From the Archives: Memories of the Lancashire Cotton Famine

1 March 2022

‘They are all his children’: Memories of the Lancashire Cotton Famine and the SHCJ in Preston

From the European Province Archives

A portrait of Sr Austin Beard, circa 1870.

On the Feast of St Scholastica 175 years ago, the fledgling Society of the Holy Child Jesus at Derby were joined by a new member, Sister Austin (Sarah) Beard. Alongside the testimony of Sister Aloysia Walker, Sister Austin’s ‘Recollections’ give a valuable insight into the SHCJ’s early struggles and endeavours including the Preston community’s response to the Lancashire Cotton Famine from 1861 to 1864. This article will illustrate the SHCJ’s relationship with Preston through Sister Austin’s memories as well as Sr Carmel (Catherine) McNicholas’s work with young children there in the latter half of the twentieth century.

When she entered the Society on 10th February 1847, Sister Austin was already familiar with the SHCJ’s leader, who still wore the novice’s veil. She had met Cornelia and her husband Pierce at Alton Towers in 1843 while working as a maid for Lady Shrewsbury, years before Cornelia had conceived of a new community of women religious. It is possible to date this encounter since the archives contain a letter from Alton Towers dated 28th September 1843. In the letter, Cornelia describes ‘the royal splendour and richness’ she was surrounded by to her sister Adeline. Pierce completes the letter to allow his wife, busy nursing little Frank’s ‘bad, croupy cold’, to have dinner.

While Pierce tutored young Bertram Talbot, the Shrewsburys’ son, he once told Sister Austin that his wife Cornelia was an ‘Angel’. Having witnessed Pierce’s affection for Cornelia, we can only imagine Sister Austin’s dismay as Pierce suddenly took his and Cornelia’s children out of the country in January 1849 and later sent back their mother’s letters unopened. Sister Austin’s necrology notes that she was ‘very discreet and on that account was of great service to our Mother in early difficulties’.

The ‘Recollections’ of Sister Austin go on to describe SHCJ foundations after Derby as Cornelia and her sisters developed the SHCJ’s educational approach with the help of Miss Gaynor. She mentions the SHCJ’s first elementary school opened in Gate Street, London in 1852. Sister Austin gives an even fuller account of the SHCJ’s work in Preston from 1853 onwards, in a manner that suggests she may have spent some time in the Preston Community.

She begins by describing one of the SHCJ’s first houses in the town, ‘the little convent which had been built and furnished for eight nuns’ with a ‘small garden at the back of the house’ in the Parish of St Ignatius. Initially, the nuns based here would walk out to teach in other Preston parishes, namely St Wilfred’s and St Walburge’s, before more SHCJ Convents were opened there.

Photograph of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, writer and U.S. statesman.

Sister Austin’s reminiscences appears to be the only source within the archives that records what the SHCJ did during a major social and economic crisis that hit the Northwest of England from 1861 to 1864. This was the Lancashire Cotton Famine, which in Sister Austin’s words ‘was the occasion of much suffering and want to our poor workers in the cotton mills’.

During this period, the supply of cotton from America ceased due to the American Civil War. Confederate States held back cotton supplies, hoping to pressure Britain into allying with them and breaking the Union’s naval blockade. British politicians were divided in their allegiances. The Prime Minster Palmerston and others were sympathetic to the South seeing it as a landed society. In contrast, working-class men and women (the majority of those employed in the cotton mills were women) supported the Union and the abolition of slavery regardless of the impact of the cotton embargo on their lives.

Through newspapers, pamphlets, and the testament of African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, who gave audiences a first-hand account of enslaved life, people of all classes in British society were aware of the evils of slavery. Still, Britain’s cotton industry prospered using cotton picked by enslaved men, women and children. Nonetheless, during the Civil War, cotton mill workers, and even mill owners, largely rejected policies of collusion with the Confederate States to alleviate the want of cotton.

The Citizens of Manchester wrote to Abraham Lincoln to make a clear statement of their solidarity with American abolitionists. Lincoln praised their empathy in his reply: “Under the circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President 1861 – 1865.

Sister Austin recalls the kindness of Lincoln’s countrywoman, Cornelia, as she supported the Preston community in their effort to feed the mill workers’ children: “Our beloved Mother Foundress sent us alms each week 10/- per week to provide food for our poor little ones – we made soup for their dinners, & they also had plenty of bread, at least once a day.”

The SHCJ opened two sewing schools in Preston to take on a contract for army shirts arranged by Mrs Warren, ‘a lady from London’. This was to provide additional income during ‘a most harrowing time – the one occupation of the people […] being swept away’.  Alongside teaching in the ‘large classes’ of the night schools attended by the factory girls, visiting the sick and other duties, running the sewing schools proved a struggle. Fortunately, the sisters were ‘loyally helped’ by the ladies of Preston.

Among the people of Preston were Irish families, many of whom were mill workers. A great proportion had arrived in Preston to escape the infamous and deadly Great Famine of 1845 – 1852. Both English and Irish cotton workers backed Irishman Michael Gallagher to be their representative as they faced wage cuts from 1853 -1854. Gallagher celebrated how all ‘were united together by the common bond of fraternal charity’.

When the Preston SHCJ communities were eventually amalgamated in 1875, the people of St Ignatius’ Parish saw the SHCJ leave with ‘great grief’ and were sorry to lose ‘their’ nuns. Once the SHCJ were able to return to the parish schools, Sister Austin quotes the girls declaring that the Low Sunday of April 1876 ‘ought to have been called High Sunday since they got their dear nuns back again’.

Winckley Square Convent Chapel.

Preston’s connections with the SHCJ continued into the next two centuries, with members of the Society returning the town’s (later, the city’s), affection. Sister Carmel (Catherine) McNicholas was born in Chicago and raised in Kiltimagh, Ireland. ‘Fascinated’ by the missionary stories of Mother Mary Edith Rudwick, she decided to join the SHCJ. Sister Carmel was ‘devastated’ when she was prevented from becoming a choir sister and working in West Africa. Nevertheless, she was still drawn to the spirit of SHCJ and joined as a lay sister in 1945.

After seeing slides of the various SHCJ houses, Sister Carmel hoped at the time ‘I would never be sent to Preston as the place looked so dreary and depressing’. However, ‘Preston was to be my destiny’ and she carried out her ministry there from 1947 to 2010. Won over by the sight of Winckley Square Convent’s lovely chapel, Sister Carmel spent ‘very happy’ years working in the junior school and was encouraged by Mother Miriam to work more directly with the children.

Starting as a volunteer, Sister Carmel was later employed to manage the play group at the English Martyrs school, where she ‘learned a lot’ and her ability to ‘deal kindly and firmly with the children, to create a happy atmosphere’ was appreciated. Between 1977 and 1997 she worked in St Joseph’s play group and later assisted the schoolchildren with reading. Many Asian families had moved to Preston during this period and Sister Carmel made sure Asian mothers and children attending the playgroup would ‘feel at home’.14 Although her dream to teach children in West Africa did not come to pass, she still felt she was ‘doing the work I entered for’. When Sister Carmel reflected on her time in Preston to a friend, she commented ‘isn’t God wonderful?’ and concluded, whether in Africa or Preston, ‘they are all His children!’

Sr Carmel with a group of children at St Joseph’s playgroup, Spring 1988.

The histories described above may focus on the words of individual women and their experiences within one place, but they nonetheless bear witness to our interconnectedness across communities and nations. Whether cotton workers recognising the injustice of slavery or nuns seeing to the learning and welfare of the children of Preston, as Mr Lincoln perceived in 1863, true heroism lies in recognising such interconnectedness and doing what we can to reach out, support and care for one another.

If you are interested in learning more about the Lancashire Cotton Famine, the Radio 4 In Our Time episode on the subject, which this article is greatly indebted to, is most informative and can be listened to on BBC Sounds through this link:

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