Adapt or combine the suggestions below to suit your own learning intentions.
Download from For the classroom the two images of the Rochdale barrel. Show the image without the inscription and discuss with the students what the object is, what it is made from, how large they think it is, what it may have been used for and how old it may be. Ask whether students are surprised that a barrel has been included in a museum. Now show the barrel with the inscription and ask again why the barrel may have been kept in a museum. Discuss what they understand from the inscription and what questions it raises. Also discuss when and why they think the text was added and by whom. They should be able to develop their understanding of the crisis by analysing George Cruickshank’s fund raising cartoon from For the classroom. Comparisons with recent popular fund raising campaigns could be made. You may wish to outline more fully the events of the Cotton Famine and the involvement of John Bright at this point.
You can use the barrel in a free standing activity to reinforce wider chronological knowledge and sense of period. Use the Rochdale barrel images from For the classroom as well as the images and links from A bigger picture to set up group research into the different artefacts. Each group could prepare a brief presentation on what their object is, what it reveals and how its historical significance is altered or enhanced by the textual additions at a later date.
To show the extent of trade across the British Empire towards the end of the nineteenth century, download the image of the London docks from For the classroom. Through discussion establish how useful barrels were for moving all sorts of goods. The shape and strength of the barrel allowed it to stand securely on end or to be moved easily by rolling it along, while withstanding all sorts of rough treatment. The better barrels that were fully watertight could even be floated in rivers. Students may assume that barrels were used only for liquids such as wine or beer, but in fact they might hold flour, grain, dried vegetables, dried meat, dried fruit and even eggs or carefully wrapped porcelain. Cotton was not transported in barrels but in large bales. The discussion above can be enhanced by linking to the online map of the British Empire in 1886. Use the zoom tool to follow the various trade routes across the oceans and show the summaries of British exports and imports in the various boxes.
The study of the barrel can support the following wider enquiries.
What does the Cotton Famine reveal about the lives of Lancashire’s industrial workers?
The study can begin with the barrel and its inscription and then move on to explore three sections: the pre 1860s wealth and working conditions of ‘Cottonopolis’ i.e. the Manchester area, the causes of the Cotton Famine and the impact on workers, and the responses of the workers, mill owners, the public and the state, including the various work programmes and the pressure on workhouses. Sources about the cotton industry, the Cotton Famine and the workhouses can be found in the links in About the object and in For the classroom. For the final activity, provide students with a deliberately simplistic account of the lives of Lancashire mill workers and ask them to amend and improve it to reflect the complexities they have discovered.
What did it take to make Britain the ‘Workshop of the World’?
This enquiry would study Britain’s role as the world’s first industrialised nation. After a section on the causes of the Industrial Revolution, move into a study of the geographical, economic and moral complexity that underpinned Britain’s global trade of the mid-1800s AD. Start with the two bank notes that can be downloaded from For the classroom. Discuss their value not as currency but as historical sources about Britain’s cotton trade. The imagery and symbolism should establish the interdependence of slavery in the southern states and Lancashire’s cotton weaving in creating wealth. The painting of Manchester can be used to show how it was rapidly becoming an industrial city and to suggest the scale of cotton manufacturing. Add to the complexity by showing the image of Indian peasants carrying and cleaning raw cotton and explore how Britain deliberately constrained the manufacture and sale of Indian cloth to promote her own mass-produced exports. The Rochdale barrel and the story of the Cotton Famine crisis can then be used to show the fragility of the trade and how even the richest nation on earth needed charitable aid when her trade was interrupted. The study could be taken into a third section that starts with Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931. Use a case study of Indian independence to explore how Britain lost her status as the Workshop of the World as her empire was dismantled. Students could be asked to summarise their findings by selecting from a range of factors such as labour, investment, technology, empire and communications and saying which one, if any, they think did most to build Britain’s industrial might.
Spinning a yarn – Why do stories about the Lancashire Cotton Famine have such power?
This would be a shorter and more self-contained enquiry that explores popular myths and more academic interpretations of history. The hook into the enquiry is the Rochdale barrel which leads to a study of Manchester’s cotton trade and its links with the southern states of the USA. The images and symbolism on the two bank notes in For the classroom will help here. After establishing the rapid increase in wealth brought to Lancashire through its cotton trade in the first half of the nineteenth century move onto the Cotton Famine years of 1861 – 1865. Begin by establishing the generally accepted narrative of the self-sacrifice of Lancashire mill-workers based largely on the role of John Bright. Tell students that research since the 1970s has revealed a more complex story. Alongside self-sacrifice, there is evidence of petitions by large numbers of workers in the hardest hit areas pleading with the British government to help the southern states win the war and return to supplying Lancashire mills with the raw cotton they needed. From For the classroom, download and show the article by a BBC journalist recalling the Cotton Famine. Challenge students to discern how and why the journalist and others continue to believe that all workers nobly supported the northern states. Factors may include: the lasting effects of original reports that emphasised the workers’ self-sacrifice such as the articles that can be downloaded from For the classroom; the passing on of selective memories from one generation to the next; community pride in the self-sacrifice; reinforcement by memorials such as Cotton Famine Parks in some northern towns; the fact that there is a large measure of truth to stories of self-sacrifice at least in some localities; the north’s eventual success in the war that would make people less likely to recall sympathies for the south. Ask whether it matters if myths about the past live on in popular perception even after academic historians have shown them to be exaggerated or erroneous. Students should draft a letter to the BBC journalist explaining that the evidence shows that it is too simple to suggest that all mill-workers supported the north and suggesting why the simplified version may have endured and whether they think he should write a follow up article explaining these points to his readers.