Jim Powell is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of Liverpool.

His 2018 PhD thesis researched the effect of the American Civil War on the Liverpool raw cotton trade. A revised and expanded version of the thesis will be published by Liverpool University Press on 31 January 2021 under the title Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War.

The book can be pre-ordered here on the LUP website with a 30% discount, using the promotional code LUP30.

Losing the Thread is the first full-length study of the effect of the American Civil War on Britain’s raw cotton trade and on the Liverpool cotton market. It includes an analysis of primary sources never used by historians.

Before the civil war, America supplied 80 per cent of Britain’s cotton. In August 1861, this fell to almost zero, where it remained for four years. Despite increased supplies from elsewhere, Britain’s largest industry received only 36 per cent of the raw material it needed from 1862 to 1864.

Losing the Thread establishes the facts of Britain’s raw cotton supply during the war: how much there was of it, in absolute terms and in relation to the demand, where it came from and why, how much it cost, and what effect the reduced supply had on Britain’s cotton manufacture. It includes an enquiry into the causes of the Lancashire cotton famine, which contradicts the historical consensus on the subject.

Examining the impact of the civil war on Liverpool and its cotton market, the book disputes the historic portrayal of Liverpool as a solidly pro-Confederate town. It also demonstrates how reckless speculation infested and distorted the raw cotton market, and lays bare the shadowy world of the Liverpool cotton brokers, who profited hugely from the war while the rest of Lancashire starved.

“A thought-provoking contribution that challenges existing interpretations about key dimensions of Lancashire’s cotton textile industry during the Cotton Famine years.” – Professor Geoff Timmins, University of Central Lancashire

Access to research

One of the primary sources for Losing the Thread are the Bills of Entry for the port of Liverpool. These daily Bills were divided into two parts: the A List and the B List, and are held in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Some historical examination has been made of the A Lists. As far as is known, no study at all has been made of the B Lists.

The B Lists reveal precisely what quantities of every commodity arrived at Liverpool every day, and gives the names of those who had responsibility for each consignment upon its arrival. This information is considerably more detailed, and more interesting, than that revealed by the A Lists.

Using the B Lists, every cotton consignment that came into Liverpool in 1860 (9,926 consignments) and 1864 (11,132 consignments) has been tabulated. The information includes the quantity, the country of origin and the recipient for each consignment.

This information is now provided in the Excel files below, which can be downloaded. It is hoped that they will be helpful to any other historian researching the topic.

1860 cotton consignments

1864 cotton consignments