ACADEMIC

LOSING THE THREAD

Jim Powell’s PhD thesis researched the effect of the American Civil War on the Liverpool raw cotton trade. A revised and expanded version of the thesis has now been published by Liverpool University Press under the title Losing the Thread: Cotton, Liverpool and the American Civil War.

“Powell [says] something quite new and likely definitive about
the Liverpool cotton trade during the American Civil War. And he does
so with a wit and irreverence for sacred cows that is as refreshing as the substance of his findings… Historians reading this book in the future will rely on it for the Civil War period—it is as near a final word as can be imagined.” – Dr Bruce Baker, Newcastle University, for Enterprise & Society, Cambridge University Press. Read the full review here.

“Jim Powell is a convincing myth-debunker. As a result of detailed examination of archival sources, U.K. and U.S. newspapers and trade circulars, and voluminous secondary sources, we can be confident that Powell’s challenge to existing interpretations is sound … [He] has written a comprehensive and illuminating account of how the American civil war affected the Liverpool raw cotton market.” – Professor David Higgins, Newcastle University Business School, for the Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press. Read the full review here.

Losing the Thread is an impeccably researched contribution to literature on the influence of the American Civil War on Britain… [It] undoubtedly achieves its two objectives of providing a more detailed analysis of the British cotton industry during the Civil War era and the impact of the war on the trade in Liverpool.” – Kate Rivington, Monash University, Australasian Journal of American Studies. Read the full review here.

“When historians survey the relationship between Great Britain and America during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a series of truisms routinely pop up … With rock-solid research, Jim Powell tears huge holes in this story … What Powell has accomplished with this work is impressive. It is a carefully crafted piece of research that corrects lazy historical assumptions and lays bare an important moment in British history.” – Dr Erik Mathisen, University of Kent, The English Historical Review. Read the full review here.

“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

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.

Jim has made two videos, in which he discusses the book with Meredith Wheeler, for many years a writer/producer for ABC News in New York and London. Both videos are available on YouTube, clicking on these links . The first video covers The Civil War and Britain’s Cotton Trade, and the second The Civil War and Anglo-American Relations.

The book can be ordered here on the LUP website with a 30% discount, using the promotional code LUP30. The discount is applied at check-out.

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


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