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John and Elizabeth Kavanagh arrived in Stafford in the 1850s.  They were not in the town at the time of the 1851 Census, but they claimed their first child, Ann, was born there around 1853. There is, however, no record of this in Stafford and the Kavanaghs illustrate how, even in this age of accessible digital data, it can be very difficult to trace the history of migrant people who were often illiterate, had little idea of their exact age, had surnames open to a variety of spellings and who, in any case, sometimes ignored the legal niceties of registration.  Even so, the outlines of their lives can still be followed.

John was an agricultural labourer who had been born in Ireland in the 1830s. We have no precise evidence of where he came from in Ireland but it is likely to have been the Roscommon/Galway/Mayo area from which many of Stafford’s immigrants came. The birthplace of his wife Elizabeth is also uncertain since in 1861 the couple claimed it was Ireland whilst in 1871 they said Warrington in Lancashire.[1] The birth dates of their children suggest that John and Elizabeth married in the 1850s, probably in England but not in Stafford. As a Famine immigrant, John could have met his wife in Liverpool in the course of moving from north-west England to the Midlands.[2]

In Stafford the couple lived in areas of substantial Irish settlement. In 1861 they were to be found in Plant’s Court, a slum in Forebridge. By 1871 they had moved to 52 Back Walls South, a gloomy area where many poor people lived including Irish immigrants.

Back Walls South where the Kavanaghs had their lodging house.

Back Walls South where the Kavanaghs had their lodging house.

John Kavanagh worked initially as a farm labourer but later moved off the land and became a general labourer. The couple also made money from running a lodging house. The 1861 and 1871 Census returns superficially suggest their enterprise was rather unsuccessful since in each case the two lodgers listed in the dwelling were far outnumbered by the Kavanaghs own expanding family. More people crowded into the house at other times, however, since in 1867 the couple were convicted of ‘permitting three women and one man to sleep in one apartment (contrary to the bye-laws) which was a small one’.[3]

The Kavanaghs’ life in the slums of Stafford was probably pretty miserable although they raised at least six children there. Elizabeth Kavanagh had her last child, Mary, in 1871 but the baby died after only five days.[4]  Elizabeth herself must have been a weakened woman and though still fairly young she died sixteen months later in September 1872.[5] Her death provoked a crisis in the Kavanagh household and some time afterwards John left Stafford altogether. By 1881 he was living in Liscard near Birkenhead with four of his children. He had apparently re-married. His new wife Ann was Irish and twelve years his senior, though no record of the marriage has been found. It was probably a transitory common-law relationship. Indeed, the family may have been on Merseyside merely waiting the opportunity to emigrate. Certainly, none of them was in England in 1891. It has not proved possible to identify their onward travel from the migrant records.

The Kavanagh family pose, therefore, many problems in reconstructing their history. It is clear, however, that they proved to be long-term transients in Stafford. Although they lived in the town for about twenty years, they ultimately put down no roots there and there are probably no descendants in the district today. Their story conforms closely to the common but often rather stereotypical picture of mobile Irish emigrants whose remaining lives proved to be a battle against poverty and insecurity.

[1] The 1861 Census also lists their surname as ‘Kavan’, but they are clearly the same family as that shown as ‘Kavannagh’ ten years later. This seems to suggest that the 1871 return was the more accurate.

[2] A John Kavanagh married an Elizabeth Paton in Liverpool on 25 November 1856 (Ancestry, England: Select Marriages 1538-1973, it3, p. 114, no 228). It is known that Elizabeth’s name was probably Paton from the baptism records of St Austin’s Church in Stafford. A Paton family from Co. Roscommon lived in Stafford at that time so this may make the connection with John Kavanagh, though not definitively.

[3] Staffordshire Advertiser, 13 April 1867

[4] Stafford Borough Council burial records, Vol. 2, Entry 3863

[5] Ibid., Vol. 3, Entry 4332; her age is given as 35, rather less than the ‘Census’ age of 41