Martin Mitchell’s story is an example of how Stafford in Victorian times was enriched by its Irish immigrants. In 1861 Martin’s grandfather, also named Martin, was working as a seasonal farm labourer in the Stafford area. He was then about 52 years of age and came from the Dunmore area of east Co. Galway. Although Martin never settled in Stafford his son John (b. 1849) did, and in 1869 he married Bridget McMahon. She came from the same area of Co. Galway. John and Bridget Mitchell initially lived in Snow’s Yard but, as a bricklayer, John had a saleable skill and could hope to make reasonable money. Once children started to arrive the family was desperate to move out of the yard and in the 1870s they rented a better house in Sash Street. They went on to have ten children, although five died young.
The Mitchells’ only surviving son was Martin (b. 1873) and he was to prove a remarkable man. He was an extrovert with a talent for singing and entertainment. His character was moulded by his childhood amongst the Irish of the north end and the poverty they endured, but also by the opportunities open to him through Stafford’s social network, especially the Catholic Church. He became an engineering apprentice at Dorman’s works but in the mid-1890s he saw an opening in the cycling craze then sweeping the country and set up as a cycle engineer and agent. In 1896 he was ‘official cycle expert to the Exchange and Mart’ sales magazine. By 1900 he had a shop in Crabbery Street in the town centre, and he later moved to a prominent site in Greengate Street. In the 1900s he was styling himself as ‘The Great Cycle Expert’. Martin Mitchell became, in other words, an effective entrepreneur with a flair for publicity but also, it seems, with a reputation for good service and fair dealing. They were qualities he could use in other fields.
He became a public entertainer and performed at Workhouse concerts, trade union socials, Catholic soirées, local political clubs and many sports organizations. During the Boer War he arranged a ‘patriotic concert’ in aid of the borough war fund which shows he identified publicly with British patriotism rather than the Boer resistance widely supported by Irish nationalists. He became a pillar of St Patrick’s Church where he was choirmaster and organist for a time.
Then Mitchell went into politics. In 1900 he was elected to the borough council. He was only twenty-seven and by far the youngest person on the council. He was also elected to the Board of Guardians. He had clearly benefited from his business prominence and his patriotic activities during the Boer War. Even so, he must have been a good ward councillor because in 1904 he was re-elected and came top of the poll. Initially he tended to err on the side of economy in council spending and harshness in the policies of the Poor Law Guardians. In 1906, for example, he supported the building of four stone-breaking cells for tramps in the Workhouse, asserting that it was ‘a step in the right direction as the Workhouse had become a home of health and a paradise of pleasure for tramps.’ In 1908 he made a ‘vigorous speech’ opposing unnecessary expenditure by the County Council on medical examinations for all children. He argued the money should be spent on the 8,000 in the county known to be ‘medically defective’, though how these were to be identified from the rest he did not say. This parsimonious perspective found its reward the same year when he was elected vice-president of the Stafford Ratepayers’ Association.
Unemployment was high in 1908. Martin Mitchell became a member of the town’s Distress Committee, but was accused of talking a lot but doing very little. His response was that ‘he was disgusted with what was being done. His suggestions had been ignored. He could do more as a private person’ and he forthwith resigned. This incident showed his shift to a more radical position. He joined the Liberal Party and in 1911 he began his most important campaign. Stafford’s dynamic growth in the 1900s had led to a severe housing shortage and worsening conditions in the town’s slums. Coming from Snow’s Yard and Sash Street, and still living nearby Mitchell knew the conditions well, and he and a minority of other councillors, as well as the Medical Officer of Health, fought to get the council to build 250 council houses. Stafford’s landlords were a dominant lobby in the council and had so far ensured its provision of council housing was minimal. Mitchell resigned as Vice-Chairman of the Housing of the Working Classes Committee because he had been ‘beaten by the Aldermen’. He would ‘not belong to any property owners’ committee’. He then enlisted the Catholic Church’s support, and a letter was received from Canon Keating at St Austin’s in support of better housing for the poor. The Stafford Guild of Help, with Mitchell as a member, pursued a high profile campaign publicizing Stafford’s slum conditions – ‘there were places in Stafford where people would not keep animals, and yet men, women and children had been living there in insanitary dwellings and in a state of overcrowding.’ In December 1912 the council was finally forced to come up with a council house building programme, though one considerably smaller than Mitchell had wanted. By December 1913 he was able to ‘express pleasure at the changed attitude of the Council – he was glad they were now recognizing their duty in the housing matter.’
Though scarcely left wing or socialist in his politics, Martin Mitchell was progressive and became more radical as time went on. In 1907 he was involved in promoting Stafford’s first motor bus service. In 1912 he organized a ‘grand flying exhibition …. by the world’s greatest flyer’, Gustav Hamel. The airman flew several flights from Lammascote Field.
Martin Mitchell the showman. With Gustav Hamel on Lammascote Field, 1912. Mitchell is third from the right leaning against the plane. (Staffordshire County Museums Service)
He also held the concession for pleasure boats on the River Sow. But in the spring of 1914 he became ill. His last public appearance was at the opening of the new General Post Office in early April, and within three months he was dead, aged only 38. He had been a larger-than-life character and his death was a considerable shock to local social and political life, since he was clearly just reaching the height of his powers and influence. His obituary reported that “the town has lost an earnest worker for the public good and one who was admired and respected by all who knew him. …. By birth an Irishman, Mr Mitchell had all the enthusiasm of the race for any cause he took up. …. In politics he was a Liberal, and as a speaker, singer and entertainer he made appearances on numerous platforms in the Midlands. Mr Mitchell was a Roman Catholic and a prominent member of St Patrick’s Church. “…
The interesting feature of this obituary is the statement that Mitchell was ‘by birth an Irishman’. He wasn’t – he was born and brought up in Stafford. It shows there was pride in his the family’s Irish origins but Mitchell’s life also demonstrates that he had no interest maintaining a relict Irish identity in the face of the world as he found it in Stafford. His assets at death of £2,702 19s 1d (around £250,000 at 2012 prices) give an indication of his material success.
- Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 21 April 1900; 2 May 1903
- SA, 10 February 1905.
- SA, 8 February 1908.
- SA, 9 May 1908.
- SA, 4 November, 21 November and 5 December 1908.
- SA, 9 September, 4 November, 23 December 1911 and 13 January 1912.
- SA, 9 March and 18 May 1912.
- SA, 14 September, 7 December, 28 December 1912, 8 March and 3 December 1913.
- SA, 23 November 1907.
- Lewis, Around Stafford, (Stroud, Tempus Publishing, 1999), p. 120.
- He died from nephritis – kidney inflammation and failure – and a cerebral haemorrhage. Stafford RD, Death Certificate, 6b/27, No. 156, 29 June 1914.
- SA, 4 July 1914
- England and Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1856-1966, Martin Mitchell, probate granted Lichfield, 12 October 1914. Ancestry Database, accessed 9 September 2012.