by Micheal Higgins

The talk was advertised as an hour’s length in some circles and an hour and a half in others. So Sid Calderbank felt obliged to talk for 90 minutes ‘wi’ no interval’. But there was free tea and coffee via a dispenser  in the room so no one expired of dehydration. The talk was held in the top floor room of the old building. There were around 30 folk present with extra mural capacity being made up via zoom. Sid has an easy going, confident and breezy manner and was able to tell and sing the story of The Lancashire Cotton Famine with easy flair. 

He began with the story of cotton, most of which came from the USA but also from Egypt and India. By 1861 when the American Civil War broke out the industry had long evolved from the handloom cottage industry of the 18th century into large power driven spinning mills and noisy clacking weaving sheds employing hundreds of workers per mill. In this Sid imitated the clacking looms with a rhyming ditty on the world of cotton in which he  accompanied by the clacking with his own ‘bones’ or ‘rickers’ as we used to call them. This was a piece he had created as a voice over for performance by The About Time Dance Company Of Lancaster.

The cotton famine began when the Northern navy imposed a blockade of Confederate ports and so cut off the raw cotton supply. Over the year Lancashire mills slowly ran out of cotton and went on either one or two days a week or a full stoppage. The resulting stoppages meant unprecedented unemployment which the Poor Law system of workhouse inside or outdoor relief was unable to cope with. Hence the setting up of Cotton Famine charity funds in Lancashire, London and other parts of the land.

The number of folk song broadsheets from this period and contemporary reminiscences point to the vast number of the unemployed becoming itinerant street balladeers to raise extra money to feed their families.

The Alabama

Hence the song The Alabama celebrated the Liverpool built armed blockade breaker which was eventually sunk by the Federal Navy off the coast of France.  It’s rollicking chorus ‘Roll, Alabama, Roll,’ is still a folk club favourite. But there were many songs and poems deriving from the era which today tell the tale of four years of hardship for a county whose whole existence depended on cotton picked by slaves. Despite this neither Britain nor France were persuaded by the Confederacy’s own tactic of burning its own cotton to restrict supply. Nor were they prepared to enter the war on the Confederacy’s side to break the Northern blockade. Slavery was something neither the out of work mill workers, nor the populace of Britain at large, could condone.

Sid´s talk also included a rendition, accompanied by the bones, of Weaver´s Song, by Rochdale´s own John Trafford-Clegg. There was also the Ashton Famine Song, of which there is no authenticated attribution and Sam Laycock´s Surat Weaver´s Song. (Samuel Laycock, shown left)

Of course Sid also sang the Sewing Class Song of that era and recited some of Samuel Laycock´s Cotton Famine Lyrics.

It wur a good do and Susan, who generally nods off at these events stayed awake and tapped her foot at the appropriate moments

An important source of the talk was Edwin Waugh’s ‘Home Life Of The Lancashire Factory Folk During The Cotton Famine’.

Michael also referred Sidetracks And Detours to a piece published recently in The Rochdale Observer by Yasmin Al-Nayar, under the heading of Sid´s Cotton Tales Bring History To Life.

Yasmin began her piece by describing Sid as a Lancashiore dialect expert and retired folk singer, before going on to offer a positive review of his talk at the Pioneer Museum in Rochdale about Lancashire´s Cotton industry and famine.

The event was called Come Whoam T´Toad Lane and ran for ninety minutes, 

Through   songs, poems and even newspaper reports of the time, Sixty nine year old Sid transported his audience back to the era and the history enthusiast explained in entertaining detail what happened to the cotton industry in the North West of England during the American Civil War, and he showed how the cotton industry in Lancashire survived the period and went on to become again the cotton capital of the world.

Although he now lives a bit up the road in Chorley he is a member of the Rochdale based Edwin Waugh Dialect Society. The group meets once a month from October to June at St. Andrew´s Methodist Chapel on Entwistle Road. He delivers an assortment of self-written historical talks in museums, churches and village halls all over Lancashire and beyond.

He has also performed at large regional events such as the Edgeworth Folk Festival 2017.

Sid must be a constant source of stories to his two grandchildren, as he still constantly collects from old Victorian books in Lancashire libraries and tells found stories about carnivals of the past and even about cotton mills being burned down. He also still enjoys reading the work, in dialect form of the late Rochdale poet Edwin Waugh, and I can speak from my own experience and say that nights at The EWDS listening to Waugh´s words, being spoken in the way he intended them to be, is charming, and somehow slows down the spinning of the world just a little bit. It is no surprise that Waugh featured highly in his talk on the Cotton Industry.

In fact, so much-loved is Sid that extra tickets had to be released for his talk, and a live stream link was put in place. Fans from all over the country from Northumberland to London are keen to see some or all of Sid´s talks and he is constantly answering enquiries on facebook.

He says that much of that interest lives on because ´poets of the past have left footprints. Their stories give us an insight into their lives and by singing their old songs I began to understand history.

Entertainers have been off for two years because of the pandemic so its good, and very cheering to be back´.

That final remark shows that, for someone so involved in what must be pretty solipsistic studies, Sid is actually never happier than when he is sharing what he has learned.


I have vague memories of bumping into Sid in the folk clubs of the Rochdale area when I was part of contemporary folk duo Lendanear in the seventies. Fifty years later he is a much respected master of his trade. During his years working at Lancashire vehicle manufacturers, Leyland Motors, he maintained a love of old folk songs and was always interested in the tales and history behind them.

I then had the good fortune to get to know Sid a little bit over my last couple of years in Rochdale and even had the great pleasure of working with him at one or two events in The Great Hall of Rochdale Town Hall. I also remember how his dialect, sense of humour, good grace and absolute empathy for the tales he was reading helped enhance the book, The Edenfild Scrolls, Robin Parker´s re-situating of several Bible stories in Lancashire ! The two friends then recorded a dialect cd to accompany the book that deserves to be as popular as once was Lanky Spoken ´Ëre by Dave Dutton.

Don´t miss next week´s inaugural Sidetracks & Detours Annual Bluegrass in-print Festival, running from Monday to Friday.

We begin with an exclusive interview with the self styled Fourth Best Banjo Player In Rochdale, before exploring the history of bluegrass musical and identifying where bluegrass live music festivals are held around the world each year. We also look at the typical instrumental line-ups of a bluegrass band before signalling for names being tipped to become major players in the genre.

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