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In 1772 Stafford had been by-passed by the new Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and it took until 1816 before a branch was opened into the town by canalising the River Sow. This waterway terminated at the Green Bridge in a separate short stretch of canal alongside the river and it was here that a coal wharf was established. The branch fell out of use and became derelict in the 1920s but there is now a campaign to reopen it as the Stafford Riverway Link.

Stafford canal wharf, 1900, OS 1:2500 plan

Stafford canal wharf, 1900, OS 1:2500 plan

The canal coal wharf was the scene of a tragedy at Christmas 1857. On the morning of 29 December a little boy named Martin Kearney was drowned in the canal. He was the son of Thomas Kearney and Ellen Kennedy and he was just three and a half years old. Thomas and Ellen had both arrived in Stafford during the Irish Famine of the late 1840s. In 1851 Thomas was a bricklayer’s labourer lodging in New Street in the north end whilst Ellen was also described as a ‘labourer’. She was lodging in Allen’s Court in the town centre with the Raftery family from Co. Roscommon. Thomas and Ellen both came from this part of Ireland and perhaps they already knew each other. All we know is that they got married at St Austin’s on 20 October 1851, one of many couples who came together to start new lives in the Famine’s aftermath.

Their son Martin was born in 1854 and he seems to have been Thomas and Ellen’s first surviving child. They were a poor family who existed for decades in some of Stafford’s worst slums. On that winter’s morning of 1857 Martin had been sent to the coal wharf with a ‘youth’ for a wheelbarrow load of coal. The family was then living in Cottage Street, so little Martin had a very long walk to get to and from the wharf. [1] After they had brought the coal back to Cottage Street the pair had to traipse back to the wharf to return the barrow, although perhaps the youth gave Martin a ride in it. All we know is that, once there, Martin somehow got separated from the youth and fell in the water.  John Waltho, a prison warder who happened to be passing, saw the boy in the canal, gave the alarm and he was dragged out of the water.

It was too late. No doctor could be found in the vicinity and Martin was carted off to the Infirmary where he was pronounced dead. At the inquest it was reported that a knife had been found in his hand and the speculation was that he had tried to cut a twig from a willow tree overhanging the water and had fallen in. The fact that a three year old boy was in possession of a knife is frightening but the inquest jury made no comment on this fact and neither did it make any reference to the actions of the youth with him. The verdict was merely the factual one that Martin Kearney, ‘the child of Irish parents’ was ‘found drowned’.[2]

Death was commonplace amongst the children of the poor in Victorian times. Thomas and Ellen Kearney remained in Stafford and had at least six more children after Martin but only three made it to adulthood.  A second son called Martin lived only a year, so it was an ill-fated name in the family. Thomas spent the rest of his life working as a bricklayer’s labourer and for over twenty years they lived in a cottage in Back Walls North. Ellen died in 1891 and Thomas must have had some miserable final years as a widower. He was attacked at least twice by his violent son, Patrick James, and he died in 1900 an isolated man that sink of poverty, Snow’s Yard. The three surviving children all seem to have emigrated. The Kearney family had lived in Stafford for over fifty years but in the end they were long-term transients for whom the town had proved a mixed blessing.

[1] Stafford Borough Council burial register entry 01/340, Martin Kearney, 31 December 1857; his address was given as Cottage Street.

[2] Staffordshire Advertiser, 2 January 1858.