King Cotton


A review and extract from this classic novel by Thomas Armstrong. A snapshot in time in the Lancashire cotton industry during the American Civil War, first published in 1947 by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, abridged 1962, reprinted 1989 ISBN 0 00 221406 7.

King Cotton

picAs the title implies this is a novel about the cotton industry. Set in the second half of the nineteenth century the story moves between the southern states of America, Liverpool and a fictitious Lancashire cotton town and relates the fortunes of Kit Ormerod and his family, their business associates and wider public. Originally more than a thousand pages long this novel was abridged by the author in 1962 to mark the centenery of the American Civil War and the struggle to abolish slavery with its tragic consequences for the Lancashire cotton industry. The story highlights the dependence of the cotton industry at the time on supplies from the southern states of America and describes the abject poverty and suffering of the workers when supplies were cut off and mills were closed during the consequent cotton famine. Refusing to compromise on principle the narrative relates the desperate struggle to identify alternative sources of cotton suitable for processing on Lancashire's spinning machines and looms, rather than giving in to expediency and withdrawing support for the abolitionist cause a major factor in the conflict.
       Readers familiar with the city of Liverpool will recognise the references to actual buildings, street names and other locations in this work by a master story teller, he manages to capture the true spirit of the victorian era with this truly believable snapshot of a north country industry during a particularly painful period in its history. It is interesting to note that at this time the Confederate cause had quite a large presence in Liverpool and were sourcing materials for the conflict locally, notably the warship Alabama built at Cammell Laird's shipyard under the name 'Enrica', causing political embarrassment for the government when it sailed under a clandestine plan for the Azores to take on armaments.

       The Grand National had been run for that year. After eating again and patronising still more of the side-shows, Jane and her escort reluctantly made for the station. The platform was crowded but Kit, by ramming a path ahead as the incoming special slowed, succeeded in thrusting Jane into a corner seat, where she straightened her hat. "Hasn't it been lovely, Kit?" she said, smiling at him. "I've enjoyed every minute." "Aye," Kit muttered. In point of fact he was glumly thinking that, for all his undoubted pleasure, he had not advanced a whit towards his real goal. Excuse there was, of course, for it is difficult tenderly to acquaint a girl with one's innermost feelings when the loudest voices in the kingdom are bawling the odds or drawing attention to attractions; but all the same such opportunity as there was had been lost, and with Jane busier than ever at Mrs. Roe's for the Easter trade he could not conceive when another would arise again.
       "Kit . . . Kit, what's the matter?" Jane was asking anxiously. "Nothing . . . nothing, lass," Kit replied disconsolately, but as he turned and looked into her eyes a conviction gained ground, that he owed her a more honest explanation. "The truth, Jane," he faltered, "is that there was something I'd made up my mind to say to you to-day, and I haven't." She did not glance away, not then. "You could tell me now, couldn't you?" He shook his head. "Not with all these folk about" he retorted decidedly. "What's needed is a quiet . . . anyway," he went very red, "I'll have to leave it over." "Oh," Miss Williams murmured. From then onwards she concentrated on rubbing her gloved finger on the misted window-glass and, having made a most satisfactory circle, continued to be deeply occupied in staring at the passing landscape. As the awesome walls of Kirkdale Gaol came into view Kit leaned nearer to her. "What about Good Friday, Jane?" he said. "Couldn't you possibly meet me earlyish in the afternoon? In time, say, to take a train out . . . well, Crosby way, for example." "Yes, I think so," Jane said promptly. Astounded, he gaped at her; and she, noticing his reaction, with dignity reminded him of her advanced years. She was now twenty, she said, and henceforth her mamma must not expect to treat her as though she were a child.
       Some few days after the last race-visitor had left the town, the principals of Atherton & Hesketh decided to accept, subject to certain amendments, Alfred Binks's proposition in regard to Moss Fold Mill. The discussions took place in Mr Atherton's room that frosty morning, when the Partners had returned from skimming the papers in the Exchange Newsroom. "Very well, we will agree to Chadwick assigning to us in settlement of his debt," Mr Atherton said briskly, "and then we will pay off the other creditors. As to the other matter - that clerk of yours . . ." "Ormrod?" Mr John Hesketh murmured. "Yes, there's quite a lot of talk about him on the Flags, y'know." R. C. Atherton went on, quoting the names of certain leading figures in the market, of such importance that Kit, even if he had heard the conversation, would have scarcely believed that his humble outpourings could have reached such exalted personalities. "I gather that he's the prime mover in a small organisation that fears this country's dependence on American cotton." John Hesketh's green-grey eyes were as expressionless as a cat's, "Am I to understand sir," he inquired courteously, "that it is your wish that we should take steps to bring his activities to an end?" The older man was so amused that he nearly unloosed the white bow tie he had been adjusting. "Pon my word, I'm surprised at you Hesketh," he rumbled. "Surely you appreciate, however nonsensical Ormerod's ideas may be, it proves him a young fella of enterprise. And to think," by now Mr Atherton was chuckling "that you've turned him into a dictation clerk - a junior apprentice's job." "He does very well with my letters, Sir," young Mr. Hesketh said mildly. "Yes, yes," said Mr. Atherton. "But frankly, my dear Hesketh, I consider him worthy of better things, and I propose giving him every encouragement within my power."
       There was a tap on the door. The interrupter was the young man about whom they had been speaking. Outward bound on an errand to Wrigley, Son & Edwards, Kit had met six of the firm's clients in the North Corridor. "Mr. Farrer, Mr. Tattersall, and Mr. Singleton, sir," he announced. "And there's Mr. Peter and ___." Mr. Atherton, booming a welcoming "Come in, gentlemen," was already opening a cupboard containing whisky and a row of glasses, while young Mr. Hesketh, glimpsing Mr. Jethro Batty and Mr. Joseph Swithenbank behind his eldest brother, gave Kit further instructions. "The two o'clock ordinary, Ormerod," he said. "Make it places for seven." Kit was squeezed against the wall to allow the easy passage of a number of gentlemen, all of whom were either master-spinners or managers of spinning mills. "Right, Mr. John," he replied. "And while you're out, ask Wrigleys' to draw me a second sample of the Bahia," Mr. Hesketh ended. "Yes, sir" said Kit.
       The depressions in the uneven surface of Old Hall Street were filled with ice, and Kit, who for purposes of his own wished to gain a few minutes, ran at a hazardous rate to the well-furnished Merchants' Dining Rooms, where the head waiter expressed himself as happy to reserve places for Mr. Hesketh's party at the second of the day's five ordinaries.
       Kit's next call was in Covent Garden where, entering a salesroom warmed by a roaring fire at each end, he delivered the request for another sample of the Brazilian cotton. This mission completed, he was leaving when his attention was attracted by a clerk in the outer office. Harry Wilson was a regular member of the band who met at intervals to discuss the joint problems of slavery and cotton supply. It seemed that another adherent to the group had acquired some interesting publications, and Kit was urged to go round to Exchange Street East, where Calvin Davies was employed by a firm of buying brokers. "I never knew the Cotton Supply Association was taking practical steps to get cotton from new territory, did you?" Harry Wilson said. Kit stared hard. 'I didn't. I'd always been under the impression that the C.S.A. worked on what you might term theoretical lines." "Well, you borrow these pamphlets Calvin's got." "I will, you bet," Kit replied. But, although singularly titillated by this piece of news, he was, not to be diverted from his immediate task, and so he trotted off to the docks which were a wonderful sight that morning with ships' masts and spars outlined with frozen sleet, scintillating as if dusted with diamonds.
       Kit's hand-gin had reached that stage in its construction when it was essential to try it out, and his purpose on the waterfront was to obtain a small quantity of Surats from a ship that was unloading. For a while, at St. George's Dock, he eyed the bales which were being hoisted ashore, many of them showing a dark mark where an Indian porter's head had been beneath the cruelly heavy burden. Then he collected droppings from the ill-packed bags, rolled them in a sheet of strong paper and, tucking the smelly parcel under his arm, turned back. Not having been over long absent from the office, he determined to call on Calvin Davies before resuming his duties.
       Messrs. Pearce, Jones & Co. being notoriously easy-going with their employees, Calvin Davies accompanied his caller to the door-way in Exchange Street East. "I say, Calvin," said Kit as he dipped into one of the pamphlets loaned him "the Cotton Supply Association is having a real go at getting the staple from elsewhere. And to think I never knew," he ended naively. Unthinkingly he turned towards Dale Street, too engrossed to realise that every step was taking him farther from Old Hall Street. Calvin Davies, a bespectacled youth who was most amusingly precise in speech, sauntered along with him. "I would suggest, Kit," he commented solemnly, "that even if you have missed this aspect of the matter, your studies have gained you a mass of relevant information beyond the usual." "Maybe so," Kit muttered, absorbed reading about the efforts, ten years ago, of a Mr. Thomas Clegg, of Manchester. This gentleman had not only been antagonistic to slavery but, in the hope of making the country less dependent on the slave-grown product of the United Sates, had initiated practical endeavours to obtain cotton from new and untapped sources. There were interesting details about the west coast of Africa and vivid accounts of attempts to persuade native chiefs that it would be more profitable to cultivate and bring cotton to the mission houses than to war on neighbours for the purpose of enslaving and selling the prisoners captured. And in another section there was a report on the outcome of supplying 8oo bushels of cotton seed to the Bey of Tunis. "Heck!" Kit exclaimed. ......

picPalfreyman - April 2022

picFarthingale Publications: ..... picIs a hobby web site containing articles of local interest to Lancastrians, some favourite walking and cycling routes, selected words and poetry, and some writings of more general nature as well as the authors own picture gallery. Access is available via the homepage and menu at the head of the page or via one of the direct links below.

picLocal Interest: A Cricket Calypso; Dust Upon God's Fair Earth; God's Choir; Isaac Watts 1674 - 1748; It's a Funny Life; John Byrom 1692 - 1793; John Lancaster Wigan MP; Jubilee Park Memorial, Ashton in Makerfield; Little Ships at War 1918; Mind Your Language; Not Much of a Warrior; Peveril of the Peak; Private Thomas Whitham VC; Richmond Hill Dairies; Scot Lane School Wigan; The Brocklebank Line; The Holy City Liverpool; The Lindsays of Haigh; The Nurburgring 1960; Thomas Aspinwall Miners Agent; Thomas Aspinwall Obituary; Thomas Linacre School Wigan; Upholland Telephone Exchange; Wigan Advertisements 1960; Wigan Old Bank 1792; Wigan Soldier Missing in Action.
Walking & Cycling: Abbey Lakes to Coppull Moor; A Lancashire Linear Walk; Blackrod or Bust; Chorley Ice Cream Walk; Cycle the Monsal Trail; Cycle the Sankey Valley; Douglas Valley Dawdle; Freshfield to Crosby; Haigh to Borsdane Wood; Irwell Valley Trail (Bury to Rawtenstall); Irwell Valley Trail (Bury to Salford); Moss Eccles Tarn; Three Counties Cycle Ride; Wigan Circular by Bike.
Words & Poetry: A Lancashire Mon; A Legend of Montrose; Aw've Turned me bit O' Garden O'er; Boat Song; Calm is the Sea; Classic Poetry; Dombey and Son; Dover Harbour; Dust upon God's Fair Earth; God Bless these Poor Wimmen that's Childer; Hymn Before Action; Jeff Unsworth's dialect poetry; King Cotton; Martin Chuzzlewit; Martyrs of the Arena; Mind Your Language; Only a Cranky Owd Foo'; On Th' Hills; Poet's Corner; Redgauntlet; Rogue Herries; The Antiquary; The Bride of Lammermoor; Th' Coartin' Neet; The Darkling Thrush; The Fair Rosamond; The Fair Rosamond Comic; The Family Man; The Glory of the Garden; The Heart of Midlothian; The Pickwick Papers; The Rolling English Road; The Wreck of the Hesperus; Toddlin' Whoam; When Winds Breathe Soft; Wisdom.
Wallgate Chronicles: Adolphe Adam; A Tale of Two Cities; A Walk in the Hills; Barnaby Rudge; Bookcase; Cat Bells; Desert Island Discs; Eay Times Uv Changed; Fidelio; Fun with Trigonometry; Hard Times; Hugo Boss comes to Wigan; In the footsteps of the Manchester Rambler; Ivanhoe; Little Dorrit; Lohengrin; Rob Roy; Romance on a Budget; Semele; Surprise at the Philharmonic; The Battle of Solferino; The Bohemian Girl; The Fair Maid of Perth; The Force of Destiny; The Getaway Car; The Marriage of Figaro; The Old Curiosity Shop; The Ravioli Room; The Spectroscope; The Switchroom Wigan; Travels in Time 1960; Travels in Time 2010.

Selected articles from the above listed:


Richmond Hill Dairies - Pemberton - These pages contain some personal memories from my youth and my association with Richmond Hill Dairies, a local business I grew up with and remember with some affection. A well known and important feature of the local community in its day and part of the heritage of Pemberton, this is my attempt to commit some small snapshot of its history to print, I hope these pages paint a worthy picture.

Mind Your Language - A humorous poem by "the bard of Haydock" George Anderton, inspired by memories of a trip to Bad Canstatt, Stuttgart Germany with the Haydock Male Voice Choir in 1975. This publication will bring a smile to the faces of not only those members who were there at the time and know the people involved but the wider population of Haydock as well who speak the language.

Wigan and the American Civil War - Wigan Coal and Iron Company, The Right Honourable John Lancaster MP for Wigan, the Confederate Raider Alabama, USS Kearsarge, Cherbourg and the yacht Deerhound all feature in the last great sea battle of the American Civil War.

Wigan Old Bank 1792 - A tragic boating accident on Windermere and a surprising journey through the social history of Wigan during the reign of Queen Victoria, highlighting the relationships between four families who played an important part in the commercial development of the town.

The Brocklebank LineDaniel Brocklebank (1741-1801), shipbuilder and mariner, a brief biography, and some background detail of his family and the shipping line he founded.

Little Ships at ZeebruggeAn account of a heroic attempt to block the port of Zeebrugge during the first World War, to protect supply routes into the UK by denying enemy submarines based there access to the open sea.

A Cricket Calypso - A short biopic of cricketer Cyril Washbrook and a snapshot of his career including his role in the West Indies tour of 1950 recorded in the lyrics of the Cricket Calypso.

Not Much of a Warrior - Wigan RLFC in the fifties and sixties, through rose coloured glasses. A golden age of legendary players and memorable moments, along with some personal memories.

picLyme Hall, Disley, Cheshire