Cotton tithes matter

A few hours after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was drowned in the dock at Bristol questions were asked regarding the existence of any similarly tainted statues in my home city.  I didn’t have the heart to suggest that it might not be a question of one or two statues, but a plethora of plinths and miles of pavements that may need to be torn up to truly salve the guilt.

Preston, and scores of other Lancashire towns, prospered exponentially from the financial first wave of the manufacturing pandemic that became the Industrial Revolution. Their streets were paved with gold (for a few) because their sheets were plied with cotton.  The cotton was cheap because the labourers who produced it were not paid.  They were purchased.

The infamous triangular trade from the UK to Africa, America and back to Britain involved various cargoes being shipped from west to east but cotton became increasingly important to North-western England where the damp climate suited its storage.  Cotton was the key commodity for the mills of the region due to its Atlantic ports, plentiful water and coal, and the cheapness of the raw material.  Most things can be supplied cheaply if the labour-intensive workforce is not paid.

In 1777 the first cotton-spinning mill in Preston was built in Moor Lane. By 1835 there were 40 factories, producing 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of cotton yarn weekly. Cotton was the principal employer for more than 150 years. Preston is also where the inventors Richard Arkwright and John Kay developed the water frame textile spinning machine that revolutionised cotton manufacturing.[1]

Preston’s population increased more than five-fold in fifty years, from 11,887 in 1801 to 69,361 in 1851, and this was largely as a consequence of the growth in cotton spinning and weaving.[2]  Slavery in the United States was by no means the only reason for this growth and the corresponding wealth of the factory owners and investors, but the quantity and availability of the raw material supplied by slaves was fundamental to the scale of the profits, and the prosperity of the municipality.

Gold thread bobbin
Sculpture by Van Nong and local residents of Avenham, Preston

The benefit of cheap cotton to Preston and its neighbours was clearly demonstrated in 1861 as the fear of an interruption of supply due to the American Civil War contributed to the ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine’ which resulted in closures and lay-offs for several years.  By December of 1862 twenty-two thousand people were being given poor relief in Preston.[3] The Atlantic trade was not the only factor, but it was a significant one. Things eventually recovered somewhat but that event showed just how much the town depended on low-priced cotton.

By the time slavery was abolished the United States the Lancashire textile towns had established  dominance in the markets and built their infrastructure.  The question we cannot avoid is: what proportion of the civic comforts we have enjoyed were due to the pain endured by others?

Hence, we arrive at commemorative guilt.  There has to be an acknowledgement of how our conurbation attained its ultimate condition. How should we declare our debt and pay our dues?

The statues of Preston, like those of other cities, have come under scrutiny for their cultural credentials. At the time of writing the few that stand remain in place.

Detail of a sculpture in Lune Street (see below)


Perhaps space should be made somewhere for a sculpture signifying the debt we owe to the enslaved whose despicable discomforts made our city more comfortable than it may have deserved to be?

The putting up or taking down of monuments only provides or removes reminders however, what we should really consider is reparation.  How can we truly compensate for the part our forbears played in implementing inequality and benefitting from it?  It is not good enough to acknowledge the sins of our ancestors, we must enhance the prestige of our contemporaries and pay more than lip-service to their equality.

We, the citizens who bear the unbearable debt, must break the chains. No child is born prejudicial. Schooling starts and ends at home.  We can nurture jailers or liberators.  We can feed greed or give generosity.  We can teach the fetishization of the self or the celebration of the other.

Those whose vocation is formal education should feel obliged to correct the curriculum.  Where the specifications are too narrow, acknowledge the absence every day.  Fill the gaps and trust your proteges to make future changes, meanwhile, do all you can to get there before them.IMG_9142Civic authorities founded on a legacy touched by the worst kind of prejudice must be paragons of restitution.  It is not enough to be secure in policies and procedures.  Let us be the pioneers of more and more creative means of eradicating prejudice of all kinds – including the most subtle, the so-called ‘unconscious’ bias. It is time for a much greater use of anonymisation in educational progression and job applications (including promotions) for that is the only sure way to ensure equal opportunity for all.

Recent civil unrest has demonstrated the mood for lasting change is there but the toppling of monuments is a temporary panacea.  Erasing the blots of the past does not ensure the correctness of the future.  Statues are the epitome of still lives.  It is the moving kind that matter.

IMG_8504 (2)
I am Queen Mary – a hybrid of bodies, nations & narratives.  A sculpture by La Vaughn Belle & Jeannette Ehlers in Copenhagen


Racial contemplation features in some of the stories in the Strictly Done Dancing collection: Nelson Mandela dances with Mitochondrial Eve and John Lennon jives with Billie Holiday.

Strictly Front cover from full size

Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback




[2]  D Hunt, A History of Preston, Carnegie 1992, Page 159

[3] Ibid: page 211

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