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Poverty and insecurity in rural Ireland was what drove Irish workers to come to Stafford. Many of Stafford’s Irish families came from an area of Roscommon, Galway and Mayo centred on the small town of Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. That is not surprising, since in pre-Famine times it was an area blighted by land hunger and landlord oppression and one of the main generators of migrant labour in Ireland. Coming over to England – and Staffordshire – to work on the harvests was one way to earn money to survive and pay the landlords’ rents.

Irish harvest workers started coming to Staffordshire in large numbers in the 1820s. At that time they were a rather shadowy presence but by 1830 there were enough of them to arouse anti-Irish hostility amongst local workers. In August 1830 four local men were convicted in Stafford of an unprovoked assault on ‘defenceless Irishmen who came over … at this season of the year to do harvest work’.[1] These were men like Michael Byrne, Dominick Dooley or John Gallagher who, in the summer of 1841, were lodging in stables, barns and poultry houses in the Stafford area. Initially there was little incentive for these men to settle permanently in Stafford. They earned their precious money in England and then went back to their families in Ireland.

The Famine began to change things. Stafford received many Irish who were forced out by starvation, destitution and eviction by landlords. Many came to the Stafford area because they had worked there before or because they knew others who had. Many now brought their families with them and settled permanently but others still clung on in Ireland and continued to come over just for harvest or other labouring work.

Information on where these people worked and the jobs they did is sketchy but estate records in the Staffordshire Record Office give us some clues. At Salt and Weston Quarries owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury ‘three Irishmen’ were given spasmodic work in the autumn of 1847. They earned 1s 6d a day. Around the same time James Dunn, James Fergusson and William Keen who, from their names, may also have been Irish, were employed more regularly but after 1849 the quarry was run down and no Irish got jobs there.[2] On the Earl’s Ingestre estate six Irishmen were intermittently employed from 1848 onward (and maybe earlier) on a variety of labouring work. One of them was John Egan, a 44 year old man who in 1851 was living in Hall’s Passage, Stafford, with his wife and four children. There were six other labourers lodging with them and these men all probably did work as a group at Ingestre if they could get it. The jobs done by John Egan ‘and company’ ranged from dressing bricks and breaking stones to harvesting hay and painting the woodwork with tar.[3]

Irish labourer in the 1850s (Sean Sexton Collection)

Irish labourer in the 1850s (Sean Sexton Collection)

During the 1850s more farmwork was on offer to the Irish because agriculture was going through its prosperous Mid-Victorian ‘high farming’ period. Furthermore, many English farmworkers were now leaving the land to get better wages and more attractive jobs in the industrial towns.  The farmers faced an incipient labour shortage and, like contemporary farmers employing Eastern Europeans, the Victorians looked for cheap labour elsewhere.  That opened up more opportunities for the Irish. This is shown by what happened on two local farms. Haywood Park Farm was part of the Earl of Lichfield’s estate on the edge of Cannock Chase. During the second half of the 1850s casual (and nameless) Irishmen and women worked on the farm for about three months each year. By the early 1860s ‘Irish Tom’, ‘Irish John’, ‘Martin’, ‘Barney’, ‘Patrick’, ‘Rush’, ‘Michael’, ‘P. Flinn’ and a ‘lad’ were all doing spells of work on the farm for which they were paid between 1s 8d and 2 shillings a day. Only after 1865, however, did an Irishman, Tommy Lyons, find regular employment at Haywood Park all the year round.[4]

At Loynton Hall Farm near Norbury permanent employment for the Irish came a lot earlier. In February 1853 three unnamed Irishmen were given two weeks’ work threshing wheat, shovelling manure and muck spreading. These dirty jobs done, they left. Other casual Irish were employed later in the year. In 1854 a change occurred because two named Irishmen were taken on permanently. They were Thomas and Michael ‘Wire’ (?O’Dwyer or Maguire?). Michael left in 1856 but Thomas remained to the end of the surviving data in 1859.[5]

Like John Egan, many of the Irish labourers lived in the Stafford slums and trekked out to the farms every day in all weathers or else they bedded down in barns and shacks in the countryside. It was a hard life and after 1865 their chances of farmwork started to disappear as mechanisation started to replace men by machines. At Haywood Park Farm after 1871 there was almost no work for the Irish apart from Tommy Lyons and the farm’s labour force overall had been cut back. The principle was clearly ‘last in, first out’ and the Irish lost out. They either had to adapt or go elsewhere. Anthony Conner, for example, was, in 1861, a farmworker who lived in Allen’s Court, Stafford, along with five other relatives and lodgers. In 1871 he still lived in Allen’s Court but now he had switched to being a bricklayer’s labourer. His associates had all left the town.  Martin McDermott had also been an agricultural labourer but lost his job on the land and ended his years in 1877 cleaning out tubs of human excrement in the Borough Council’s sanitary department.[6] Other redundant and aging farmworkers were also left stranded in a shadowy world of casual work and poverty. Many died as paupers in the Workhouse. They were some of the saddest victims amongst the social wreckage of the Famine.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 21 August 1830.

[2] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO) D240/E (I)/3/28, Shrewsbury Papers, Industrial Records, wage recordsof Salt and Weston Quarries, 1832-69.

[3] SRO, D240/E/F/4/7, Ingestre General Estate and Wages Book, 1848-55.

[4] SRO, Haywood Park Farm, Colwich, Labour Book, 1855-80.

[5] SRO, D1717/F/4, Loynton Hall Estate, Norbury, Day Book, 1853-9. [6] SRO, D1323/C/4/1-2, Stafford Borough Council Public Health Committee Minutes, 1875-88.