Lancashire to America:
The Cotton Connection
Lancashire was an isolated region of the country until around 1600 when the cotton cloth industry was introduced. Although England’s mainstay had always been wool, cotton lent itself more readily to machine weaving and mass production.
The damp climate of Lancashire is perfect for weaving since it helps the fibers cling together, reducing the strain put on them by weaving machinery. Land and labor were cheap, and coal and soft water (necessary for bleaching) were plentiful. The cotton cloth industry grew rapidly and by the 19th century was Britain’s principal source of wealth. An old saying was “Britain’s bread hangs by a Lancashire thread.” Inexpensive Lancashire cotton cloth provided ordinary people of many lands with their first opportunity to buy cheap and attractive clothing.
The boom continued until after the First World War, when cotton-growing countries, especially in Asia, began doing their own manufacturing. After 1959 most mills closed and today the once-enormous Lancashire cotton industry is only a memory.
The Lancashire cotton boom, and the prosperous British economy of the Victorian era, was made possible by our ancestors who emigrated to the American South to grow the cotton (most during the mid-17th century). Nearly all of the cotton that was woven in Lancashire was imported from the American South. By keeping costs low and increasing productivity (i.e. because of slavery, sorry to say), cheap American cotton allowed Lancashire to sell cotton cloth to even the poorest nations.
The Lancashire roots of our ancestors are reflected in the names they gave the towns where they settled in the New World: Chester, York, Lancaster, Bolton, Manchester. (You’ll find a grouping like this in several U.S. states.) All these are names of cities in northern England, close to home.
Lancashire suffered dramatically during the American Civil War when shipments of cotton were cut off. The “cotton famine” is an indication that a strong link survived between Lancashire and its descendants off in America.