‘He who believes he will reign will not reign’, pronounced Madame de Thebes, the renowned Parisian prophetess. ‘It is about to be accomplished. No one can escape his fate.’
It was the 29th of June 1914 – the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – and the Manchester Evening News, reporting the predictions of Paris’s ‘celebrated soothsayer’ alongside events in Sarajevo, had its tongue somewhat in its cheek. Though forecasting that Austria would probably now harden its line against the Slavs, the Evening News foresaw no significant fall-out. ‘The event, tragic though it is, is not likely to have any effect on international politics,’ the Manchester paper considered. The doomsaying prophecies of a Parisian astrologer were just an amusing aside.[i]
Manchester Evening News, 29th June 1914.
The boy assassin’s gunshot would echo loudly through international politics for the next month. Still, though, while diplomatic manoeuvres on the Continent were reported in the Manchester press, there was little expectation that England would become directly involved in events across the Channel and more close-to-home concerns dominated the headlines. Manchester had other things to think about. In July 1914 Lancashire was preoccupied with the likelihood that a depression in the cotton trade was looming.
In 1913 the UK’s cotton exports had reached an all-time high (7.075 billion yards of cloth, worth £126.5 million). In January 1914 the Manchester Courier had crowed: ‘One wonders what the pioneers of the cotton trade would have thought of such an output of cloth from the looms of Lancashire! Not in their wildest dreams could they have foreseen such a development of the industry.’[ii]
Lancashire was cotton, and cotton was Lancashire. In 1899 over 75% of the UK’s cotton textile workers were employed in the county.[iii] With the textile industry came all manner of associated trades and manufactures. Manchester in 1914 was a town of warehouses, traders and shipping agents, of bleaching, dyeing and printing works, chemicals, iron works and engineering, brokers, bankers and insurers. The state of the cotton market had a decisive influence over the local economy. When the cotton trade was doing well, Manchester prospered; conversely, a depression in the trade impacted the whole of the area’s economy. And, by the summer of 1914, Lancashire’s supremacy was starting to creak. It was the beginning of the end for the golden age of “Cottonopolis”.
While 1913’s headline figures were impressive, analysis was unsettling. Britain’s world share of exports had contracted – from 82% in 1884 to 58% by 1913 (on a weight-of-cloth basis). The emerging consumer markets that had kept Lancashire’s mills busy through the nineteenth century were now developing their own domestic textile industries. The most significant amongst these would be India. The market for cotton there had grown fast over the previous twenty years and Britain had been the principal beneficiary; by 1913 India was consuming 45% of the total yardage of cloth that Britain exported. But it wasn’t going to last. India’s own textile industry was expanding rapidly; during the period 1900-1913 the number of factory spindles in operation in India increased by one third and the number of power looms operating more than doubled. Thanks to the growth of the Indian consumer market Lancashire had enjoyed a boom. But it was about to peak – and fall. Lancashire’s long “Indian Summer” was ending. [iv]
In July 1914 Manchester was looking at international events with trade, not war, in mind. Sir Charles Macara, President of the Master Cotton Spinners’ Associations, was a worried man, and his anxieties were being put into print all over the local press. Lancashire’s customers weren’t buying. ‘The state of the cotton trade throughout the world is uniformly bad,’ Macara wrote.
‘All the great foreign markets are depressed. Famine and plague in India, revolution in China, and war in the Balkan States have handicapped the three countries which, in the order I have mentioned them, are England’s best customers. Further drawbacks have been the war between Italy and Tripoli, the Mexican revolution, the depression throughout South America, and last, but no least, the high price of raw material. Notwithstanding this accumulation of reverses, mills for the production of cotton goods have been growing in number at a rapid rate, with the result that markets are over-supplied, and the prices have fallen to a level which leaves not only no margin of profit, but a serious loss.’[v]
Manchester Evening News, 1st July 1914
At the start of July the General Committee of the Federation of Master Cotton Spinners recommended that all mills working America cotton should suspend operations. With the whole trade co-operating to manage down output, it was hoped that the recent fall in the prices of finished goods could be arrested.[vi] On the 31st of July 1914 the Spinners’ Federation duly voted in favour of organised short-time. However, overseas events were suddenly pushing trade concerns out of the headlines. In the words of the Manchester Guardian, ‘bigger things were in the air’.[vii] At the end of July, as Austria presented its ultimatum to Serbia, cotton prices dropped sharply. The mood of mercantile Manchester deteriorated correspondingly. ‘There are war-clouds on the horizon,’ wrote the Manchester Evening News, ‘but people hope that they may not burst. The European question never loomed bigger, but surely means will be taken to localise war if it breaks out at all.’ The next day, as Austria declared war on Serbia, it seemed like those clouds were perhaps, after all, bursting.
‘It is difficult to recollect days such as these,’ reflected the Evening News.[viii]
[i] Manchester Evening News, 29th June 1914. In her Almanac for 1914 Madame de Thebes had predicted the outbreak of a war – detailing that German troops would approach Paris, but not enter it. Several regional papers picked up and publicised these ‘prophecies’ over the course of 1914. She also forecast that the Kaiser would die on the 29th September 1914.
[ii] Manchester Courier, 9th January 1914. The article went on: ‘In spite of increased competition, we are still unapproachable in the production of cotton cloth, nor is there any genuine reason to suppose that we are even now nearing the limits of expansion.’
[iii] Lars G Sandberg, Lancashire in Decline: A Study in Entrepreneurship, Technology, and International Trade (1974). p. 3.
[iv] Sandberg, Lancashire in Decline. pp. 141, 142, 167.
[v] This interview was printed in the Manchester Courier and Manchester Guardian, 9th July 1914.
[vi] See Manchester Courier, 8th July 1914. Going on to short-time was the traditional way that Lancashire textile manufacturers responded to a downturn in demand. The strategy was normally supported by employers and trade unions and respected throughout the industry. Cotton spinning factories had gone onto short-time in 1900, 1903, 1904 and 1910.
[vii]Manchester Guardian, 1st August 1914.
[viii]Manchester Evening News, 27th and 28th July 1914.