A community arts project for Rochdale celebrating the men and women who sacrificed everything for principle on The Cotton Famine Road. Through drama, film, music and dance, online archives and an educational schools project, we wish to mark this incredible moment in Rochdale’s history.
In the early 1860’s, during the American civil war of 1861 - 65, Rochdale stood alone among the Lancashire towns in its support of the North and refused to accept and process the cotton picked by slaves.
It was the cause of great hardship and hunger, yet the workers of Rochdale were completely behind the refusal to work this cotton. Many were Irish migrants to Rochdale, who had sought sanctuary from the horrors of the Potato Famine just 15 years earlier in the late 1840’s. These people had swapped the blighted fields of Ireland for the dark satanic mills of Lancashire. To be thrown once again into hunger and hardship must have been their worst nightmare. But they did precisely that.
By 1862 there was famine on a great scale. Finally the government acted and passed the Public Works Act of 1863. The Cotton Famine Road was built as a result of this public works programme where the town’s Board of Guardians were allowed to borrow money at a low rate of interest to fund projects that would employ the starving workers.
This project will not just celebrate, but also explore the theme of common and class- based solidarity that underpin this remarkable story. The mill workers of Rochdale, as they starved and suffered terribly for it, made common cause with the slaves of the American south. This is a perfect confluence of black history and the story of the English working class of the 19th century to make a bold and powerful statement about common cause, freedom, and justice.
Rochdale has a rich and powerful history of progressive and liberal politics that it should be singing from the rooftops about. From the Luddite rising to the Chartists movement, to the establishment of the Co-operative movement, Rochdale was at the forefront of every important development. John Bright, millowner and one-time MP opened the first ever creche so that women could have their children looked after whilst they worked. Suffice it to say he was not thinking only of the women’s benefit!
In September 1862 US President Lincoln had issued his Proclamation of Emancipation. On New Year’s Eve 1862, Lancashire cotton workers attended a public meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. A letter was drafted and sent to President Lincoln. This letter travelled from Manchester across the Atlantic and elicited a considered response, drafted by a President at war - all in little over 2 weeks.
Abraham Lincoln's swift reply acknowledged Lancashire's hardship as a result of the Cotton Famine:
"Through the action of disloyal citizens, the working people of Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt… It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom."
In these confused and conflicted times this is a powerful and very dramatic story that must be told. A story to inspire and uplift the people and show us our better selves. A story to unite all sections of the community.
So, how will we celebrate this?
Centred around a large scale community theatre piece drawn from verbatim source material that explores the story for contemporary relevance,
Drawing influences from outdoor artists eg Luke Jerram – NVA – Aches we will also create a series of outdoor arts events that link the road to the centre of the town, the past to the present – the mills of Rochdale to the cotton fields of the American south – to the sweatshops of Bangladesh. All in celebration of the spirit of liberation and human dignity and respect that CFR embodies – that BLM voices today.
Musically, we want to explore how we could draw on the work songs sung by the African American slaves, their 'field hollers' and explore the possibility of setting the poetry of the Rochdale workers of the time to new compositions which echo the fields in the Southern States whilst providing a soundscape for the workers of the Cotton Famine Road.
We want to find an exciting young black composer to work on this element, whilst identifying the very best black choral leaders who could come to Rochdale and work with communities for the future production.
Visually, we want to explore how to bring the road into the town. We will spend a day with Gary Clarke, whose dance piece, Coal, evoked the working miners so powerfully and who we want to go on to commission to create movement for the final production.
We have an idea of projecting large-scale moving images of the dancers, filmed up on the road on the moors, onto buildings in the town, reflecting the magnitude of the endeavour whilst simultaneously creating a huge spectacle in Rochdale which is both visceral and accessible.
So we will research film makers and projectionists to explore this idea, alongside decision makers from Rochdale itself, who would need to facilitate the delivery of this.
As a lasting legacy, and a spectacular backdrop to the piece, we want to explore the possibility of creating a building sized mural, inspired by African American graffiti, of the cotton famine strikers. We will research potential artists and the technicalities of commissioning such a work.
And, in recognition of textile trade today, we want to look into the stories of garment workers, in particular the women in Bangladesh and those involved in the Rana Plaza disaster.
From an environmental point of view, the mass consumption of the textile trade has done irrecoverable damage to the planet. We want to explore how we could utilise surplus / waste cotton from the industry in the piece and highlight the impact of our consumption. We will identify artists and inventors from the field and explore the idea of making 'fab-bricks' from surplus cotton to create a new road as part of the temporary installation in the town.
Each aspect of the project lends itself to a dynamic engagement programme, for schools and communities. During the research phase, we will work with a highly experienced community development works to explore how we can creatively engage Rochdale's diverse population in the project, as actors, singers, performers, and participants.
In this research project, then, we aim to:
Fully research the history around the building of the road and any extant contemporary accounts from those involved.
Create a script inspired by the people and events, which has, as its focus, eventual performance by a community cast.
Explore creative solutions to the problem of linking the town with the site, identifying and connecting with a palette of other creatives from the fields of outdoor arts, landscape art, choral music, movement, film and design.
Explore contemporary approaches to story-telling which embrace and celebrate black artists and artforms.
Explore contemporary parallels to the story of slavery in the textile industries, in particular, via Rochdale's Bangladeshi community and the garment workers who have been severely hit by poor working conditions which the Rana Plaza factory disaster so clearly showed.
Work alongside a local, community arts professional to develop new, creative engagement opportunities for Rochdale's diverse communities, which would be used to engage participants in the future, full production in 2022.
Further develop partnerships with organisations in Rochdale who are supporting the project by exploring how their own participants could contribute to the final piece.
This project is a response to a groundswell of hunger and energy from community members whom I have worked previously - to tell a story that they are proud of. The heart of it is how I enable and empower them.
Mick Martin | firstname.lastname@example.org | 07923 532 867