Martin Concar’s Burma War Pt. 2


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We saw in my last post that Martin Concar had fought in terrible tropical conditions in the Third Burma War of 1885-6. He had undergone experiences and conditions a world away from his early life in Stafford. Now, early in 1887, he was back home. What became of him?

The brief answer is that within just three years he was dead. The obvious question is whether his service in Burma contributed to that sad event. Before I consider the issue it is worth sketching out his life after his return to Stafford.

On 2 October 1887, within a few months of his return, Martin arrived at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford to get married. His bride was twenty year-old Julia Simpson, the daughter of a Stafford shoemaker who was (at least nominally) Protestant. It was yet another case of a ‘mixed marriage’ and potential ‘leakage’ from the Church that so worried the Catholic hierarchy in the late nineteenth century.[1] It had clearly been a rapid courtship and Julia may already have been pregnant when they were married. Almost exactly nine months later, on 6 July 1888, their son Thomas Patrick Concar was born.[2] Martin now had family responsibilities to cope with.

Concar Martin PN-5951 JH crop

Martin Concar, September 1879, shortly before he joined the army.

Martin and Julia seem to have begun their married life living near the Concar family’s old haunt in New Street. Marriage did not reform Martin, however. He was working as a labourer, the sort of unskilled job many ex-soldiers were forced to take. And he was still drinking. In November 1888 he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Eastgate Street in the town centre. The newspaper headlined the case ‘an ex-soldier in trouble’, something clearly worth reporting. There was a further twist to the incident because Martin was also charged with assaulting Mark William Bromley. It was alleged that he had ‘asked’ Bromley to leave the work he was doing and go to another job. Bromley refused and Martin hit him. It was said that he had already been in court for stealing a watch but also that he had been in the Army for some years.  It seems the magistrates showed leniency but he was still fined five shillings plus costs.[3]

That didn’t have any effect. A few weeks later he was back in court accused of being drunk and disorderly in Cross Street. That was close to his home because the paper noted his address as 43 New Street. This time the magistrates fined him ten shillings plus costs.[4]

Martin’s death

Clearly Martin Concar’s time in the Army had done nothing to curb his drinking and proneness to violence – indeed it seems to have worsened them. He was an ex-soldier, like many since, whose time in the Army ill-fitted him for life in Civvy Street and it may, indeed, have left him with traumas impossible to resolve. We just don’t know. What we do know is that thirteen months after his drinking spree in Cross Street Martin Concar was dead. He died on 20 February 1890 and the death took place, not in New Street, but in the house occupied by Julia’s parents in Sash Street.[5] We can speculate that Martin and Julia were forced to go there once he was unable to work and they were evicted from 43 New Street. A Dr. Greaves was summoned and he gave the cause of death as ‘Haemoptysis’. There was no inquest.[6]

Concar Martin death cert phshp

Martin Concar’s death certificate showing the ’cause of death’ as ‘Haemoptysis’.

Haemoptysis means the coughing up of blood or blood-stained mucus and Dr. Greaves’s statement was merely a description of symptoms, not a diagnosis of the underlying cause of death. As there was no suspicion of foul play or unnatural cause of death to worry the coroner, in those days Greaves could get away with such a limited description.[7] It does, however, leave us to speculate on what actually killed Martin Concar. There are many possible causes of haemoptysis. It could have been a sign of tuberculosis, a very likely illness for anybody living in nineteenth century Britain. As we know from its role in Victorian novels, however, death from T.B. usually took place after a significant period of ill-health. Martin Concar was clearly active and fit enough to work for a time after his return to Stafford and to get involved in drunken incidents, and although we cannot discount T.B. it seems less likely in his case. Furthermore, even a doctor as cursory as Greaves would probably have been able to diagnose T.B. because he would have seen so much of it. Other causes of haemoptysis can be bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer. It is possible that Martin was been laid low by some severe respiratory infection of the first two types about which no evidence survives, though, again, Greaves should have been able to identify the basic ailment in that case. Lung cancer would have taken longer to kill and was less likely for a relatively young man like Martin.

We are left to speculate as to whether Martin Concar’s death was ultimately due to something he picked up during his time in the Burma War. In my last post I noted the appalling rate of sickness among British troops during the campaign, with malaria, cholera, dysentery and ‘heat apoplexy’ being noted in the later report on the war.[8] Those were not maladies applicable in Martin’s case back in Stafford, however. One possible candidate might have been tropical eosinophilia, an infection caused by the parasitic worm wuchereria bancrofti. The disease is most prevalent in tropical parts of the world and particularly in India and South East Asia including Burma. Martin Concar would certainly have been exposed to it and a doctor like Greaves would have had no experience of seeing its symptoms which can, in any case, be confused with those of T.B. and bronchial asthma. I have to conclude, however, that the available evidence is not sufficient to firmly conclude the Burma War caused Martin’s early demise, though the suspicion remains that it may have done.

It is perhaps significant that Martin’s death certificate said his occupation was that of ‘general labourer’ but also added that he was ‘”An Army Reserve Man”’ (with the quotation marks). It suggests someone, presumably Julia, insisted that was added to the certificate, perhaps to emphasise his army service and its possible connection with his death. Having served just a single seven-year term, Martin would indeed still have been on the army’s books in the reserve, to be called up again if necessary. It does, of course, suggest that at the time of his discharge he had no obvious infirmity caused by his service in Burma. As we have seen many times since then right up to the present day, the Army had little interest in what happened to Martin Concar after he left the active lists. He was left to sink or swim, and in his case the outcome was not a happy one.

The aftermath

Martin’s death left Julia Concar née Simpson a widow with a young child to support. As mentioned previously the family had sought refuge with her parents in Sash Street before Martin died but she needed to work. Her occupation in the 1891 Census was that of ‘furrier’, a rather strange job but probably related to the Stafford leather and shoemaking trades. She didn’t need to stick at it for long, however. On 22 October 1892 she married Charles Bates.[9] In the 1891 Census he was a 29 year-old groom living with his brother, a cattle dealer, in North Street on the northern edge of town. Charles himself may have had a problematic life because it seems his parents both died young and he and other siblings grew up living in various relatives’ households. The Bates family generally were in the shoe trade and Charles had become a shoemaker by the time of the 1901 Census when he and Julia were living in Friar Street, the heart of the shoemaking district. By then they had had three children. Martin and Julia’s son Thomas Concar was still with them. Although he attended St Patrick’s school, his mother and stepfather were not Catholics and he lost, or repudiated, his Catholic background.[10] In 1910 he married Gertrude Dale at St Mary’s Anglican Church in Stafford.[11] The couple went on to have eight children and there are descendants in the Stafford area and elsewhere today, so in the end Martin Concar had a significant progeny despite his early death.

In the end things did not work out so well for Julia. She and Charles Bates had five children between 1895 and 1905 but sometime after 1905 Julia must have had some sort of mental breakdown because in 1911 we find her incarcerated in the County Asylum. Charles Bates was left at home in Friar Street with the five children, the oldest of whom, Florrie, had taken over maternal duties – ‘assisting at home’. Julia seems to have died in 1915.[12]

As the child of poor and bereaved Irish immigrant parents, Martin Concar grew up in difficult circumstances and had a short but problematic life. Others of his siblings weathered their background more successfully and some of Martin’s problems must have been a product of his particular personality and the ways he reacted to the environments in which he found himself. His time in the army was clearly pivotal. He was one of the many Irish and Irish-descended men in Britain who ended up in the forces expanding, more or less willingly, the British Empire overseas.[13] He was clearly a man of some spirit and courage who may well have retained a degree of Irish identity, provoked no doubt in part by stigmatisation of his family’s origins by some native Staffordians. His life was a microcosm of the stresses that can affect migrant families.


[1] Discussed in John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp. 288-289.

[2] England and Wales Registration Birth indexes, Stafford RD, Thomas Patrick Concar July-September 1888, 6b/10; Staffordshire Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, 1837-2017, Thomas Patrick Concar, birth 6 July 1888.

[3] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 24 November 1888.

[4] SA, 12 January 1889. The incident was on 30 December 1888.

[5] She and baby Thomas were living with them at 6 Sash Street at the time of the 1891 Census.

[6] Death Certificate, Stafford RD, 20 February 1890, Martin Concar, 6b/8.

[7] For this and this and the following comments I am indebted to discussion of Martin’s medical case with Dr. Richard Nelson of Chester.

[8] Intelligence Branch of the Division of the Chief of Staff, Army HQ, India, Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, (Simla, Govt. Monotype Press, 1907), p. 228.

[9] England and Wales Civil Registration Index, Stafford RD, Julia Concar and Charles Bates, 6b/29; England: Select Marriages 1538-1973, marriage 22 October 1892.

[10] St Patrick’s School Registers, 1884-1944. I am indebted to the late Roy Mitchell for his data on the school registers.

[11] England and Wales Civil Registration Index, Stafford RD, Thomas Concar and Gertrude Dale, October-December 1910, 6b/32; Staffs BMD Indexes, marriage at St, Mary’s Church.

[12] England and Wales Civil Registration Index, Stafford RD, Deaths, January-March 1915, Julia Bates, b. c1869, 6b/28.

[13] Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 215-220.

Martin Concar’s Burma War


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Martin Concar’s youth

Back in 2015 I outlined the troubled history of the Concar family in nineteenth century Stafford.[1] One person to whom that adjective certainly applied was Martin Concar who was born in Stafford in 1859, the third son of Patrick and Bridget Concar née Kenney. Despite contact with some of Martin’s descendants during this research, no photographs of Martin or indeed any of the nineteenth century Concars had come to light – until now. This photograph of Martin Concar has now been found through the index of the Stafford Gaol Photograph collection in the Staffordshire Record Office.[2]  It was taken on 27 September 1879 around the time of his release from a nine-month sentence in Stafford Gaol.

Concar Martin 031FED97C0C743B0B4F4B9A923438699

Martin Concar, aged 20. Photograph taken at Stafford Gaol, 27 September 1879 at the time of his release.

Martin Concar was a troubled teenager. His father, Patrick, had been a seasonal farm worker in the area before the Famine and he had been arrested in Ireland in 1845 for helping others to carry guns back to Co. Galway from Staffordshire.[3] He finally settled in Stafford during the Famine and in 1854 married Bridget Kenney. They proceeded to have nine children but life was a struggle. They were poor and always lived in a miserable house at 61 New Street in the north end of Stafford. Patrick ultimately gave up farm work and got a job on the railway but tragedy struck when he was run down and killed by a train in May 1874.[4] Bridget was left with a growing family to support and life at the New Street house became difficult. Within a year of his father’s death Martin was in court for assaulting ‘a little girl’ named Elizabeth Reddish. He was then nearly sixteen and described in the newspaper as ‘a disreputable-looking youth from New Street’, a classic form of press stigmatisation. No other details were given although Martin got a 5s. fine or 14 days in prison for the offence.[5]

Martin seems to have subsequently left home for a time and he continued to get into trouble. In late 1877 he was lodging at the Bull’s Head pub in Gaolgate Street. One of the other lodgers was a Martin Connelly and he misguidedly left his money – thirty shillings – in his waistcoat under his pillow. The next morning it was gone, stolen by Martin Concar who had done a bunk. He was quickly arrested and admitted the theft at the magistrates’ court. They gave him three months in prison with hard labour.[6] Six months later he was back in court, charged with being drunk and disorderly. The fine was five shillings plus costs.[7] Six months later again he was charged with the theft of a pair of boots from the slaughterhouse in Gaol Square where it seems he was then working. It was a pathetic crime, indicative of his poverty. The boots were found in his house – he seems to have been back in New Street – and he again admitted his guilt. He was, nevertheless, sent to the Staffordshire Quarter Sessions and because of his previous conviction he was given nine months imprisonment with hard labour.[8] Before he was released the prison authorities took the picture of him that has come down to us.

Martin Concar was clearly a difficult teenager who appears to have committed silly crimes with no thought of the consequences. It was probably inevitable that he would get involved in one of Stafford’s violent elections. In the 1880 general election campaign unruly mobs marauded round the town – there were reportedly 600-700 people in the Broad Eye alone. This election violence was irresistible to Stafford’s youths and Martin Concar was among them. He was one of twelve men subsequently charged with throwing stones on election day (2 April 1880) but, intriguingly, he also appeared in court as a police witness against the others. Martin was, of course, of Irish descent; all the other miscreants were clearly native Staffordians. Because of his past record, and perhaps his perceived ethnicity, the police probably leaned on him to accuse the others. It was reported, however, that ‘his evidence was unreliable’ and the cases were withdrawn against both him and six of the other accused. Even so, Martin must have made himself unpopular with others in his peer group and he decided it was time to get out of the town.

Martin joins the Army

Martin’s elder brother John Concar had already joined the army in 1876 and that was the inspiration Martine needed to escape from a hopeless life in Stafford.[9] It was common for young working class men with few prospects to join the forces. Their role in seizing and policing the expanding British empire (and holding Ireland) meant the army was always short of recruits and would take on pretty well anybody, no questions asked. Martin’s service record was unfortunately destroyed in the 1940 Blitz but we know from the Census in April 1881 that by then he had joined the 23rd Foot Regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was listed as a private in the 2nd Battalion stationed at Millbay Barracks in Devonport. Interestingly, he – or the soldier making the return to the enumerator – said he was born in Ireland. That could be because Martin wanted to cover his tracks from Stafford or was expressing pride in his Irish family origin. The memory of his father’s gun-running might still have lingered in the family.[10] We shall never know. We do know, however, that he carried on some of his old habits in the army because on 9 December 1881 he was up before a court-martial at the barracks. I do not have details of either the offence or the sentence (if any) because they are currently concealed by a paywall but it wasn’t an auspicious start to his army career.[11]

The 2nd Battalion remained in Plymouth until it was posted to Templemore, Co. Tipperary, in 1883. It may have been at that point that Martin was drafted into the 1st Battalion of the Regiment which was then serving in India.[12] Perhaps, as a identified Irishman, his loyalties were considered too suspect for a posting in Ireland. All we definitely know is that in late 1885 he and his battalion became part of the first wave of troops involved in the Third Burma War.[13] Martin Concar was therefore directly involved in the short but fairly squalid conflict that finally destroyed Burmese independence and brought that country under imperial rule.

The British had annexed what became Lower Burma in the wars of 1824 and 1852 but in 1885 the largest land area of the country was still in the hands of the independent Burmese monarchy. It was, however, subject to outside pressures from China and particularly France as well as from Britain. In the early 1880s the current monarch, Thibaw, actively favoured the French and sought to undermine, or even confiscate, the assets of the British-owned Bombay-Burma Trading Corporation which was exploiting teak wood resources in the kingdom. That was just the excuse the British needed to bring Burma to heal. On 22 November 1885 they issued an ultimatum demanding that the king suspend action against the trading company, accept more British representation in Mandalay and allow Britain to control the country’s foreign relations. The king ignored the ultimatum and the British invaded.

Blog - Martin Concar Burma map contrast

Burma from an atlas map dating from 1893, the immediate aftermath of the Third Burma War

Martin’s Burma War

Although it is now impossible to follow Martin Concar’s precise actions day-by-day in the Burma War, we can follow the Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ involvement in the Britain’s takeover of Burma and hence his likely involvement there. His battalion had been based at Dum Dum near Calcutta since 1881 and around 21 October 1885 he was among 3000 British and 6000 Indian troops who embarked at Calcutta (and Madras) for the sea voyage to Rangoon. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers formed part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade along with two units of Bengal Infantry. On 8 November 1885 his battalion boarded the steamer Aloung Pya and the two barges (‘flats’) it was to tow. They were part of an invasion flotilla of 57 craft which set off up the River Irrawaddy. Their objective was ‘a coup to paralyse national resistance in Upper Burma by the capture of Mandalay and the deportation of King Thibaw, rather than a regular invasion.’[14] It was a week before the cooped up and sweating troops on the vessels actually crossed the frontier into Upper Burma. The only significant resistance occurred at Minhla and the British rapidly subdued it. 150 Burmese troops were killed and 276 taken prisoner, with unknown others being drowned in the river trying to escape. Many of the survivors headed off into the jungle with their weapons and they were to cause the British many subsequent problems. The town of Minhla was burnt to the ground, the blaze supposedly started by a stray shell.

Concar mindhla_after_capture1885

Dead Burmese troops with British forces looking on after the attack on the Minhla battery, November 1885. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

The capital of Upper Burma, Mandalay, was reached on 28 November 1885. Martin’s brigade marched up from the river and secured the northern and western gates of the city and then the gates of the Royal Palace. There was no resistance. Next day the formal surrender took place and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers closed the rear of the procession which then escorted King Thibaw and his queen down to the river and into exile. The independent Burmese kingdom was annexed by Britain as from 1 January 1886.[15]

Concar British_forces_arrival_mandalay1885

The British arrival at Mandalay, 28 November 1885. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Martin’s battalion remained in Mandalay for the initial phase of British rule and Martin would have seen, and perhaps participated in, a wave of officially organised theft that must have made his own petty crimes seem insignificant. The British carried out organised looting of both the royal palace and the city of Mandalay and set up a ‘Prize Committee Mandalay’ to dispose of government possessions either by auction or by straight confiscation back to Britain. Many valuable metal items were destroyed.[16]

Britain’s swift military victory did not end resistance to the imperial takeover, however, and Martin was among the troops sent to deal with the aftermath of insurgency (or ‘dacoitry’). In Mandalay itself disorder and looting broke out once the Burmese population realised the old royal government had ceased to exist. Then the Chinese threatened to seize the town of Bhamo on Burma’s north-eastern border and half of Martin’s battalion was sent to occupy that town. It meant a further boat journey of over 200 miles up the higher reaches of the Irrawaddy River. The rest of the battalion was then sent to occupy the town of Shwebo near Bhamo and in January 1886 they put down an uprising in that district. The battalion then spent the rest of the year in this hill-forested area which stretched north to Myitkyina and the jungles of the Kachin territory. It was later to become a strategic area in the Burma campaign of the Second World War as the gateway to north-east India and China. Small garrisons of Fusiliers were quickly left to defend occupied settlements but by April 1886 insurgency was breaking out all over Upper Burma. Martin’s battalion was involved in at least nine engagements between then and July.[17]  The British continued to pour reinforcements into the country and by July 1886 there were 32,720 troops and police on the ground, although the field force only averaged about 13,000. [18]  The jungle fighting was arduous against elusive foes and, as a result, the British resorted to collective punishments of Burmese inhabitants’ villages, something not recorded in the official history.[19]

For a young recruit like Martin Concar, conditions in Burma must have been a shocking contrast with those at home but may well have encouraged his tendency to drinking, violence and petty crime. He had to cope with the heat, the humidity, the strange and sporadic food and the mysterious and often hostile people. Early on it was reported that ‘boots became perished in mud and water and fell to pieces after a few weeks’ wear.’[20]   They often had to make do and mend because supplies didn’t get through. The biggest danger Martin faced was not, however, leaky boots or dacoits but disease. It was reported that in July 1886, out of 13,000 field troops, 3053 were ‘ravaged by disease’, mainly malaria, cholera, dysentery and ‘heat apoplexy’.[21] The longer Martin and his comrades stayed, the more likely they were to die. In the end his battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was withdrawn back to Lucknow in India around December 1886. They had been in Burma just over a year.

Concar Martin medal front

A Burma 1885-7 medal, the one that Martin Concar received after his army service.

For their sacrifices the troops who fought in the Third Burma War were awarded a campaign medal and clasp. The detailed list of recipients survives and it shows that there were 1023 decorated troops in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and among them was Martin Concar.[22]  His entry also shows that by September 1887 he had served out his contracted seven year term in the army and already been discharged. His address was noted as 61 New Street, Stafford. He had gone back home.

What happened to Martin Concar after his return to Stafford will be described in my next post.


[1] Blog posts of 29 September and 13 October 2015.

[2] Index to the Stafford Gaol Photograph Albums, 1877-1916, part of the online Staffordshire Name Indexes project. I am indebted to Robert Walker, a Concar descendant, for drawing my attention to Martin’s photo. The image is reproduced with permission of Staffordshire Record Office and the Staffordshire Name Indexes website can be found at and main website at:

[3] See my blog on 3 March 2015.

[4] Stafford Borough Burial Record 03/4839, Patrick Concar, killed Madeley Station, LNWR.

[5] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 13 February 1875.

[6] SA, 5 and 12 January 1878.

[7] SA, 29 June 1878.

[8] SA, 21 December 1878 and 4 January 1879 and Calendar of Prisoners tried at the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, Stafford, 30 December 1878, HO140, Piece no. 48, Ancestry.

[9] John Concar, service record, FindMyPast, accessed 29 February 2015. John was in the 64th (North Staffordshire) Regiment for twelve years and after being pensioned off he returned to Stafford, worked at the Asylum and was active in the sporting life of the town.

[10] It could also reflect the prejudiced attribution of Irish ethnicity by an outsider, but overall the entries for the Battalion seem conscientious and accurate and so the birthplace information is probably that which Martin gave.

[11] UK Naval and Military Courts Martial Registers 1806-1930, Martin Concar, Trial Date: 9 December 1881, Place: Devonport, Regt.: 23rd Foot, Ref.: WO86/29, Ancestry.

[12] British Armed Forces and National Service website (, Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ deployments, accessed 9 April 2020.

[13] Families in British India website (FIBIS)( Upper Burma Field Force, accessed 9 April 2020.

[14] Intelligence Branch of the Division of the Chief of Staff, Army HQ, India, Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India, (Simla, Govt. Monotype Press, 1907), (‘Intelligence’), p146.

[15] Intelligence, pp. 147-162.

[16] Wikipedia, Third Anglo-Burmese War, (, accessed 5 April 2020). This source is incompletely referenced but nevertheless comprehensive and apparently knowledgeable. It is critical of the British role.

[17] Intelligence, pp. 202-215.

[18] Intelligence, p. 230.

[19] Wikipedia, Third Anglo-Burmese War.

[20] Intelligence, p. 149.

[21] Intelligence, p. 228.

[22] National Archives, WO100/70, First Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Medal Roll, Operations in Burma, 1885-7, certified at Lucknow on 14 September 1887 and 27 March 1888, Ancestry, UK Military Campaign Medals and Award Rolls, 1793-1949, accessed 20 April 2020. Of the 1023 troops, 33 were officers and the rest NCOs and privates. Martin Concar remained a private at the end of his term in the army.

A battered wife: Dr William Clendinnen, Part 2


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In my last post I looked at William Ellis Clendinnen’s earlier career in Ireland and in the West Midlands of England. It had culminated in the rape of Margaret Turnbull in the small Shropshire village of Cheswardine. That court case ended with Clendinnen’s acquittal. Both the legal system and the local establishment had worked to give the Irish doctor the benefit of the doubt and he was able to move on to become Stafford’s first medical Officer of Health (MoH). Events were to prove, however, that behind the professional front Clendinnen was, and remained, a violent man.

Clendinnen’s miserable salary as MoH – initially £50 p.a., later increased to £100 – meant he had to get more money wherever he could. He established his own medical practice in the town but found it difficult to break into the market for lucrative clients. Work among the poor was mainly his lot, a recorded example being when he was summoned to a filthy house in Appleyard Court to find twin babies dead, one stillborn and one from neglect. The mother was said to be ‘a drunken woman.’[1] He was elected as a Church of England candidate to the School Board and in 1883 was thanked for making no charge for certificates of ill-health needed by parents too poor to pay.[2] He also earned some money as surgeon to the 25th Staffordshire Rifle Volunteers and as medical officer to the new fire brigade.[3] The suspicion must be, however, that the family survived primarily on Sarah Pritchard’s private means, and this was inherently problematic.

Clendinnen proved to be a vigorous MoH. Stafford’s sanitary state in the 1870s was appalling. The town’s inhabitants had to put up with polluted water supplies, sewage running in the streets, an erratic rubbish collection system and a lot of slum housing in the inner parts of the town. The committee Clendinnen served were often reluctant to carry out his recommendations if they needed money, penalised landlords or demanded the closure of their properties.[4] Within a month of his appointment he had done a house-to-house survey of sanitary conditions and found a ‘truly deplorable state of things.’ His first annual report chronicled a ‘wretched state’ with ‘ashpits full to overflowing …. impurity of water’ and water having to be carried half a mile to houses in Eastgate Street. There was dreadful pollution by sewage.[5]He immediately and successfully set about replacing ‘the foul middens and reeking cess-pools’ by the Rochdale pail-privy system in which excreta was removed in sealed tubs to a sanitary depot outside the Eastgate.[6] Clendinnen felt this system was preferable to water closets and advocated it to his professional colleagues in the Midlands.[7] A mains drainage system was begun though it was not completed until well after Clendinnen’s time.

A battered wife

Though his salary was poor, Clendinnen’s work put him in the public eye and he established his position in Stafford’s social elite. He was an associate of another Protestant Irishman, Hugh Gibson, in the affairs of the Liberal Party.[8] All of this hid, however, a family life that had been broken and violent for years.

It all came to a head on 30May 1884. William Clendinnen

‘came home at about three o’clock in the p.m. He struck [his wife Sarah] several times and kicked her on the back and attempted to strike her with the handle of a broom, but the servant threw herself in the way and succeeded in getting possession of it. In consequence of his harsh treatment on that occasion, and during the last eighteen years, she was afraid of the defendant and prayed for a judicial separation and that she might have custody of the children.’[9]

That statement in the magistrate’s court laid bare William Clendinnen’s behaviour towards his wife throughout the eighteen years since their marriage in 1866. It was so bad that ‘she was afraid’ of him. The doctor made no attempt to contest her allegations and agreed to the judicial separation and also to her custody of the children.

Temperance and DV_0 crop

William Clendinnen’s attack on Sarah Clendinnen on 30 May 1884 must have looked much like this, with his children caught up in the attack and the servant rushing in to pull him off the battered Sarah.

Coupled with the rape of Margaret Turnbull in 1869, we see evidence here of a violent and oppressive man, the ultimate in Victorian male domination. It seems clear he married Sarah for her money and that he despised, battered and degraded her. He primarily used women as sexual objects. The children had been battered as well – a charge of assault against his daughter Evelyn was withdrawn at the same hearing.

But why did Sarah dramatically expose matters in 1884 and demand separation? There are two likely reasons. One was that three of her children were now in their teens and were able to give Sarah backing to finally make the break. They were also potentially able to fight back.  Friends at Church may also have given her support. The other reason was the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Until 1883 the law had given William Clendinnen, as husband, absolute ownership and control of his wife’s assets, even those acquired before marriage.[10] Sarah’s independent means were vital to the couple’s domestic economy and if she had tried to get out of the marriage earlier she would have been left penniless. Under the 1882 Act she regained ownership and control of her assets and could realistically set up an independent home for her children. The events of 30 May 1884 must have been traumatic for Sarah, her children and the servant, but they proved the trigger for action. Sarah showed, nevertheless, considerable courage in pursuing the case through the Magistrate’s Court. We know only too well today that many women are too afraid and intimidated to give evidence against their partners in domestic violence cases.

Origins and gender relations

The revelations of 1884 ended Clendinnen’s career in Stafford. The change was not immediate – he continued to carry out public functions for some months and in November 1884 even proposed a toast at the Mayoral banquet.[11] That shows he must have had a thick skin, but also that there was a residue of respect for him amongst the social elite. He finally resigned from his post as MoH in the same month, however. It was said that he had discharged his duties ‘most efficiently’, although one councillor said his final salary of one hundred pounds was ‘exceedingly high’[12] He left Stafford early in 1885 and went to Australia where he did insurance medicals in Perth. That lasted no more than a year. In May 1886 he went on a kangaroo hunt and fell from his horse, sustaining fatal injuries. He died a poor man – his personal estate was just five pounds.[13]

We cannot know the origins of William Clendinnen’s character and behaviour. They may have been inherently pathological. He seems to have related effectively to outsiders in his public and professional life. As MoH he successfully convinced the councillors to implement many of his policies. Even so, his origins amongst the Anglo-Irish of Co. Carlow were probably significant. Clendinnen was brought up in a family that appeared securely part of the lower reaches of the Ascendancy, but his youth coincided with the Ascendancy’s increasing loss of self-confidence following Catholic Emancipation.[14] He came of age in the troubled aftermath of the Famine. His life choices were conditioned both by the general uncertainty latent in his social class and by the specific difficulties faced by newly trained doctors in Ireland. His choice was to leave but it was probably a reluctant, perhaps embittered, departure. He faced major problems becoming established in England and his marriage to Sarah Pritchard was one of convenience to secure his income. He was probably resentful and embittered that his achievements after emigration were merely poorly paid jobs in obscure parts of the Midlands.

Clendinnen’s marriage exposes how male domination, control and even violence had been reinforced by the law in Victorian England. Reform of the situation to help people like Sarah Clendinnen was no foregone conclusion. Many MPs supported the changes brought by 1882 Act only because they saw marital violence and abuse of property as an affliction of the poor caused mostly by drink.[15] The Clendinnen case demonstrates the essential truth that such behaviour also occurred amongst the middle and upper classes. Although Sarah was initially a secure, probably confident, middle class English woman, she was trapped in her marriage and the victim of William’s personal, social and professional frustrations. He would have resented depending on his wife’s income because he saw it degrading his masculinity. Perhaps Sarah harped on about it. The superficial trappings of middle class respectability hid a household so dominated by enmity and violence that it must have been endlessly traumatic for the wife and the children.

A scattered family                                                  

Sarah Clendinnen’s misfortune might have led her to desert Stafford, but she had in fact put down roots and remained in the town for some years after William’s departure and death. Her children were reaching adulthood in the late 1880s and early 1890s and their careers diverged markedly. None entered the medical profession, a clear rejection of their father’s path. Evelyn, the first born, emigrated to Southern Rhodesia and married the editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle.[16] Bertram William (b. 1870) also left Britain and had an adventurous career in Canada and the USA. He died in San Diego, California, in 1942.[17] It is clear, then, that two of Clendinnen’s children wanted to escape from Stafford. It was otherwise with Alfred Clendinnen (b. 1875). He remained at home to support his mother and trained as a pharmaceutical chemist. In the 1890s he found work on Merseyside and mother and son moved to Seacombe on the Wirral. They lived in that area for the rest of their lives, Sarah dying in 1930 and Alfred, who ultimately married, in 1943.[18]

The connection between Stafford and all but one of the Clendinnen family lasted for about twenty years before they moved elsewhere. That pattern would have rendered the family ‘long-term transients’ if it were not for Sarah’s third-born child, Ernest (b. 1872). He remained at home during the 1890s and became a post office clerk and telegraphist. When Alfred and Sarah moved to Merseyside, Ernest stayed on in Stafford. In the 1890s and 1900s he was a keen sportsman and was involved in running various sports clubs. He integrated into Stafford social life.[19] More interestingly, he also seemed to reject key aspects of his father’s identity. On 18 January 1896 he attended the County Conservative Ball in the Borough Hall. It was attended by many of the town’s Catholic elite. A week later he was at the Catholic ‘Cinderella Dance’ at the same venue, hobnobbing again with many of the elite from St Austin’s Church. Although these events were attended by non-Catholics, it does show Ernest Clendinnen was happy to associate with both Tories and Catholics, a radical and conscious break with his father’s Liberal and Anglican position. In 1904 he married the daughter of a farmer from Dawley in Shropshire and the family’s connection with Stafford was ultimately broken in the Inter-war period.

The mixed ethnic character of William and Sarah’s family unit held little significance for the identity of their children. They can have had little pride or even interest in their father’s heritage – indeed, their identity was probably formed partly in opposition to what and where he represented. The history of the Clendinnen family demonstrates how the trajectories of even apparently favoured Irish immigrants were unpredictable and the results complex. A favoured Protestant background in Ireland was no guarantee of smooth integration into English society.

  1. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 9 June 1877.
  2. SA, 13 March 1880 and 6 January 1883.
  3. SA, 10 October 1874, 13 July 1878, 1 February 1879.
  4. SRO, D1323/B/4, Stafford BC Sub-Sanitary Committee minutes, 10 September 1874; D1323/C/4/1 Stafford B.C. Public Health Committee minutes, 17/28 November 1876, 31 December 1876, 9 January 1877.
  5. SA, 6 February 1875.
  6. M. W. Greenslade et al., Victoria History of the County of Staffordshire, Vol. VI, A History of Stafford, (London, Institute of Historical Research, 1979; 1982 reprint), p. 232; G. Timmins, ‘Work in progress: back passages and excreta tubs; improvements to the conservancy system of sanitation in Victorian Lancashire’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Vol. 161 (2013), pp. 60-1.
  7. Birmingham Daily Post, 7 July 1876: Birmingham and Midland Association of Medical Officers meeting.
  8. SA, 23 October 1880 and 22 November 1881.
  9. SA, 19 July 1884.
  10. A. Hudson, Equity and Trusts, (London, Routledge-Cavendish, Sixth Edition, 2010), p. 711.
  11. SA, 8 November 1884.
  12. SA, 15 November 1884.
  13. West Australian, 27 May 1886, ‘A sad end’; reference and information kindly supplied by Pat Bird, August 2019. England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration, 1858-1966), Personal Estate of William Ellis Clendinnen: administration granted to Sarah Clendinnen, 29 February 1888, Ancestry Database accessed 17 March 2013.
  14. R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 306-7.
  15. B. Griffin, ‘Class, gender and Liberalism in Parliament, 1868-1882: the case of the Married Women’s Property Acts’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1 (March 2003), pp. 59-87.
  16. SA, 25 May 1895.
  17. US Army Register of Enlistments: 16 November 1895: discharged 15 November 1898, Ancestry Database, accessed 28 May 2013. Canada: Soldiers of the First World War, 1914-18: attestation 23 September 1914. SA, 27 March 1915, Ancestry Database accessed 28 May 2013. California Death Index 1940-97: Bertram William Clendinnen, San Diego, 12 October 1942, Ancestry Database accessed 28 May 2013.
  18. England and Wales Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration): deaths of Sarah Clendinnen, 28 May 1930 and Alfred Ellis Clendinnen, 20 February 1943, Ancestry Database accessed 9 May 2013. The Clendinnens had a fifth child, Minnie Laurette, born in 1877, but she died in 1878.
  19. SA passim., e.g. 24 March 1894, 1 October 1898 and 15 March 1902.

Rape: Dr William Clendinnen, Part 1


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The emigration of professional Irish people, predominantly Protestants, in the nineteenth century has been little studied by historians but would generally be seen as unproblematic both in terms of migration’s impact on them and their impact on receiving societies. My study of the Irish in Stafford has already shown that this was not necessarily the case for Protestants and this blog post emphasises the point. Its subject proved to have a problematic life in Britain, the explanation for which must be sought in a combination of his Irish origins and his individual character.

The Clendinnen family arrived in Stafford in 1874 because William Ellis Clendinnen had been appointed the borough’s first Medical Officer of Health (MoH).[1] He was from Co. Carlow but his family originated in Co. Down and, before that, from south-west Scotland. The Clendinnens settled in St Mary’s Grove in the town centre and on the surface seemed to be a respectable professional family. There was a darker side, however, and the family’s history encapsulates Victorian male domination, sexual exploitation, domestic violence and women’s rights in marriage. Clendinnen was ultimately forced to resign his post in 1884 after just ten years in Stafford and he emigrated to Australia. A descendant of his residual family nevertheless stayed on in Stafford and remained in the town for over fifty years.

Too many Irish doctors

In the nineteenth century an Irish doctor was more likely to emigrate than an Irish labourer. More than half the doctors who trained in Ireland between 1860 and 1905 subsequently left the country. Of those who emigrated just over half ended up practicing in Britain and another quarter were in the British military.[2]

William Ellis Clendinnen was, therefore, part of a massive outflow of members of the medical profession from Ireland. It was caused by complementary forces. The first was a substantial increase in the output of Irish medical schools because of the establishment in 1845 of the Queen’s University with colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway. They offered medical education to a wider spectrum of applicants, particularly Catholics, than Trinity and the Royal Colleges.[3] The second factor was, however, the chronic lack of openings for doctors in Ireland. The poverty of the country meant that incomes from private practice were low. Jobs in the Poor Law and dispensaries were limited and the pay very poor. There were, in other words, strong ‘push’ factors encouraging Irish doctors to leave. On the ‘pull’ side of the equation, opportunities were increasing abroad because of population growth, the development of public health initiatives, charitable hospitals and limited contract medical services in industrial areas. The expansion of the British empire and the role of the British military in policing it also offered opportunities.[4]

Despite apparent openings in Britain, it was not easy for Irish doctors to establish themselves there. The profession was snobbish and nakedly competitive. Outsiders from Ireland were seen as a threat and encountered prejudice, particularly in England. Immigrant doctors often lacked both the money and the contacts to obtain lucrative private practices, whilst jobs were limited in the small public sector and in contract work. The salaries were mediocre. Catholic doctors trained at the unfashionable Irish colleges found it particularly difficult to get work in England.[5]

William Ellis Clendinnen’s career illustrates many of these general points. A forbear, William Clendinnen (or Glendinning), had moved from Dumfriesshire to Co. Down in the mid-eighteenth century. His son or grandson John Clendinnen (b. 1770) became a Wesleyan minister and was sent to Co. Cork and subsequently to Co. Carlow.[6] He married Mary Charlotte Ellis who had been born in 1772 in Wexford and was to be the source of William Ellis Clendinnen’s middle name. Their son William (b. 1804) became a doctor and practiced at Hackettsown, Co. Carlow.[7] He married Lydia Deaker, also a Wexford woman and the couple had at least twelve children, though only about half survived to adulthood. One was William Ellis Clendinnen who was born in 1838. Although the Clendinnens’ background was Ulster-Scots, by the 1830s the family was more characteristic of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy with their apparently secure medical practice, country dwelling at Clonmore Lodge and a religious switch to the Church of Ireland.[8] William Ellis’s sense of self was gained in these surroundings and they seem to have produced a self-confident domineering man. He trained mostly under his father and in 1865 received the Licentiate of Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin. In the same year he won the more prestigious Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.[9] At that point he, like many other doctors, took the decision to leave Ireland.


Clendinnen came to England around 1865. The first we know of his arrival is when he got married in Birmingham on 20 September 1866 to Sarah Pritchard, a twenty-eight year-old woman of independent means. We do not know why Clendinnen went to Midlands. His father may have had contacts in the area or perhaps it was a convenient and less competitive destination where he could get his foot in the door by doing locum work. It is also unclear how Clendinnen met Sarah, but events were to show that he was probably more attracted by her money than by her looks or by love. All we do know is that by 1867 the couple had arrived in Cheswardine, a village about three miles from Market Drayton and deep in the Shropshire countryside.[10] William had managed to buy a small country practice there, but their income was probably no more than £300 a year.[11]

Superficially it seemed as though Dr and Mrs Clendinnen were establishing themselves well. They lived in the centre of the village Their first child Evelyn Lydia arrived in 1868 and Sarah became pregnant with Bertram in 1869. William’s aberrant behaviour then became apparent. His sex drive was probably frustrated by her pregnancy and it seems he saw women as bodies to be exploited.

Along the High Street in Cheswardine village was the Fox and Hounds Hotel. It still exists today as a very nice Joules Brewery pub. Between the 1850s and the 1880s it was kept by John and Harriet Turnbull. John Turnbull had been born in Co. Durham around 1803, but he became a builder and sometime in the 1830s he arrived in Shropshire. There he married Harriet Lockley, a woman from Hinstock about three miles from Cheswardine.[12] They moved to Cheswardine around 1847 and took over the Fox and Hounds in the 1850s.[13] By 1869 they were well ensconced as members of the local community. They had four children, one of whom was Margaret Turnbull.

fox_and_hounds_daffs2 02

The Fox and Hounds, Cheswardine, today. The Turnbull family were licencees from the 1850s to the 1880s.

In 1869 Margaret was a young woman of twenty-one and, as her mother subsequently admitted, ‘of rather weak intellect’.  On 28 September 1869 she was sent to Clendinnen’s house for some medicine for a Mr Wright and

‘was shown into the surgery; …. whilst there [Clendinnen] put his arm round her waist, and asked her an improper question respecting a farmer named Lee, of Soudley; …. he then took hold of her, carried her into an inner surgery, and committed the offence. ….. She told him she must tell them at home; and he said “For God’s sake don’t. If there is anything the matter I will make it alright with you afterwards”’. [14]

Clendinnen had raped Margaret Turnbull. His final comment was a clear reference to performing an abortion if necessary. Margaret did go home and tell her mother, a brave (or perhaps naïve) thing to have done given what we know today about the feelings of guilt and shame often felt by rape victims. Harriet and John Turnbull went straight to the police and Clendinnen was arrested. He appeared at the Magistrates’ Court in Market Drayton on 13 October 1869 and was sent to Shropshire Assizes six months later charged with the rape of Margaret Turnbull.

The case pitted the humble and mentally sub-normal Margaret Turnbull against the articulate upper class Clendinnen amidst the intimidating paraphernalia of the English court system. The Liverpool Mercury, in a brief but hostile report of the Magistrates’ Court proceedings, sneered that Margaret ‘may almost be called half-witted’.[15] There was no doubt, however, that sexual intercourse had taken place. At the Assizes this was confirmed by Dr. William Saxton from Market Drayton who had examined Margaret on 30 September 1869.[16] The question inevitably became: ‘was the sex consensual?’ It was alleged that Margaret could have screamed and would have been heard by Sarah Clendinnen and her servant. The servant said she had not done so. Dr. Saxton, who was a fellow Licentiate of Edinburgh University, went on with special pleading to say that he thought Clendinnen ‘had a nice practice, and he had never heard anything against his character before. There were no external marks of violence on the girl.’ The defence was, therefore, that the sexual intercourse had been consensual.

The outcome was inevitable. The Judge made a gesture towards Margaret by saying that ‘her alleged mental condition gave rise to peculiar circumstances, and they [the Jury] must not expect so much from her as they would from another person.’ He would, otherwise, have directed the Jury to find Clendinnen not guilty. The steer was, nevertheless, obvious and the Jury duly found Clendinnen not guilty, ‘at which there was considerable applause in a crowded Court’.[17]

The verdict was a clear miscarriage of justice. Margaret was presumably inarticulate in her own testimony, Harriet Turnbull was regarded as a mere publican’s wife, Clendinnen’s servant would have been intimidated and it seems Sarah Clendinnen gave no evidence at all. The testimony by Saxton could not ignore the basic fact of intercourse but the professional colleague still sought to portray Clendinnen in the most favourable light. The whole incident demonstrated how the English class system concealed the domineering, manipulative and potentially violent side of Clendinnen’s character.

What of Margaret Turnbull? The Turnbull family continued to run the Fox and Hounds in Cheswardine into the 1880s, although John Turnbull died in 1880.[18] Poor Margaret disappeared from the historical record, however. There is no evidence that she got married, died or moved elsewhere (perhaps to an institution), but the fact is that she had disappeared from the family home by 1881. Her sad life, damaged by William Clendinnen, remains a mystery

 Medical Officer of Health in Stafford

After his acquittal, William Clendinnen and his family stayed on in Cheswardine for a number of years. He was later to demonstrate again a remarkably thick skin, but his reputation in Cheswardine must have been tainted by the case. The situation would have been even more demeaning for Sarah. He therefore needed to find another job and he was helped by the passing of the 1872 Public Health Act. This set up sanitary districts and stipulated that they appoint a Medical Officer of Health (MoH). Stafford certainly needed one – sanitary conditions were appalling – but the Borough Council was dilatory and only made an appointment in August 1874. One of the councillors still ‘questioned whether the appointment would be of practical use in the town’, but William Ellis Clendinnen got the job. His salary was just fifty pounds a year, a miserable sum that emphasises the unattractive nature of such appointments and why Irish doctors desperate for jobs would take them.[19] His brother Joseph George Clendinnen took the same route and became MoH for the Sedgley Local Board in the Black Country.[20] His family became well established in the Midlands.

William Ellis Clendinnen had revealed himself in Cheswardine as a fundamentally unpleasant character. In the next post I shall carry the story further to look at his time in Stafford.


[1] This post is a revised and extended version of the discussion of William Ellis Clendinnen’s family in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp. 273-277.

[2] G. Jones, ‘”Strike out boldly for the prizes that are available to you”: medical emigration from Ireland, 1860-1905’, Medical History, 2010, Vol. 54, pp. 57-60 and Tables 1 and 2. 53 per cent emigrated and 52.3 per cent of those emigrating went to Britain with 25.8 per cent into the military.

[3] L.M. Geary, ‘Australia felix: Irish doctors in nineteenth-century Victoria’, in P. O’Sullivan (ed.), The Irish World Wide, Vol. 2: the Irish in the New Communities, (Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1992), pp. 166-7.

[4] L. Miskell, ‘”The heroic Irish doctor”? Irish immigrants in the medical profession in nineteenth-century Wales’, in O. Walsh (ed.), Ireland Abroad: Politics and Professions in the Nineteenth Century, (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2003), pp. 82-94.

[5] Miskell, ‘Heroic Irish doctor’, p. 85.

[6] This material on the earlier history of the Clendinnen family differs from that in Divergent Paths which was partly based on inaccurate information published by others online. I am indebted to Pat Bird for correcting the earlier account. Pat has carried out extensive research on the Clendinnen family of which his wife is a descendant and although there are still some uncertainties, what is stated here is the most accurate picture now available.

[7] General Medical Council, UK Medical Registers, 1867/1871/1879/1883/1887, Ancestry Database accessed 10 March 2013. In 1867 and 1871 both William and his father gave their address as Clonmore Lodge, Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, but Baltinglass was presumably the post town because Clonmore is closer to Hackettstown. The 1883 entry merely reads Hackettstown, Co. Carlow.  

[8] The marriages of William’s daughter Charlotte took place on 22 October 1856 at the Church of Ireland church in Clonmore.

[9] General Medical Council, UK Medical Register, 1883.

[10] The Times, 19 August 1867. Clendinnen of Cheswardine, Salop, reported as having passed the examination of Apothecaries’ Hall in London and received a certificate to practice.

[11] A. Digby, Making a Medical Living: Doctors and Patients in the English market for Medicine, 1720-1911, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), Table 5.2, p. 144.

[12] England, Select Marriages, 1538-1873: 15 November 1836, Hinstock, John Turnbull and Harriet Lockley.

[13] In the 1851 Census John Turnbull was listed just as a ‘builder’ but by 1861 he had become both ‘builder and innkeeper’, implying he took over the pub in the 1850s.

[14] Birmingham Daily Post, 24 March 1870.

[15] Liverpool Mercury, 14 October 1869.

[16] William Waring Saxton, licensed 1 January 1859. A Licentiate of London and the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. General Medical Council, UK Medical Registers, 1863, Ancestry Database accessed 16 January 2020.

[17] Birmingham Daily Post, 24 March 1870.

[18] Deaths, Market Drayton RD, April-June 1880, John Turnbull, 6a/187. Harriet Turnbull was still at the pub in 1881 but gave it up during the 1880s and retired to a cottage in the main street. She seems to have died there in 1899. Deaths, Market Drayton RD, January-March 1899, Harriet Turnbull, 6a/551.

[19] SA, 8 August 1874.

[20] See Birmingham Daily Post, 7 December 1882 and Reynold’s Newspaper, 6 January 1884.

The Walsh family: frustrated nationalists?


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Family connections: the Walshes and the Mannions

The Walsh family is unique amongst the Stafford Irish in leaving explicit evidence that it continued to identify with Ireland and Irish nationalist issues. Stafford’s social environment was unattractive to such people, and the Walshes ultimately left. Even so, they stayed in Stafford for over twenty years.

John Walsh, a Galway man, married Mary Mannion in Ireland in the late 1850s. The newly-established Walsh-Mannion partnership became a link in the chain migration of the extensive Mannion family from Co. Galway to Stafford. Most of the Mannions put down roots in the town, and many descendants of the family are still there today. The Walshes did not conform to the family pattern, however, and we need to examine why they broke the mould and emigrated.

Patrick Mannion was the family’s pathfinder. The Walshes and Mannions may have been victims of the Gerrard evictions in Co. Galway in 1846 (see my post on 17 June 2015).  Patrick Mannion was a labourer aged about forty whose wife had died during the Famine. In 1851 he was living in Raftery’s lodging house in Allen’s Court. That family came from Kiltullagh, Co. Roscommon, just over the border from north-east Galway. Patrick was still a seasonal migrant worker and during the 1850s his sons Patrick (b. 1836), Martin (b. 1839) and Michael (b. 1841) also came over for seasonal work.[1] In April 1861 Patrick father and son were in Edward Kelly’s lodging house in Snow’s Yard.

Mannion tree

The stem of the Mannion-Walsh family in Stafford

The economy of Stafford was buoyant at this time as farming prospered and the shoe trade expanded. That was the incentive for the Mannions to settle permanently in Stafford. Martin’s wife Ann and their young children Michael and Mary arrived some time in 1861.[2] Then Patrick Mannion’s daughter Mary came with her husband, John Walsh. They already had a son, Michael, who had been born in Ireland in 1860, but the couple went on to have seven more children in Stafford. In 1859 Patrick Mannion junior had married Kitty (Catherine) Kelly, a member of the Kelly family discussed in my post of 24 March 2015. Kitty seems to have returned to Ireland after the wedding, but she had settled in Stafford by the end of 1862 because her one-year old child died in the town. We see, therefore, that the Mannion and Walsh families’ process of settlement was drawn out, but from around 1863 there were three branches of the family living in Stafford, all of them initially in Snow’s Yard.

The Mannion family remained for many years an integral part of the deprived and sometimes violent Snow’s Yard community. We now need to see how and why the Walshes broke free from this problematic family embrace, left Snow’s Yard and ultimately emigrated. Answering these questions is not easy but a key element must have been the personal characters of John Walsh and Mary Mannion and how they responded to the challenges and opportunities facing them. All we know from the surviving evidence is that John and his family were feisty people who asserted themselves in pursuit of their interests and beliefs. As immigrants to Britain in the early 1860s, they had survived the worst of the Famine and its aftermath but had seen at first hand the burdens of landlord power, poverty and eviction. They had also been open to the nationalism of Daniel O’Connell, the Young Irelanders, the Tenants’ Rights movement and the early Irish Parliamentary Party. The Fenians were also starting their underground organization at this time. These forces for Irish identity seem to have influenced the Walshes much more than most of Stafford’s poor Catholic immigrants.

The Walshes’ independence 

Initially there was little to suggest the Walsh family’s trajectory would differ from that of their rough Mannion kin in Snow’s Yard. Soon after his arrival John Walsh was fined for assaulting John Kelly, a farm labourer from Galway. Although Walsh was a building labourer, he and Mary immediately began to making money by taking in lodgers. They ignored the legal regulations and in July 1862 John was fined for keeping an unregistered lodging house. Five years later he was in court again for not whitewashing or cleansing his premises in Snow’s Yard.

But John Walsh had another life on the building sites. There he stuck up for workers’ rights. In 1871 the trade unions’ ‘nine-hour day’ campaign swept the country like a bush fire, and John Walsh was involved in an incident in Stafford. [3] In August 1871 he and another Irish man, Thomas Carney, were charged with ‘molesting’ Isaac Rushton, a building foreman. The men were working for Francis Ratcliffe, a builder who employed many Irish workers and was also slum landlord. Rushton had ‘asked’ the workers on site to work overtime, but Walsh and Carney tried to get the men to stick to the nine-hour day. When they were present the men went along with them but they later capitulated under pressure from the foreman. Walsh and Carney responded with ‘a volley of abuses and threats’ against the workers and the foreman. They were charged under the new Criminal Law Amendment Act but avoided prison by agreeing to pay the expenses of the hearing.[4] The case would have confirmed John Walsh’s hostility to the power of the British ruling class both in Ireland and against workers in Britain.

John and Mary Walsh clearly wanted to leave the squalor of Snow’s Yard. The final incentive to get out came in 1877 when the family suffered a triple tragedy. Three of their young children, John (b. 1871), Stephen (b. 1872) and Margaret (b. 1875) died within two days of each other. They succumbed to fatal infections that spread easily in that overcrowded and rat-infested slum.[5] The event must have traumatized the family since there is every indication that John and Mary Walsh were conscientious and loving parents. By 1881 three of the surviving children had got jobs in the shoe trade and they showed every sign of upward occupational and social mobility. Their earnings contributed to the family income and bolstered its economic security. John himself must have managed a relatively secure income even in the precarious building trade.  All this meant that some time between 1877 and 1881 the family gave up the lodging house and shifted well away from Snow’s Yard. They moved into No. 34 Cooperative Street, a house located on the northern edge of town. Although it was next to the Workhouse, this was an area of new and solid bye-law housing mostly occupied by shoemakers and other artisanal workers. Almost all were English.

It was a massive step up for the family. To help with the costs they still needed to take a lodger and in 1881 they hosted a young Irish bricklayer’s labourer who probably worked with John Walsh. Even so, living in Cooperative Street meant they were able to create a civilized home in the house. Their move was not just geographical, however. It suggests they also wanted to distance themselves socially from their less respectable relatives in Snow’s Yard. Members of the Mannion family had numerous brushes with the law during the 1870s and 1880s, but the Walshes were never involved. The kinship bonds were breaking and there is no evidence that the Walshes felt any obligation to help their more deprived relations. The impression is of an independent and increasingly confident family anxious to move on to other things. For most such Irish families in Stafford this meant seeking respectability and acceptance by downplaying their Irish origins. The Walshes did the opposite – they publicly affirmed their Irish identity.

Frustrated nationalists?

In January 1881 Gladstone’s government introduced the Coercion Bill that would suspend habeas corpus in Ireland and threatened the mass internment of ‘suspects’. It was the government’s response to the campaign of the Irish Land League and the ‘agrarian outrages’ taking place during the Land War. In February there were fierce debates in Parliament, and Charles Stewart Parnell galvanised the Irish Parliamentary Party into unified and effective opposition. The Speaker’s response was to impose the first ever guillotine on debate, something described at the time as a coup d’état.[6] For Irish nationalists it was yet further evidence that the British would always bend the rules to repress Irish nationalism.

These events brought a small flurry of activity amongst the Irish even in Stafford, and John Walsh was at the centre of it. On 12 February ‘a numerously attended meeting’ was held at the Slipper Inn in the town centre. Walsh presided and proposed two resolutions:

‘That we, the Irish electors of Stafford, record our indignant protest against the Coercion Bill introduced by the so-called Liberal Government in order to place a weapon in the hands of the landlord-magistracy of Ireland to crush the just aspirations of a cruelly persecuted people.’

‘That we, the Irish electors of Stafford, tender our grateful thanks to the senior representative of this Borough (Alexander McDonald Esq.) for his noble advocacy and defence of the just claims of the Irish people, and we acknowledge the debt of gratitude due from us to that gentleman who, though suffering from recent illness, generously stood by our countrymen in combating the tyrannical Coercion Bill introduced by the so-called Liberal Government.’

The meeting passed the resolutions and agreed to form a branch of the Irish National Land League in Stafford.[7]

This was tepid stuff by the standards of militant Irish nationalism but it was, nevertheless, one of only two documented instances of clearly Irish nationalist political activity in nineteenth century Stafford. The other had occurred in 1876, also at the Slipper Inn, when there was a fight between different factions during an Irish Home Rule Association meeting. The ringleader was James Garra, ‘a tall stout-built young Irishman who for a number of years has been employed in and around Stafford’. [8] A farm labourer, he later settled in the Cannock area.[9] His presence reminds us that initially transient and short-term settled Irish people were always present in Stafford, although in diminishing numbers.

Walsh was clearly the instigator of the 1881 Land League meeting. It reveals his continuing identification with Ireland’s sufferings and that he was able to motivate others to show at least minimal support for action. The results would have disappointed him. There is no evidence that a functioning branch of the Land League was actually established in Stafford or that Walsh or anyone else publicly espoused the Irish cause again in the town. Although it was possible to get Irish Catholic workers, mostly the young and migrant, to attend political gatherings in pubs, the Stafford Irish and their descendants were too few and too thin on the ground to nurture committed and effective nationalist activity. The social environment was fundamentally unsupportive. Long-term settlement in Stafford meant rejecting overt involvement in the Irish national cause. There was no future in it. People had to move elsewhere if they wanted to retain and transmit such an Irish identity.

That is what John Walsh and his family did. Despite their obvious ability to succeed in Stafford, the family left the town and emigrated to America in 1886.[10] We must beware of imputing purely political reasons for this. They would have read the economic signs. The shoe trade was past its heyday and suffering from foreign competition.[11] West Midland industry generally was depressed in the 1880s, and many people from Staffordshire were emigrating.[12] The local newspapers had frequent advertisements for passages to the Americas and Australasia.[13] Even so, Stafford’s social scene was uncongenial to John and Mary Walsh. They had left the Irish environment of Snow’s Yard but they also rejected the move to English identity and social conformity shown by other aspirant and respectable Catholics. The Walshes reckoned they could do better elsewhere.

  1. Michael was subsequently a migrant farmworker in Staffordshire and Shropshire and never lived with the rest of the family in Stafford.
  2. The family was not present in the 1861 census but Ann’s baby Bridget was baptised at St Austin’s on 28 December 1861.
  3. H. Hunt, British Labour History, 1815-1914, (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1981), pp. 263-7.
  4. Staffordshire Advertiser, 12 August 1871.
  5. Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, 3/6010, 3/6011, 3/6015, 16/18 October 1877.
  6. Bew, Ireland: the Politics of Enmity, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.323-4.
  7. Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 February 1881.
  8. Staffordshire Advertiser, 23 December 1876.
  9. In the 1881 Census he was at Teddesley Farm, Teddesley Hay and in 1901 in Cheslyn Hay. He was not, however, present in 1891.
  10. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, Microfiche M237, Roll 498, Line 19, List no. 1111, arrival 13 September 1886, Mary Walsh (40), Bridget Walsh (8), James Walsh (4) and Bernard Walsh (3), from Liverpool aboard SS John Walsh presumably arrived ahead of his wife and children but has not been traced. Ancestry Database accessed 16 January 2014.
  11. Harrison, ‘The Development of Boot & Shoe Manufacturing in Stafford, 1850-80’, Journal of the Staffordshire Industrial Archaeology Society, 10, 1981; Alan Fox, A History of the National Union of Boot & Shoe Operatives, 1874-1958, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958), Chaps 9-13; Staffordshire Advertiser, passim, 1880s.
  12. Lawton, ‘Population Migration to & from Warwickshire and Staffordshire, 1841-91’, Unpub. MA thesis, no date (copy of Staffs section in William Salt Library, Stafford, William Salt Library TH48), Chap XII.
  13. g. Staffordshire Advertiser, 30 June 1883, when there were three advertisements for ships to Australia/New Zealand and five for the USA/Canada together with an advertisement by the New South Wales government for assisted passages.

The shocking death in Shugborough Tunnel


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The Disneys and Trench Nugent: career connections

In the last post I looked at how Lambert Disney came to have his head cut off by a train in Shugborough Tunnel near Stafford in December 1867. The outstanding feature of Disney’s life in Stafford was therefore his unfortunate death, but this post looks a bit further into his family and connections, and the significance of the case for the Irish immigrant story. [1]

Disney cuttimgs_0001

Extract from the report of Lambert Disney’s death in the Birmingham Daily Post, 16 December 1867

Disney had married Anna Frances Henrietta Battersby in 1835. The marriage took place at Laracor near Trim where the Battersbys were tenants of Lambert’s father Thomas in Freffans townland.[2] Disney owned almost all of Freffans but the Battersbys leased land extensively in the area and almost certainly operated as middlemen, renting in turn to Catholic sub-tenants. Lambert and Anna went on to have at least two children. The first was a daughter born in 1839 who was rather secretively listed in the 1861 census with only her initials – C.L.[3] The second was a son, Lambert John Robert, born in 1842. These children grew up at the family house, Clifton Lodge, in Athboy. They would have seen their father’s work during the Famine and also his serious illness afterwards. When he gave up his job as agent we can assume his employer gave Disney a gratuity, but he had to find alternative employment, and that meant leaving Co. Meath.

It was at that point that an associate, Trench Nugent, came to play a fundamental role in their lives. The Nugents were an extensive landed and military family from Co. Westmeath. Although Eyre Trench John Richard Nugent was born in Paris in 1820 to John Nugent, a colonel in the British Army, the Nugents held extensive land in Co. Westmeath close to Disney’s home in Athboy.[4] Indeed, Trench Nugent had a small property in Athboy.[5] The two men were associates in the same Ascendancy circle, but Nugent was even better connected. In 1848, for example, he was hob-nobbing with the aristocracy at a charity ball for Kells Fever Hospital.[6] Five years later, in May 1853, he was commissioned in England as a captain in the Second Regiment, Duke of Lancaster’s Own Militia at Preston.[7] That was Disney’s chance. Just nine months later, ‘Lambert Disney, gent.’ was commissioned into the same regiment.[8] Nugent had got him the job despite the fact that he had no recorded military experience. His contacts as well as his work as an agent handling money and accounts had come to his aid.

Militia Barracks crop

The Militia Barracks, Stafford, where Lambert Disney and Trench Nugent were based.

Disney was lucky that the British Militia regiments were being revived in the early 1850s since they provided undemanding jobs at various locations throughout the country. In 1856 Nugent was appointed Adjutant in the newly-embodied Second Staffordshire Militia and within a year he had found Disney a job there too as paymaster.[9] The family moved to Stafford.[10] We have here, therefore, an extreme case of how networks amongst the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy could smooth the passage of its members into positions in Britain. In 1861 the Disneys and Nugent were living next door to each other in Garden Street, a narrow but pretty and respectable street off the Wolverhampton Road.[11] Nugent himself moved into the local elite network and became committed to life in Staffordshire. On the night of the 1861 census he was socialising as a ‘visitor’ at Teddesley Hall, the seat of Lord Hatherton five miles outside Stafford. Also there was Hatherton’s son, Edward Littleton, the commander of the Militia and Nugent’s immediate superior. Nugent later became Master of the North Staffordshire Hunt and also a County Magistrate.[12] He remained single but it is clear that he merged the elite social network of Co. Westmeath with that of Staffordshire and integrated successfully and lucratively into the latter’s social life. He died in 1889, leaving a fortune of £13,327 (worth about £1.46 million at today’s prices). One of his executors was from Co. Westmeath in order to deal with his connections and inheritances there.[13]

Disney cuttimgs_0002

Trench Nugent in the Staffordshire elite, as described in the news item on his death in the Birmingham Daily Post, 7 May 1889.

The Disneys’ lives in Stafford

Members of the Disney family lived in Stafford for about eighteen years but, in contrast to Nugent, they ultimately proved to be long-term transients. They were never reconciled to leaving Ireland and to the loss of their respected status in the Meath community. They named their house in Garden Street ‘Clifton Lodge’ after their old home in Athboy, a clear sign of nostalgia for a lost past. There is little evidence that either Disney or his wife engaged with Stafford’s social scene or its organised religion. He did attend a ‘sumptuous and recherché’ Mayoral Banquet at the Swan Hotel in February 1867 but that is the total of the couple’s publicised activities.[14] That contrasts with Disney’s numerous recorded attendances at social and professional gatherings in Dublin.

By the time the Disneys arrived in Stafford Lambert was nearly fifty and Anna Henrietta forty-two. Given Lambert’s religious and class obsessions, we can assume that their gender roles were distinct with Anna performing the duties of a diligent but subservient home-maker. We have no specific evidence of their family relationships. The fact that Lambert stole away unseen in the middle of the night for his walk to Shugborough suggests his wife could not help with his depression and that they may not even have shared the same bed. Their daughter left home sometime after 1861 and she has not been traced subsequently. She may have emigrated.

Their son Lambert does seem to have had a loyal relationship with his father and, to some extent, followed in his footsteps. Just before the family moved to Stafford Lambert junior was commissioned as an ensign in his father’s Lancashire militia regiment. He transferred at that rank to the Staffordshire Militia but then joined the regular army. In 1858 he became an ensign in the 12th Regiment of Foot, but by 1861 he had transferred to the 69th Foot and become an instructor in musketry.[15] He subsequently served in India, Canada and Britain, as well as in Ireland. After twelve years’ service he bought himself out in 1871 but remained a lieutenant on the regiment’s reserve.[16]

Lambert Disney junior was serving in Britain when his father was killed. On the day after his death he arrived in Stafford to identify the body and support his mother. He was also anxious to preserve his father and family from the shame of suicide. That led him to write a letter the same day to The Times emphasising that ‘at the inquest the jury, on the most conclusive evidence, found a verdict of “accidental death”’.[17] He was responding to the paper’s first report of a ‘Mysterious Death’ which clearly hinted at suicide.[18] The letter’s tone was short, businesslike and unemotional. There is no specific mention of his father, just ‘the unfortunate accident’, and it suggests a stiff upper lip and, perhaps, a family in which relationships were stilted, even distant.

Four years later, in 1871, Lambert Disney junior was appointed Deputy Chief Constable of the Staffordshire Constabulary.[19] Local connections – presumably the Littletons or Nugent – must have helped get him the job. At the time of his appointment Disney was still single, and it is curious that in 1871 he was living in the Police Barracks alongside ordinary constables and sergeants. Why was he not living with his widowed mother in Clifton Lodge which was less than five minutes’ walk away? It suggests his relationship with his mother was not close, even in her lonely and declining years. She died just two years later aged only fifty-seven.[20]

Her son clearly wanted to leave Stafford once his mother had died in 1873. Within four months he had applied for the post of Governor of Swansea Gaol but was not appointed. He really wanted to get back to Ireland and in 1875 he succeeded by becoming Governor of Castlebar Gaol in Co. Mayo. After his years as a single man in the army and police force, Lambert junior then married a Dublin woman, Mary Isabella Dobbs, in 1881.[21] Tragedy was, however, to strike the family again. In December that year he became governor of Omagh Gaol in Co. Tyrone and he moved with his wife and new baby into the governor’s apartment at the Gaol. It proved to be his death warrant. The whole place was sitting in its own sewage – sanitary conditions were appalling. Within weeks Disney contracted typhoid and died.[22]

The heritage and identity problems of a Protestant family

The Disney family’s attitudes were determined by their original position in the commanding Anglo-Irish landed class that equated Ireland’s best interests with their own. An enforced move out of that secure position created stresses that ultimately shattered the family unit. They never seem to be reconciled to their exile from Ireland. Such a conclusion is often made in relation to Catholic Celtic emigrants but rarely in relation to Protestant ones. Yet the evidence clearly suggests it in relation to this family. They failed to settle in Britain for a number of reasons. Firstly, they experienced a drop in social status. They had enjoyed a privileged existence in Ireland as members of the Ascendancy but from a life networking with people at all levels of the Protestant establishment Lambert Disney descended to working in a back street barracks and dealing with the burghers of a small English town. Clifton Lodge in the Co. Meath countryside had been swapped for Clifton Lodge in a side street in Stafford. These changes must have been unpalatable to him and his wife.

Loss of status was the common lot of most Irish emigrants when they arrived in overseas destinations, and life was a struggle to rebuild in new and difficult circumstances. Things were usually far worse for the poor, Catholic and Celtic Irish. Protestants usually had an easier route to integration. So why did the Disney family remain apparent outsiders in Britain? The answer to this question must lie in the fundamental outlook of Lambert Disney and other members of his family. He was obsessed by perceived threats to his religion and his class in Ireland and in England. His practice of giving out religious pamphlets would not have endeared him to people in the barracks or the town and he was probably regarded as a crank. In 1866 he applied to be secretary of the Stafford Savings Bank but only received three out of twenty-three trustees’ votes and came bottom of their poll. That shows he had built up no significant constituency amongst the Stafford elite even though the Savings Bank had Protestant connections.[23] Finally, Disney may also have been suspicious of ‘corrupting’ influences in Stafford. That may explain why neither his wife nor daughter was recorded at social events in the town. The family remained aloof. Their son Lambert did make more of a go of life outside Ireland and even, for a time, in Stafford. Nevertheless, he had little commitment to it. After 1867 both Anna and Lambert Disney junior must have hated everything to do with the place. Anna Disney presumably died a depressed and broken woman, and after his mother had died Lambert junior wanted to get out and further his career back in Ireland.

The passage of Lambert and Anna Henrietta Disney through Stafford was affected profoundly by their attitudes and identities and it demonstrates how the influence of Irish origins was always mediated by the specific circumstances of the migrant family itself. The story of the Disneys and Trench Nugent shines a rare light on Ascendancy emigrants from nineteenth century Ireland.

  1. This post is a revised version of part of the Disney family story contained in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920 (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2016), pp. 225-229.
  2. Belfast Telegraph, 27 October 1835. I am indebted to Anne van Weerden for pointing me towards the marriage and Anna’s identity which had previously proved elusive. The marriage report called her Anne but the records in her later life stabilised as Anna. Land holdings from Tithe Applotment Books and Griffiths Valuation, Ancestry Database, accessed 18 June 2019.
  3. No other reference to this daughter has been found in the records – she disappears from history. She perhaps emigrated to escape the shame of her father’s suicide.
  4. Land holdings from Tithe Applotment Books and Griffiths Valuation, Ancestry Database, accessed 18 June 2019
  5. Griffiths Valuation, Co. Meath, Trench Nugent, Townparks (Athboy), ‘offices’ worth £10….., sub-let to James Walker. Ancestry Database accessed 10 February 2013.
  6. Freeman’s Journal, 21 November 1848.
  7. The Times, 18 May 1853.
  8. The Times, 15 February 1854; Preston Guardian, 18 February 1854.
  9. Birmingham Daily Post and Journal, 7 May 1889, obituary Colonel Nugent.
  10. Preston Guardian, 20 March 1858.
  11. In the 1861 census the house next door to Disneys’ was listed as ‘uninhabited’ because Nugent was at Teddesley Hall on census night. He was in residence in the 1871 census (schedules 158-159).
  12. Birmingham Daily Post and Journal, 7 May 1889, obituary Colonel Nugent.
  13. England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, Probate Office, Lichfield, Eyre Trench John Richard Nugent, probate granted 28 June 1889, Ancestry Database accessed 24 September 2013.
  14. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 2 February 1867.
  15. Morning Chronicle, 16 September 1857; Daily News, 27 October 1858; Caledonian Mercury, 20 May 1861.
  16. SA, 18 February 1882: death notice of Lambert Disney jr.
  17. The Times, 17 December 1867.
  18. The Times, 14 December 1867.
  19. SRO, C/PC/1/6/2, Staffordshire Police Personnel Register, 1863-94. No. 1182, Disney, Lambert John Robert, appointed 1 February 1871.
  20. Stafford BC Burial Record, 3/505, 17 April 1873, Anna Henrietta Disney.
  21. Dublin South RD, 1881, 2/613, Lambert Disney and Mary Isabella Dobbs.
  22. SA, 18 February 1882;
  23. SA, 20 September 1866. The chairman of the appointment panel was Rev. Thomas Harrison, the anti-Catholic vicar of Christchurch in Foregate Street.

A body on the line


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The death of Lambert Disney

At 6.30 am on Friday 13 December 1867 platelayer William Greatholder came upon a dreadful sight in Shugborough railway tunnel near Stafford. The still warm body of a man was lying between the rails with its head and one foot severed. At the ensuing inquest the driver of a luggage train, John Matthews, stated that he had entered the tunnel at 5.30 am and had felt a sudden jerk near the southern end. At Colwich he reported a problem with the track and Greatholder was dispatched to the tunnel to inspect it. There he made his gruesome find. The remains proved to be those of Captain Lambert Disney, paymaster of the 2nd Staffordshire Militia in Stafford.[1]

Herson Figure 8.1

Shugborough Tunnel where Disney met his death. In the dead of night he walked into this entrance of the tunnel. Near the far end, 777 yards away, he was run down by the train.

Lambert Disney came from a group – the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy of southern Ireland – who have been largely ignored in Irish migration. Writings on Protestant emigrants concentrate on the Scots-Irish of Ulster and particularly the Orangeism that many, though not all, brought to Britain. No study has been done of Church of Ireland adherents from the South who came to England in substantial but uncharted numbers. They lack historical visibility and it is generally assumed that their emigration was opportunistic and that they integrated easily into English life and culture. The Disney family contradicts that assumption. Their emigration came about through family crisis and their settlement in England was reluctant and uncommitted. They arrived in Stafford through Disney’s role in the militia, but the ultimate explanation for their insecurity and his death on the railway line must be sought from before as well as during his militia service.

Disney’s background in Ireland

Lambert Disney was baptised at Glasnevin, Dublin, on 28 August 1808, the son of Thomas Disney, a land agent. Although Thomas Disney’s large family normally lived in Dublin, they also had business interests and property in the Trim area of Co. Meath and from the 1820s increasingly seem to have resided there.  In the 1840s Lambert Disney himself held about 150 acres of land in Galtrim parish.[2]  The social networks of the Protestant Ascendancy always opened up opportunities and Disney benefited. By the late-1830s, he had become agent on the Earl of Darnley’s estate around the small town of Athboy, Co. Meath. His father had previously managed the Earl’s property in the 1800s.[3] In the 1830s the Earl was a minor and Disney first comes to notice when he tried to eject Thomas Anniskey, ‘a most wretched, squalid-looking old man’, from bog land near Jamestown. That demonstrates the easy and arrogant use of power that Ascendancy attitudes inculcated in men such as Disney. At the Quarter Sessions the eviction was held to be illegal.[4] In that time of agrarian unrest Disney was a likely target of hatred, even more so because he was also a local magistrate. In 1842 he was the victim of a ‘robbery of daring boldness’ when his horse and harnesses were stolen from his residence, Clifton Lodge, at Athboy.[5]

Clifton Lodge Athboy house crop

Clifton Lodge, Athboy, Co. Meath, the residence of the Disney family in Ireland. When Lambert Disney moved to Stafford he named his house Clifton Lodge in memory of his previous home but the Stafford house was much smaller and less grand.

More positively, in 1843 Disney got the Earl’s guardians to agree a twenty-five per cent reduction in estate rents, ‘an act of great liberality’.[6] During the Famine he was chairman and treasurer of the Relief Committee in the Barony of Lune, based at Athboy.[7] He undoubtedly worked hard but with mixed objectives. On the one hand he pursued the local public works programme with vigour in order to get at least some money into the hands of local people and keep them on the land. On the other hand he operated the Darnley estate’s ‘landlord-assisted’ emigration policy to get rid of ‘surplus’ tenants. Some ended up destitute in Quebec when his agent there failed to give them the promised start-up money.  ‘No blame can fairly be attached to me’ was his off-hand response when the issue was publicised.[8] It seems clear, however, that the exertions of the Famine period sapped Disney’s health and in the end he was the victim of a ‘severe and protracted’ illness which led him to give up his duties in 1850.[9]

There was another facet to Disney’s character, however, which was to lead more specifically to the railway track in Shugborough Tunnel. His Anglo-Irish Protestant background put him continually on the defensive against perceived threats to his status and religion. That was common in people of his class, but Disney seems to have so internalised the politics of Irish religion and class that it ultimately gnawed at his whole being. The evidence is fragmentary but telling. In the second half of the 1830s, in an attempt to head off the Repeal movement, the Irish government pursued policies to move respectable Catholics into positions of influence that were previously reserved for Protestants , such as the magistracy. This ‘green’ shift was also associated with attempts to undermine the Orange Order. The Protestant landlord class accused the government of attacking property rights and showing dangerous signs of weakness towards rural crime and popular movements.[10] On 24 January 1837 a ‘grand aggregate meeting of the Protestant nobility, gentry, clergy &c of Ireland’ was held at the Mansion House, Dublin, and ‘Mr Lambert Disney of the County of Meath’ was there on the platform amongst scores of others. He publicly gave support to a plethora of speeches and resolutions that repeated the mantras of ‘no surrender’, ‘preserving life and property’, ‘our Protestant institutions menaced’ and so on.[11]

Disney’s attendance at the meeting in Dublin shows he carried the baggage of Protestant ruling class insecurities in nineteenth-century Ireland. It does not prove he was mentally obsessed by these issues, however. For that we have to turn to other evidence. In 1844 he filed a libel suit against the proprietor of the Athlone Sentinel alleging that the latter had published a fake letter ‘with reference to the private concerns of Mr Disney and his political and religious tendencies and his conduct in relation to the tenantry of the Ballyleeran estate’ of which he was agent.[12] No smoke without fire. It seems that Disney’s obsessions were widely known.

Other evidence survives from his death. It was reported in the press that ‘the deceased was religiously disposed and, on more than one occasion, he has circulated among the inhabitants of the town religious and other publications.’[13] Though we do not know the content of those publications, they suggest he was on a one-man crusade against threats to his religion and his class. That brings us to a second point – the timing of his death on 13 December 1867. It was the height of the Fenian campaign in Britain – indeed the Clerkenwell Prison bombing took place later the same day.[14] As a Protestant military man Disney would have seen the Fenians as the ultimate threat to his religious and political identity.

But the same period also saw the public conversion of Gladstone and the Liberals to Irish reform, notably the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and around the land question. Gladstone had come out for disestablishment in May 1867 and he was to make his famous Southport speech on Ireland six days after Disney’s death.[15] We know Disney was no friend of the Liberals. Stafford was a two-member seat, but, in the general election of 1865 there was only one Conservative candidate although there were two Liberals.  Disney voted only for the Conservative.[16] Fenianism and Gladstone’s shift of policy both struck at Disney’s whole world view and could have been the factors that tipped this obsessive man towards suicide.


At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’. That was a polite fiction to save the family from shame. The evidence points to suicide. A key role was played by a militia associate, Trench Nugent. He testified that he had been with Disney on the evening before his death and that he ‘had not been in his usual spirits. He had, indeed, been suffering much depression – of a religious character – for some time past.’ Nugent claimed that Disney had never given him reason to think he might be suicidal, but the evidence of his behaviour that night is bizarre. Having gone to bed but then not sleeping, he got up in the early hours of the morning and left the house. Nugent tried to explain this by saying he possibly wanted to see his doctor who lived at Colton near Rugeley and that the railway line was the most direct route. But why go in the middle of the night and along such a dangerous and illegal route? It would have been difficult to walk along the track in the dark and no witness said he was carrying a lantern. When the level crossing keeper at Queensville asked where he was going he failed to respond but turned quickly on to the road up Radford Bank.[17] He must have subsequently returned to the railway track and walked into the pitch-black of Shugborough Tunnel. He was near the far end when the luggage train came up behind him. He must surely have heard it and even perhaps seen its headlamps. He could have sought refuge by stepping on to the opposite track, squeezing against the tunnel wall or lying down between the rails. He did none of these things. Instead, his head was on the rail itself. They said it was a tragic accident, but the evidence points to depression and suicide.

Lambert Disney’s story shines a rare light on Ascendancy Irish emigrants in England and a later post will examine more of his family’s life in Stafford.

  1. Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867. The story of the Disney family and Trench Nugent is discussed more fully in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Immigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2016,) pp. 221-229.
  2. The complexities of the Disney family’s background have been investigated recently by Anne van Weerden in her interesting book Catherine Disney: a Biographical Sketch (Stedum, Netherlands, J. Fransje van Weerden, 2019), esp. pp. 12-24. Born in 1800, Catherine Disney was Lambert’s elder sister and her story was also tragic. She fell in love with the famous Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Catherine was, however, forced by her family to marry William Barlow, a clergyman who was also her brother-in-law. She remained deeply in love with Hamilton and in 1848 she tried to commit suicide. She was weakened by the attempt and died five years later. Catherine was only able to tell Hamilton of her undying love shortly before she died.
  3. Griffiths Valuation, Meath, Ballynamona Townland, Galtrim Parish, c.150 acres leased by the Representatives of Lambert Disney to Margaret Gallagher and Denis Sweeney. Ancestry Database accessed 10 February 2013.
  4. Van Weerden, Catherine Disney, p. 16. Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 2 February 1839.
  5. Freeman’s Journal, 27 September 1842.
  6. Freeman’s Journal, 29 September 1843.
  7. Famine Relief Commission papers, 1844-7, RLFC3/1: 4338, 15 July 1846; 2809, 6 March 1846; 2943, 6 June 1846, Ancestry Database accessed 5 February 2013.
  8. Daily News, 13 January 1848.
  9. Freeman’s Journal, 4 March 1850.
  10. Bew, Ireland: the Politics of Enmity, pp. 144-9.
  11. The Times, 27 January 1837. Extracts from the speeches of the Marquis of Downshire and Earl of Donoughmore.
  12. Freeman’s Journal, 13 November 1844. The judge granted an order against Daly.
  13. The Times, 17 December 1867.
  14. Quinlivan and P. Rose, The Fenians in England, 1865-72: a Sense of Insecurity, (London, John Calder (Publishers) Ltd., 1982), p. 87.
  15. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2, (London, Macmillan & Co., 1903), pp. 241-3; R. Jenkins, Gladstone, (London, Pan Macmillan, 2002), pp. 280-4; D.G. Boyce, ‘Gladstone and Ireland’ in P.J. Jagger (ed.), Gladstone, (London, The Hambledon Press, 1998), p. 107.
  16. London Metropolitan Archive & Guildhall Library, UK Poll Books and Electoral Registers, 1865, July 12, Borough of Stafford. Ancestry Database, accessed 4 February 2013.
  17. Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867.

The Stafford Workhouse and the Irish: Part Two


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On 3 April 1881 the census enumerator knocked on the door of no. 7 Snow’s Yard in Stafford. John and Bridget Kearns lived in that cottage. The Kearns family had been amongst the first Irish to settle in the town, having been there since the 1820s.[1] The couple said that their 10-year old son Thomas was living in the house with them and he was duly listed on the return. They were lying. Thomas was actually in Stafford Workhouse. He was listed there on the same night. Whilst he might have been ‘normally’ resident at no. 7, he was still incarcerated in the Workhouse a year later and described in the records as an ‘orphan’.[2]

Stafford workhouse 2 contrast

Stafford Workhouse, built 1837-8, demolished in the 1970s.

The Poor Law overseers presumably knew a lot about the troubled Kearns family and they probably labelled Thomas an orphan because he was known not to be John and Bridget’s real son even though Bridget had registered him as such on 22 March 1871. One possibility is that he was actually the illegitimate child of John and Bridget’s daughter Hannah, conceived when she was working as a young servant girl. Although she would only have been about fourteen at the time, such was the fate of many girls forced into service. Another possibility is that she was raped by one of the many lodgers who passed through the Kearns’ unregistered lodging house. The possibility of an incestuous pregnancy by her father cannot be ruled out either. Whatever the truth, poor Thomas seems to have been brought up by his disgruntled and neglectful grandparents. It was they who off-loaded him into the Workhouse for at least some of his childhood.

Thomas Kearns’s route to the workhouse was just one instance of the ways Victorian people could become entangled with the Poor Law system. Although clearly of Irish ancestry, Thomas Kearns grew up as a Staffordian and his contact with the Workhouse was one of thousands amongst the poor, both Staffordian and Irish, who spent time there during the 19th century. The last post looked particularly at the Workhouse’s role during the Famine immigration in the later 1840s. We saw that many Irish passed through the casual wards and temporary accommodation erected during the crisis year of 1847.

By 1851 Workhouse affairs had returned to ‘normal’, and at the time of the Census that year there were only four Irish-born out of the 177 ‘inmates’ inside its walls. As the graph shows, in the succeeding decades the Irish-born were never present in large numbers in the Workhouse.

Who Blog 1

Fig. 1: Inmates at Stafford Workhouse, Census Enumeration Returns 1841-1901

What is also apparent from Figure 1 is that the number of people who were ‘pauper inmates’ in the Workhouse rose over time, especially after 1871. The rise was partly a reflection of general population growth in the Stafford Poor Law Union area but it also resulted from trends within the Poor Law system itself. The static picture of the number of inmates actually present on Census nights fails, however, to capture the endless churn of people entering and leaving the Workhouse. This can be seen from the Admission and Discharge Registers. Not all the Registers have survived for the Stafford Workhouse but Figure 2 shows the number of admissions for the complete years that do exist in the records.[3] It is apparent that in the early years of the Poor Law Reform Act the numbers being admitted and discharged were much higher than in later years. By the 1860s and early 1870s the numbers were half what they had been in the 1840s and they only rose somewhat again after 1880.

Figure 2 also shows that the number of Irish admitted to the Workhouse remained relatively modest – an average of 6.6% of people over the whole period. The Irish were, nevertheless, over-represented in proportion to their numbers in the Stafford area. That was inevitable because, like the Kearns family, many were poor and living on the economic margins. The Famine crisis of 1847 stands out. In that year 92 Irish people were recorded into the Workhouse but that figure is undoubtedly a gross underestimate. Between 16 July and 27 September 1847 the flood of destitute Irish was so great that Workhouse staff gave up registering admissions and no data survives from that period. Admissions of Irish people remained above average to the end of this group of complete records in 1851.

Who Blog 2

Figure 2: Admissions to Stafford Workhouse, 1843-1900

A major factor affecting admissions to the Workhouse was the state of the economy. When times were hard, particularly in the ‘Hungry Forties’, many people of working age were forced into the Workhouse through unemployment. The upturn of the economy that took place during the mid-Victorian boom was reflected in a decline of admissions between 1858 and 1872. This was a time when farming prospered in the Stafford region and the town’s shoe trade was growing fast. Conversely, the higher numbers entering the Workhouse after 1880 reflected in part the ‘Great Victorian Depression’ which began in 1874 and lasted until the end of the century, with only slight improvement around 1889. Farming went into decline because of imports of cheap food from overseas and Stafford’s shoe trade began to experience competition from the USA. So Workhouse admissions were to some degree a barometer of economic trends.

There were, nevertheless, changes in the role of the Workhouse which were reflected in who ended up there. The New Poor Law aimed to make the Workhouse so hard and forbidding that people would only enter for a short period through unemployment, utter destitution or domestic crisis. The fact that admissions in 1851, for example, were approaching four times the number of actual inmates enumerated in the Census shows the relatively short stay and turnover of entrants. The majority of adult inmates were people of working age who stayed as short a time as possible.

Figure 3. shows the age and gender breakdown of Workhouse inmates in 1841. Well over

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Figure 3: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1841

half were children under sixteen, a shocking statistic which belies any romantic notions of the cohesive Victorian nuclear family. When we look more closely (Figure 4) we see that over 60% of those children appeared to be unattached to any obvious parent in the Workhouse. They seem to be complete orphans. Some may, of course, have been sent to

Who Blog 4 Figure 4: Children in the Stafford Workhouse, 1841

the Workhouse by their parents or other relatives living in the town, just as poor Thomas Kearns was in 1881. We cannot know how many were in that situation or had in fact been completely abandoned to the Poor Law system. Figure 3 also shows that there were twice as many young women in the 16-30 age group in the Workhouse than men. The obvious reason is that they were single parents suffering the Victorian prejudice against sin, illegitimacy and poverty. They accounted for over one third of the children in the institution (Figure 4).

Move on forty years to 1881 and we see the role of the Workhouse changing (Figure 5).

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Figure 5: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1881

Children now formed only about 30% of the inmates, nearing half the proportion in 1841. The Workhouse had now switched in large measure to being a grim de facto old folks home, particularly for middle-aged and old men with nowhere else to go. When I noticed this I speculated that many of these men would have migrated to the Stafford area from elsewhere and once they could no longer work were forced into the Workhouse because they had no local relatives to care for them. I was wrong. Over 70% of them were local – from Stafford town or the immediate countryside around. Over 40% had never married and had reached a lonely old age with no one to take them in. The same proportion were widowers and loss of their marriage partner had similarly left them alone but also, in many cases we must presume, abandoned by their surviving children. It is striking that these same fates happened far less to older women, despite their greater likelihood of survival into old age. Perhaps old women, as grandmothers, had a greater use value as carers in the family economy than ‘useless’ old men with no experience of domestic work. Over 60% of these men had either worked as farm labourers or in Stafford’s boot and shoe trade. Both were occupations bedevilled by intermittent and often poorly paid work and when old age came many had no savings and little work to keep them going. The Workhouse was the only refuge for such men.

What of the Irish? In 1881 there were fifteen Irish-born inmates (Figure 6) and in most ways they conformed to the pattern discussed above. Most were men over 45 years old and indeed well into old age. Ten of them had been farm labourers, the majority from

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Figure 6: Irish-born inmates of Stafford Workhouse, 1881

the mid-west area of Ireland from which many of Stafford’s Irish originated. The five women were, or had been, domestic servants or similar. Three of the Irish were in the Workhouse tramp ward thus emphasising an opposite role for the institution as a temporary refuge for the homeless on the road. With their miserable circumstances all these Irish people represented some of the human wreckage of the Famine, its aftermath and the fractured relationship between Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century.

[1] For the history of the Kearns family in Stafford see my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester University Press, 2015), pp 82-94.

[2] Stafford and Stoke Record Office, D659/1/4/52, Stafford Poor Law Union Indoor relief List, 1882/3.

[3] The Stafford Workhouse registers are held in the Stafford Record Office under ref. D659/1/4/1-13; the basic admission and discharge data can be found on the Staffordshire Names Indexes website at

The Stafford Workhouse and the Irish: Part One


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The threat of the workhouse and the Poor Law loomed large in Victorian society. People of almost all classes might find themselves poverty-stricken or destitute through the inhumanities of the capitalist economy, or through illness, personal tragedy and the host of other threats people experienced in a society with no other form of social security. The migrant Irish were particularly vulnerable to these dangers and many ended up in the workhouse, or dependant on outdoor relief, for part of their lives. Many died in those unforgiving wards.

This research on Irish families in Victorian Stafford has not particularly concentrated on their interactions with the Poor Law system. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the project has been to document the diverse life outcomes of the immigrants and their descendants. The stereotypical image of the Irish poor in the wreaking slums has been modified, though by no means dispelled. This blog focuses in, however, on some of the evidence we do have about the Irish and the Stafford Workhouse.

Stafford’s Workhouse was built in 1837-8 on the northern edge of town up the Marston Road. It was designed by local architect Thomas Trubshaw and followed the cruciform plan laid down by the Poor Law Commissioners in 1835 after the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act. Thousands of Staffordians passed through its forbidding walls for over a hundred years. In 1948 it finally metamorphosed into Fernleigh, an old peoples’ home and hospital for the chronically sick. It still carried, nevertheless, the stigma of the Workhouse and I well remember my gran speaking of the place with pity and foreboding in the 1950s. It was finally demolished in the early 1970s.

Stafford Workhouse, built 1837-8, demolished in the 1970s.

The history of the Irish in Stafford shows that the Workhouse carried out a range of functions down the years. Firstly, it accommodated countless numbers of vagrants, tramps and destitute migrant workers both before and after the Famine. In 1871, for example, it was reported that 7,000 vagrants (all of them, not just Irish) had passed through the Workhouse in the previous year, a steep rise in numbers since 1864 when the number had been 2,500.[1] Many Irish seasonal workers and vagrants were amongst these ‘inmates’ and the Poor Law Guardians were always anxious to make the accommodation in vagrant or casual wards as unpleasant as possible to stop people, as they saw it, using the Workhouse as free board and lodging on the way to somewhere else. It was frequently alleged that groups of Irish sent the money they had earned from farm work back to Ireland with one of their number whilst the others claimed destitution and were admitted to workhouses on the way home.

The second role of the Stafford Workhouse was specific to the Famine crisis of 1846-9. People forced out of Ireland started to appear in Stafford in February 1847 and they had become a flood by April of that year. Between April and June the Poor Law Guardians gave relief to around 2,400 ‘Irish paupers’. The destitute were forced into the vagrant wards.[2] Many were suffering from typhus or relapsing fever – then collectively diagnosed as ‘Irish fever’ – and if they did not have it already, they were likely to pick it up in the appalling conditions of the Workhouse. The physician at Staffordshire General Infirmary complained

‘of the filthy state in which fever patients were sent from the Union Workhouse to the Infirmary, and the long period patients suffering from fever were kept in the vagrant wards before their admission into the Infirmary.’[3]

A ‘temporary detached building’ was built to separate the Irish from other Workhouse inmates. By July the fever wards were full and in the chaos the Irish were all crammed in together – the sick, the dying, the apparently well, those relapsing into fever and the convalescent. The Workhouse only took in those who were ill or had nowhere else to go. It was a refugee camp for the absolutely ill and destitute, and the parallels with current refugee crises are stark and by no means in favour of the modern age. For example, at the height of the Famine, on 18 October 1847, William Coleman (b. 1805) was stricken with fever and taken into the Workhouse.[4] He was there for five weeks. This is the first record of a family which later become well established in Stafford. William Coleman farmed a small patch of land that family legend believes was in Knock, Co. Mayo.[5] Like many families stricken by the Famine, William had probably come to Stafford in a desperate attempt to earn money to save his family from the loss of their land. He may already have known the place from earlier seasonal work or from contacts who did. His wife and children were not with him in 1847 but they had arrived by 1851. Catherine Coleman and four of her children were then living in Margaret Morris’s lodging house at No. 9 Sash Street, although William was not present and nor were three of his children. They seem not to have been in England at all, so perhaps they were still clinging to the land back in Mayo. Whatever the reasons, this staggered arrival in Stafford shows how family settlement could be a drawn-out process which ironically began in the Workhouse.

During the Famine the Workhouse could have become, however, a general holding centre for refugees being deported back to Ireland – again with parallels to the present day. It did so for one family – the Kellys. James and Jane Kelly came from Co. Mayo and their arrival in Stafford during the Famine is documented in some detail. This was because, uniquely, the Poor Law authorities tried to deport them back to Ireland. The first definite record of the family is on 10 July 1847 when the Relieving Officer, Edward Brannington, applied for 2s 1d for Jane Kelley (sic), ‘an Irish pauper’. A ‘Thomas Kelly’ had already been admitted to the Workhouse on 29 June, however. He came in because of illness. He was so ill that he was removed to the Infirmary on 1 July. ‘Thomas Kelly’s’ recorded age tallies with that of James, and they were in fact one and the same person. Jane and her eight year old daughter Mary were destitute because of James’s illness, and this would explain why she got outdoor relief. A week later she had received £2 3s 2d, and on 7 August she got another £1 1s 2d, with a further 2s 5d on 21 August.[6]

The Poor Law authorities were struggling to cope with the Famine Irish and the Guardians started to panic at the cost. On the same day that Jane Kelly got her final payment the Guardians resolved ‘that the Act to amend laws relating to the removal of poor persons from England (10 & 11 Vic. Cap. 33) be put into force under the direction of the Overseers of the several parishes of the Union’. The destitute Irish were to be deported back to Ireland.[7]

In practice the authorities in Stafford proved reluctant to implement the procedure and the Kellys became a test case. On 24 September 1847 James Kelly was again admitted to the Workhouse because of illness. The authorities refused to give Jane any more outdoor relief, and she and her daughter were forced inside as well. In effect they were imprisoned there before the next move. The family was discharged on 17 October and an order made for their removal from the parish – and England.[8] A month later came the reckoning. On 13 November Brannington presented his bill of £4 4s 9d ‘for conveying three Irish paupers – James Kelley, Jane his wife and one child – to Liverpool and the amount of their fair by steam packett to Dublin’(sic).[9] At this point the Guardians refused to pay up. They thought the relieving officer had exceeded his powers and that the expenditure was too high. They passed the bill to the parish overseers of Stafford with the excuse that the Kellys were chargeable to that parish. The overseers there refused to pay and passed the buck back to the Union. Two weeks later Brannington presented his bill again together with the Order of Removal. This time the Guardians questioned the legality of the Order but cravenly decided to seek guidance from the Poor Law Commissioners in London. The Commissioners’ ruling does not survive, but the matter surfaced again on 22 January 1848 when Brannington was cross examined over his actions in the Kelly case. The Chairman supported the relieving officer, arguing that ‘Birmingham and other places were removing great quantities of Irish …. and Stafford must do the same’. The other guardians were not convinced and they did nothing. There is no evidence that the Stafford poor law authorities removed any more Famine Irish from the town. They decided it was too much trouble. The Kelly family had, in the short term, been the unlucky victims of a failed experiment. They had the last laugh, however. Although Brannington claimed for their boat fare to Dublin, the family either slipped the net in Liverpool or got the first boat back from Ireland. They returned to Stafford. We know they were back in the town by 1848 because their son Martin was baptised at St Austin’s in October of that year. They went on to become a family with a fairly notorious reputation in the town.[10]

After around 1849 conditions in and around the Workhouse in Stafford became more ‘normal’ with the decline of the immediate Famine crisis, though Irish immigration resulting from it continued at a high level into the 1850s. The next blog will look at the roles played by the Poor Law system in Stafford in relation to the Irish in the decades after 1850.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser, 23 September 1871.

[2] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D659/8a/4-5, Stafford Poor Law Guardians, Minute Book 1844-1848 (7 July 1847).

[3] SRO, D659/8a, Stafford Poor Law Union Board of Guardians Minute Book, 29 May 1847.

[4] SRO D659/1/4/8, Stafford Workhouse Admission and Discharge Book, 24 September 1847-30 March 1850.

[5] The late Peter Godwin, 2002, and Kathleen Boult, descendants, 2003. In 1852 William Coleman was described as a ‘husbandman’ on his daughter Catherine’s marriage certificate.

[6] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845- 3 February 1849.

[7] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845- 3 February 1849.

[8] SRO, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union: Workhouse Admissions, 1847-8.

[9] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845-3 February 1849, 13 November 1847.

[10] The full history of the Kelly family is covered in my book: John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp. 113-122.

‘Beaten when she deserved it’. The lives of the Neild family


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‘A state of utter filth’

In March 1893 Marion and Edmund Neild were brought before Stafford magistrates charged with neglecting their children. The couple were living at 24 Eastgate Street, a poor dwelling in the town centre. The Medical Officer of Health reported what he had seen in the house. The front room was occupied as some sort of shop but the back room was ‘in a state of utter filth’. There were no signs of crockery or any other household utensils. ‘An abominable smell emanated from the beds and some flocks on the floor were covered in filth’. The situation in the Neild household had presumably been reported to the authorities by neighbours. They said the children went about in a very dirty condition, with their clothes in rags.

Behind this superficial picture of squalor lay marital violence and tragedy. In evidence, Marion Neild said ‘she had no heart to do anything in the house or for the children as her husband continually beat her.’ Her twelve years of marriage had been a life of ‘systematic cruelty at the hands of her husband’. In misery and despair she had sought refuge in drink and had been forced to beg bread for her children.

Edmund James Neild was a printer and compositor by trade. His story was that he earned 27 shillings a week of which he gave his wife 24 shillings. He said she had neglected the children and even pawned their clothing. He did admit to having beaten his wife ‘when she deserved it’ but he denied that he spent most of his time in public houses. The magistrates gave both Marion and Edmund a month in prison, a pointless sentence that did nothing to help their neglected children.[1] When they came out Edmund stayed on in Stafford. But Marion disappeared. I’ve found no trace of her, either alive or dead, after that fateful day in 1893. So what happened to her and what was the background to the disastrous Neild family?

Marion Neild had been born Marion George in Worcester in 1862. Her father Robert was a machinist in the city and he and his wife Emma, had six children. They were Protestants and the evidence suggests they were a skilled working class family strongly based in the city. Nevertheless, sometime in the late 1870s Marion left Worcester and came to Stafford. The first we know of her coming was when she arrived at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford on 8 August 1880 to marry Edmund Neild.[2] It is significant that neither of the witnesses was from Marion’s family nor was apparently connected to her. One was Edmund’s sister Rebecca and the other was George Keogh, a ‘club manager’ living three doors down from the Neilds’ house in Eastgate Street.

As a printer and compositor Edmund Neild was a skilled and presumably literate man in a reasonably secure job. Both he and his wife superficially looked as though they would settle down to become a respectable working class family in Stafford. We have seen it alleged, however, that Edmund was violently abusive towards his wife from the start of their marriage. What was this man’s background?

Edmund’s background

Edmund’s father was James Neild (see the outline genealogy). We know this because Edmund gave his name for the St Austin’s Marriage Register, but there is otherwise almost no simple evidence as to who he was. The only definite fact is that James Neild married Rebecca Donnelly in Salford, Lancashire, in the early months of 1851.[3] Rebecca always said she had been born in Manchester, so it is reasonable to conclude we are dealing with the correct couple. Neither is traceable in the 1851 Census, however, and the reason is almost certainly that James Neild was serving in the military. Although he has not been traced in the military records, their first child, Edmund, was born soon afterwards in 1852 in Queenstown, Co. Cork (modern Cobh) and that made him technically Irish. Queenstown (Spike Island) was a major British military base. Was James Neild himself Irish? It’s possible, but even if he wasn’t, it’s pretty clear that his wife Rebecca Donnelly came from an Irish family despite having been born in Manchester. And the couple were Catholics.  James and Rebecca may have had more children in the 1850s and early 1860s but, if so, they didn’t survive, and Edmund’s only surviving sibling was his sister Rebecca Teresa who was born in Colchester, Essex, in 1854.[4] Colchester was also a garrison town which again suggests James Neild was in the forces. Neild-George Geneal conct

It is possible James and Rebecca Neild came to Stafford when James was drafted to the militia barracks some time after 1864. It was a common posting for soldiers at the end of their military career. If so, James didn’t settle in Stafford and, indeed, there is no actual proof of his presence in the town. I’ve traced no record of his death – he just disappears from history. Edmund Neild must therefore have had a fairly disrupted childhood in shifting environments and an unstable relationship with his father. Domestic violence could well have been part of existence both for him and his mother. We know today that many abusive adults themselves experienced abuse in childhood. Edmund may have been one of them.

After James’s death or disappearance Rebecca Neild did not let the grass grow under her feet. In 1871 she married an Irishman, John Higgins.[5] He was a printer and compositor who had been born in Ireland around 1828. In 1861 he had been living in Liverpool with his widowed mother and two sisters and he was working as a compositor at that time too. They have not been traced before that, so presumably they were Famine immigrants to Britain during the 1850s. John Higgins must have moved to Stafford during the 1860s, presumably for work. There is no obvious previous connection between Higgins and the Neild family, so John must have met the Rebecca after he settled in the town. When Rebecca married Higgins in 1871 the couple set up house at 52 Eastgate Street and as part of the deal Higgins accepted the two step-children, Edmund and Rebecca. Edmund, who was now 19 years old, was described as a printer in the 1871 census and it seems very likely he entered the trade – and got a job – through his new step-father.

During the 1870s John and Rebecca Higgins proceeded to have three surviving children, Ellen (b. 1873), William (b. 1874) and Cicely Edith (b. 1876). They moved to No. 11 Railway Street , a respectable address in Newtown. There is no other record of their doings during that decade but things did not run smoothly. John Higgins died in 1879 at the early age of 51.[6] For a second time Rebecca was left to face the world alone and bring up her three young children.  Just eight months after her husband’s death Edmund moved out and began his abusive marriage with Marion George.

What happened to Marion?

It seems clear that, by her own admission, Marion caved in in the face of Edmund’s violence and took to drink. The squalor that Dr Bloomer found in their house was clearly no temporary lapse but before the events of 1893 we have no evidence of the family’s problematic situation. There are no recorded events where either Edmund or Marion were involved in drunken, disruptive or violent behaviour in public. The crisis was unfolding indoors and only the children’s neglected condition finally exposed things to wider gaze. By this time the widowed Rebecca Higgins was living back in Eastgate Street, at No. 72, and it seems surprising that she did not become involved, if only to help her grandchildren. She certainly did become involved after 1893 and took in Edmund and his remaining young children. In 1901 Edmund, together with Edith (b. 1888) and William (b. 1891), were living at No. 72 with Rebecca and her Higgins children William and Cicely. He still described himself in the census as ‘married’.

By this time Marion had been absent for a number of years and we have seen that she just seems to have disappeared. Her appearance at the magistrates’ court must have been pathetic but, even allowing for newspaper licence, she was able to coherently expose the frightful conditions under which she lived, her own mental state and Edmund’s role in creating them. That suggests she was not a total drunken wreck. It also suggests she was a woman with some spirit who perhaps challenged the dominant male role in her Victorian marriage. After her release from gaol she may have used the opportunity to do a bunk. Although there is no record of her returning to her family and her home town of Worcester, perhaps family members paid for her to emigrate. She certainly seems to disappear from the British historical record.[7]

Edmund’s later years

Having moved in with his mother, Edmund Neild stayed on in Stafford. There must have been stresses in the household. Edmund’s relationship with Rebecca’s son William Higgins, a labourer, was probably poor but in this case it was the younger man who was problematic. In the 1900s William had a number of convictions for theft and in October 1904 he was in court for the theft of a pistol (value £1) from Edmund.[8] He sold it George Powell, the landlord of the Duke of York pub in Tipping Street. The incident is interesting because it suggests yet again that Edmund’s father James was in the military. Edmund must have inherited the gun after his father’s death or disappearance. Apart from a conviction in 1907 for not having a dog licence, Edmund kept out of trouble with the law.[9] His mother, meanwhile, had died in 1902 but Edmund continued to live in the family house at No. 72 Eastgate Street. In 1911 he was still there with his son William (Neild) and a married couple and their child as lodgers. He still said he was ‘married’. He finally died in Stafford in 1921.[10]

Edmund and Marion’s children mostly showed little attachment to Stafford and left the town in early adulthood. Their traumatic early years cannot have given them much attachment to the place, although their family circumstances seem to have stabilised when they moved in with their grandmother. James Robert Neild (b. 1885) did stay on in Stafford, however, and in 1917 married a Protestant woman, Bertha Ward.[11]  The couple stayed in Stafford but no children have been traced.

A problematic family

The story of Marion George and Edmund Neild shows the difficulties of reconstructing circumstances and motivations from limited historical data. The facts exposed in their household in 1893 were clear enough but building the wider picture has proved much more difficult. Edmund Neild was violent and abusive towards his wife and I’ve speculated on possible reasons in his background for this. His behaviour after 1893 shows, however, no continuing evidence of disruption or violence. In the aftermath he was not disowned by his mother and the children were brought up in the new family household.  The Neild/George marriage was obviously a tragic mistake but the pathological reasons for that are now difficult to fathom.

Another incidental point emerges from the story of the Neild family. Were they Irish? We have seen that in practice the ethnic pattern revealed by this family was complex and it emphasises the dangers of generalising about ethnic stereotypes and the need to examine the actual patterns of ethnicity revealed in real families in their historical context.


[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 March 1893.

[2] Parish of St Austin, Stafford, Register of Marriages, 1858-1880.

[3] Salford Registration District (RD), Marriages, January-March 1851, James Neild and Rebeca (sic) Donnelly, 20/781.

[4] Colchester RD, Births, July-September 1864, Rebecca Teresa Neild, 4a/245.

[5] Stafford RD, Marriages, January-March 1871, John Higgins and Rebecca Neild, 6b/35.

[6] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 04/6897, John Higgins, compositor, 23 December 1879.

[7] I’ve tried looking for her under both her married and maiden surnames and just by searching likely-looking ‘Marions’, since it was a relatively uncommon forename. No likely person emerged from these searches.

[8] SA, 15 October 1904.

[9] SA, 13 April 1907.

[10] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 11.9783, 30 March 1921, Edmund J Neild, printer.

[11] Stafford RD, Marriages, October-December 1917, James Robert Neild and Bertha Ward, 6b/37.