Cotton in decline

Cotton Famine © Manchester Library and Information Service: Manchester Archives & Local Studies

The cotton famine

The Lancashire cotton industry had become dependent on a ready supply of American cotton. The American Civil War led to a shortage of raw cotton and high prices. This meant that there was less cotton to spin in the mills of Lancashire. Workers’ hours were reduced, and if you weren’t working, you didn’t get paid. Relief committees were set up to help provide food for those affected.

There is some debate over the real cause of the cotton famine. Some experts argue that cotton stocks were already low, and that the blockade of the southern American cotton ports had little effect. Whatever the cause, the effects in Lancashire were devastating. The cotton mills went to short time, and workers were left dependent on the many relief committees that were set up.

Advertising hoarding

Advertising hoarding in King Street Liverpool © Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries


After the second world war, the Lancashire cotton industry went into decline. This was partly based on a lack of investment in new technology and partly due to production moving to countries where labour was cheaper. Cotton processing increasingly takes place close to where the crop is grown.

Developing countries now account for over 80% of global cotton consumption. This is because labour costs in the developed countries have risen, so cotton processing and production has moved to countries with lower labour costs.

Today, there are still about 4000 companies involved in the textile industry in the North West. However, the raw cotton is no longer spun into yarn in the UK. Yarn and finished fabric is manufactured closer to where the cotton is grown, in India, Pakistan and increasingly China. Textiles tend to be designed in the UK and then made overseas.