Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company's mills, about 1820. From an old water-colour drawing of the period.

Great Distress in Europe – 1862

We give herewith from our latest English files some interesting information concerning the nature and extent of the suffering in Europe from the effects of the war in America, especially from the want of the great staple of cotton. The distress in England is growing to an alarming extent, as shown by the facts, figures and incidents we give below:


The prospect darkens each day, and, unfortunately, there seems no chance of a break in it. – Business in Manchester market is virtually at a stand still, and notwithstanding the recent arrivals of cotton, the course of what trade there is steadily tends to a diminution of consumption. – It is difficult to foresee in what quarter a way of salvation can be opened for the next four or five months at least, for, anomalous as it may seem, the announcement of a speedy settlement of the American difficulty would probably have the effect of throwing out of employment a large proportion of those who are fortunate enough still to be in receipt of wages.

Mr. Gladstone speech at Newcastle, which by many was looked on as a sort of semi-official foreshadowing of something being about to happen which might possibly liberate the Southern cotton crop, is said to have created quite a little panic here, and induced many manufacturers to stop their mills altogether. If we could only have a perfect assurance that the war would last another twelve month, or that no cotton would come from the South for two years or eighteen months hence, we might hope, spite of the large accumulated stocks, to see some at least of the giant chimneys, which at present bear witness so forcibly to the stagnation of the district, set a smoking again, and each week the pressure on the charitable fund would lighten, instead of increasing. If the duration of the war could only have been foreseen – if less faith had been placed in Mr. Lincoln days,’things would never have got to their present desperate pass; and it may be but just to the mill owners to say that probably they would have made adequate preparations to meet the necessities of their work people had they anticipated anything but a temporary crisis. So now it is in a great measure the uncertainties of the American conflict – the dread of being caught in full work with high priced cotton by sudden arrivals from America – which tie their hands.


At a late meeting at Manchester, Mr. Cobden, after reviewing the statistics of distress, said that he had always been of the opinion that the privation which was threatening the district must be cumulative; and it had proved so to a degree that very few foresaw. The means of meeting the difficulty would diminish just in proportion as the difficulty increased. Mr. Farnall had told them that one third of the rateable property would fall out of existence as it were, and future rates would have to be levied out of the remaining two thirds. That, however, would be by no means the measure of their condition three months hence, because every additional rate forced out of existence a large amount of rateable property, and the more they increased the rates the more they diminished the area over which the rates would be productive. This view of the case had an important bearing also upon the condition of the shopkeeping class, as well as the mill owners and manufacturers who had not a large amount of floating capital. There was no doubt that a large number of the shopkeeping class were rapidly falling into the same condition as those who suffered from unemployed labor. He heard when at Rochdale, a sorrowful example of this.

A poor woman who kept a shop was obliged to sell the Sunday clothes of her son, to pay off a distraint for a poor rate; and she received relief from the Committee on returning from paying the rate. This was a sad and sorrowful example, and he was afraid that it would not be a solitary one for a long time to come. He said then, that they must add this shopkeeping also in their estimate of the prevailing distress; and it was evident that this must be so when L. 7,000,000 per annum was withdrawn from wages. The consequence must present itself to every rational mind. Then they had another class of the class of young men of superior education, usually employed in warehouses and counting houses. A great number of those would rapidly sink to the condition in which they now found the operative classes. All this would add to the distress and embarrassment of this part of the kingdom. They must recollect that now the whole mass of the operative population was brought down to one sad level of destitution; and what they might be allowed from the poor rates and from voluntary subscriptions was actually the measure of all they would obtain from their subsistence.

That being so, and insufficient food generally producing depression of spirit as well as physical prostration, there was great danger of the health and strength of the working classes suffering, unless something more was done to meet the case, than he feared had yet been provided for it. It was a totally exceptional state of things. It had no parallel in all history. It was impossible that they could point out to him a case in which a limited sphere, such as they had in Lancashire, in the course of a few months there had been a cessation of employment to the amount of seven million pounds per annum in wages. There had been nothing like it in the history of the world for its suddenness and for the impossibility to deal with it and manage it in the way of an effective remedy.

Mr. Cobden then proposed that a Committee, whose organization should extend through the entire nation, be appointed, and that they, systematically and comprehensively, take the great question in hand.


Many persons will, I have no doubt, assert that the statements of Mr. Cobden, as to the present amount of destitution, and that amount which is yet to be expected, are overdrawn. I am not of that opinion. I feel satisfied, myself, that no one can yet calculate the full amount of utter ruin which must follow on the present state of things. So much destructive element is yet in sure course of development, arising from the disturbance of all the ordinary action of commercial industry; there are yet so many interests directly and indirectly involved in this stoppage of the mills that the actual destitution of the mill hands, all appalling in itself, forms but a part of what has yet to be played out in this great domestic tragedy.

In the course of the last six months the mechanic families in Lancashire have, in their way, had to undergo that kind of penal retrenchment which economy enforces in a struggle for independence caused by interruption to industry. To sell or to pawn, with no hope of redemption, articles of so call luxury – for many domestic reasons, articles perhaps of a peculiar esteem – was the first item of sacrifice; to this followed the sale or pawn of the more useful, but, perhaps, less sentimentally esteemed, articles. But houses became very bare indeed before any one of the family, as the rule, entertained the question of any serious inroad upon the meat and drink of the daily meals. The season, however, came when all saleable was sold, all that could be pledged was pawned, and all that had been saved was spent. The last shifts of independence to hold its own, rely on it, were very painful. Children are bad economists. They were fed as usual; for who could explain away their cry, or be deaf to it? The drink, the little meat, the tea, the sugar – every article had now to be measured out, not be the rule of appetite, but by that of means all in vain. They are not paupers now, but distressed human beings utterly destitute. They have lost independence; they subsist on charity; and yes, O how wonderful; to this, through this have they come, and are peaceful, resigned, grateful – men viewing their own misfortunes with a reasoning power that has brought them to calm resignation.


The General Relief Committee, in a report, say:

‘Your Committee express their regret that the aspect of the American struggle leaves no hope that the sufferings of our population will have an early termination. Should this war be immediately settled, it would still take months before our spindles and looms can be again humming their song of industry. We therefore conclude that the distribution of bread, meat, soup, clothing, bedding and coals must be continued throughout the ensuing winter.’


On October 25 there was 208,622 persons receiving parochial relief, being above four times the number of those relieved last year, and more by 68,456 than the return for the last week in August last. We are further told that 143,870 persons not in receipt of parochial relief was aided by local committees. Of 360,751 operatives in the twenty four Unions upon which the pressure is greater, but 58,638 are working full time, 119,712 are timers,’and 182,401 are thrown entirely out of employment. The weekly loss of wages is estimated at L. 136,094; and 136,094 a week is more than L. 7,000,000 a year. Nor does this prodigious sum represent the whole loss incurred by these districts, for the ordinary receipts of a manufacturer must be such as to cover not only wages, but the expense of machinery, and the interest of capital sunk in buildings and land, besides a handsome profit.

Now, to supply the fearful deficit of L. 136,094 in weekly wages, the Board of Guardians provide a sum which cannot be put higher than L. 10,000, since out of their total expenditure of L. 12,937 in outdoor and indoor relief, must be taken the normal cost of pauperism in average seasons. The Central Relief Committee at Manchester dispense about L. 6,200 (L. 25,000 per month), and the Mansion House Committee sent L. 6,550 last week. All the grants, therefore, from these sources scarcely amount to more than a sixth of what these working people have been in the habit of earning, and it is impossible to suppose that private charity and local funds, already exhausted, contribute more than a fraction to redress this balance. Altogether, the subscriptions hitherto published, approximate to the sum of L. 400,000; but of this a very large proportion is already expended.

The General Relief Committee, in their report for the last week in October, say that the number of persons in receipt of parochial relief, in 24 Unions of the district, had risen to 208,728, an addition of 45,222 during the month of October, and further, 143,870 persons, not in receipt of parochial relief, were aided by local committees. The number of operatives in the same district in full work is now reduced to 58,638, while the number working short time is increased to 119,712, and 182,401 are thrown entirely out of employment. The loss of wages is estimated at L. 136,691 per week, and there is no doubt that the savings of the working classes are almost exhausted. By the close of the first week of September the reports show that the number of operatives entirely unemployed had risen to about 250,000.


The returns from the Board of Guardians show that for the eight weeks from November the increase has been at the rate of from 8000 to 9000 per week, and the figures of the Relief Committees, if they were complete, would given even a more startling proof of the rapid spread of destitution. The effects, too, of the long continued stoppage of employment are making themselves visible in many new quarters. Each week destitution makes more rapid strides among those various classes of tradesmen who, through not counted in the number of mill hands, live entirely on their wages, and to whom the withdrawal of L. 136,000 from weekly circulation means little less than total ruin.

Tailors, shoemakers, bakers, milliners, beer house keepers, and all such persons whose customers mainly belong to the working classes, are now making their appearance in large numbers on the books both of the guardians and relief committee. The stagnation of business in Manchester, too, is being felt in various ways. In many of the warehouses every opportunity is taken of keeping down expenditure. Some have reduced their staff of packers, porters, and all employees of a similar class; in others they have been put on half time, and it is feared that, should there be no speedy improvement of trade, there will soon be many of a higher class, such as clerks, bookkeepers and warehousemen, thrown out of employment, and already many have had to submit to a reduction of salary. It is a rare thing now to see any of the great warehouses lit up at night, for where there is nothing to do, it is better to lock up at dark and save the expense of gas.


Collection: The Civil War
Publication: The Charleston Mercury
Date: December 10, 1862
Title: Great Distress in Europe

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