On 14th August 2016 members of Touchstones Creative Writing Group performed original poetry to help celebrate the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to the community who sided with the cotton picking slaves.
This event -now an annual occurrence -is to raise awareness about the road, the role of the local people involved in the road building scheme and their role in the anti-slavery movement. There’s a video with the poets here from 2016: poetry for Cotton Famine Road. We have reproduced some of the poems written for the event in 2016 and for the 2017 event below:
For black folk there was nothing but the cruellest life each day.
The whip, the breaking backs as cotton bales were sent to weigh,
While white folk trudged the Cotton Road to reach the cotton mill
Where they would slave in dampness and conditions that could kill.
So many miles away across the endless ocean’s waves,
A Civil War was brewing that could free the captive slaves,
And even England’s poorest joined their voices to the fight
For they could understand the awful horror of their plight.
Then cotton ceased to come as ports were blocked ‘til slaves were freed,
But here, the mills fell silent and the people cried in need,
And walked the tired horses down the Cotton Famine Road
To find no work was waiting and no cotton to unload.
And little children cried because the hunger brought them pain,
And parents didn’t know if they would ever work again.
When one by one the mills began to close or change their path,
For England’s North was altered in the famine’s aftermath.
But like the cobbled Cotton Famine Road that would survive,
The ordinary Rochdale Folk have kept the past alive
And it’s become the future for the cotton industry
Is coming back to Manchester – without the slavery.
© Annette Keeble Martens
TRAIN OF COTTON
(When cotton was king)
Saw a train set the night on fire
Hauling raw cotton on iron racks,
To-ing and fro-ing on cold steel tracks,
Weaving weft by day and night,
Shuttles flying forth and back.
Warp and Weft spells piecing seams,
Fabric; colour washed in icy streams,
Woven from visions of young girl’s dreams.
Back and forth from port to hills,
In and out of forbidding mills.
Train gangs stoke with coal and coke,
Mill folk choke on thick black smoke.
Relentless hum; clackety, clackety, clack.
Mill’s whistle blows; engines hoot right back.
Sheets on beds and clothes on backs,
Shrouds and shirts and gabardine Mac’s
All shunted on the trains strong back.
© Catherine Coward 15/07/15
COTTON FAMINE ROAD
Lives in Alabama, twisting and turning like cotton on trees,
as hardship and grievance across oceans interweave.
Fired by inequality, earth trembled with the sound of shot;
the ground stilled when the looms stopped.
Bales began stockpiling, men and industry together dying.
Some slaved in heat, some slaved in cold,
pursuing solidarity in a parallel world.
Children of the revolution laid each cold stone
trying to appease their hunger on the Cotton Famine Road.
For every shuttle stopped, another stone was laid,
with long hard labour Rooley Moor was paved,
while war against slavery raged.
A bowl of rice, a cup of soup, an early grave,
was the pittance both sides were paid.
Gangs without a chain; slaves in all but name.
Alabama blues made front page news.
The Poor Law’s lasting monument to hardship and the poor
lies embedded on the hillside; battered by wind and rain
on the former Catley Lane.
© Catherine Coward
Cotton Famine Road
Stretching over Spodden Moor,
As far as eyes can see.
Stone setts, side by side,
stepping stones to victory.
O’er aching backs,
stone ripped hands
capitalist and kings.
Part-time schools, poor education;
Low wages, near starvation.
Slaves in all but name
men who built the Famine Road
could hear their children cry,
for want of warmth in winter,
For clothes to keep them dry.
In fields abroad, or Lancashire
men should be above the beast;
See every stone a protest
that men should all be free.
Behind this simple tenet
United we should be.
© Eileen Earnshaw. Summer 2017
The Cotton Famine Road
Together, let’s celebrate Lancashire’s spirit,
especially today, at Catley Lane Head,
where a set stone road begins and straddles
Rooley Moor’s peat bog beds.
Step on stones of this Victorian road,
one of England’s highest, they said.
It’s certainly seen for miles around,
slashing the moor with its ancient tread.
Before it was laid, life was good for its makers.
Plentiful work in warm mills, using skill.
Well paid, in those days of the eighteen fifties,
Able to pay any household bill.
Then civil commotion across the ocean
ricocheted here to our nation.
Cotton fell scarce; men laid off work,
and stoppage brought with it starvation.
Work offered in lieu for a pittance each day.
Slave labour akin to black vassals.
Toilers broke stones and surfaced the road;
Showed guts in spite of all hassles.
No money to spare, they slept where they could
still clothed, to fend off the cold,
living on oats and their will to survive.
Their story deserves to be told.
Today, the road embodies their grit
brought about by commercial uncertainty,
reversing the pattern, the course of men’s lives,
bringing them down in deep poverty.
Their legacy endures, can be seen here today,
And merits more worthy attention,
by highlighting facts about Rooley Moor Road
and the men behind its invention.
© Glenis Meeks July 2017
My grandmother saw them gather once
restless particles forming in fog
awakened by frost dressing rooftops
like a knocker-up tapping on glass.
Murmuring shades, ragged skeletal moths
dancing in hisses of gas light,
grouped tight to keep the living out,
reflecting in mill windows and puddles.
Clogs echoing on wet cobblestones,
mee-maws hollowing into the night.
© Shirley-Anne Kennedy
Ghosts of Cotton Famine Road
Lowering clouds rest heavy on high peaks.
From those dank mists there flows a road of stones
And here my restless presence haunts the way.
Bound to this bleak place by distant woes,
Here once I stumbled blindly with fatigue,
Lay down to rest and never rose again.
Listen and you may hear the far off sounds
Soft cries and groans carried on bitter winds
And sharp metallic ring of tools on stone
As spirits of the dead still build the road.
They do not know that their hard day is done
Or that they have no more a need to toil,
But slave-like still they wearily work on
To earn relief for loved ones long since passed.
There is no welcome rest for such as they
Who needs must labour for a paltry sum,
Bent to the will of greedy, wealthy men
And they no choice but do as they are bid.
© Susan Gash
Sixpence for a Song
The silence in the village crept eerily around
And a quietness hung in the air.
Few carts rattled by in these times of cheerless need.
Men leant upon the bridge, cold, listless;
No one hurried now.
Unlike the earlier years
When the tall mill chimneys would smoke foggily,
And loads of twist and cloth pervade the cobbled streets.
The flower of our working population,
Of finer stuff than the common staple.
And folk would hurry by to the busy factory,
Full of life, full of glee.
Suddenly, the sweet, plaintive song of a young girl
Floated along in the calm, still air.
How could she feel like singing
When they had no clothes to wear?
She pulled her baby close to her,
There was no bonnet for its head,
As with nervous grasp, a timid air,
And downcast eye, she sang as she hugged her little one.
The Chartist orator, Ernest Jones, never forgot the men of Rochdale
And their love of freedom’s truth.
And for the freedom of the black,
Joined towards the Charter of the Englishman’s liberty.
With her sweet song ended and her soft voice fading away,
She had every heart strung to sympathy.
And lifting her eyes to reality,
Burst into a flood of passionate tears.
Lancashire folk were never known to remark
Or hawk their troubles around;
They were always sufficiently worthy of themselves.
But a Lancashire lad had heard her song, and with pity,
Laid down his hat at her place on the cobbles,
And collected for her a few ill-afforded pennies,
He himself giving her a sixpence for her song.
July 2016 © Val J Chapman
If you’re interested, have a look at this fascinating historical and literary research project that is currently led by Exeter University on the poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine. (Clicking the link will take you to the website.)