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The hidden heroes of the Manchester Cotton Famine
How children sold their pet rabbits for the pot to help starving Mancunians in the harsh winter of 1862
The Reverend Thomas Wolstencroft found out the hard way how tough life could be in the Manchester district of Angel Meadow.
Only weeks after taking up his post as the vicar at St Michael’s Church, he tried to stop a game of pitch and toss and was gifted two broken ribs for his trouble.
His baptism in the slum’s ways galvanised Wolstencroft and helped to prepare him for what was to come.
Just four months later, as temperatures plummeted in January 1862, his parish was one of the worst hit by the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
As the American Civil War impacted imports of raw cotton, Manchester’s mill workers found themselves unemployed and starving.
Wolstencroft, now hardened and ready, sprung into action.
“During the past week, I have visited at least 200 families and I have not seen in any case an ounce of butcher’s meat,” he wrote.
“In many houses there was not a morsel of food and frequently parents declared that they had not had anything to eat for 24 hours.”
Wolstencroft set up his own charity after finding that families were walking across town to stand for hours outside a relief centre in the freezing rain for a few pieces of bread.
After launching his appeal in the pages of the Manchester Courier, donations began to flood in straight away.
His weekly letters to the editor to thank those anonymous donors reveal a hidden story of how ordinary people pulled together to help Angel Meadow’s poor in one of the city’s darkest hours.
On Friday, 17 January, the donations sent to the parish included £1 from two friends from Higher Broughton, gifts of postage stamps from Pendleton, Bolton, Halifax and Preston, and two donations totalling five shillings from a mystery person who gave their name as "Alpha".
The notes sent to Wolstencroft with the money also reveal something of the circumstances of the donors.
One woman wrote that she was “miles from my children” while another said she was “a poor widow”.
A third only described themselves as “a sympathiser”, while two women told the vicar they were “working men’s wives”. A sixth said they were merely “a friend of St Michael’s”.
Others simply sent to signed their initials, with funds coming from “R.G.”, “W.S.”, “C.J.A.”, and “F.B.”, from Salford.
Most heartrending at all was Wolstencroft’s mention in the paper of five children named Herbert, Rowland, Clara, Alfred and Lissie.
Together they had written to the vicar saying they had raised four shillings by selling their beloved pet rabbits.
It would have been a decision that took great courage.
They would have known it was likely the rabbits would have ended up into somebody’s pot to make a stew.
To that long list of heroic deeds, two more people should be added.
While Wolstencroft undoubtedly did a huge amount of good work for the people of the district, his wife and daughter also played an astonishing but largely hidden part.
Like many women and girls of the time, their story is missing from the historical record.
But in that bitterly cold January, they offered support to 250 parishioners who turned up at their home in Collyhurst Road in a single afternoon.
They also distributed groceries, clothing and coal, served bread and soup at the school hall, and wrote perhaps dozens of letters to boost the parish appeal.
By November, they were helping more than 900 families — a total of more than 3,000 people.
Along with donors like Herbert, Rowland, Clara, Alfred and Lissie, their work and sacrifice to help the starving people of Angel Meadow needs to be remembered too.
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