The Cotton Famine: Lancashire textile workers, Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War by Mark Krantz

This is a great way to enter 2018.  When Red Roof published my book last year, I hoped it wouldn’t be a one-off.  So I was delighted when Mark Krantz got in touch.  Mark’s pamphlet draws attention to an important, but often over-looked chapter in working class history.  It records a powerful example of international solidarity which, as Mark says, has additional resonance in the Age of Trump.


For immediate release

1st January 2018

The Cotton Famine: Lancashire textile workers, Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War  by Mark Krantz

(ISBN 978-0-9930198-2-1, 32pp, £4/$6)

Happy New Year! Red Roof is delighted to welcome-in 2018 with the publication of Mark Krantz’s The Cotton Famine.  Mark’s thoroughly researched, but accessible, pamphlet describes a dynamic political process in which organised labour debated the most contentious issue of the time – and arrived on the right side of history.

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln unveiled the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively ending slavery in the USA.  But Lincoln’s historic announcement was the result of hugely complex socio-economic and political issues that swirled around the American Civil War.

As the bloody war entered its third year, the outcome was far from certain.  The Union North had suffered repeated military setbacks and governments in other countries were unsure which side to back.  Moral discomfort with slavery was tempered by economic interests in its preservation.  Nowhere was this establishment uncertainty more pressing than the UK.

The Lancashire cotton industry was a significant part of the British economy.  It relied on the import of cotton produced by slave labour in the US Confederate South.  The Civil War threatened that supply through a combination of blockades, the chaos of conflict and the determination to be free of thousands of African-Americans who abandoned the plantations for the slavery-free North, often to join the Union army and fight for their freedom.

When the flow of cotton dried up, Lancashire cotton-mill workers faced redundancy and starvation.  They had every reason to back the UK government’s position of moral equivocation on slavery which was leading it towards support for the Southern Confederacy.

But unlike the Tory government of Lord Palmerstone, the mill workers put moral principle above economic self-interest.  How they came to that position is the fascinating subject of The Cotton Famine.

Using primary sources, recording powerful and moving arguments, Mark describes one of the earliest examples of international, industrial solidarity.  155 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, The Cotton Famine also shows the continuing relevance of the global fight against racism and injustice in the age of President Donald Trump and ‘Black Lives Matter’.

Mark says:

“I wrote this book because of Donald Trump.  When he became President there were widespread protests against him and his declarations of racism and hatred.  On one of the demonstrations against Trump I recalled that there had been a time when Manchester rallied not against an American President – but in support of an American President.  On New Year’s Eve 1862 at a meeting at the Free Trades Hall in Manchester, six thousands workers declared their support for president Abraham Lincoln and the proclamation he had signed that freed the slaves during the American Civil War.  This is a history that needs to be retold.  How it came about that textile workers refused to spin cotton picked by slave hands has not been told in detail.  I wrote The Cotton Famine to bring this little known but inspirational history to a new audience today.



1.      Mark Krantz teaches for the Workers Education Association at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.  He is an activist and a long standing campaigner against racism and fascism.  His previous books chart the textile workers’ struggles at Peterloo in 1819 and of the Chartists in the 1842 General Strike.

2.      To order a copy (and for bulk orders) call us on the number above or contact

3.      Red Roof is an independent publishing house dedicated to telling the stories of working class people and their struggles for social justice.

4.      Also available from Red Roof There’s No Place: The American housing crisis and what it means for the UK by Glyn Robbins.

Mark Krantz



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Charlotte Delgado, PRESENTE!

It was with a heavy heart and teary eye that I read this email today from Michael Kane, director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), sister organisation of Defend Council Housing (DCH) in the US:

Hello all, yesterday I received the sad news that long-time NAHT Board leader and former President Charlotte Delgado passed away peacefully, on Tuesday afternoon, in a hospice in Stockton, California.

Kathryn Buller-Melton, Charlotte’s stalwart friend and neighbor, had a long talk with Charlotte on Sunday. Kathryn asked Charlotte how she would like to be remembered. Charlotte replied, that she was a little soldier for all the little soldiers, fighting so that everyone can have a safe and decent place to live.

Charlotte needn’t worry—we will always remember her tenacious, boundless energy; her beautiful and well-placed anger; and her inspiring leadership in the struggle for tenants rights and housing justice.

Charlotte Delgado, Presente!

As my own small tribute, below is the extract about Charlotte from my book.

American Tragedy

Charlotte Delgado has lived in Sacramento for 30 years, but in 2015 found that she didn’t have a home there.  Charlotte moved to her rented apartment in the city centre in 1985.  Soon after, she became a tenant activist when she led a successful battle to keep rents affordable for herself and her fellow low-income neighbours.  This was a life-changing moment for Charlotte because it led her to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a national, tenant-led organisation that campaigns to preserve and protect affordable housing, particularly in the private rented sector.  Charlotte has been a NAHT Board member ever since and had been the organisation’s national chairperson for several years until her own housing situation destabilised her life.

When the latest speculative property boom hit Sacramento, Charlotte’s building was “flipped” three times in three years, each time increasing a sense of threat and vulnerability.  Charlotte was a marked woman because the owners knew her reputation and that she would organise to resist any attempt to hike rents or evict low income tenants.  They made Charlotte various offers – including outright bribes – in the hope she’d leave quietly.  She refused.  In early May 2015 Charlotte received an eviction order based on spurious grounds relating to the behaviour of her younger son who is chronically ill and mentally unstable.  One day Charlotte returned home from visiting a sick neighbour she cared for to find the building manager and the sheriff changing the locks.  She had to demand the return of her walking frame and purse before she was told to leave the building.  At the age of 79, Charlotte was homeless and alone.  She says she spent the rest of the day in a daze, walking around the city until she couldn’t walk any more.  This wouldn’t attract attention in Sacramento because there are thousands of people in a similar plight.  The local homeless encampment has elected its own Mayor and there’s a dedicated school for homeless children.  Charlotte had spent years volunteering at a shelter, but never imagined she’d need its help.  She recalled that another thing she’d never considered is where homeless women go to the toilet when, like her, they (literally) have no place to go.

Fortunately, at least some of Charlotte’s contribution to society was repaid and she was offered emergency shelter so she didn’t have to sleep on the street.  She was then provided with temporary accommodation by a Catholic charity, while she tried to find a permanent home.  Although she was now in a comfortable, caring environment, the hostel was in the suburbs, a one hour train and bus ride from the neighbourhood she knows.  It was as though Charlotte had been banished from the city for daring to challenge the property barons.  She tried to get help from the public housing authority, but despite her age and physical frailty, they weren’t interested.  Instead Charlotte had to hope that her housing voucher would be honoured by a new private landlord, but this was in some doubt because technically, Charlotte had been evicted for breaching her tenancy conditions.  In early August, after three months of dislocated limbo, Charlotte found an apartment in a complex for older people, but her uncertainty was not over yet.  A month later, the housing authority, which administers the voucher system, had not released the funding to pay the landlord.  So Charlotte had a bed and a roof over her head, but her furniture was still in storage because she wanted to be certain that she wasn’t going to be made homeless again.

In the context of a flimsy, porous social welfare system, Charlotte has been relatively fortunate to be rehoused.  Others, like Charlotte’s older son, are not so lucky.  After serving in the US Army, he worked as a gardener for the city for 25 years and had been living with his mum and acting as her carer before her eviction.  He ended up on the streets, along with his younger brother who Charlotte thinks may have stomach cancer, because he keeps vomiting blood.  Referring to another aspect of America’s relentless war on the poor, Charlotte relates an occasion when she went to the chemist with her younger son and asked how many of the 11 drugs he needed she could afford with the $55 she had in her purse. The answer was “none”.  The cheapest prescription was $110.

 American Hero

It’s one thing to witness and try to describe the experience of those affected by America’s housing crisis, another when one of its victims is a personal friend.  I’ve known Charlotte Delgado for about ten years and she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.  She’s devoted much of her life to helping others, particularly campaigning with NAHT for tenants’ rights and decent homes for all.  But Charlotte’s story is about much more than housing.  She defied potential racist prejudice by marrying a Mexican, became a fluent Spanish speaker, spent many years working in the hotel industry, fostered and adopted abandoned children, is an active church member, a cancer survivor, but still chain-smokes the cigarettes she calls “coffin nails”.  Charlotte’s politics aren’t formulated through theory or party affiliation, but an innate sense of social justice and class solidarity that is distinctively American.  This is also reflected in her patriotism which, most remarkably, is undimmed by the loss of three (yes, three) sons in the Vietnam War.  But as she approaches her 80s, Charlotte isn’t bitter or self-pitying, just angry with a system that destroys lives for profit.  Despite her age and some health problems, Charlotte was still fighting for the homes of others when she lost her own.  She’s already told NAHT that once she’s settled in her new home she’ll organise a tenants association![1]

The hardest thing for Charlotte in telling me her story (and for me listening to it) is that she feels ashamed.  Like other activists I’ve known, Charlotte is better at fighting for others than herself.  Given all she’s done to help other people and the affection she’s held in, it’s possible Charlotte could have avoided the situation she found herself in when she lost her home, but not certain.  A key feature of American society in general and its housing crisis in particular, is its brutality. The fact that Charlotte Delgado is elderly, disabled, poor and has made huge contributions to and sacrifices for her country, including paying taxes for 65 years, matters not a jot.  When the forces of corporate finance, property developers and their political lackies want to make money, it seems nothing else matters.  If California was a country, it would be the seventh wealthiest on earth. Who should be ashamed?

Speaking at NAHT conference in 2014, Charlotte said:

The government is trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and poorest – women, veterans and the disabled.  They’re cutting programmes for affordable housing, but there are no cuts in the military budget. I’m a mother of seven veterans, including three who are over on the wall.[1]  Our veterans need to be looked after by bringing them home.  We need to make sure that big corporations like Apple and Bank of America pay their fair share of taxes.  I pay mine.  We’re here because the government needs to see the faces of the people their cuts affect.  We need a government that recognises decent housing as a basic human right. 

[1] A reference to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

[1] Since 2015, Charlotte’s housing situation has stabilised.  She’s been able to settle in a new apartment in central Sacramento, sharing with her older son.

Charlotte leads NAHT members to speak truth to power on Capitol Hill (DC, June 2016)

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Vindication, but not victory (yet)

This is Alan Walter.

Alan died suddenly in 2009 aged 51.  He dedicated his life to the struggle for council housing, as part of his belief that everyone has a right to a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home.  As Austin Mitchell says, Alan was a ‘master of the arts’ of campaigning.  One of his specialities was working behind enemy lines.  He slipped into the corridors of power where he met and cajoled politicians of all persuasions in an attempt to forge the broadest possible alliance for housing policy in the interests of working class people and communities.

I thought of Alan yesterday while I digested Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech.  Defend Council Housing (DCH) and other housing campaigns have had good moments in the past.  We’ve had conference resolutions passed, high-profile media coverage and won battles to save council housing from privatisation, all from a grass-roots, shoe-string organisation.  But overall, the neoliberal, private developer and profit-driven bandwagon has continued to roll.  Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn signaled that might be about to change.  It’s a huge vindication for Alan and the many other people who’ve maintained the fight for a real alternative to the property casino.  But it’s not yet a victory.

Mr Corbyn has been a staunch supporter of DCH and housing rights campaigns for many years, so in a way his speech was no surprise.  But since becoming Labour leader he’s been understandably pre-occupied with internal party politics.  Although we never doubted his sincerity, this has become a growing concern and frustration for those of us on the outside.  While the government’s housing policy has been falling apart, some Labour councils have been trying to drive through privatisation agendas that would make some Tories blush.

Yesterday’s speech contained some vital arguments if we are to escape the housing crisis and avoid repeating it.  Quite rightly, Mr Corbyn used Grenfell Tower as the symbol of what has to be a turning point.  He called Grenfell:

“…an indictment not just of decades of failed housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world, it is also a damning indictment of a whole outlook which values council tax refunds for the wealthy above decent provision for all and which has contempt for working class communities…Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace…a decent home is a right for everyone.”

Corbyn went on to make  the following commitments:

  • Housing must not be a tool for speculative investment.
  • Labour will listen to tenants and control rents.
  • Labour will seek powers to compulsorily purchase and tax unused land held by developers.
  • Labour will “think again” about regeneration so that it’s “for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators”.
  • Residents in regeneration areas will have a binding ballot before redevelopment goes ahead and a real right of return.

Conference speeches aren’t the place for detailed policy.  They inevitably leave some things unsaid.  So while Corbyn’s speech is very welcome, as Alan Walter (who was a miserable git at times) would have been the first to say, it’s also a potential honey-trap.

The biggest dangers are complacency, inertia and policy obfuscation.  Residents of the 50+ estates currently threatened with the loss of their homes through ball and chain redevelopment can’t afford to wait for a Labour government.  The next election could come too late for the people of Haringey where the council and a private developer are attempting a massive land-grab and asset-stripping of public property.  If the Ministry of Justice goes ahead with the sale of public land at Holloway Prison it will never be used to build the homes we need.  If Notting Hill Housing Group completes its merger with Genesis it will be another sign that housing associations have been lost to the world of corporate property developers.  The review of social housing being undertaken by Labour invites the likes of John Healey and Sadiq Khan to continue their craven capitulation to the undermining of genuine council housing through “affordable” and “social” housing schemes that are nothing of the kind.

Armed with Corbyn’s speech, local campaigners should be demanding an immediate moratorium on all redevelopment and regeneration projects that do not offer tenants a ballot and a like-for-like right to return.  The Haringey fire sale should be binned.  Islington Council must step up  the campaign to use public land in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency (at Holloway Prison) for public housing.  Housing Associations must be brought under democratic control now, by the kind of action residents are taking to stop the gravy-train merger of Notting Hill and Genesis.

To turn yesterday’s speech into action we need a united national campaign to demand decent homes for all.  The summit on 25th November (details here) will be an important step.  Just waiting for Jezza could be a disaster.




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Grenfell Silent Protest

Here’s my nomination for the Turner Prize.

I took the photo last night at the Grenfell silent protest.  At the time – and even now – I struggled to put into words how profound I find this.  According to their parents, the idea and execution were all the children’s.  It is truly a great work of art.

Of equal powerful eloquence was the protest itself.  It was the third.  Apparently it started with about 20 people on 14th July.  Last night there were about 400.  The idea of silence on the same day that the inquiry by, of and for the establishment was opened seemed incongruous.  But emotions are still raw in North Kensington so chanting slogans might seem insensitive and disrespectful.

As Sir Martin Moore-Bick moves towards his inevitably unsatisfactory conclusions, it’s essential that we ‘the public’ make true meaning of what purports to be a public inquiry.  There are lots of ways of doing that, but one is to stand in solidarity with the local community and bear witness to this preventable tragedy.

The plan is to hold the silent protest on the 14th of every month (starting at 7pm outside Notting Hill Methodist Church, – two minutes from Ladbroke Grove tube station).  So please make a date for Saturday 14th October and spread the word.


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The Bridge

In early July, I wrote a post about Montgomery County, Maryland.  That was a month before white supremacists (one of whom murdered Heather Heyer) rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest about the removal of statues celebrating the slave-holding Confederacy.  The reaction to Charlottesville, from Trump pandering to the far-right to the pulling down of more Confederate monuments, exposed again the unhealed scars of racism in US society (although, of course, it’s not unique in having them).  Even my post provoked a surprising level of anger from people who know about the controversy around a bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This short (16 minutes) film provides a vivid account of the history of that bridge and its links to much wider issues.

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The everyday story of a housing crisis

In my 26 years working and campaigning on the subject, I’ve never known housing get so much political and media attention.  This level of concern is long overdue.  It’s just a shame it took the deaths of innocent people at Grenfell Tower for it to happen.  For years, the establishment has turned a blind eye to the plight of millions struggling to find or keep a roof over their heads.  This chasm between political action and social concern has been one of the clearest signs of our democratic deficit.

Grenfell changed that.  It’s not a permanent state of affairs, but for now, housing is politically important and sensitive.  Time will tell whether this actually changes anything.  But the demand of decent, secure, truly affordable and safe homes for all is part of securing Justice for Grenfell – and we may not get a better chance of winning it.

The ultimate proof that housing inequality has hit the middle England mainstream is The Archers.  The everyday story of country folk is currently doing a pretty decent job with a story-line that highlights how the crisis is spreading through the country, up the social ladder and blighting people’s lives and communities.

I should perhaps out myself as a committed Archerite.  I tend to listen to the omnibus in the gym, desperately hoping I’m never exposed as training to cows mooing instead of high-energy garage.  I often struggle to remember who’s who and have an additional confession that my favourite character is Brian Aldridge.  But while I’m at it, I like Hugh Grant too!

The housing plot revolves around a proposed new development in Archer-land.  A property developer wants to build a relatively small number of homes on formerly agricultural land.  This has unleashed a host of tensions and conflicts in Ambridge, most of which ring true.

Predictably, there’s the NIMBY question.  Some of the better-off residents oppose any new homes in their rural idyll.  This is an issue that underlies a lot of housing policy impotence and inertia in the “real” world.  Politicians in many parts of the country are petrified of any appearance of “concreting over” the countryside or green-belt.  Lynda Snell, a vocal Ambridge resident, has articulated another fear of new development: that the homes will be bought by “part-time resident strangers with lives elsewhere”.

This aversion to new housing development is not a luxury afforded to people living in cities, but in any event, is based on a false argument.  Only a fraction of the UK land-mass is devoted to housing.  It would take a lot more than Justin Elliot’s scheme in The Archers to turn Ambridge into Singapore.

Stopping landowners building homes wherever they like is why we have a system of planning control, albeit one that is much abused.  The Archers gave a good snap-shot of how developers use self-serving, dishonest tactics to get what they want.  The Ambridge Parish Council was presented with seductive arguments that come close to emotional blackmail.  In a typical manoeuvre Damara Captial, the shadowy developer, used the promise of affordable housing to get backing for its plans, enlisting the support of Emma, one of the locals in housing need.

If The Archers reflects reality, Emma will be betrayed and disappointed.  The term “Affordable Housing” has become so misused that it should always be placed in parenthesis.  It’s tragic to hear Emma pinning her hopes for the future on a lottery.  Damara are out to maximise profits, which means minimising the number of homes that aren’t sold at full market prices.  Once they’ve got planning permission, they’ll use a new string of bogus arguments to pretend that homes that Emma might be able to afford are “unviable” (an issue recently addressed by Channel 4 News, with a cameo appearance by me).

The new homes in Ambridge have created divisions within the community and sadly, that’s also a feature of our housing malaise.  The elevation of housing as a commodity and signifier of social status is exploited by those who have no interest in solving the problem.  We need to take back control of housing and planning policy from the likes of Damara Capital.  After Grenfell, we need to drive the profiteers out of our homes.


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The Bridges of Montgomery County

[What follows is thanks to David Rotenstein, a historian in Silver Spring, Maryland who uses his skill and knowledge to challenge establishment orthodoxies that seek to present versions of the past that render certain experiences, people  and places invisible. See more of David’s work here.]

The selective preservation and erasure of memory is universal and timeless. It’s the essence of history. But nowhere is it more true than the USA. I sometimes think the foundation myth of European ‘America’ spread across the virtual genocide of Native Indians is the biggest cover-up in history.  But like other societies, America continues to tell itself sanitised stories that foreground ‘official’ histories without acknowledging that they’re contested.

This issue is very current in the context of attitudes to relics of the civil war. A debate is raging in the US about whether statues celebrating the Confederate South should stay or go. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war) recently said of monuments like the one in his city to Jefferson Davis (who was president of the Confederacy):

“Equal part myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time – a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago – not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.” (Mayor Levar Stoney, DC Express, 23rd June 2017)

But there are many mundane distortions of the past that are perhaps more ideologically powerful and pernicious than statues. David Rotenstein showed me some of them during a “dirty tour” of his home town, Silver Spring in Maryland, just north of Washington DC.

The strange social geography of DC makes any definition of place contentious. This city-state imposes itself on the local landscape with a rigidity under-written by Federal law. By most standards, Silver Spring would be just another suburb. But its history makes it more than that and presents a microcosm of the American experience.

The first thing David showed me was this mural, decorating the side of a multi-storey (no pun intended) car park.

We’ve all become used to anodyne municipal and corporate art deployed to dress-up reinventions of place. I still get infuriated by the artifacts (cranes, winding gear, random chain links) littering London’s ‘Docklands’ in a fake gesture to historic preservation. But this mural is more provocative. The clear message is the equality of the two sides in the civil war.

Post-conflict expressions of peace and reconciliation are natural, particularly after civil war and all wars are messy and complex. But in this mural there’s no way of knowing that one side was fighting for the preservation of legal human slavery.

David showed me several other examples of Silver Spring’s attempts to depict its past in a way that conceals some facts and concocts others. In an adjoining mural, black people are shown catching commuter trains in the 1950s at a time when, David says, they would not have been allowed to use the station unless they were working there. Silver Spring remained segregated by custom and practice until the early 1960s, significantly later than DC. More African-Americans moved to the area around this time when a government office opened there, but they not only found it hard to buy a home due to racist restrictions, they couldn’t even buy lunch. David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles. What it does commemorate is the figure of Francis Preston Blair, a former slave owner who ‘discovered’ (like Columbus discovered America) the silver spring from which the city takes its name (see photo below).

African-Americans, both free and enslaved, had been living in the Silver Spring area for generations, particularly in the settlement of Lyttonsville.  As my book describes, the history of US housing is entwined with racism, so it’s no surprise to learn that Lyttonsville didn’t get running water and paved streets until the late 1960s – and only after a fight.

Today, Lyttonsville has been absorbed into the wider Silver Spring conurbation, but the difficulties for US society in reconciling its present with its past don’t end there.  The Talbot Avenue Bridge links Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring.  It’s an elegant structure that’s typically American.

Now the authorities want to demolish it (allegedly to make way for a new train line).  The contrived arguments being used to justify this – poor maintenance, structurally unsound, beyond economic repair – are precisely those used to justify the destruction of US public housing and UK council housing.  They all illustrate an enduring disrespect for the homes, histories and lives of working class communities, with ethnicity a potent additional factor.

In the Age of Trump, demolishing bridges and building walls (actual or metaphoric) assume ever greater significance.

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