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Readers of this blog (post 8 April 2015) will remember that in 1853 Peter Kirwan was charged with playing a part in Stafford’s ‘Five Shilling Murder’ – the brutal killing of a farmer, John Blackburn, and his wife. At the trial, however, the judge directed the jury to find him ‘not guilty’. For once the wheels of English justice had ground in favour of an impoverished Irish immigrant.

Peter Kirwan’s first year living in Stafford had been as traumatic for him and his family as the move from Ireland would have been. He coud have decided to get out of the town as quickly as he could. Yet the family stayed. Why? Perhaps the events of 1852/3 ultimately played in the family’s favour. Peter’s involvement in the Blackburn case had been guilt by association and the police and legal authorities rapidly saw him as the helpless victim of events. The local Catholic priest, Edward Huddleston, almost certainly spoke up for him – he had helped other Irish immigrants.[1] Peter and his wife must have decided they could not face the uncertainty of a move elsewhere. It would be better to lie low in Stafford and scrape a living amongst the Irish of the town’s north end.

That is what the Kirwans did for the remainder of their time in the town. They always kept a lodging house, initially in the slum of Plant’s Square but by 1861 round the corner in New Street. They remained there until the 1880s. They seem to have run a decent establishment as far as common lodging houses went and were never in trouble with the authorities. They were a poor but sober family and they kept out of the often boisterous life of New Street and its surroundings.

When the Kirwans came to Stafford they already had four children. The oldest was Ellen (b. 1833). In 1861 she was a servant in the Masfen household in Gaolgate Street. The Masfens were a respected and wealthy local Catholic family. John Masfen (b. 1795) had been a local doctor and surgeon at the Infirmary, and two of his sons, William (b. 1831) and George (b. 1826) followed in his footsteps. William Masfen was an active supporter of the local Society of St Vincent de Paul. He would have known the Kirwan family as ‘deserving poor’ both through the SVP and because of the Blackburn case.[2] Giving a job to Ellen Kirwan was an act of charity, and that charity may have gone further. Some time in the 1860s Ellen left Stafford and emigrated.[3] The Masfens probably paid her fare.

The Kirwans’ other children fared less well. Ellen’s sister Bridget (b. 1837) died in 1859 and James (b. 1847) when he was 35 in 1882. He never married and stayed at home until his death. Although he started as a farm labourer like his father, he did manage to get into Stafford’s shoe trade before his death. The final child, John (b. 1841) also started as a farm worker, but he left Stafford in the 1870s and, like Ellen, he may have emigrated.

Peter Kirwan lived for another fourteen years after his brush with the law in 1853. He was registered to vote in 1867 but he died before he could exercise his right in the 1868 and 1869 elections. Somebody turned up in his place, however, and voted Liberal each time. The Irish tradition of personation was alive and well in Stafford!

Margaret and James Kirwan kept the lodging house going after Peter’s death. Indeed, they expanded the business. In 1871 they lived at 67 New Street and at the time of the census had just two lodgers, both young Irish hawkers. By 1881 they were occupying both 67 and 68 New Street and had six lodgers in the premises. The men were low-level tradesmen and two were English so perhaps the Kirwans tried to take a ‘better class’ of lodger. Or maybe not – in May 1882 a travelling tin-whistle player was there for three or four nights before stealing a fellow lodger’s shirt and doing a bunk.[4] James Kirwan had died by then. His mother carried on the business for two more years before she passed on, the last representative of the Kirwan family in Stafford. Their presence in the town had lasted 32 years.

[1] John Herson, ‘The English, the Irish and the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923, Midland Catholic History, 14 (2007),  p. 27.

[2] Staffordshire Advertiser, 13 April 1872. Report of William Masfen’s death. The mayor and many dignitaries processed to St Austin’s for the requiem Mass, an example of the Stafford elite’s sectarian truce.

[3] There is no record of her death or marriage in the UK and she was not present in the UK in 1871.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser, 27 May 1882.