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30 October 2020

Throughout October, we’ll be showcasing a series of blogs to mark Black History Month, giving a range of perspectives from the London Youth team and our board.

My sister is a writer. She is also a northerner and a mixed heritage woman; proud of her Yorkshire and Nigerian roots. We sometimes talk about ideas for books or screenplays, some of them with a historical basis. And one of these has really stuck with me. It feels relevant to all of us who are thinking about allyship and solidarity. It feels spot on for her. And it’s oven-ready for epic cinema.

In the 1850s the cotton trade in the north, centred on Lancashire, was booming. The mills – where my great grandmother worked – employed nearly half a million people. Many mill owners grew rich and their wealth built the grand civic architecture we see today. But by the early 1860s mills were closing, workers were being laid off and thousands of people were in poverty. Many of them at starvation level.

What had changed was the supply of cotton to the mill towns. And the supply was cut off because of the American Civil War.

First the southern states imposed a boycott on cotton export. Their aim was to force Britain to lobby the Union to allow them to secede. But when the boycott was lifted the Union in turn created a blockade of the southern shipping ports. The Unionists believed instead that the British public would view the conflict as an anti-slavery issue. They believed this public feeling would pressure the British government to support the Union.

In fact, what played out at first was division of opinion. Some mill owners supported the South and viewed the issue as one of free trade. Some towns, with people desperate for work, even flew Confederate flags. But many more workers and some owners believed the critical issue was anti-slavery. The North West had been strongly pro-abolition. And some workers saw continuities between the exploitative conditions in the mills and the terrible condition of slavery.

The issue was one of national and international significance. London tended to favour the free trade view. But the anti-slavery perspective and commitment of the millworkers was informed and stoked by lecture tours from formerly enslaved people and abolitionists, including William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass and Sarah Parker Redmond.

Their campaigning was crucial.

One lecturer, William Andrew Jackson, had escaped from slavery as the coachman of southern leader Jefferson Davis. On his escape he was able to share significant, memorised detail of military positions and planning with the Union. He was recognised as a great orator and his passionate speeches helped cement the determination of the millworkers.

So, in December 1862, despite their increasing hardship, a meeting of cotton workers at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester resolved to support the Union in its fight against slavery. An extract from the letter they wrote in the name of the Working People of Manchester to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America says:

“… the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and (see) the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery.”

It’s a remarkable story: the courage and persuasive power of Jackson and the other speakers; the determination of the millworkers in the face of hunger.

Ultimately, as President Lincoln wrote back, that suffering and “decisive utterance” in support of the Union played a role in the fight for a system based not on slavery but “freedom and human rights.”

Inspiration, integrity and solidarity; conflict, courage and campaigning; African-American and northern roots. It’s a story that feels so rich in resonance. It’s a story that connects with today. And it’s a story I really hope my sister will make famous.

Rosemary Watt-Wyness | Chief Executive


Rosemary Watt-WynessRosemary is Chief Executive of London Youth. She joined London Youth in 2016 from the MS Society where she was previously Director of Services and Support. Prior to this she was Chief Executive of mental health charity PACE and Deputy Director of a homeless prevention charity. She also worked for 8 years at The Prince’s Trust, first as Director for London where she led the successful merger of the London and South East Region, and then later as Director of Strategy and Policy for the Trust.