Baby farming in mid-Victorian Stafford


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Although this blog is primarily about the Irish families who went to Stafford in the nineteenth century, the experiences of the Irish were often similar to those of the English amongst whom they settled. Some people in this post did have Irish roots but the prime aim here is wider – to explore common circumstances that arose in poor working class families of all types, both English and Irish. The miseries that went with illegitimacy and premature death were horrifically exposed in Stafford by the 1872 ‘baby farming’ case.

The details were graphically reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser:

‘Baby farming – revolting disclosures’

‘At the Police Court on Wednesday John Hawkins, 63, and his wife Sarah Hawkins, 37, were charged with endangering the life and health of a child, Clara Litton, 16 months. Hawkins is a former grave-digger. A shoemaker named Dolan some few months ago lost his wife by death. He sent his family out to nurse; one child was taken by Hawkins at 2s 6d a week. On Monday a friend of Dolan named Perry, anxious about the welfare of the child, went to Hawkins’s residence in Startin’s Court, New Street. Mrs Perry found the child “so deplorably filthy and emaciated, with shoals of vermin swarming over it, that she at once removed it to the police office whence it was conveyed to Mrs Perry’s where, notwithstanding every attention, the child, which is aptly described as a living skeleton, is not expected to live.” Police Inspector Bowen and H.T. Lomax, surgeon, went to the Hawkins’s. They found seated in a chair an illegitimate child called Emily Adams, about 14 months old. She was sent three months ago by her mother. She “seemed much reduced” and was removed by the mother. Bowen and Lomax went upstairs. It was “a loathsome and disgusting sight.” From the room proceeded an effluvium … sickening … a sense of squalid misery and destitution … Scattered around the room the accumulated filth of years while there were three chamber utensils overflowing. These, with a washstand basin (in which was gathered the loathsome filth of weeks) and an old rickety bed, were the only articles of furniture in the place, over which human excreta was profusely scattered.


Startin’s Court behind New Street, Stafford. The arrow shows the probable house occupied by John and Sarah Hawkins.

‘At the foot of the bed lay huddled what seemed to be a human being. Its bed was a small filthy bag on which it had been lying for months and into which it had sunk like a sickly pig in a wallow. Over the little human creature was an old sack and on the bed and child and sack vermin crawled in hideous composure while the child’s hair was matted in its own filth. The little sufferer, whose name was Clara Litton, wearily endeavoured to concentrate its gaze on its unusual visitors. She was taken to the Police Office. She was 16 months old and weighed only 8lbs. She had not been washed for months. She was taken to the Workhouse.

‘Various rumours are afloat regarding the connection that may have subsisted between baby-farming and grave-digging.’ [1]

On 23 March the Advertiser reported further details about Thomas Dolan’s child. He had been two months old when he was sent to the Hawkins’s house because his mother was ill in the Infirmary. When the child was taken away it was “a mere skeleton. It was convulsed and seemed as if it had not had sufficient food while there were vermin bites on it”. Mrs Perry said “the back parts were in a pitiable condition from the filth not having been washed away, while its head was eaten away with vermin and not yet clean. It was so weak it could scarcely cry.”[2] She later said “the noise it made in crying was more like that of a fowl than a human being.”[3]

John and Sarah Hawkins were committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions accused of endangering the lives of Thomas Phillip Dolan, Emily Adams and Clara Litton. It was reported that they were receiving 2s 6d a week for each of the children boarded with them and that Sarah Hawkins had also worked as a boot binder for many years at the shoe factory of Elley, Gibson and Woolley. Her average earnings were 3s 4½d a week. John Hawkins was employed casually by two pub landlords, earning 4s 6d a week as well as another 1s 10d from cleaning Christ Church. It was said that he was “seldom at home” whilst Sarah claimed that while “I am guilty of not being clean … I have fed the children properly and well.”[4]

John and Sarah Hawkins were inevitably found guilty but their prison sentences – two years for her and eighteen months for him – seem pretty light in view of the seriousness of the case. After their release the couple returned to their miserable dwelling in Startin’s Court and they were still living there in 1881, although after that the trail goes cold. That fact underlines that it can be very difficult for historians to fully expose and interpret the actions of people in the nineteenth century who were alienated from the state’s crude control and data gathering functions and who often had every reason to obscure or lie about their activities. Furthermore, news reporters in those days were often as careless and cavalier about the facts as their modern counterparts. It can be difficult to weave a coherent and soundly based story from a number of scattered and often contradictory facts.

Poor Thomas ‘Dolan’ did not survive. He died and was buried with Catholic rites at Stafford Cemetery on 13 June 1872, just three months after his deliverance from the horrors of the Hawkins’s house.[5] But the newspaper never got his family’s name right. It was Doran, not Dolan. The confusion probably arose through a careless journalist who knew about an established Irish ‘Dolan’ family in Stafford and assumed Thomas was another of the clan. Thomas Doran did indeed have Irish roots but his father Thomas Phillip Doran had been born in Chester in 1851, the child of shoemakers from Ireland who probably came to Britain during the Famine.[6] When he grew up Thomas also became a shoemaker and that explains his arrival in Stafford around 1871. At the time of the Census that year he was boarding in Sash Street with 71 year-old Mary Bromley, a widowed domestic servant, but shortly after he returned to Chester to marry Annie Simpson, a young servant girl in the city.[7]  She may already have been pregnant because baby Thomas was born in Stafford early in 1872.[8] The couple set up house in Tenterbanks but, as we know, Thomas’s mother became ill and may have died soon after the birth – the newspaper reports are contradictory. No record has been traced of her death, however. All we know is that Thomas senior ended up with a child he either couldn’t or didn’t want to look after and so he was dumped in the Hawkins’s baby farm. Mrs Perry’s ministrations failed to save him and his father became a free agent to begin his life again. He left Stafford and perhaps returned to his roots in Cheshire but the evidence is unclear about his subsequent life.

The two other children involved in the Hawkins baby farm had equally sad circumstances. Clara Litton was born in January 1871, the daughter of Joseph and Clara Litton. Joseph Litton was a labourer struggling on an insecure and mediocre income. Mother Clara already had three young children to look after but around the time of baby Clara’s birth she died, perhaps in childbirth itself.[9] Joseph was left with a helpless new-born baby and three existing children aged between three and six, and his response was to immediately leave baby Clara with a couple close by in the Broad Eye who were running what suspiciously looks like a baby farm. This was the household of George and Elizabeth Fisher and at the 1871 Census we find Clara Litton in the house along with three other unrelated babies aged between two months and one year.[10] Some time over the next year Joseph Litton moved his baby daughter across town to the Hawkins’s dreadful place where she was discovered in March 1872. Perhaps the Hawkins couple charged less than the Fishers. She never recovered from the neglect and misery she had experienced there and died around eighteen months later. [11]

Clara Litton and Thomas Doran died as a direct result of the loss of their mothers and the inability and/or unwillingness of their fathers to look after them. They were the victims of family breakdown due to premature parental death, a common experience in Victorian Britain. Also common was the victimisation of illegitimate children and their mothers, and that was the fate of the other child found at the Hawkins’s house, Emily Adams. Her mother was Mary Adams, an eighteen year-old servant from a farm labourer’s family in the countryside around Penkridge (south of Stafford). In 1871 Mary and her three month-old daughter were ‘visitors’ in the household of John Spiers, a turner who already had his daughter, son-in-law and five children living with him in a tiny cottage in Pearl Terrace, Eastgate Street. We don’t know whether there was some family or social link with the Spiers family but we do know that neither Mary nor her co-residents were willing to look after baby Emily and around December 1871 she too was dumped with the Hawkins couple. Mary had a living to make and Emily was an embarrassing encumbrance in a world where a single mother was stigmatised as either feckless or worse. By the time of the trial in 1872 Mary had moved out of the Spiers’ house and was living in New Street close to Startin’s Court, though with whom is unknown.[12] Her proximity suggests she made little or no effort to check her daughter’s welfare in the hell-hole to which she had been consigned but once the case was exposed Mary did take Emily away. Where the couple then went is anybody’s guess. No record has been found of where they lived subsequently but it certainly wasn’t in Stafford. Mary presumably went off to make a new start elsewhere, perhaps under a new name. At least poor Emily seems to have survived – or at least there is no obvious record of her death in the 1870s.

These three children had a tragic start to their lives and two didn’t survive it. The Stafford case was but a small incident in the terrible history of baby farming in Victorian Britain with its cruelty, neglect and often wilful death. It was exposed most notoriously in the murder of babies – perhaps hundreds of them – by Amelia Dyer between the 1870s and 1896.[13] Even in a small town like Stafford there were many parents with unwanted or burdensome children. At the extreme they were willing or forced to offload their problems on to entrepreneurs like the Hawkins couple for modest payments and no questions asked. The awful consequences have been documented here. The grotesque result of entrusting such welfare provision to profit-seeking entrepreneurs in the private market continues to have echoes today in the abuses that periodically emerge in privatised front-line services.


Amelia Dyer, Victorian England’s most notorious baby farmer. She possibly murdered hundreds of babies given into her care.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 16 March 1872.

[2] SA, 23 March 1872.

[3] SA, 13 April 1872.

[4] SA 13 April 1872.

[5] Stafford Borough Council burial record 03/4240, Thomas Phillip Doran son of Thomas Phillip Dorna, shoemaker, Tenterbanks.

[6] There were a number of (probably interrelated) Doran families in Chester with sons named Thomas and more work would be needed to unambiguously assign the Stafford Thomas to the correct family.

[7] Chester Registration District, marriages, April-June 1871, 8a/537, Annie Simpson or Mary Barnes. Without acquiring the marriage certificate it is uncertain which of these two women Thomas Doran married but the circumstantial evidence points to Annie.

[8] Stafford RD, births, Thomas Phillip Doran, January-March 1872, 6b/4.

[9] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1871, 6b/3, Clara Litton, born 1835,

[10] Clara is listed as 3 years old in the return but this must be an enumerator’s error. Clara would have been about three months old at the time of the Census.

[11] Stafford RD, deaths, October-December 1873, 6b/1, Clara Litton aged 2 years.

[12] SA, 13 April 1872. At the Quarter Sessions Mary Adams was described as living in New Street.

[13] accessed 12 October 2016.

The Hingerty family: outsiders who survived to integrate


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The Hingerty family was mentioned in my last post on lodging houses in Victorian Stafford (25 July 2016). Patrick and Bridget Hingerty kept the lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North from around 1855 until the late 1870s but ultimately the family moved out of the twilight world of lodging houses and integrated into wider Stafford society. This post traces in more detail the process by which this occurred in the longer-term history of the Hingerty family.

Uncommon name, unusual origin: the Hingertys as outsiders

Although most of Stafford’s Irish labouring families came from the Castlerea area, the Hingerty family was one of the exceptions. They told the Census enumerators they came from Co. Tipperary. Hingerty is an unusual surname, and the Griffiths Valuation shows its was indeed found only in Tipperary. A Patrick Hingerty occupied a ‘house and small garden’ at Old Turnpike Road, Nenagh, and he could well be the Patrick Hingerty who later turned up in Stafford. Three other Hingertys lived in the same area of North Tipperary.[1] The Hingertys were one of only two families from the county who are known to have settled long-term in Stafford.[2]

The Hingertys must have survived the worst of the Famine but left Ireland in the early 1850s. They may indeed have been victims of the evictions on the Massy-Dawson estate near Nenagh.[3] Two Hingerty relatives came to England at this time. Denis Hingerty, his wife and two sons, travelled through Liverpool and settled at Oswaldtwistle between Accrington and Blackburn in Lancashire. A very extensive family descended from that line. Patrick and Bridget Hingerty came to Stafford with their sons Daniel and Michael Richard. Patrick was probably Denis’s brother. It is unclear whether any links were maintained between the two branches of the family, but if they were they are not known to descendants.

Hingerty Trees_0002

The immigrant Hingerty families in Stafford and Lancashire.

There is no family memory or legend as to why Patrick and Bridget Hingerty chose to settle in Stafford. It seems likely, however, that they were attracted there by two earlier ‘pathfinders’ from Tipperary already living in the town, Alexander James McDonald and Mary Kerrigan. We shall meet them again later.

The Hingertys were real outsiders when they settled in Stafford. Like the other labouring Irish they were initially outside Stafford’s working class social network, but they were also outsiders to the dominant Irish network from the Castlerea area. The family’s early history in Stafford reflects these facts. Their social connections were not with the Castlerea Irish even though they lived close to families from that background. A majority of the Hingerty children who grew up in Stafford did not marry, something that suggests a lack of suitable social contacts. The family’s establishment of deep roots in Stafford did not look likely even in the late nineteenth century. Emigration or withering away in Stafford would have been the expected prognosis for the family at that time. The Hingertys’ ultimate shift of fortunes is evidence that immigrant families could move in unexpected directions.

Although Patrick Hingerty was a labourer we know that as early as 1855 he and his wife began to make more money running the lodging house at 12 Back Walls North. In that year Patrick Hinnerty (sic) was fined ten shillings plus costs for infringing the lodging house bye-laws. [4]  At the time of the 1861 census eight lodgers, all of them Irish, were packed into this little four-roomed cottage on Back Walls. Including the Hingerty family, there were twelve people in the building. Only one of the lodgers had any connection with settled Stafford Irish families, something that demonstrates how lodging house occupants were often drawn from outsiders and the socially marginal.

Patrick Hingerty died in 1866.[5] Bridget was left to carry on the business, which she continued to do until around 1879. In 1871 there were seven lodgers in the house, but only one of them was Irish. Four were English farm labourers, one from Stafford and the others from rural Devon, Wiltshire and Norfolk. There was also an old Staffordian couple eking out their final years as rag collectors and apparently working with Michael Flanagan, a 40-year old Irishman in the same occupation. Bridget’s customers were still, therefore, people like themselves – poor outsiders marginal to the local and Irish social networks. The number of Irish farm labourers in Stafford was declining steeply at this time, but three of the Hingertys’ English lodgers had all come from counties where farm workers’ wages and rural poverty were worse than Staffordshire.

The 1860s and 1870s were a time of generational transition for the Hingerty family. Patrick’s son Daniel (b. 1839) was now in his late twenties, a single man living at home and working in the building trade as a bricklayer’s labourer. His social life probably revolved around the local pubs and he was arrested three times for being drunk and disorderly.[6] In the 1861 case he was out drinking with his brother’s father-in-law James McDonald. In 1873 he and two others refused to leave the Bricklayer’s Arms just round the corner in Gaolgate Street. His fellow boozers were James Hart and Michael Maloney, young men from poor Castlerea families.  This shows the son’s social connections had widened by this time. As Daniel got older he settled down, but he never married. He was still living with his mother in 1881, but by then they were in 10 Clarke’s Court. The move suggests they were very poor. He remained there in 1891. By then he was on his own, for his mother had died in 1890 after living into her 70s.[7] Daniel lived to a ripe age, but his must have been a poor and lonely life. He probably drifted into dementia because he died in the County Lunatic Asylum in 1917.[8]

The thin line of family survival: Michael Richard Hingerty and his children

Members of the family who live in the Stafford area today are all descended from one man, Daniel’s brother Michael Richard Hingerty (b. 1850 in Tipperary). Michael Richard had moved to Stafford when he was a young boy, and the shift to an urban lodging house in a different country would have been a shock. He would have found it difficult to make friends with other children from different Irish and Stafford backgrounds. When he grew up he worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, and later as a plasterer.

Hingerty Trees_0001

The children of Michael Richard Hingerty and Catherine McDonald.

The Hingertys did stay in contact with their predecessors from Tipperary, Alexander James McDonald and Mary Kerrigan. This couple lived in Stafford in the early 1850s and got married at St Austin’s in 1852.[9] They then moved to Walsall.  Sometime in the early 1870s Michael Richard Hingerty used his family’s contact with Alexander McDonald to also get work in Walsall. Then, in 1873, he married the McDonalds’ daughter Catherine in that town. The newly-weds initially stayed in Walsall, and their first three children, Daniel, James and Mary Ann were born there between 1875 and 1878.[10] Then they moved back to Stafford and settled permanently in the town. They were clearly poor, however. In 1881 they were living in a court off St Chad’s Place in the town centre. It was a small house and they were already a family of six, but they still had to take in a lodger, Mary Reddish, a hawker. There was another hawker, Mary McQue, there as a ‘visitor’. As she had been born in Walsall, she was probably a contact from their Tipperary background. The couple had three more children in Stafford but the marriage was not to last long. In 1885 Michael Richard died at the early age of 35. Catherine was left alone to bring up the six children in conditions of great poverty.[11]

The Hingerty family staggered only fitfully into the next generation. Four of Michael Richard and Catherine’s six children did not marry. The first-born, Daniel (b. 1875), was able to make a decisive leap into the core of the local economy by becoming a finisher in the shoe trade. Even so, he never married and lived at home for much of his life. He and his mother came to a tragic end. In 1922 they were living at 30 Back Walls North, a house Catherine had occupied for over 20 years and where she ran a small confectionary shop. On the morning of Monday 6 November Catherine and Daniel were found dead in their beds. They had been killed by gas escaping from a broken main outside the house. Two families in neighbouring houses also suffered gas poisoning and it was concluded that heavy traffic, perhaps a steam roller, had fractured the 3-inch main some time on Sunday.[12] A complaint had been made to the Corporation gasworks, but nothing was done in time to save Catherine and Daniel Hingerty.[13]

Two more of Michael Richard and Catherine’s sons also stayed single. James (b. 1876) worked as a paste fitter and laster in the shoe trade and lived at home until his death in 1909. He did not, however, lead a life isolated in an Irish household. He had associates in the Staffordian community. We have evidence of this when, in 1907, he was out in the countryside with three friends, all local men, when they were involved in a dispute with a local farmer. Abuse was hurled and stones thrown, though the case against James was withdrawn. He seems to have taken a low profile in the incident. There is also a family legend that he played football for Stoke City FC. Though this scarcely had the glamour and wealth of Premier League footballers today, it does show he was an active outgoing person. William (b. 1881) also lived at home but died in 1913. He was probably a betting man. In 1902 he was amongst 25 people arrested during a police raid on the Trumpet pub in Foregate Street. The landlord was fined £50 for running a betting business on the premises, but William Hingerty and the others were discharged as it could not be proved they had been in the pub to bet.[14] Both James and William died relatively young, probably due to their unhealthy jobs in the shoe trade and the poor living conditions in Back Walls.[15] Mary Ann Hingerty, the only daughter, was born in 1879 but lived just two years.

At this distance in time it is impossible to know why the three Hingerty boys failed to marry. They all went into Stafford’s core industry and would have had extensive social contacts at work. We have also seen some evidence of their contacts outside work. It may be that the three simply became ‘home boys’, happy to live with their widowed mother and with no reason to break the family bonds. Even so, they may have had an ambiguous identity that led them to avoid extensive and intimate contacts with local people from different social backgrounds.

Just two of Catherine Hingerty’s six children did break the bonds. John (b. 1885) did it by moving to Leicester in the 1900s. This was a common move for Stafford shoemakers but in his case it probably had the added attraction of breaking free of the family household. In Leicester he married Mary Godson, a Protestant. Their first two children, May and William, were born in Leicester in 1908/9, but the couple then followed the shoe trade back to Stafford and settled in the town. In the Great War John Hingerty served with the North Staffs Regiment. He survived the conflict and lived on till 1940.The couple had six surviving children and there are descendants in Stafford and elsewhere today.


John & Mary Hingerty with their children May, William, Sid, Alec and John, c. 1918. John is in the uniform of a private in the North Staffs Regt. (Photo courtesy of Mrs Christine Went)

The remaining son of Michael Richard and Catherine, Michael (b. 1883), married in 1909. His bride was Mary Elizabeth Norwood from a modest English family who also lived in Back Walls North. Her father originally came from Corby in Northants but he had moved about the country on labouring work before settling in Stafford in the 1890s. It is significant that Michael was drawn to someone from outside the local population. He also worked in the shoe trade but during the Great War he served as a private in the North Staffs Regiment. Like his brother, he survived. By 1922 the couple were living on the Weston Road, They had got out of the family’s traditional Back Walls base, a move that suggests modest prosperity and the aspiration to do better. There are also descendants of this branch of the family.

The Hingertys’ integration into Stafford society

 Although members of the Hingerty family were labourers and settled in Stafford in the aftermath of the Famine, their history was distinctive. Their origin in Co. Tipperary set them apart from the Castlerea social network and emphasises that just being ethnically ‘Irish’ did not necessarily cement social contacts or cohesion. The Hingertys retained more significant links with people from their own county. They were forced by poverty to live in the town centre slums close to many other Irish people, but they remained somewhat apart from them. Only slowly did contacts develop with both the Irish and local people.

The family’s lodging house at 12 Back Walls North was the refuge of the socially marginal, but they avoided the disorder of Jane Kelly’s establishments (last week’s post). Amidst a household filled with transients the Hingertys tried to build a strong home life. This attachment to home and family bonds strengthened as the years progressed. Though they had their scrapes, the second and third generations of Hingerty boys sought more stable lives through work in the shoe trade and some friendships with people from local society. They sought a modest respectability, and by the 1910s they seem to have achieved it.

The Hingertys were Catholics. Their children went to the Catholic schools and life’s events were commemorated at church. They always lived in the Back Walls area and this placed them in St Austin’s parish. It was the church of the Catholic middle class, and for many years the poor Hingertys would not have found it easy or attractive to get involved in the church’s social network. They almost certainly attended Mass, however, and by 1914 we find a glimmer of evidence that they were breaking into the Church’s social scene. In that year a ‘Mr Hingerty’ – probably Michael – went to St Austin’s annual soirée in the Co-operative Hall and won a prize in the whist drive. As I described in my post on Soirées (13 January 2016), those who went to these events were normally from relatively secure, aspirant and respectable families. The Hingertys were arriving at this position after more than sixty years in Stafford. In the end John Hingerty married a Protestant woman and adherence to the Church weakened substantially amongst subsequent descendants.

Attachment to any Irish identity ultimately seems to have withered away amongst the Hingertys. Bridget Hingerty’s death in 1890 removed the last person whose formative years and sense of self was demonstrably Irish. She had experienced the horrors of the Famine and certainly passed on to succeeding generations the fact that the family came from Tipperary. No legends were, however, passed on about their previous lives and the traumas they might have experienced. Here we have a family in which a mental break with the past was made in the generation after the Famine and emigration. The survival of the family then hung by a single thread through Michael Richard Hingerty but his children forged new lives as working class Catholic Staffordians. Subsequent marriage partners came from the wider population and the family merged into twentieth century Stafford society.


[1] Patrick Hingerty, entry reference 26, Griffiths Valuation, Co. Tipperary North Riding, 1852, Ask about Ireland website and Ancestry Database accessed 5 August 2016.

[2] The other was the Duggan family. John Duggan, a tailor, had been born in Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, and he came to Stafford in the late 1850s. He married a local woman and there is no evidence that he either knew or was ever associated with the Hingertys. John Duggan’s family always lived in the north end of the town.

[3] James S. Donnelly Jr., Great Irish Potato Famine, (Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2001), pp. 123-4.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 7 April 1855.

[5] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 2, Entry 2326.

[6] He was up before the magistrates on drink charges in 1861 and 1873. SA, 19 October 1861 and 22 November 1873. In 1869 a ‘Patrick Hingerty’ was before the magistrates in the company of Patrick Maloney for a breach of the peace, but this was probably an error and Daniel was the culprit. SA, 20 November 1869.

[7] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 6, Entry 10628.

[8] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 11, Entry 8531.

[9] Mary Kerrigan was working as a servant in Stafford at the time of the 1851 Census. Alexander James McDonald was not then present in the town but must have arrived shortly afterwards.

[10] Mary Ann, born in 1878, died in 1881. Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 4, Entry 7549.

[11] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 5, Entry 8751.

[12] Family legend communicated by Mrs Christine Went née Hingerty, April 2004.

[13] SA, 11 November 1922.

[14] SA, 17 May 1902.

[15] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 9, Entry 5676 and SA 4 October 1913.

Lodging houses


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My last post on 18 June 2016 looked at the squalid conditions under which most Irish immigrants existed in Stafford during the Famine and, indeed, beyond. That post ended with some comments about the Council’s harassment of Irish lodging house keepers for overcrowding their dwellings and the creation of ‘nuisances’.  That prompted me to look a bit more closely at the general role of lodging houses in Victorian Stafford and this rather long post is the result.

What was a lodging house?

In one sense the character of a lodging house seems obvious – it was the place where the poorest of the poor and the vagrants of Victorian society were forced to find a bed if they were not to sleep on the street or in the Workhouse. When it came to defining precisely what a lodging house was, however, Victorian legislators struggled and some of their problems also afflict the historian researching them today. Many households in Victorian times took in lodgers – so did that make them all ‘lodging houses’? Clearly the answer is no. The framework legislation on lodging houses in 1847 and 1851 failed to arrive at a workable definition.[1]  Finally, regulations issued under the 1853 Common Lodging Houses Act specified that the essential distinction between lodging houses and any other premises containing lodgers was that ‘persons being strangers to one another, that is, not being of the same family, and promiscuously brought together, are allowed to occupy the same room’.[2] Hotels, inns and taverns were explicitly excluded although at the margins many cheap pubs and beer houses in practice did operate as de facto lodging houses.

62 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end was continuously used as a lodging house. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910 (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

62/3 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end (62) was a lodging house from the 1840s to c1914. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910. (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

The 1853 definition is used for this study of Stafford with the additional limitation that households must have contained at least three unrelated ‘lodgers’ to qualify as a lodging house. This excludes places where one or two lodgers were taken in as a supplement to the family income, though inevitably the borderline can be fuzzy. It is also sometimes imprecise when there is a mixture of lodging nuclear families, couples and individuals. Another problem is that many of the houses in Stafford were miserable two room cottages packed into the back streets and yards. There are cases where two small dwellings were knocked through into one ‘lodging house’ or one house was packed with lodgers whilst the keeper’s family lived next door. A final practical problem is that house numbers were frequently changed during the nineteenth century and it can sometimes be difficult to trace the use of particular properties accurately.

The earliest registers of licenced lodging houses in Stafford do not appear to have survived and the extant data runs from 1878.[3] Even if they were available for the whole period, the list of registered lodging houses would certainly be an incomplete picture since many operators evaded the licencing authorities, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s. This study therefore uses the Register data but also identifies likely lodging houses from the Census returns and from contemporary newspaper reports.  Evasive householders may well have under-reported lodgers in the Census returns but they remain, nevertheless, the best source we have for snapshots of the overall picture.

Lodging houses formed a reserve housing stock catering for the migrant, the vagrant and often the deviant of Victorian society. They were regarded with suspicion by ‘decent’ society and they posed challenges to the authorities in terms of the responsibilities for inspection and control and the development of workable relationships with lodging house keepers.[4] These issues can be seen in the case of Stafford.

The overall picture

The graph shows the number and breakdown of lodging house occupants in Stafford from 1851 to 1901. The green sections show the Irish-born and descended occupants divided between lodging house keepers and their families (‘IFam’) and Irish-born and descended lodgers (‘ILod’), Similarly the non-Irish are divided into families (‘NFam’) and lodgers (‘NLod’). There were 41 identifiable lodging houses in 1851 and the number then dropped to 31 in 1861, 17 in 1871, rose to 19 in 1881 and then fell again to 12 in 1891 and 9 in 1901.

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging the Famine immigrants

In January 1851 five Irish lodging house keepers were summonsed for keeping their houses ‘in a filthy and unwholesome state.’[5] Not surprising. Of the 533 Irish-born people in Stafford in 1851 – the vast majority of them Famine immigrants – two thirds (364) were living in 41 identifiable lodging houses in the town. An average over eleven people were crammed into each of these tiny dwellings. Typically about a third of them were the householder’s own family and the rest were families, part-families or lone individuals who were the destitute victims of the Famine and who desperately needed somewhere to live. On Census night in 1851, for example, Patrick Welsh was living at No. 4 Allen’s Court with his wife and baby and they had taken in eleven other people who were a mixture of lone individuals, married couples and one widowed woman and a tiny baby. Round the corner at No. 4 Malt Mill Lane Patrick’s brother John, his wife and two children were host to three couples, a widowed mother and her adult daughter together with William Flanagan, a young single labourer. These were typical Irish lodging houses during the Famine period. The Council got their knife into Patrick Welsh. In 1853 he was fined 40s for overcrowding his lodging house. It was the third time he had been prosecuted.[6]

Lodging houses in 1851

Lodging houses in 1851

A lot of the householders who took people in during the Famine crisis and its aftermath doubtless exploited their tenants – after all, income from lodgers was essential to their own survival. Living conditions were shocking in any case. These people were not, however, professional lodging house keepers. They had ended up in the role through chance and necessity and only one of those visible in 1851 ultimately made a long-term business of it. This was the Kelly family at 52 New Street. James and Jane Kelly are known to have kept lodging houses at various places in the town in the 1850s and 1860s and we shall meet Jane again in 1868.[7] Most were, however, offering accommodation and minimal support on a casual basis to compatriots from their own area in Ireland. At 18 Back Gaol Road, for example, Thomas Jones made sure the Census enumerator took full details of precisely where everybody in his house had been born.  All but one of the fourteen people there (from seven different families) came from the borderlands of Galway, Roscommon and Mayo that were the source of many of Stafford’s immigrants. A network of contacts and information was clearly at work, a feature which has, of course, been widely seen amongst more recent immigrants to Britain.

Not all the lodging house keepers were Irish, however. In 1851 nine of them were English and they didn’t offer much to the Irish. Most were linked to the shoe trade and typically took in shoemakers ‘on tramp’ but at 46 Foregate Street John Faulkner was already operating a fully-fledged commercial lodging house. The sixteen lodgers there in 1851 had a wide range of occupations but only John Connor, a farm labourer, was Irish. Faulkner was to continue in the lodging house business in the same area until his death in 1883, aged 77.[8]

Lodging houses and migrant labour, c1855-65

During the Famine crisis lodging houses had played a vital role housing the flood of destitute emigrants but that function died away as the Famine Irish either settled in Stafford in their own accommodation or moved on elsewhere. By 1861 the numbers using lodging houses had declined steeply and it had changed in character. Many Irish had long come to the Stafford area for seasonal harvest work and this process carried on after the Famine. These people needed lodgings. In 1861 over 60 per cent of the Irish males in lodging houses were agricultural labourers and another fifth were building labourers. In other words, the lodging houses were now catering for more ‘normal’ migrant workers and the lodging house keepers also changed. The number of lodging houses had dropped to 31 and seventeen of them were kept by men who claimed to be agricultural labourers. These were people who had settled in Stafford, continued to work (to some extent) on the farms but also probably acted as ‘gang masters’ with lodgings for migrant workers with contacts in their areas of origin in Ireland.

Lohos 1861

Lodging houses in 1861

This changed function for lodging houses also saw the emergence of professional Irish lodging house keepers. Seven of those operating in 1861 (or their families) continued in the business into the 1870s, 1880s and even the 1890s. The Hingerty family are an example. Patrick and Bridget Hingerty were outsiders to most of Stafford’s immigrant Irish because they came from Co.Tipperary. This ‘outsider’ status seems to have characterised a number of lodging house keepers and emphasises that it was a distinctly pariah occupation in Victorian society.  The Hingertys settled in Stafford in the early 1850s and by 1855 they were running a lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North. In that year Patrick Hinnerty (sic) was fined ten shillings plus costs for infringing the lodging house bye-laws. [9] Patrick died in 1866 but Bridget carried on there until the late 1870s.[10] These premises continued to operate as a lodging house right into the Inter-War period, although by then the Hingertys had long gone and their descendants had integrated into wider Stafford society.

The Kelly family were also outsiders in that they came from an area of eastern Mayo that was outside the region of Stafford’s other Irish immigrants. They are known to have operated lodging houses in New Street (1851), Bell Yard (1859), Cherry Street (1863-6), Mill Street (1866) and Malt Mill Lane (1868).[11] James and Jane Kelly’s lodging houses housed the floating poor – tramps, hawkers, itinerant workers and new immigrants from Ireland and they were before the magistrates on a number of occasions for flouting the by-laws and other types of trouble.[12] The end came in 1868 when the premises in Malt Mill Lane were exposed as the base for a gang of juvenile thieves. Jane Kelly herself was the organiser and received a cut of the proceeds. She was given a year in prison and settled in the Potteries for some years after her release. She later returned to Stafford and died there in 1881.[13]

The residual role of lodging houses, c1866 to the 1900s

From around 1866 increasing use of machinery meant Staffordshire farmers needed fewer seasonal and casual workers and this meant that the use of lodging houses by migrant Irish farm workers declined sharply. Agricultural labourers who doubled as lodging house keepers also largely disappeared from the market and the number of lodging houses dropped from 31 in 1861 to 17 in 1871. Eight out of the thirteen Irish lodging house keepers were now fully commercial operators. Michael and Mary Ward, for example, had started in the 1850s in the overcrowded slum of Middle Row, Gaol Road, but by 1871 they had moved to No. 42 Broad Eye and they operated a de facto lodging house there until Michael’s death in 1882. Mary continued the business until she died in 1888.[14] They never registered with the authorities but operated in the shady world of unlicenced lodging houses.

Thomas Durham did become a registered lodging house keeper. A bricklayer’s labourer from Co. Mayo, he seems to have arrived in Stafford in the early 1870s and by 1873 was already running a lodging house in Back Walls South. In April that year two tramps got drunk and the ‘house was made hideous with their noises.’ The male tramp got an axe and threatened his wife with it but he said ‘it was a playful way of showing affection’.[15] The incident gives a flavour of lodging house life at its worst. In 1879 Durham took over Hingertys’ lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North and remained there until just before his death in August 1891, at which point he was described as a ‘ragman’. The business was re-registered in October by Elizabeth Perry, a Staffordshire woman, and it thereafter remained in English hands.[16]

Census evidence shows that the trend towards English domination of both the occupants and operators of lodging houses was interrupted around 1881. The number and proportion of Irish occupants in that year was substantially above that in 1871 and five new Irish operators were in the market, although all had ceased by 1891. This spike in activity must have been due to the new surge in emigration from Stafford’s traditional sources in Mayo, Galway and Roscommon brought about by the agricultural depression after 1879, with its renewed evictions, the Land League movement and the Land War. The newly arriving Irish found beds in transient lodging houses whereas the larger and established commercial businesses – 12 Back Walls North, 52 Back Walls South, 76 Foregate Street and 54 Grey Friars – now catered for a wide range of largely English occupants.  Elizabeth Lees’s establishment at 76 Foregate Street, for example, was registered for up to 28 lodgers in five rooms.[17] She was given a month in gaol in 1887 for buying a deserter’s army shirt, an example of the pathetic transactions that could occur with lodgers desperate for money.[18] In February 1896 the Council Public Health Committee removed Lees from the register because she had failed to notify the authorities about two cases of smallpox in her lodging house ‘and in other ways had shown herself to be incompetent’. All the lodgers and the whole house had to be disinfected and the premises ceased at that point to be a lodging house.

Lodging houses in 1901

Lodging houses in 1901

By 1901 lodging houses in Stafford primarily catered for English itinerants; there were very few Irish occupants because, in Stafford at least, immigrants had mainly settled there in earlier decades and there were relatively few new immigrants arriving. Other places in Britain and overseas were more attractive. One new part-Irish family did, however, emerge as lodging house entrepreneurs in the late Victorian period. Thomas Comar was a labourer who had been born around 1855 in Dunmore, Co. Galway, a classic place of origin for the Stafford Irish. He must have been one of the emigrants who came to the town after the crisis of 1879, perhaps because he already had contacts there. He married Ellen Best, a hawker from Worcestershire, in Stafford in 1884 and in 1891 they were living at 18 Sash Street.

In Sash Street the Comars were already taking in lodgers and in 1895 the couple moved on to much greater things. On 2 September of that year Ellen was registered as the keeper of a lodging house at No. 8 Back Walls South.  The place was a substantial old house that had now fallen on hard times since it was registered with seven rooms catering for 56 lodgers, by far the biggest lodging house in the town. On Census night in 1901 there were in fact 61 lodgers in the property, so the Comars were obviously happy to breach the regulations for extra money. Only one was Irish, Thomas Mitchell, a labourer who had been born in Dublin. In 1907 the registration of No. 8 was taken over by Alma Beatrice Moore née Churchley. [19]She was treated as Thomas and Ellen Comar’s daughter but the relationship was irregular and is difficult now to fathom.[20]  Alma and her husband Henry Moore continued to run the business in the succeeding years although Henry was killed in the Great War and Alma subsequently remarried.[21]  Ellen had died in 1909 but the widowed Thomas lived on in the lodging house. In 1911 he was a ‘sanitary worker’ for the corporation in 1911 and he was still living at No. 8 when he died a quarter of a century later.[22]

Council inspection and control

Lodging houses were perceived by the Victorian ruling and middles classes as potential dens of deviance and danger, and local authorities were encouraged to subject them to a degree of supervision and control beyond that applied to the rest of the housing stock. Stafford Borough seems to have been fairly rigorous in pursuing lodging house keepers guilty of misdemeanours and for much of the period that meant it was the Irish who were particularly targeted since they offered most lodgings. From Famine times onwards there were frequent prosecutions for breaches of lodging house by-laws, particularly for non-registration, mixed-sex occupation, failing to limewash premises and overcrowding beyond the permitted number.

The borough police force was given the job of enforcing the regulations and the force seems to have pursued suspected miscreants with vigour and officiousness, particularly if they were Irish. A typical case occurred 23 February 1881. At 5.30 am in the dark of this February morning a constable hammered on the door of Ann Mannion’s cottage at No. 3 Snow’s Yard.  He went inside and upstairs he found one person in excess of the licenced number and downstairs in the kitchen Ann and three children were sleeping in one bed and two other women were sleeping in another. Mannion said one of the people upstairs was her son ‘who had been to attend to the lodgers’ and that she was ‘ignorant of having broken the law’. The court was told, however, that she had been fined previously for the same offence and had been supplied with a copy of the regulations. She was fined ten shillings with seven shillings costs or the alternative of fourteen days in gaol.[23]

The widowed Ann Mannion was clearly the victim of police harassment of this stigmatised slum court and it is noteworthy that the incident took place during the surge of new Irish immigrants after 1879. Ann Mannion did not remain in the business professionally, though she probably took in casual lodgers again. As the number of lodging houses declined, and the houses became larger commercial businesses, prosecutions also fell away. By the 1900s relations between the police, council and commercial lodging house keepers were probably more collusive and prosecutions relating to lodging houses normally concerned criminal acts by lodgers not by the keepers.

Foregate St 62 today_0001

62/3 Foregate Street today. Now a listed building, the whole frontage has been reconstructed and all trace of the division between the old lodging house and the pub removed.


It is clear that the various types of lodging house in Victorian Stafford carried out the function of a reserve stock of accommodation sensitive to changes in need and demand. In broad terms we have seen three phases in lodging house history of which the first two particularly related to the Irish. Firstly there was the response to the Famine crisis and then there was the shift to accommodating seasonal migrant labour. Finally the sector contracted back to the ever-present residual role of providing cheap beds for mainly English itinerants and marginal workers. In that form it continued to exist until the creation of the Welfare State.

[1] The Town Improvement Clauses Act, 1847, the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1851 and the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1853.

[2] Quoted in ‘Shelters and Common Lodging Houses’ in the British Medical Journal, 21 September 1895.

[3] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D3704, Stafford Borough Council Register of Common Lodging Houses, 1878-1940.

[4] T. Crook, ‘Accommodating the outcast: common lodging houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Urban History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2008), pp. 414-436.

[5] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 1 February 1851.

[6] SA, 8 October 1853.

[7] John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2015), pp. 113-122.

[8] Stafford Registration District, Deaths, April-June 1883, 6b/6, John Faulkner.

[9] SA, 7 April 1855.

[10] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 2, Entry 2326.

[11] The Kelly family were still living at No. 5 Bell Yard at the time of the 1861 Census when James was described as an agricultural labourer and Jane a washerwoman. No lodgers were listed in the house but the Kellys may, of course, have been lying. It would have been in Jane’s character but it means they do not appear amongst the 1861 lodging houses in my list.

[12] E.g. SA, 30 June 1859, 6 October 1860, 6 January 1866, 30 June 1866, 25 January 1868.

[13] Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 116-7 and 119.

[14] Stafford Borough Council burial records 04/7713, Michael Ward ‘hawker’ 9 April 1882 and Mary Ward ‘widow’ 22 April 1888.

[15] SA, 19 April 1873.

[16] SRO, D3704 SBC Register, entries 19 December 1879, 6 October 1891, 9 November 1896. SBC burial record 06/11075, Thomas Durham, 29 August 1891.

[17] SRO, D3704, 6 Register, September 1886, Elizabeth Lees.

[18] SA, 29 January 1887

[19] SRO D3704 Register, 26 November 1907.

[20] Alma Beatrice Churchley baptised 4 April 1886 at Bidford on Avon, father George Thomas Churchley, mother Mary Ann (perhaps Ellen Comar’s sister). Warwickshire County Record Office; Warwick, England; Warwickshire Anglican Registers; Roll: ENGL 09000 11 (Ancestry database accessed 24 July 2016)

[21] J & C Mort (publishers), Stafford’s Roll of Service in the Great War, (Stafford, 1920), Cpl Henry Moore, 1st Worcestershire Regt., France, 27 October 1914, 8 Back Walls South; Stafford RD, marriages, January-March 1921, 6b/30, William G. Penny and Alma B. Moore.

[22] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1909, 6b/15, Ellen Constance Comar and March 1935, 6b/26, Thomas Comar. Thomas’s effects were valued at £56 11s 11d, a paltry sum, so superficially he had made little from the lodging house. He may, of course, have prudently disposed of his estate to his daughter before death. England and Wales National Probate Calendar, 1858-1966 (Ancestry database accessed 25 July 2016).

[23] SA 26 February 1881.

Housing, squalor and the refugee Irish in Stafford, 1847-53


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My last post (2 June 2016) described the physical character of Stafford when Irish people sought refuge there during the Famine. Although superficially an attractive rural town, we saw that Stafford had many gloomy areas where most of the Irish were forced to settle. This post digs a little deeper into the conditions that the poor and destitute had to endure and the often ineffectual or damaging attempts by the borough council to deal with things.

Stafford had had Improvement Commissioners since a local Improvement Act of 1830 but they achieved little beyond some street works because the commissioners were unwilling to raise the rates or interfere with the rights of property owners.  In my last post Dr Edward Knight’s description of the sanitary state of Stafford in 1842 showed the squalid state of things.[1] The arrival of the Famine Irish in 1847 stirred the councillors out of their lethargy but the results were limited and skewed as we shall see. They were not generally bothered about the state of the slum houses themselves. The sanctity of private property had to be preserved. The council’s main concern was the externalities imposed by the slums, particularly the impact of sanitary ‘nuisances’ and potential disease on nearby residents in this closely packed town. The medical profession was alarmed and in June 1847 Dr Walter Fergus from the Infirmary was writing about the impact of ‘Irish fever’ which he said was ‘no more Irish than it is the companion of famine and want of attention to cleanliness’. [2] In November he drew attention to results of the year’s events in terms of the ‘enormous quantity’ of mortality in the town, much higher than the national average and not far off that in Liverpool.[3]  The Council’s response was (inevitably) to set up a committee ‘to inspect from time to time the sanitary state of the borough’. [4]

Action was still slow to come but evidence expands on the actual conditions facing Stafford’s slum dwellers. We saw in the last post that the houses in the poorer parts of the town were usually either decrepit cottages often dating back to the 17th century or jerry-built dwellings built since the 1770s. They were small, frequently just two rooms, and many had no proper water supply or sanitation. Even so, middle class commentators often blamed the poor for their wretched conditions. Mr Wogan, surgeon at the Infirmary, said ‘there were back streets in the town inhabited by some who preferred living in dirt to habits of cleanliness’. Nevertheless, he went on to report that ‘some’ of the poor in Back Walls North were forced to get their drinking water from the foetid ditch behind the houses that received a good part of the town’s raw sewage. They had no other supply.[5]  When cholera returned to England in 1849 it is not surprising that Staffordians feared it would strike their town. They were lucky – it never did – but councillors worried about the danger of the ‘open privies, cesspools, filthy drains and crowded houses’ of the town even though the source of the disease in polluted water was yet to be demonstrated.  The Council’s only remedy was, however, to distribute chloride of lime ‘to the poor people who applied for it’.[6] It also established a new Sanitary Committee with powers of inspection and ‘abatement’.[7]

In 1850 the Watch Committee of the Council turned its attention to ‘four houses in Eastgate Street inhabited by Irish families, part of which were in the most filthy state, none of them having back doors nor any place of convenience’.[8] The squalor of back yards being used as general latrines can be imagined. One of those issued with a notice for the ‘removal of nuisances’ was James Concur (sic.) from the Galway family whose story I told in a number of posts in 2015 (e.g. 11 August and 13 October 2015). Elizabeth – or Betty – Maguire was another Irish person served with notice, but two of the houses in Eastgate Street occupied by the Irish were in fact leased by Staffordian landlords, William Ecclestone and Joseph Weaver.[9] At the hearing a total of five English landlords were named to the authorities for allowing ‘nuisances’ on their premises which shows how the sufferings of the Irish were a source of profit to local property holders. The Council ordered the landlords to remove the nuisances but nothing was done to rectify the basic problems and conditions remained appalling for the residents.

In 1853 the Improvement Commissioners set up a Board of Health and yet more surveys were done of housing conditions. The reporter for the west side of the town centre, Mr Williams, reported that the area was ‘in a very unsatisfactory and unwholesome condition; the privies and piggeries were very bad and many of the dwellings of the lower class were in a most wretched and filthy state, several of them never having been cleansed with whitewash for up to ten years. …. The cesspools were badly constructed …. and were a continual nuisance.’ Alderman Boulton said that in the east side of the town centre there was an ‘entire absence in some of the dwellings … of any back premises … and another great nuisance was the draining of many of the privies into the Thieves Ditch. …. The water of the greater number of the pumps in the Back Walls was not fit to drink.’[10]

The area near the gasworks was particularly bad. In September 1854 effluent from the works was reportedly impregnating the soil and tainting the water. Cesspools were overflowing and Mr Bagnall complained about the ‘discharging the contents of cesspools into the channel of the street opposite his house. He said the stench was intolerable and … he had himself seen night soil floating in the channel.’[11]

Despite this lurid evidence, in the same month the Health Committee rather smugly received reports that ‘the sanitary condition of the district was much better than formerly’. The only exception, it was claimed, was Allen’s Court near the Vine Inn ‘inhabited by Irish labourers and which was said to be in a most filthy state.’ The landlord’s agent was ordered to cleanse the court which he seems to have done after being remanded by the town’s magistrates. It was said that the property in Allen’s Court was to be shortly be pulled down, with the implication that the problem would then disappear.[12] Allen’s Court in fact survived as a slum inhabited by Irish people and their descendants down into the twentieth century!

The main Council response to the Irish refugees proved to be the harassment of the operators of the lodging houses in which most were forced to find shelter. In August 1849 the Council adopted bye-laws (operative from October) that required the registration of lodging houses, imposed limits on maximum occupancy and other requirements, and gave powers to inspect premises. In the following years Irish lodging house keepers were frequently brought before the Mayor and magistrates for contravening these regulations.

A classic example was in August 1850 when ‘several Irish lodging house keepers in Lloyd’s Square were brought before the Mayor …. charged …. with keeping their houses in a filthy condition and allowing in several instances as many as sixteen individuals to sleep together in one room, contrary to the borough bye-laws. The defendants were severely reprimanded and ordered to pay the costs.’[13] Lloyd’s Square was better known as Plant’s Square and we have been there before in this blog (2 June 2016, 28 July 2015). It was a court of nine tiny 2-room cottages in Stafford’s north end with a pump and a row of reeking privies. The Irish may have paid the costs but nothing changed in the Square. In the 1851 Census 63 people were crammed into the five hovels that were clearly operating as lodging houses.

Plant's Square

Plant’s Square is shown just above and to the left of ‘Cross’ (Street) on this 1:500 OS plan of Stafford in 1881. Note how it was crammed in adjacent to other relatively superior houses with gardens, an example of the complex social geography of the town. The plan shows the privies and pump & trough serving the yard.

The Plant’s Square lodging house keepers were summoned again in February 1851 ‘for keeping their houses in a filthy and unwholesome state’ and with the same results. At the same time Thomas Rafferty (or Raftery) and Patrick Walsh from Allen’s Court were issued with costs for not registering their lodging houses.[14]  In June others were fined for having more people in their houses than the certificated number.[15]

Harassment of Irish lodging house keepers was, of course, doing nothing to solve the desperate housing needs of Irish refugees – it was making their problems worse. Although the response of Stafford’s elite to the influx of Famine refugees was muted and there was very little overt hostility to the Irish generally in the town, action against Irish lodging house keepers clearly stigmatised them as a troublesome group to be kept in check. In my next post I shall explore the role and significance of Irish lodging houses in Stafford at time of the Famine and its aftermath.

[1] Parliamentary Papers, 1842 (007), Commission on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain: Local reports on England: No. 15: “On the Sanitary State of the Town of Stafford” by Dr. Edward Knight, pp. 225-6.

[2] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 19 June 1847.

[3] SA, 20 November 1847. Stafford’s death rate was 1:33 compared with 1:29 for Liverpool and 1:45 in England as a whole.

[4] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 2 November 1841-3 July 1851, 23 November 1847.

[5] SA, 6 May 1848, Meeting of Stafford Improvement Commissioners.

[6] SA, 22 September 1849.

[7] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 September 1849.

[8] SA, 15 June 1850.

[9] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 June 1850.

[10] SA, 1 October 1853.

[11] SA, 9 September 1854.

[12] SA, 23 and 30 September 1854.

[13] SA, 10 August 1850.

[14] SA, 1 February 1851.

[15] SA, 14 June 1851.

Stafford in 1847


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In my last post I described how the Famine Irish arrived in Stafford and their impact on the town in the late 1840s. This post tries to give some of the character of the town in which they found refuge during that terrible period.

At that time Stafford was still relatively small but growing fast. In 1821 its population had been just over 6,500 but by 1851 it had risen over 11,500.[1] Housing provision – left to private developers – never kept up with the surge of population and conditions got ever more crowded and miserable. After 1837 the town was divided into four distinct parts separated by the River Sow and its marshy tributaries. The Famine Irish mostly arrived down the Stone Road from the north and they first came to the Foregate, in popular parlance the ‘North End’ of Stafford.[2] This had mostly developed after the enclosure of the Foregate Field in 1807.[3] Any new arrival walked down a broad road – North Street and then Grey Friars – past a straggle of cottages and houses. Plant’s Square had been thrown up on an open patch of ground to the left of the road. A squalid court of nine tiny cottages, it was an immediate refuge for Irish families and lodgers during the Famine and for many years afterwards. New Street ran parallel to Grey Friars Street. Always a narrow and mean street, its worst houses were nevertheless a bit better than Plant’s Square and a number were later occupied by Irish families who had managed to escape from the worst slums.

From the junction with Browning’s Lane the main road became Foregate Street, a mixture of grand residences, old half-timbered dwellings and mean workers’ cottages. The Red Cow pub stood opposite the junction with Browning’s Lane and lurking down the alley beside it was Snow’s, or Red Cow, Yard, a place we have already met a number of times in this blog. Many Irish people ended up there. Going farther on, Sash Street went off to the left. This was another mean street where many Famine Irish found shelter. Just beyond came County Road, a rather better street, but beyond that in the despoiled field between Foregate Street and Gaol Road was Middle Row, a line of decrepit cottages that also became a refuge of the Famine Irish. Continuing down Foregate Street past the Staffordshire General Infirmary, the street then narrowed and kinked to left and right before entering Gaol Square.

Stafford 19c Map Rev

Stafford in the nineteenth century showing the four areas of Foregate, the Town Centre, Forebridge and Castletown.

Gaol Square dated from the early 1800s. The county gaol and the Gaolgate had been on the site until they were knocked down when the new Gaol was built on Gaol Road in 1793. Although a focal point for the streets in this part of town, Gaol Square was an untidy mix of mediocre buildings of various ages around a featureless expanse of road. The Square’s significance was that the roads entering Stafford from the north converged here because it was the only dry crossing point into the town centre. To the west the land sloped down to the River Sow, while to the east lay marshes drained sluggishly by Sandyford Brook, Lammascote Drain and Thieves’ Ditch. The main way into the town centre was straight ahead up Gaolgate Street.

The stench was probably the first thing to strike any new arrival to Stafford. The town’s low-lying site meant the drainage was poor and the surrounding watercourses filled up with reeking effluent. The town’s sewage flowed in open channels down the streets and the drinking water came from shallow wells contaminated by leakage from cess pits. An assize court judge in 1870 described Stafford as ‘the most stinking town I was ever in in my life.’[4]

Despite its malodorous nature, a walk up Gaolgate Street passed through part of the town’s commercial heart. Shops lined the street and there were seven pubs within 150 yards. Many of the buildings were still half-timbered and thatched, dating back to the seventeenth century. At the top of the street was Market Square, a civic space worthy of the town with the Shire Hall and other impressive buildings occupied by the town’s leading citizens, as well as shops, public houses and banks. Continuing southwards out of Market Square, Greengate Street was lined with shops, pubs and other commercial premises of a distinctly higher quality than those in Gaolgate Street. Notable among these was the Swan Hotel, but that was already in decline since the opening of the railway in 1837 had destroyed its stage coach trade. Charles Dickens was to nickname it ‘The Dodo’.[5]

Destitute Irish people arriving in 1847 would find nothing for them in the main street.  The side streets were a different matter. Within a few yards of the relative affluence of the centre lay the cramped, damp and insanitary cottages of the poor. In 1842 Dr. Edward Knight, Physician to the Infirmary, described the –

‘filthy state of those parts of the town occupied exclusively by the lower classes, [such] as the ‘Broad Eye’, ‘Back Walls’ &c. ….

These parts of the town are without drainage, the houses, which are private property, are built without any regard to situation or ventilation; and constructed in a manner to ensure the greatest return at the least possible outlay. The accommodation in them does not extend beyond two rooms: these are small, and for the most part the families work in the day-time in the same room in which they sleep, to save fuel.

There is not any provision made for refuse dirt, which, as the least trouble, is thrown down in front of the houses and there left to putrefy. The back entrances to the houses in the principal streets are generally into these, stabling, cow-houses, &c., belonging to them, forming one side of the street, and placed opposite to the poorer houses; so that they are continually subjected to the malaria arising from that, in addition to their own dirt.

The sedentary occupation of the working-classes (shoemaking being the staple trade of the town), their own want of cleanliness and general intemperance, form also a fruitful source of disease. ……

The situation of Stafford …. offers every facility for an efficient drainage; it is nearly surrounded by a large ditch, in which there might be a running stream of water, well calculated to remove all impurities; but it is always choked up, and in a stagnant state; the river ‘Sow’ is also close to the town. There are not any sewers even in the principal streets, the water being carried off by open channels.’[6]

The refugee in search of lodgings could have left Gaol Square by walking up a narrow, dingy street to the left. This was Back Walls North, one of the areas described by Dr Knight. As its name suggests, it was built along the line of the old town walls on the edge of the marshes, and it wandered off to the Eastgate lined with decrepit old cottages. One hundred years later it was still ‘a slum, with sacking over the broken windows of dilapidated terraced houses, half-naked children sitting on the doorsteps, no shoes on their feet and scabs of malnutrition on their pallid little faces.’[7] Lurking in the smoky gloom behind were Allen’s and Clarke’s Courts as well as the little alley of Malt Mill Lane and its court which linked with Salter Street. These were some of the hovels where Stafford’s poorest people already lived and the Famine Irish added to their number. Just past the site of the old gate Back Walls crossed Eastgate Street and swung sharply to the right to head back to the main street as Back Walls South. Half way along was a tannery whose smells, rats and flies were the residents’ neighbours.

The Back Walls were the worst areas of housing to the east of the town centre, but there were huddles of poor property elsewhere along Eastgate Street, in St Chad’s Place and in Appleyard Court off Tipping Street.   Things were much the same on the other side of the main street. Directly opposite the end of Back Walls South lay the entrance to Mill Bank, another narrow street lined with small cottages and similarly damp in its location close to the river. Stafford’s slum housing was a mix of decaying half-timbered structures dating back to the seventeenth century and niggardly brick cottages thrown up since the 1770s to profit from the rising population. Superficially the town might look more attractive than the grimy, reeking slums of the northern and midland cities where many of the Irish ended up. In Stafford town centre the classes still lived close to each other and a minute’s walk could span the range from the affluent to the squalid. Even so, for the impoverished shoemaker in Broad Eye, the farm labourer in Clarke’s Court or the refugee Irish alongside them the day-to-day grind to survive meant living conditions were as hard as those in the big cities. Life in Stafford was no country town idyll.

Broad Eye

Cottages on Tenterbanks at the Broad Eye. They may look picturesque in the sunshine but for Stafford’s poor they were overcrowded, miserable, damp and insanitary dwellings.

Mill Bank further along morphed into Tenterbanks. This was another straggle of poor dwellings that followed the course of the Sow to Broad Eye. The Broad Eye had developed as a tangle of streets and courts around the site of the old west gate. In the 1840s, as now, the locality was dominated by a large stone windmill, but otherwise it had little recommend it. Always low-lying, the area had become even more unpleasant in the 1830s when the town’s gasworks was built immediately to the north. One of the streets running off Broad Eye was Cherry Street. Despite its rustic name, Cherry Street was a mean area that, like Broad Eye, became home to many Irish families. Other courts and pockets of poor housing were to be found scattered in Stafford’s dank peripheries west of the main street like Dottell Street, Wilson’s Court and Bull Hill.

Since the middle ages Stafford’s had begun to extend southwards beyond the River Sow. This area was Forebridge, the third part of the town’s structure. There were substantial villas and other elegant residences here, particularly along the Lichfield Road, but there were, nevertheless, pockets of poor housing in Plant’s Court and Bailey Street. Irish people settled here both before and during the Famine. About a quarter of a mile up the Wolverhampton Road was St Austin’s Catholic Chapel. Its location at the southern edge of town was convenient for its generally respectable English congregation but inconvenient for most of the Catholic Irish.

The arrival of the railway in 1837 had resulted in the emergence of a fourth part of the town, the new suburb of Castletown between the River Sow and the railway. Its houses were fairly small and often enveloped in a pall of smoke from the engine sheds. Nevertheless, they mostly had back yards or small gardens and they were distinctly better than the workers’ housing in other parts of Stafford. As a relatively respectable working class suburb there was no accommodation here for the Famine Irish. They had to initially survive in the slums elsewhere or, in 1847 as we have already seen in this blog, in the vagrant wards and temporary huts of the Workhouse.

[1] These figures are based on a standard area definition of Stafford town which approximates to the borough boundary of 1877. The figures therefore differ from the published census population totals for Stafford Borough.

[2] Derived from personal knowledge and the following sources: John Wood’s ‘Plan of Stafford from Actual Survey, 1835’ in Staffordshire County Council Education Dept., Local History Source Book L.3, Stafford Maps, (Stafford, Staffordshire CC Education Dept., 1969); M.W. Greenslade, D.A. Johnson & C.R.J. Currie (eds), A History of Stafford, (Victoria County History of the County of Stafford, Vol. VI), (1979/1982), pp. 185-196; R. Lewis, Stafford: an Illustrated History, (Chichester, Phillimore & Co., 1997); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford as it was, (Nelson, Hendon Pub. Co., 1980); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Around Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford in old picture postcards, (Zaltbommel, Netherlands, European Library, 1984); R. Lewis, Around Stafford, Stroud, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 1999); R. Lewis, Stafford and District, (Wilmslow, Sigma Press, 1998); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1994); P. Butters, Yesterday’s Town: Stafford, (Buckingham, Barracuda Books, 1984).

[3] VCH Stafford, p. 191.

[4] VCH Stafford, p. 232; Lewis, Stafford Past, p. 57.

[5] Charles Dickens, ‘A Plated Article’, Household Words, 24 April 1852.

[6] Parliamentary Papers, 1842 (007), Commission on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain: Local reports on England: No. 15: “On the Sanitary State of the Town of Stafford” by Dr. Edward Knight, pp. 225-6.

[7] A reminiscence of the author’s childhood in Butters, Yesterday’s Town, p. 103.

1847: the Irish Famine and Stafford


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The mass suffering and exodus of Irish people during the Famine had many parallels with the world refugee crisis of today. Major issues in the rural Irish economy, in government policy and in the political relationship between Ireland and Britain were exposed by the failure of the potato crop in 1846/7. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people had no option but to get out of Ireland and seek refuge where they could in other parts of the world. The sufferings they endured have been widely documented, including by me in this blog. Perhaps the biggest difference between the crisis of 1846/7 and that of today is that nineteenth century governments were largely passive observers of this vast population movement, whatever their actions had been in causing it. Today governments and world agencies wring their hands and come up with ad hoc fixes designed mainly to head off domestic xenophobia whilst generally worsening the sufferings of the refugees themselves. Governments in the nineteenth century might not have done much to help the refugees but they also demonstrated less of the hypocrisy on show today.

In my last posts (11 and 20 April 2016) I looked at the Famine in the Castlerea area of west central Ireland. This post deals with the crisis year of 1847 and its impact on Stafford. Already by February 1847 a correspondent to the Staffordshire Advertiser was writing that ‘it is painful to see these poor [Irish] fellows in their wanderings through the country. Their suppliant and unoffending manner, and the patience with which they appear to endure the weather and the cravings of hunger appeal powerfully to every humane mind.’[1] Between April and June 1847 the Poor Law authorities in Stafford gave relief to no less than 3557 paupers, about two thirds of them vagrant, destitute and diseased Irish.[2]

The Castlerea district showing some of the originating localities of Stafford's Famine immigrants.

The Castlerea district showing some of the originating localities of Stafford’s Famine immigrants.

We don’t know exactly how many Irish refugees came to Stafford in 1847 but some idea of their relative numbers is the fact that the town’s Irish population quadrupled between 1841 and 1851, rising from 131 to 526 people and amounting to 4.6 per cent of the inhabitants. That was a much greater proportional increase than in England and Wales overall (+80 per cent) or in the existing big centres of Irish settlement like Liverpool (+69 per cent) or Manchester (+53 per cent). Many of these people must have come in 1847. Why did they come to Stafford?

There are three possible reasons. The first is the links between Staffordshire and the Castlerea area built up before the Famine by the thousands of seasonal workers coming over for harvest work. I’ve emphasised these links in my posts on pre-Famine and Famine conditions in the Castlerea district. Many people knew about the town and the possibilities of work – and survival – it might offer.

A second reason for the influx was that Stafford was directly in the path of those Irish heading from Liverpool to Birmingham and the Black Country. It was the only major settlement on the road for fifteen miles in each direction and was therefore a natural staging post for many. For some an overnight stop turned into a longer stay, particularly if people succumbed to fever and utter destitution. On 17 April 1847 Martin Traynor was the first of many Irish admitted to the Workhoue vagrant ward with fever; four days later he was dead.[3]  On 1 June Hannah Killeen and her son were admitted because they were destitute; her husband was ill with fever in the Infirmary.[4]  Hundreds of Irish people sought refuge in the Stafford Workhouse during 1847 and the authorities struggled to cope. The admissions system collapsed in the summer and between 16 July and 26 September no record was kept of the people admitted and discharged. Temporary buildings had to be erected for the wave of ‘paupers’ besieging the Workhouse, many of them ill with fever. Sanitary conditions were terrible and those who were still healthy refused to wash the clothes of those who were sick. Paupers were recruited as ‘nurses’ but even they were reluctant to tend to the needs of the sick. Nearly £600 was spent between April and June on outdoor relief for destitute Irish people in the town, over seven times the normal amount.[5] Things were so bad that, desperate as they were, people didn’t stay in the Workhouse longer than necessary. Even more moved on from the squalid lodging houses in the town. Most set out again on the road south, but nevertheless some stayed on in Stafford. Ann Malley and her two children, for example, were admitted to the vagrant ward through illness in July 1847 but she stayed and was living in the town with her labourer husband in 1851.[6]

Stafford Workhouse, the scene of much suffering in 1847. It was built in 1837-8, it was finally closed in 1974 after having been used as an old peoples' home and hospital called Fernleigh since 1948. Going to Fernleigh was as feared as entry to the old Workhouse. (Picture from Roy Lewis, Stafford Past, 1997)

Stafford Workhouse, the scene of much suffering in 1847. It was built in 1837-8 and finally closed in 1974 after having been used as an old peoples’ home and hospital called Fernleigh since 1948. Going to Fernleigh was as feared as entry to the old Workhouse had been. (Picture from Roy Lewis, Stafford Past, 1997)

A third reason to come to Stafford may indeed have been the relatively liberal attitude of the Poor Law authorities. The only case of Irish people being expelled from Stafford during 1847 was the Kelly family which I described in my post on 24 March 2015. They came back more or less immediately and settled in the town. Although the Poor Law Guardians sometimes blustered about removing the Irish, in practice they did nothing and appeared worried about its legality. The fear of removal back to Ireland was prevalent amongst the Famine immigrants but, even if they struggled to cope, if the Stafford Poor Law Guardians had a reputation for being relatively liberal that fact might have become known and the town regarded as a safe, if temporary, haven.

No real record survives of how native Staffordians reacted to the mass of suffering refugees in the town from April 1847 onwards. Members of the local elite had been collecting money ‘for our poor famishing fellow creatures in Ireland’ since late 1846.[7] A local committee to organise relief was set up in January 1847 and included both the Catholic priest, Edward Huddleston, and the virulently anti-Catholic Ulster-born Presbyterian minister Edward Speers. [8]  There was, however, no reported elite reaction once the refugees had arrived. An oblique reference to common feeling was made when it was reported that ‘so many bad things are said of the poor Irish who throng our streets and roads’ but the story concerned ‘an honest Irishman’ in the Potteries rather than Stafford town.[9] There is, however, no record of direct hostility or violence against the Irish. It seems most people just ignored the suffering people in their midst and left it to the Poor Law authorities to deal with things.

The number of Irish who only stopped in Stafford briefly in 1847 must have been large. Ninety per cent of those discharged from the Workhouse had disappeared from the town by 1851. Nevertheless, a residue of Famine migrants ultimately settled long-term in Stafford – I estimate about fourteen per cent – and these people formed a core of Irish families for many years. Some remained a permanently and ultimately their families became woven into the social fabric of the town.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 February 1847.

[2] Stafford and Stoke on Trent Record Archives (SSTA), D659/8a/4-5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Minute Books of the Board of Guardians, 25 May 1844 to 3 February 1849.

[3] SSTA, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Register, 1847.

[4] Ibid.

[5] SSTA, D659/1/1/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Minute Books of the Board of Guardians, 17 April 1847-3 February 1849.

[6] SSTA, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Register, 1847. Census returns 1851.

[7] SA, 2 January 1847.

[8] Ibid., 16 January 1847.

[9] Ibid., 10 July 1847.

Eviction and the Poor Law in the Castlerea district


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In my last post on 11 April 2016 I looked at starvation and destitution in the Castlerea area during the Famine. But although thousands left the district to escape immediate hunger and destitution, many others were forced out in other ways that are the subject of this post.

Eviction by landlords was a scourge during the Famine years. Many of the local estates were badly-managed and semi-bankrupt before the Famine, whilst on others landlords had already been removing tenants from the smallest holdings and stopping the annual lease of patches of land for basic subsistence (conacre). With the collapse of food supplies and the inability of many tenants to pay rents, the Famine provided a golden opportunity for landlords to get rid of smallholders and conacre plots.

Famine evictions started early in the Castlerea district and the area was the scene of one of the most notorious ‘exterminations’ to take place in Ireland during these years – the Gerrard case near Mount Bellew, Co. Galway, that I described in my post on 17 June 2015. Sixty-one families were violently thrown out of their houses and left to fend for themselves. Dramatic as the Gerrard eviction was – and the word ‘Gerrardising’ became commonly used for evictions in this area during the Famine – it was only one case amongst many. By August 1846 the Roscommon Journal was saying eviction was ‘the order of the day’ and in January 1848 the Journal reported some of the consequences. The Poor Law Guardians were refusing the take more people into the Roscommon Workhouse, and

‘so early as seven o’clock our streets were studded with creatures almost dead or dying. … Affected with contagious fever, young and old were huddled together. … The wailing and dying moans of the unfortunates as they were obliged to wend their way back to their respective localities was truly heart-rending. Homes they had none, friends they had not any, and food they had no hope of getting. Several of them died before they left the town, and hundreds, unable to quit the streets, are strolling about black with fever. This is the fruit of last year’s extermination. This is the result of the ‘Gerrardising’ of 1847.’[1]

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

A year later the paper summed up the results of evictions:

‘The crusade against the Tenantry in this part of the country is daily increasing. … Depopulation has now become so general it excites not the least surprise or astonishment to hear of hundreds being daily turned into the ditches to famish. … The tenant and small farmer … has fled to another and happier country. The poorer class have either perished or become inmates of the Workhouse. … The solvent and industrious tenants have emigrated.’[2]

The Poor Law system was a massive incentive for landlords to evict their small tenants. In April 1848 27 families, or 189 people, were evicted by a landlord near Castlerea.[3] These people were victims of the £4 clause in the Irish Poor Law Act which said landlords were responsible for paying the poor rates of tenancies valued at under £4 a year. Now that small tenants couldn’t pay their rents, landlords rushed to clear their properties of such people. They forced tenants to give up their land or, if they went to the workhouse, demolished their houses and made them totally destitute while they were away.[4]

Many other people were evicted by the workings of the Gregory clause, the provision introduced in June 1847 which denied poor relief to any tenant who held more than a quarter of an acre of land. On 23 June 1849 the Tuam Herald reported that there had been 94 ejectment cases at the quarter sessions that week, an ‘unusually large amount’. It blamed ‘the power of landlords and the Gregory clause’ and earlier had said

‘if any one doubt that the Gregory clause has produced these sad effects [he] should take a drive …into the country. … Evidence [is]…everywhere…[of] roofless cottages and the blackened walls and the desolate hearths which were once the humble but happy houses of a peaceable and contented peasantry.’ [5]

In my post on 17 February 2016 I looked the Raftery family from Co. Roscommon. They held 32 acres of land in Kiltullagh parish.[6] Because they had more than four acres they were directly liable for poor rates, and these rose dramatically as thousands of destitute and starving people sought relief from the Poor Law. The local press was very clear that the burden of the poor rate was now a major force driving people like the Rafterys to emigrate. In October 1848 the Roscommon Journal said that

‘The enormous expense attending the working of the machinery of the Poor Law, and consequent increased taxation, has had its blighting effects on this country. The tide of emigration bears ample evidence of the fact – the very bone and sinew of Ireland are crossing the Atlantic to seek in a foreign clime what has been denied them in their native land. ….Farmers are selling off the produce of the land to enable them to quit it.’[7]

The links between eviction, destitution and emigration were underlined by a report from Castlerea in 1849. Mr Auchmuty, the Temporary Poor Law Inspector, wrote that

‘The means of the poor are exhausted; they are in a most deplorable condition, some of the persons lately admitted are actually in a state of starvation; all employment, I may say, has ceased, the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution; there is fresh difficulty in discharging paupers from the workhouse who have been in the house for any length of time; they have no homes to go to, the moment they come in , their cabins are levelled by the landlords. There has been a great many evictions in this Union lately. ….it is astonishing, everwhere I go through the Union, to see how fast the cabins are disappearing.’[8]

Evictions went on beyond the normally accepted end of the Famine around 1850. Landlords, many of them newcomers taking advantage of the 1849 Encumbered Estates Act, continued to clear their properties of small tenants during the 1850s. Nearly 17,500 people were evicted in the Castlerea area between 1849 and 1856 and some of these victims continued to arrive in Stafford throughout the decade.

In 1850 the Tuam Herald made the important point that the

‘emigrants of the latter years are those who battled hard with circumstances…. [Emigration] results from long and painful calculation, and the reasons given are “they can hold out no longer”, “landlords will not give fair reductions of rents”, ”taxation is impossible to bear”. ….Every day witnesses the departure of whole families who only regret they did not go three years ago. … The class of small farmers and cottiers, who made a livelihood by mere tillage, can hold out no longer.’[9]

Most of tenants who emigrated because of rising poor rates, landlords’ refusal to reduce rents and a generally hopeless view of the future decided to go to America. There were, nevertheless, families or individuals who ended up in England either by choice or the force of unfortunate circumstances. The continuing inflow of people from the Castlerea district to Stafford in the 1850s underlines the fact that there were different, if limited, options.

In my post on 28 July 2015 I looked at Patrick Corcoran’s family from Castlerea. Patrick worked as a joiner. Around 1855 he, his wife Catherine and their children emigrated to Stafford, and his move illustrates another reason why people were forced out of Ireland during the Famine and its aftermath. Corcoran’s occupation depended on getting work in the building trade. The Famine undermined many small to medium-sized farmers, as well as those landlords whose estates were effectively bankrupt. These people now had neither the need nor the money to pay craft workers for their services, so people like Patrick were in turn impoverished. Many had to emigrate. It seems clear that Patrick used existing connections to make Stafford his bolt-hole rather than the more uncertain option of emigration to America. He may, of course, been so poverty-stricken that the cheaper English option was the only one open to him anyway.

In 1849 the Mayo Constitution described the Famine’s impact on the various classes in that county:

‘The small farmer class are suffering the greatest hardships, denied out-door relief because they cling with tenacity to their little holdings. …. The hitherto extensive farmer and grazier class, once the most important grade in the country, are swept away between Poor Law taxation and destructive free trade. The merchant and tradesman are one by one passing away into utter oblivion….’[10]

Many of those who emigrated early on could help other family members later by sending money for their travel as well as information and promises of support. During the worst of the Famine families ruthlessly tore themselves apart. Destitute wives sought relief from the Poor Law authorities because they had been deserted by husbands who had gone to England or America. This claim of ‘desertion’ was often used to get relief before money arrived from abroad and in 1849 it was said ‘the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution.’[11]

Despite North America’s dominance as an emigrant destination it was still unattractive for some and the closer option of England was less risky. The local press publicised evidence of emigrant scams, shipwrecks and hardships in its campaign against emigration and oppression by the Poor Law and the landlords.[12] It is impossible to say whether this had any effect in directing some people to England rather than the New World, but it may have done. The opening of the railway from Chester to Holyhead in 1851 opened up a faster and less sickening passage to England. That would certainly have made the trip to Stafford a more attractive option for those with the money, connections and will to go there.[13]

During the Famine and its aftermath the people who ended up in Stafford were an infinitesimal part of the emigrant tide but there were logical reasons for their arrival in the town. Irish settlement in the diaspora was by no means a process of completely random and panic-stricken movement, as is sometimes suggested.  The contacts developed through seasonal harvest work before the Famine opened the way for larger numbers to settle there during and after the Famine disaster.

[1] Roscommon Journal (RJ), 29 August 1846; 29 January 1848.

[2] RJ, 13 January 1849.

[3] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-1849 (The Columba Press, Blackrock, 1999), p. 304.

[4] James S. Donnelly, jr., The great Irish potato famine, (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001), pp. 110-116.

[5] Tuam Herald (TH), 23 June 1849; 16 June 1849.

[6] Tithe Applotment Book (TAB), Co. Roscommon 25/10, (National Library of Ireland microfilm),, 1825; TAB 25/17, 1833.

[7] RJ, 7 October 1848.

[8] PP1849, Papers relating to aid to distressed unions in the west of Ireland; letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 4 May 1849.

[9] TH, 19 October 1850.

[10] The Times, 3 May 1849 quoting from the Mayo Constitution.

[11] Parliamentary Papers, 1849: Papers relating to aid to distressed unions, letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 29 March 1848 and 4 May 1849.

[12] For example, RJ, 13 April 1850, 11 May 1850, 30 November 1850.

[13] Advert in RJ, 25 October 1851.

The Famine in the Castlerea district


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In my last two posts (17 February and 22 March 2016) I looked at the Raftery families who settled in Stafford in the nineteenth century. The first of these, the ‘Roscommon Rafterys’, were in many ways classic Famine emigrants, destitute people forced out of Ireland at the height of the Famine in the dreadful year of 1847. This post, the first of two, looks at what was happening in the area of about fifteen miles radius round the town of Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. It encompassed the north west of Co. Roscommon and adjacent areas of Cos. Galway and Mayo and it suffered extreme population loss during the Famine.

MapIreland1882Roscommon cropped

The Castlerea area, Co. Roscommon and adjacent parts of Cos Galway and Mayo. (From Phillip’s Map of Ireland, 1882,

By the mid-1840s a scattering of people had already gone to Stafford from the Castlerea district. I looked at the reasons why in my post on 26 August 2015. Each year they were joined by harvesters from the area and this pattern might well have carried on for decades. The Famine changed all that. Even the small town of Stafford was to feel the impact, and the link between the Castlerea area and Staffordshire proved to be vital for many of the Famine’s victims.

On 23 September 1845 it was reported that around Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, ‘The potato crop … is both ample and good … bountiful and healthy.’[1] At the same time the first reports were coming in from eastern Ireland of a new disease affecting the crop and on 20 October a constabulary report from Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon, said that ‘incipient disease of the potato crop has shown itself in a partial way in this district within the last few days.’[2] Two weeks later the rot had become general, ‘there being no instance in which the crop has wholly escaped the infection. … The general opinion, particularly since the wet weather has set in, is that at least one half of the whole crop will be destroyed before the first of next month.’[3] The deadly potato blight, phytophthora infestans, had arrived in the district.

As a direct result of the Famine the population of the Castlerea district fell from an estimated 255,779 in 1845 to 186,063 in 1851 – a loss of nearly 70,000. In other words, more than a quarter of the entire population disappeared from the area in just six years. Many people died from starvation, privation and disease, but large numbers also emigrated. It is impossible to say exactly how many because there is no accurate record of the people who died during the Famine, but between 30,000 and 50,000 may have died and 20,000 to 30,000 people emigrated from the Castlerea area during these terrible years.[4]

People emigrated during the Famine for five interlinked reasons. The first was the most direct impact of the Famine – starvation, destitution and inability to pay rent. This often triggered a second factor – eviction or the threat of eviction from the land because people couldn’t pay the landlords’ rent. In some parts of Ireland ‘landlord-assisted emigration’ – giving tenants money for passage to England or America – was a way of effectively evicting people, but the landlords of the Castlerea area were too poor, too uninvolved or too mean to adopt this approach. The third force driving people to emigrate was the impact of Poor Law forcing out small land-holders, a factor that became more devastating in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Fourthly, many people in secondary and tertiary occupation, such as carpenters, builders and traders, found their incomes disappearing as the Famine depressed the economy and demand for their goods and services dwindled. These four ‘push’ factors were increasingly complemented by the ‘pull’ force of contacts with people who had already left and sent money, information and prospects of help to those left behind.

The Tory government of Sir Robert Peel established a Relief Commission in November 1845 to organise food depots and respond to the efforts of local relief committees. [5] Local community leaders – magistrates, landlords, clergy – in the Castlerea area developed a comprehensive patchwork of such committees during the early months of 1846. The government made arrangements to secretly import Indian corn (maize) from America and from December 1845 schemes were developed to provide employment on public works. Wages of eight pence or ten pence a day were paid to men who could do this work but that was ‘insufficient to support themselves, much less their starving families.’[6]

Even the stored potatoes were destroyed by blight. In January 1846 it was reported from Lough Glynn in Tibohine parish, Co. Roscommon, that ‘within the last fortnight and even the last few days the potatoes in pits are nearly all diseased or quite rotten.’[7]  This sudden loss of staple food immediately brought hunger to the masses and by March 1846 it was reported that there was ‘great distress’ in the Baronies of Dunmore and Tiaquin (Co. Galway) and that in the Barony of Castlereagh (sic) ‘the distress prevalent in the district (was) likely to increase’.[8] Conditions rapidly worsened during the late spring and in July 1846 it was obvious that the potato disease was striking the new crop even more virulently than the previous year. On 22 August the Tuam Herald reported the ‘total annihilation of the potato crop’.[9] At the same time the Whig Russell Government that had taken office on 30 June 1846 ordered the winding up of the Public Works programme. This took away the only sustenance for those with enough strength to work for the measly wages offered.

By the autumn of 1846 the Castlerea district was in the grip of starvation and destitution. Although the public works were restarted during the autumn, they never brought enough money to those most in need, and the local Famine Relief Committees reported harrowing starvation and death. William French, a member of a large landowning family in the Frenchpark area of Roscommon, wrote that

‘You can scarcely conceive the state of privation and misery to which (the populace) are now reduced in consequence of the great scarcity, the exhaustion of their means and the high price at which every article of food has arrived. I have actually seen many after spending their day in Frenchpark return in tears to their family without a particle of food, and latterly the men have become fierce and wicked, and disposed to commit outrage if their wants are not supplied. The works have not recommenced to any extent, but at all events no monies have yet been received for labour, so that I really fear for the lives of the weak and all those who are unequal to the struggle.’[10]

By November 1846 deaths from starvation were reported from Drumatemple, and a ‘population of 262 families (are) totally destitute of support’. Things rapidly worsened over the winter, so that on 14 January 1847 the secretary of the Ballintobber Relief Committee (Roscommon) reported ‘Thousands of persons are absolutely perishing through want. Sickness is making frightful havoc among them’[11] At Killererin (Killeroran), across the border in Galway,

‘at least two thirds of the population (are) without means. …. I know a family last week to shut themselves up in their house and let the parents and seven children lay down and give themselves up to death….and one poor widow who got three days refuge in a poor person’s house. When she left the house her daughter had to carry her on her back begging, and in that position she died and was taken dead off her back.’[12]

From all over the district starvation and death multiplied. In February 1847 Charles Strickland, the chairman of the Lough Glynn famine relief committee wrote of ‘the dreadful state of the poor in these districts. We are daily witnessing deaths of starvation which no means in our reach at present can avert.’[13] Localities dominated by absentee landlords were particularly suffering, and the reasons were sometimes linked directly to the land holding system. In Cloonygormican and Dunamon in Co. Roscommon it was stated that

‘The district is unfortunately circumstanced in its means of receiving relief. The landlords are, in almost every instance, absentees, and, from the proprietors of a large portion of the district, no relief is likely to be received as their estates are under the control of the Court of Chancery……Another circumstance which tends, in a great degree, to prevent us from receiving relief is the extent to which subletting has been carried on in the district, and on properties on which are the largest proportion of paupers.’[14]

In Kilcorkey and Baslick parishes (Roscommon) another aspect of the land system was emphasised, together with the vagaries of the public works programme.

‘This district …. is very large and from the circumstances of its being mostly a grazing country, the people were in the habit of living solely on the conacre system……The distress is still greater here owing to the suspension of public works in part of the district by the board who, to punish some persons who made an attack on one of their overseers, have thought fit to punish the innocent with the guilty for the span of more than one month. The provisions are so dear and scarce that the people are dying around me from starvation.’[15]

Week by week the local newspapers documented the suffering. In February 1847 the Tuam Herald wrote that ‘The condition of the people … is becoming daily worse. …. They are perishing in hundreds by the roadside. “Starvation inquests” are alas! still held in abundance.’ Three weeks later it poignantly described how, in the town, ‘the hearing of persons dying from want or destitution has now become as familiar to our ears as the striking of the clock.’[16]

By the beginning of 1847 there was a rising tide of emigration. On 23rd January The Times carried a report that

‘A gentleman, whose statements are entitled to the highest respect, gives a most deplorable picture of the condition of the county of Roscommon….He says that whole villages are depopulated, either by death or by the flight of such as have the means of transport to England, Scotland or America.’[17]

In April 1847 the Tuam Herald reported that ‘for some weeks past our town has been crowded daily with hundreds passing through, collected from all quarters, making their way to the nearest seaport where ships can be had to take them away from the land of their fathers.’ The paper took the view that ‘the emigrants are not those people who cannot find food or employment – they are the pith and marrow of the land – comfortable farmers who take all their means with them, leaving only the destitute behind them’.[18]

It was direct emigration to America from local ports like Galway City that most impressed local commentators, since these were the people who could afford to pay for their passage. Many of the emigrants from the Castlerea area going to America had to pass through Tuam town and these were the people crowding the streets in the Herald’s description. The route in the opposite direction was the one taken by the people who ended up in Stafford. In February 1847 a traveller from Roscommon to Dublin ‘passed on the roads crowds of young men, and not a few young women, and some children, journeying towards Liverpool with the intention of proceeding thence to America.’[19] The parallel with the plight of the refugees in Europe today is striking.

It is often thought that the emigrants who finished up in Britain were those too poor or dissolute to get to better destinations overseas – a kind of Irish residuum at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Stafford evidence suggests a more mixed picture but many of the Famine arrivals were nevertheless destitute labourers and conacre holders. They had to flee whilst they had any means and opportunity to do so. Famine refugees began to appear in Stafford in April 1847 and the numbers reached their peak in the summer of that year. The most unfortunate – the starving, the destitute, the ill and the dying – ended up in the vagrant ward of the workhouse or the infirmary. Some of the families who settled in Stafford, like the Roscommon Rafterys, the Sweeneys from Galway and the Colemans from Knock, Co. Mayo, arrived in the town at the height of the Famine in 1847.

01 Catherine Colemancrop

Catherine Coleman with her granddaughter Catherine Moore, Stafford, c.1900. Catherine Coleman had been born in Co. Mayo in 1835 and came to Stafford with her parents as a childhood refugee from the Famine.

In the autumn of 1847 the Catholic dioceses of Ireland carried out a ‘destitution survey’, asking parish priests to report on the consequences of the Famine in their areas. In the Castlerea district it was an appalling picture. On average the priests reported that around thirty per cent of the families were absolutely destitute with most of the others in severe want. Upwards of seven per cent of the population had died as a direct result of the Famine whilst around sixteen per cent of the families had already emigrated.[20] In the next post I’ll look at the other forces at work in the district during the Famine.

[1] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-49, (The Columba Press, Dublin, 1999), p. 18.

[2] Swords, In their own words, p. 18.

[3] Swords, In their own words, pp. 20-1

[4] Various attempts were made to produce figures for the number of deaths and emigrants in the Castlerea district using estimates and techniques adopted by analysts of the national and county impact of the Famine. The fact that the study area overlaps three counties complicated this process, but the main problem was that there is a bewildering variety of death rate estimates during the Famine coupled to problematic assumptions about the impact of the tragedy on the birth rate. The estimates of deaths in the Castlerea district produced by the various techniques ranged from 51,795 down to 21,929, but the majority lay between the low thirty thousands to the upper forty thousands. The resultant emigration figures mostly ranged from the low to the high twenty thousands, hence the figures given in the text. It is impossible to be more precise, important as the issue is. See S.H. Cousens, ‘The regional pattern of emigration during the Great Irish Famine, 1846-51’, Trans. Inst. Brit. Geographers, Second Series, 28, (1960), pp. 119-134; W.E. Vaughan & A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Statistics: Population 1821-1971, (Dublin, 1978), Table 42; J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved, (London, 1985), esp. pp. 266-7.

[5] See, for example, C. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: the Irish Famine, 1845-52, (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1994), chapter 2.

[6] Tuam Herald (TH), 4 July 1846

[7] Charles Strickland, Lough Glynn to J.P. Kennedy, Dublin Castle, 23 January 1846,  Swords, In their own words, p. 24.

[8] House of Commons, 1846 (201), Weekly reports of Scarcity Com. Showing the progress of disease in potatoes: complaints and applications for relief, March 1846

[9] TH, 22 August 1846.

[10] National Archives of Ireland (NAI), RLFC3/2/25/38 Letter from William French to Fitzstephen French MP (forwarded to Dublin Castle), 8 October 1846.

[11] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/25, Letter from Patrick O’Connor, Chairman, Drumatemple Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 3 November 1846; NAI RLFC3/2/25/24, Letter from Michael Daniel O’Connor, Secretary, Ballintobber Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 14 January 1847.

[12] NAI, RLFC3/2/11/104, Letter from Mrs Henry Blake to Dublin Castle, 6 February 1847.

[13] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/44, Letter from Charles Strickland, 21 February 1847.

[14] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/26, Letter from J.E. Mennons, secretary, Cloonygormican and Dunamon famine relief committee to Sir Randolph Routh, 30 January 1847.

[15] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/36, Letter from Denis O’Connor, Chairman of the Kilcorkey and Baslick famine relief committee, 2 February 1847

[16] TH, 13 February and 6 March 1847.

[17] The Times, 23 January 1847

[18] TH, 10 April 1847 and 3 April 1847

[19] Lt-Col. Fitzmaurice, 10 February 1847, cited in R. Dolan, ‘The great famine in the barony of Roscommon, 1845-1850’, Unpub. MA dissertation, University College, Galway, p. 157.

[20] Usable reports of the Destitution Survey for the parishes of  Kilcorkey, Fuerty, Elphin, Baslick, Ballintubber and Drumatemple were published in the Roscommon Journal on 30 October 1847. Those for Dunmore, Crossboyne, Ballaghadereen, Kilcolman and Castlemore were in the Tuam Herald on 13 November 1847.

The Galway Raftery family


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In my last post I looked at the Raftery family who fled to Stafford from Kiltullagh, Co. Roscommon, during the Famine, and particularly at the sad life of William Raftery. This week we look at a second but unrelated Raftery family. They came from Co. Galway and they finally settled in Stafford in the 1870s, a point which emphasizes how Irish immigration was a long drawn out process.

These new arrivals were three Raftery brothers, Michael (b. 1836), James (b. 1842) and John (b. 1848). In the 1881 census John Raftery stated precisely where he was born – Glenamaddy in Co. Galway.[1] Glenamaddy was a very small town in the north-east of the county and in the 1850s Thomas Raftery held just one acre of land on its northern outskirts – plot 17 on the Griffiths Valuation map. Another relative, Timothy, held plot 1 on the map in partnership with two other men. Their land amounted to nearly five acres.[2]  The three brothers who settled in Stafford may have been sons of one these men.[3] They had clung on after the Famine but were existing in desperate poverty on these minute holdings. They lived in the heart of the area which exported many of Stafford’s Irish settlers and the Raftery brothers had many connections in the town before they finally settled there.

Raftery Snows Yard_0001 rev

Raftery land holdings in Glenamaddy, 1856, from the Griffiths Valuation survey.

They came to the Stafford district as early as 1862. At the beginning of September that year James and John Raftery were with a group of harvest workers who got involved in a fracas at the Greyhound Inn, Yarlet, to the north of Stafford.  James was accused of assaulting a policeman, and the chairman of the bench ‘warned the prisoner and his fellow countrymen that they must not import that form of brutality into this country or they would be severely punished.’[4] He was fined 40s plus costs or one month in jail.

The three Raftery brothers presumably continued to come to Stafford for harvest work during the 1860s and they seem to have finally given up in Ireland and settled in the town around 1874. In doing so they left the land and worked as bricklayer’s labourers. Michael Raftery had married a woman called Margaret in Ireland, and they came with two surviving children, Matthew (b. 1861) and Michael (b. 1867).  James and John arrived as single men, but they both married within a year and their marriage relationships were somewhat unusual. John Raftery married Margaret Hart (b. 1853) at St Austin’s on 29 September 1874.[5] Her father, Anthony Hart, was a Famine immigrant from Co. Galway. He worked as a farm labourer and almost certainly came from the same district as the Rafterys. More intriguing is the fact that Anthony Hart’s wife, Margaret’s mother, was Bridget Raftery! We know this from her sister Mary’s baptism record.[6] It seems that in Margaret Hart John Raftery was marrying a close relative, though how close it is impossible to say. John and Margaret Raftery set up house at 10 Snow’s (or Red Cow) Yard, the notorious slum court we have visited previously in this blog.

Raftery Snows Yard_0002 rev

Snow’s or Red Cow Yard in 1880 from OS 1:500 plan 37/11/7, Stafford Borough. Note the Red Cow pub at the entrance with its malthouse and brewery behind the houses.

The following year (1875) James Raftery married Margaret Hart’s sister Mary. It was not Mary’s first marriage. Her first in 1869 was to a cowman, John McCormick, who in 1861 was working at Highfields farm outside Stafford. He must have decamped or died in the early 1870s and Mary tried again with James Raftery in 1875.[7] It seems the couple then lived for a time in Manchester since their first child, Bridget, was born there in 1875. They settled back in Stafford shortly afterwards and moved into no. 11 Snow’s Yard next door to John and Margaret. On numerous occasions down the years they were all involved in fights, drunkenness and ‘Irish Rows’ in the yard and around the Red Cow pub at the entrance.[8] These immigrants had replaced the poverty of rural life in Ireland with an impoverished urban existence in England from which the only relief was drink. Their houses, thrown up in backland near the River Sow in the late 18th century, were overcrowded and squalid, and in these conditions trivial incidents rapidly escalated into violence. They were living the same brutalized lives as thousands of other poor Irish – and British – families in Victorian Britain. Most of the conflicts were purely within the Snow’s Yard community but in 1902 Margaret was convicted of assaulting George Collins, a bailiff, in the Maid’s Head Vaults. She struck him twice in the face and ‘accused him of robbing poor people’. With good reason – he had taken goods from her four years previously under a distress warrant, presumably for non-payment of rent. The landlords of Snow’s Yard were notorious for charging high rents for lousy properties and tipping people out on the street with no compunction.

Raftery Snows Yard_0003 rev

The Red Cow pub photographed around 1900 when it had been renamed the Falcon. The building dated back to the 17th century and was inherited by Justinian Snow in 1765. He built Snow’s Yard was down the entry to the left. (Picture courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell. Details from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford, Part 2 (2014).

John and Margaret Raftery’s later life continued to be unstable, one symptom of which was frequent house moves. They got out of Snow’s Yard in the 1880s and lived in other slum houses in Stafford’s north end. They may have spent some time in Derbyshire since their son John was born there around 1887 but that was clearly a temporary move. In 1901 they were living at 75 Greyfriars, still close to Snow’s Yard. In September that year John Raftery was given a month in the gaol with hard labour for ‘a cowardly wife assault’.  He made a savage attack on his wife who ‘had not taken proceedings against him before and did not wish to press the case now as he had promised to behave better in future’. That exposed the violence taking place within the family as well as outside it. John failed to turn up in court and the magistrates were clearly unimpressed by his wife’s cowed explanation.[9]

In the midst of such family stress John and Margaret brought eleven children into the torrid world of Snow’s Yard but six failed to survive infancy in such conditions. Margaret (b. 1880), Agnes May (b. 1884) and John (b. 1887) went on to marry but the subsequent whereabouts of Bridget (b. 1893) and Annie (b. 1895) are unknown. John married Jane Burton in 1913 and most of the people in Stafford today who retain the Raftery name are probably their descendants.

Margaret Raftery was aged around 66 when she died in 1918, a reasonable life span given the ravages of pregnancy, drink and stress.[10]  John Raftery was still alive at that time; it is not known when or where he died. John and James’s brother Michael Raftery had died in 1880 – he didn’t survive long in Stafford.[11]  His widow Margaret seems to have remained there with her two children for some time but nothing more is known about them except that Matthew (b. 1861) died in Stafford Workhouse in 1916.[12]

James and Mary Raftery went on to have at least nine children, of whom only four survived to adulthood.  By 1901 three of them, Harriet (b. 1877),[13] Mary Ellen (b. 1881) and Agnes (b. 1883) had moved to Manchester and were living together in the Openshaw district. This suggests the family continued to have relatives or contacts in the city dating from the 1870s when James and Mary had been there. The move to Manchester got these young women out of their miserable Snow’s Yard environment. Agnes and Mary Ellen worked in a pickle factory, and Mary Ellen married George Adams, a railway worker, in 1907.[14] They went on to have a number of children and in 1911 were living in Wolverhampton. The subsequent history of James and Mary Raftery  is unknown  – they did not live in Stafford – but Mary finally died in the town in 1924.[15]

The Galway and Roscommon Raftery families lived separate but parallel lives in Stafford. By no means all Stafford’s Irish immigrants conformed to the stereotypical picture of Irish refugees, but the Rafterys in many ways did. Forced to leave Ireland, they struggled to make a living in the harsh world of Victorian England. They relied on casual manual work to keep body and soul together. They could afford nothing but the worst housing, and they often had to move from place to place; there was little stability in their lives. Life was a struggle and it brought its share of petty conflicts and violence, both stimulated and ameliorated by drink. Nevertheless, as time went on and new generations grew up the Raftery descendants who remained in Stafford took their place in working class society and progressively intermingled with it. There ultimately was no relict Irish community in Stafford. The Rafterys were people of Irish descent who added their distinctive character to the evolving social mix that characterised even this small town in Midland England.

[1] The name of the town can be spelt in many different ways, both historically and even today. The common form is Glenamaddy but the Irish Ordnance Survey uses two ‘n’s.

[2] National Library of Ireland, Griffiths Valuation of Ireland, Parish of Boyounagh, Township of Glennamaddy (sic), printed 1856. There were other Raftery families in Ballyhard and Stonetown townships some distance from Glenamaddy.

[3] Although the baptism register for Boyounagh RC parish (covering the Glenamaddy area) reveals many Raftery baptisms in the 1840s the three brothers do not appear. A church baptism cost 2s 6d and it may be that these Rafterys could not or would not pay the fee. Catholic Parish Registers, Boyounagh Parish, Co. Galway, 1838-65, Ancestry database, accessed 22 March 2016.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 6 September 1862

[5] Birmingham Archdiocesen Archive, St Austin’s registers, Stafford, P255/1/2.

[6] Birmingham Archdiocesen Archive, St Austin’s registers, Stafford, P255/1/2. Mary Hart had been born around 1851 in Ireland, but the Harts must have moved to Stafford when she was a baby since she was christened at St Austin’s on 15 May 1851.

[7] Information from Maureen Jubb, September 2006. There is no record of McCormick’s death in Stafford but numerous men of that name died elsewhere in England during this period. The fact that James and Mary, as Catholics, married in the Register Office suggests they had something to hide. Stafford RD, marriages July-September 1875, 6b/26.

[8] For example, see SA, 13 February 1875, 4 September 1875, 11 September 1875, 19 May 1877, 4 June 1881, 5 May 1883, 14 September 1901, 25 September 1909

[9] SA, 14 September 1901

[10] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 11, no. 8742, 26 April 1918.

[11] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 4, no. 6920, 6 January 1880.

[12] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 11, no. 8008, 8 May 1916

[13] In the 1881 and 1891 censuses her name is recorded as Margaret, but by 1901 she seems to have called herself Harriet.

[14] Ashton under Lyne RD, marriages, July-September 1907, 8d/1154. The marriage took place on 8 July.

[15] Stafford RD, deaths, April-June 1924, Mary Raftery, 6b/10.

William Raftery: a soldier’s life


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On 5 June 1886 the Staffordshire Advertiser carried the following story:-

“Family Affection”

“Mary Raftery, wife of James Raftery, 45 Broadeye [Stafford] was charged with assaulting Annie Raftery on 29 May and breaking four panes of glass in the house of Thomas Mann. The defendant pleaded guilty to the second charge. Annie Raftery’s husband was a soldier in the late Egyptian war. She is the defendant’s sister-in-law and lodges next door. Mary Raftery entered the house of Mrs Margaret Mann, called Annie Raftery bad names, knocked her under the table and beat her. Next morning Mary Raftery continued knocking at the door and then threw a jug through the bedroom window, breaking four panes. Mary Raftery said Annie Raftery was the aggressor but Mary Raftery was convicted and fined 5s plus costs or 14 days in prison and 2s 6d plus costs or 14 days for the second offence.”

Annie Raftery’s soldier husband – and Mary’s brother-in-law – was William Raftery. His life and that of his family shows the harder side of Irish immigrant life in nineteenth century Britain, even for those second generation Irish who were born in Britain. It also shows the problems of disentangling the evidence that has come down to us today. For a start, there is the name – Raftery. It could be spelt in a multiplicity of ways because its owners were largely illiterate and could not insist on a preferred version. Many of the people recording the name spelt it phonetically and they often confused it with the more common Irish surname of Rafferty. Modern on-line data sources have added to the confusion with inaccurate transcriptions of the name from the original documents. So identifying the correct Rafterys from a multiplicity of sources is a difficult detective job and it can’t be guaranteed that everything in this post has got it right. Even so, we can sketch the outline of William Raftery’s history.

Raftery Rosc summary 2

William Raftery’s close family relatives

William’s parents were Thomas Raftery and Mary Tulis. They had been married on 20 May 1848 at St Austin’s RC Church in Stafford, and that marriage is the first evidence we have that the Raftery family had arrived in Stafford during the Famine. Both Thomas and Mary had been born in Co. Roscommon around 1821 and they probably knew each other back in Ireland. Like many of his compatriots, Thomas was a labourer but the couple supplemented their income by running a lodging house in Allen’s Court, a slum in the centre of town.[1] A year later, on 6 July 1849, a second Raftery marriage took place at St Austin’s when James Raftery married Bridget Cunningham.  James was Thomas’s brother and in 1851 he was living at 17 Back Gaol Road with his in-laws from the Cunningham family and other lodgers. Seventeen Irish people were packed into this miserable cottage and another fourteen were at no. 18 next door. Among them were William, John and Ann Raftery, brothers and sister of James and Thomas. Also in the house was their widowed mother Catherine Raftery who had been born in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, around 1795. William, Ann and John Raftery said they had been born in ‘Glintivly’, Co. Roscommon. There was no townland with precisely that name in the county but there was a locality called Glantives (nowadays Glenties) in Kiltullagh parish. This was at the north western tip of Roscommon where it meets Co. Mayo, and Ballyhaunis where Catherine was born was only about four miles away.

Before the Famine we know there was a Raftery family living in Glantives townland, Kiltullagh. The Tithe Applotment Books tell us that in 1833 Pat and James Raftery leased 31 and 32 acres of land there, and there were extensive Raftery holdings elsewhere in the parish. A Thomas Raftery & Co. held 23 acres of arable and pasture in partnership in Ballinlaugh townland about two miles from Glantives.[2] Thomas, James and the others were just the type of small tenants who were forced out of Roscommon in the dark days of the Famine. They probably ended up in Stafford because one or more of them had come to the district before the Famine to do seasonal harvest work.

These Roscommon  Rafterys went on to produce a complex family in Stafford and elsewhere. Reconstructing their story is, however, further complicated because another Raftery family settled in the town in the 1870s. They came from Glenamaddy in Co. Galway and, despite the common surname, they were not related to Roscommon Rafterys and had no obvious dealings with them despite living similar poverty-stricken lives in Stafford’s slums. Disentangling these two families has been a knotty problem but their full story must await a later post. Today we return to William Raftery.

William’s childhood was spent in the miserable surroundings of Allen’s Court and Back Walls North. His lodging house home had a shifting cast of destitute Irish living on their wits to survive.[3] Violence stalked the surroundings. In 1861 William’s father was involved in a fracas in Back Walls and was fined for resisting the arrest of one of the other combatants.[4] With such a start in life and no schooling, William was destined to follow his father and brother James into the building trade. By the 1870s he was a plasterer but his work must always have been insecure and the lure of the pub was always there. He was fined at least twice for drunkenness and wilful damage and he must also have got into fights despite being a small man of slight build. [5] He bore the scars on both cheeks.[6] For a young man with no prospects the army was a way out, and sometime in the early 1870s he joined the part-time 2nd Staffordshire Militia. He was a classic militia soldier – a man in low-paid casual work for whom the money was useful and a periodic dose of army life a change from squalor, drudgery and insecurity.

With his Militia experience to call on William became a useful recruit to the full-time army and in 1876 he signed on for twelve years service.[7] He went into the Grenadier Guards and at the time of the 1881 census was stationed at Wellington Barracks in London, within a stone’s throw of Buckingham Palace. His army record form is incomplete but the military history sheet shows apparently continuous service in Britain. That is not the whole picture, however. By June 1882 he had completed six years full-time service and was transferred to the Army Reserve but on 4 August, just five weeks later, he was suddenly called back to the colours. This fits with him being sent to Egypt as Annie said in 1886. He must have been part of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s force of 16,000 that destroyed the nationalist uprising at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir (13 September 1882).[8]


Foot Guards at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, September 1882. William Raftery may – or may not – have been there. (Painted by Caton Woodville and in the Royal Collection)

His pensionable service record shows that after six months he was transferred back to the Reserves and sent to the Lichfield district. He was, in other words, back in Staffordshire. William was finally discharged from the army at the end of June 1888, having lasted for precisely the twelve years needed to earn him a military pension. He had gained little else from his period in the army. He never rose above a humble private and his conduct was described as ‘bad in consequence of acts of absence, drunkenness and insubordination.’[9] The army life had merely reinforced the habits of his youth.

We therefore know that William came back to Staffordshire and in 1886 had a ‘wife’ with him. But who was Annie? Despite diligent searches it is still impossible to say who she was and where she came from. There’s no record of William marrying anyone during his army service and the couple probably lived together in a fairly brief common law relationship. William’s brother James presumably got them a room in the Manns’ house next door but his wife Mary clearly disliked Annie enough to harass, abuse and beat her in 1886. After that Annie disappears from the record, not surprising given the squalid and fractious conditions William had found for her. William doubtless suffered all the problems of readjusting to civilian life that have become familiar amongst today’s ex-service personnel. He certainly didn’t stay on in the Mann’s house because in 1891 he was on his own and lodging in the Star Inn in Mill Street. There were nine other boarders packed in with him in this back street pub. He claimed to be working as a plasterer, his old occupation. From then on he went downhill and by 1901 he had sunk to the bottom. In that year he was a pauper incarcerated in the Cannock Union Workhouse ten miles from Stafford. He was less than fifty years old but described as ‘formerly plasterer’. The end came soon. He seems to have died in nearby Walsall in 1905.[10]

William Raftery’s life from being a child in the back streets of Stafford to his miserable end in the 1900s showed many signs of the dislocation that afflict the poor in any unequal society. He grew up in a family of Irish immigrants who had suffered the stresses of pre-Famine and Famine times and the upheaval of emigration. This multiplied his problems. His attempt to leave his background and find a new life in the army clearly failed to bring either ultimate security or fulfilling relationships. William Raftery was classically one of the chronic victims of the harsh environment of Victorian Britain.

[1] In January 1851 Thomas Raftery was summonsed for running an unregistered lodging house. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 1 February 1851

[2] Tithe Applotment Book, Co. Roscommon, 25/17 Kiltullagh Parish, National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

[3] E.g. SA, 24 April 1858, theft of clothing and articles by Maria Hughes, a lodger.

[4] SA, 31 August 1861.

[5] SA, 3 July 1875 and 4 September 1875.

[6] WO Chelsea Pensioners, British Army Service Records, 1760-1913, Attestation record of William Henry Raftary (sic), FindMyPast database accessed 15 February 2016. His height was five feet and his chest measurement was 34½ inches.

[7] Ibid.

[8] He may, of course, have been serving in home barracks to replace others soldiers from the regiment who were sent to Egypt. This account prefers to believe Annie, however.

[9] WO Chelsea Pensioners, British Army Service Records, 1760-1913, Attestation record of William Henry Raftary (sic), FindMyPast database accessed 15 February 2016.

[10] Deaths, Walsall Registration District, October-December 1905, 6b/403, William Rafferty (sic), aged 54. William Raftery is the only obvious candidate for this record, despite the variation in surname.