the cost of production by reducing wages: “I have reduced my expenses in the payment of wages at the mill about £500 per week but cotton is so dear that I can only just make both ends meet.”

By the autumn of 1861 raw cotton had become scarce and manufacturers were finding production increasingly unprofitable. On 30 September George Horrocks tells William that “Cotton this week is up again I think I shall make all the cotton I have into money and stop entirely and wait as well as I am able for something better turning up.” In his next letter, dated 7 October he explains how some of his fellow manufacturers have tried to overcome the problem by working short time: “Messrs. T. Barns and Co. Are working from 8 ½ a.m. to 12 noon from 1 p.m. to 4 ½ p.m. Nearly all the other mills are 3 or 4 days per week.” 

The decision to stop production once his supply of raw cotton had been used up appears to have been the right one for George Horrocks to have taken, as Joseph points out to William in his letter of 4 January, 1862: “The cotton industry in Lancashire is in a frightful condition. What do you think of yarn being 15d per pound and cloth into which the same yarn is made being 141/2d –a halfpenny a pound lower! It is a most providential thing that father stopped at the time he did, otherwise he might have been ruined.”

Even after he had closed the mill altogether George Horrocks remained optimistic that the American Civil War would soon be over and cheap raw cotton available again. On 12 February, 1862, he writes to William about maintenance work that is being carried out in the mill while the boiler is out of action: “Your brother Henry is as black this moment as any sweep he has just finished cleaning the factory boiler flues and chimney bottom out and is now inside the boiler he has done it first rate and when he has finished all we shall be better prepared for another start.”

As American cotton became increasingly scarce and expensive, Lancashire manufacturers began looking for another source. India was the world’s second producer, but here cotton was grown as a subsidiary cash crop on smallholdings and was, therefore of a much poorer quality than that grown on extensive, specialized plantations in America. In his letter dated 20 February, 1862, George Horrocks tells William the problems of using Indian cotton: “It is no use saying anything about the cotton trade but there are many trying to use surat cotton all of which comes from the East India coast and interior it is so very dirty and short that no fine numbers has yet been made from it Martins are spinning 40 count weft but it is poor stuff and their machinery in a filthy state. I am about to put together a machine and with it try to clean either surat or any dirty cotton and if I can succeed to my mind I will spin a little though I cannot expect any profit until cotton is much cheaper.

In a letter dated 28th March, 1861, William’s brother Henry referred to poor quality raw cotton being purchased by a local manufacturer. He does not say that this is Indian, but as it was bough at the time when prices of American cotton were rising sharply it could be from another source. “Billy Openshaw hese bowt 50 bales o cotton but he is mad because its so por mon its so poor ut Jimmy Reet ut Moses Gate says it has fort go back.” The spelling and phrasing of this sentence are not, incidentally, typical of the rest of the letter, as this section has been written in dialect, presumably for William’s amusement.

The letter written by George Horrocks on 30 May, 1862, is the last one in the collection relating to the cotton industry, which by that time was almost completely at a standstill. Manufacturers who had not stopped production at an earlier date had lost so much money that they were about to finish: “Three mills in Over Darwen on the Co-operative who are and have been loosing £120 per week are about to stop working altogether.”

The remaining letters are concerned with family matters and the employment of William’s brothers, on whose incomes the family must have depended. Joseph became manager at Over Darwen station and Henry one of his assistants. James, another brother was a teacher at Farnworth school, then he went to America to join the Union cavalry in 1864. When the Civil War drew to a close he took up a teaching post in Texas. George Horrocks himself did not live to see the recovery of the cotton industry, for he died as a result of a fall down the steps at Bolton station in January, 1865.

The cotton famine which resulted from the American Civil War brought distress to both mill owners and workers in Lancashire. Much has been written about its affects upon the workers, whereas the manufacturers have been somewhat neglected. The correspondence of the Horrocks family of Farnworth is, therefore a special interest because it throws light upon the famine from a manufacturer’s point of view.

Notes: This article first appeared in the Lancashire Record Office Annual Report 1972

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