Avenham Park in Preston was opened by the Duke of Cambridge in 1867. Running through the bottom of the park is the River Ribble – where the first LDS baptisms in Britain were performed, and in the heart of the park is a Japanese garden within which lie four plaques mentioning the church. It seems quite fitting that this park, which has such rich Mormon connections, was created because of cotton. I told you cotton permeated everything here! Okay, here’s what happened:
Prior to the 1860s this area would have looked quite different with no trees along the river, and instead of open park there were fields, pasture, farmhouses and an orchard. This agricultural scene is the one the early missionaries and converts would have seen as they went down to the river for baptism services. This was all about to change when, thousands of miles away, the American Civil War (1861-1865) broke out.
Many Lancashire cotton mills relied upon raw, imported American cotton from the plantations in the sourthern states. The southern states initially stopped importing cotton to Britain in an attempt to force the hand of Parliament to join sides with them. Then one of the tactics of the northern states was to blockade southern ports with their naval power. These events had a dramatic effect. In 1860 the southern states were churning out around 4,500,000 bales of cotton, but as war and the blockades took their toll that total shrank to 300,000 by 1864. It has been estimated that the blockade was 95% effective at stopping cotton from leaving America.
On this side of the ocean the British Cotton Lords hoped their overstocked warehouses of cotton would see them through, but it soon became clear that supplies were dwindling. Soon cotton mills went silent. No raw cotton = no work. Thousands of unemployed cotton workers entered what has been called the Lancashire Cotton Famine or The Cotton Panic.
During 1861 the board of Guardians in Preston gave outdoor relief to between 2,500 and 3,000 people per week. From October 1861 to March 1862 this total rose to 10,500, and from May to December rose to 22,500. Many workers emigrated, or tried to find work in other trades, but most remained impoverished.
On 19 January 1863, Abraham Lincoln thanked the cotton workers for supporting them (not that they had much choice in the matter). Lincoln wrote:
“… I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was unlikely to obtain the favour of Europe.”
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. Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. 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.
I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”
Abraham Lincoln, 19 January 1863
The Public Works Act of 1864 was an attempt to help these Manufacturing Districts get people back to work. Around the county unemployed cotton workers were employed in Public works schemes such as building sewers, canals, roads and parks. Preston’s local authorities used the money from this Act to landscape a number of Preston’s Parks.
Avenham Park was laid out in 1864-65, and Miller Park and Moor Park (opened 1867) were laid out under the same scheme. Over £20,000 was spent on Avenham and Miller Parks, and almost £11,000 on Moor Park.
Lime trees were planted along the River Ribble during the 1860s and now make a delightful walk to the baptism site. Prior to that the banks of the river were bare.
It seems quite fitting to me that our LDS plaques commemorating Preston’s role in the early church should be located in a beautiful park that not only contains the first baptism site, but is also linked to the cotton trade which was such a huge factor in the every day life of all Prestonians.
In our next post we witness some Elders from 1913 sharing their thoughts about the cotton trade.