Losing the Thread

BookLosing the Thread

Losing the Thread

Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War


December 18th, 2020

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This is the first full-length study of the effect of the American Civil War on Britain’s raw cotton trade and on the Liverpool cotton market. It includes an analysis of primary sources never used by historians. Before the civil war, America supplied 80 per cent of Britain’s cotton. In August 1861, this fell to almost zero, where it remained for four years. Despite increased supplies from elsewhere, Britain’s largest industry received only 36 per cent of the raw material it needed from 1862-64. 
This book establishes the facts of Britain’s raw cotton supply during the war: how much there was of it, in absolute terms and related to the demand, where it came from and why, how much it cost, and what effect the reduced supply had on Britain’s cotton manufacture. It includes an enquiry into the causes of the Lancashire cotton famine, which contradicts the historical consensus on the subject. Examining the impact of the civil war on Liverpool and its raw cotton market, this thought-provoking book demonstrates how reckless speculation infested and distorted the market, and lays bare the shadowy world of the Liverpool cotton brokers, who profited hugely from the war while the rest of Lancashire starved.

'A thought-provoking contribution that challenges existing interpretations about key dimensions of Lancashire’s cotton textile industry during the Cotton Famine years.' Professor Geoff Timmins, University of Central Lancashire

'A fresh and fearless perspective on a fusty and well-worn topic that many historians had considered settled years ago [...] historians reading this book in the future will rely on it for the Civil War period—it is as near a final words as can be imagined.'
Bruce E. Baker, Enterprise & Society

'Losing the Thread is an impeccably researched contribution to literature on the influence of the American Civil War on Britain... [It] undoubtedly achieves its two objectives of providing a more detailed analysis of the British cotton industry during the Civil War era and the impact of the war on the trade in Liverpool.'
Kate Rivington, Australasian Journal of American Studies 

'What Powell has accomplished with this work is impressive. It is a carefully crafted piece of research that corrects lazy historical assumptions and lays bare an important moment in British history.'

Erik Mathisen, English Historical Review

'Jim Powell has written a comprehensive and illuminating account of how the American civil war affected the Liverpool raw cotton market. In doing so, Powell has successfully disproved many of the myths that surround the U.K.-impact of this war.'David M. Higgins, Journal of Economic History

Author Information

Honorary Research Associate, Department of History, University of Liverpool.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of Illustrations11
List of Figures13
List of Tables15
List of Abbreviations17
1. Feast and Famine33
2. The Saturday Afternoon Syndrome49
3. A Three-Phase Supply69
4. Unfathomed Depths; Uncharted Mountains89
5. Liverpool, Louisiana?119
6. A Toll Booth on the Mersey139
7. The Brokers and the Broken161
8. When Johnny Went Marching Home185
Appendix: Notes on Statistical Sources205
Notes to Chapters209