Here is part two of our feature for Black History Month on Oldham's complicated history with slavery including the former slave who made the town home.

In last week's feature on the Cotton Famine, we spoke with Dr Natalie Zacek, a senior lecturer in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester.

The shortage of cotton, the manufacture of which used slave labour, was caused by a blockade on ports during the American Civil War.

The famine lasted from 1861 to 1865, and led to the unemployment of many across Lancashire, including in Oldham.

While Dr Zacek called Lancashire “the most anti-slavery part of Britain”, not all historians agree.

Did Oldham ‘favour slavery’?

Oldhamers struggled with their attitude towards the cotton blockade and the American Civil War.

Looking through newspapers from the time, such as the Oldham Chronicle and the Oldham Standard, it is clear that the editorial opinion is one of anti-slavery, but not necessarily pro-north.

A column in The Oldham Chronicle, dated Saturday, May 11, 1861, states: “We have a strong and bitter hatred of slavery, and have always looked upon it as a menace to the stability of the great western republic.

"We should regard any success gained by the south over the north—notwithstanding the stringency of the tariff recently adopted—as a triumph of evil principles. The sympathy of England is with the north, and nothing could reconcile us to the spread of southern ideas.

“But this country will not interfere between the two parties in any way. It is a struggle which they alone can decide, and non-intervention is at once our interest and our duty. We cannot see how this country can, by any stretch of ingenuity, be drawn into the disastrous strife which is beginning in America, provided ordinary care be taken in our relationship with the contending parties.”

The Oldham Times: The Oldham ChronicleThe Oldham Chronicle (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

The edition of the Oldham Standard, published on the same Saturday, bemoans that “the steady working of the cotton business is over and gone”.

The column adds: “In spite of mutual jealousies it is highly probable that, in a few weeks at farthest, our mills will not run much more than half time as a measure of necessary precaution. What cotton there is must be husbanded with the greatest care.” 

The Oldham Times: Column in The Oldham Standard, dated Saturday, May 11, 1861Column in The Oldham Standard, dated Saturday, May 11, 1861 (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Oldham historian Ian Haynes, author of ‘A History of the Oldham Cotton Industry’, told The Oldham Times that he has found numerous references to pro-South meetings in the Oldham Standard.

A large meeting at the Oldham Town Hall to discuss the government recognising the south, with leading manufacturers signing a resolution to that effect, was reported on by the paper in 1862.

In February 1863, a pro-north meeting was reported on at Oldham Town Hall – followed by a meeting at Tommyfield Market calling for government recognition of the south just four months later.

In October, a meeting at the Co-operative Hall in favour of southern independence took place, followed by a crowded pro-south meeting at the People’s Hall in Lees in November.

That same year, US President Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to the working men of Lancashire, recognising the suffering and thanking them for their heroism and their anti-slavery stance – following a meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1862 which showed solidarity against slavery and support for the embargo.

The Oldham Times: Abraham Lincoln statue by George Grey Barnard, located in Manchester City Centre Abraham Lincoln statue by George Grey Barnard, located in Manchester City Centre (Image: Mike Peel, under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0 licence)

Mr Haynes said: “They did have quite a few meetings in Oldham in favour of the south. They seemed to be on the side of the south, really, against the north. In effect, they were favouring slavery.

“Quite why Oldham seemed to be so much on the side of the south is possibly due to the fact that a lot of the spinners in Oldham were quite small concerns, and they were working on small profits, probably renting part of a larger mill.

“They couldn’t really afford any increase in cotton prices, so if the north was to win the war they could see the price of cotton going up, because they’d have to pay people to grow it. That’s possibly one reason why they were so much, more than other places.

“In Ashton where there were large mill owners wealthy enough they could just shut mills for the duration, they just sat back and let the workforce look after themselves.

"In Ashton a lot of people simply drifted away, looking for other sorts of work elsewhere, so when the American Civil War ended, the mill owners there were desperate for labour, so they had to pay more to attract the workers, unlike in Oldham which didn’t suffer quite so much in that way.

“They were renting their places, so they might as well carry on working, even at a loss, because they’d have to pay the rent anyway.”

A former slave in Oldham

Following the cotton famine, one abolitionist who made his way to Oldham was James Johnson.

Himself an escaped slave, he settled in the town and turned to religion following a life marked with much suffering.

Having been born into slavery in Smithville, North Carolina (now known as Southport), Johnson made a daring escape on a Union ship, the USS Stars and Stripes, to Philadelphia and then New York City.

There, he got on a ship to Liverpool, and visited many different towns across England under extremely difficult conditions.

The Oldham Times: The USS Stars & Stripes was renamed the Metropolis and was wrecked in 1878The USS Stars & Stripes was renamed the Metropolis and was wrecked in 1878 (Image: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, 1878 (Public Domain))

After experiencing homelessness and drinking, and even touring with a legendary boxer, Johnson arrived in Oldham in 1866, just as the town was recovering from the Cotton Famine.

Shortly after arriving, he found work with the Platt Brothers.

The Platt family are recorded in The National Archives as having run the largest machine-making firm in the world from a factory site in Werneth during the 1890s.

The Platt Brothers & Company was at one time Oldham's largest employer and the world's most important manufacturer of textile machinery, according to Historic England – with the company even linked to the founding of Toyota’s automobile business.

Johnson later married in 1869 to a woman called Sarah Preston, who helped him learn to read and write. He died in Oldham in 1914.

His daughter posthumously published an autobiographical pamphlet, which details his journey and spiritual conversion to Christianity.

Originally advertised for sale at the price of one penny, the pamphlet has two known copies which survive in Oldham Archives, and serves as a rare example of a first-hand written account from a former slave, with slaves often prohibited from learning to read or write, with severe consequences.

The pamphlet can now be downloaded on The Oldham Times website.

‘Very few accounts of people living through slavery’

Historian David Cecleski lives in North Carolina. He spoke with The Oldham Times about when he found out about Johnson’s story, around 2008.

He said: “Some years ago, Roger Ivens at the Oldham Archive contacted our state archives, which then immediately got in touch with me, about James Johnson’s narrative of his life as an enslaved person.

“For us, this was a very exciting this. We have, for the part of the world I’m from, half or even a majority of the people were once enslaved Africans, but we have very, very few first-hand accounts of what their lives were like.

“We have a lot of accounts that were written by white people about their lives: account books and newspapers, that sort of thing. But we have very, very few first-hand – people who lived through the experience of slavery actually describing it.”

The Oldham Times: Historians and archivists think this photo, taken at some time in the late 1860s to early 1870s, may be James Johnson, though they are not certainHistorians and archivists think this photo, taken at some time in the late 1860s to early 1870s, may be James Johnson, though they are not certain (Image: Oldham Local Studies & Archives)

‘Absolutely authentic’

The historian said that it only took a ‘five-minute glance’ to authenticate the pamphlet.

He continued: “I could certainly tell it was absolutely authentic. He listed names, places, details of life here that only somebody who had been here at the time would have.

"He may have got a couple things wrong, or he may have decided not to show his whole hand about some things, but they were relatively minor.

“It didn’t take long for me, and a number of other people, both at our state archives and friends to take the evidence that James Johnson gave us about his end of the story that’s here and flesh it out.”

The Oldham Times: David Cecleski, speaking on Microsoft TeamsDavid Cecleski, speaking on Microsoft Teams (Image: Teams/David Cecleski)

A tough life

Johnson lived a tough life in North Carolina, as Mr Cecleski continued to explain: “He’s beaten and whipped badly, at one point he tries to commit suicide because of how horrible life there is, he’s there when the American Civil War starts in 1861, at that point he’s 14-years-old.

“In that part of North America, it’s a war against the north and the south. The north does a shipping blockade of the southern ports, including the port that he’s near, and Johnson and several other enslaved people confiscate a boat, eventually, during the war, and sail it out to one of the northern blockading ships, and in that way he escapes from slavery.”

Despite having no money and barely any clothes, with no experience of the outside world, Johnson finds his way on to a vessel which ends up in Liverpool, beginning the chapter of his live in England.

Mr Cecleski explained: “He’s bumming his way around England and Wales. He lists some of the towns he’s going through, and it’s dozens of them. He’s begging, he’s sleeping in ash heaps and garbage piles. Wherever he can find a warm place to stay, he takes odd jobs. He performs music with his hands and elbows outside pubs to get a little spending money. He’s robbed repeatedly, it’s a rough time.

“I get the sense that he was probably drinking a lot then, he goes to sea a couple of times, he gets on a cruise. He really ends up on the streets, and life for him doesn’t change until he reaches Oldham.

“If there’s any place that’s the world centre for textiles, it’s Oldham. Oldham is in a bit of a lull then, the cotton famine. Your textile factories could not get enough cotton during the civil war since that was mostly coming from slave labour in the United States.”

The Oldham Times: The pamphlet documenting Johnson's lifeThe pamphlet documenting Johnson's life (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

A new life in Oldham

After Johnson reaches Oldham, he gains work with the Platt Brothers and meets a man who draws his attention to a gospel band from Sheffield. After an initial bad experience where he felt embarrassed by his illiteracy, he started to attend church in Oldham.

“He begins to go to services there, and he begins to put his life back together, he gets a job as an ironworker and blacksmith, he eventually meets a good woman, marries, they have a child together, and when you read his narrative – I read a lot of these in my work – most of them have a propagandistic edge to them.

“If they were written before the civil war they were written to end slavery, if they’re published after the war they’re written as a way of undermining white supremacy, which undergirded white supremacy and racial life in the United States after the civil war, basically saying ‘we are human, we’ve come through this’.

“Johnson’s is something like that, but much more than others he’s telling a story of a spiritual odyssey. He says at one point that the end of the American Civil War freed his body, but in Oldham his religious conversion freed his spirit. In a way, you can tell that the reason he wrote the pamphlet in Oldham was like a spiritual trap, I’ve come through hell, I’ve come through sin, I’ve come through hardship, and this is my path and maybe you can learn from it.

“It’s a fascinating thing, and for us here, it really is a gem, from the part of the American south he’s writing about, there are no other slave narratives.”

‘He would have made an impression’

The historian says that Johnson’s journey was quite a rare one, but not unheard of. He continued: “If you had gone to Liverpool, or one of the seaports on your western coast, it would have seemed less rare. You would have seen ships on which African or African American slaves from the US served. They would often talk about it, it was a dangerous thing – if a slave serving on a ship landed in Liverpool, he was going to see a world that, in a way, he was not supposed to see.

“On our side of the ocean, in the place that’s my home, he would have been expected to step off the sidewalk any time a white man or woman approached him and let them pass. It would have been dangerous for him to look a white man or woman in the eye – not just bad: dangerous. It was considered such a breach of racial decorum.

“In Liverpool there are testimonies of black sailors from here striding down the street arm in arm with white women. That’s the kind of thing that was absolutely unimaginable in America.

“In the seaports, they would have had a little bit more familiarity with the world of American slavery, but inland and in an industrial city like Oldham, it would have been almost unheard of.

“He would have made an impression. There may have been a few of the wealthier people in town who had Black servants, probably not from North America, but James Johnson would have made quite an impression at that time.”