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In my post on 26 August 2015 I looked at the ways Irish people dealt with the terrible conditions in the Castlerea area of mid-west Ireland in the decades before the Famine. This post looks at what attracted some of these people to the Stafford area, not just in the pre-Famine times but throughout the nineteenth century. Why was this obscure town in the English west Midlands generally a good place to go?

First, we first need to look at the countryside surrounding Stafford. In the 1820s the area about five miles radius around Stafford town contained a scattered population of 6,500 and the numbers were more or less stagnant. People were leaving the land to get better paid work in the towns – Stafford, the Potteries and the Black Country. That remained true throughout the nineteenth century. The graph shows the estimated net migration – the balance between those coming into the rural area and those leaving – from 1801 to 1911. In all but one decade more left than came in. In the 1830s nearly 600 more people left than settled and the out-migration peaked at over 1100 in the 1860s. It remained high for the rest of the period.[1]

Net migration in the Stafford countryside

Net migration in the Stafford countryside

That does not mean the rural economy was in decline – far from it. Although Staffordshire suffered a farming depression after the Napoleonic wars, it was relatively less affected than other parts of the country because of demand from growing towns close by.[2] Local landowners and tenant farmers did pretty well in the nineteenth century. The district had lots of mixed farms and getting in the hay and grain harvests were events of the farm year. It was the need for extra labour to do these jobs that forged the link with Irish workers from the Castlerea area in the 1820s. Seasonal migration to work on the farms continued during and after the Famine. Indeed, it strengthened. Many local labourers were leaving the land and farmers were faced with an incipient labour shortage during the “High Farming” boom in the mid-century. It opened up opportunities for the Irish, not just in terms of extra seasonal work but also in more permanent jobs throughout the year. The Irish continued to come in large numbers right up until the late 1860s. Some of them settled in the countryside permanently, but most tramped out to their work from the slums of Stafford. After 1865 increasing farm mechanisation started to destroy these jobs, however. It was a case of ‘last in, first out’ and that meant the Irish became redundant. Although some seasonal Irish workers continued to come to the district area, farmwork ceased to be much of a draw.

Stafford town was, however, a dynamic place in the nineteenth century. Its population quadrupled between 1801 and 1881 and the graph shows part of the reason why. Immigrants were continually attracted in by the promise of jobs, and that included the Irish. Although the boom slowed in the 1880s and 1890s and there was a net outflow for a time, there was another inward surge in Edwardian times. By 1911 Stafford’s population was six times that in 1801. Its economic performance was well above the average for England and Wales as a whole, and although it did not match the explosive growth of Stoke-on-Trent or Wolverhampton its strongly expanding economy put it amongst the ancient towns that adapted successfully to the industrial age.

Net migration in Stafford town

Net migration in Stafford town

A number of factors contributed to Stafford’s dynamic performance and attracted Irish migrants. Firstly, its role as the market town for the surrounding agricultural area was strengthened by the general prosperity of local farming. The town’s outdoor, indoor and agricultural markets expanded. The cattle fairs attracted Irish dealers and drovers, a further point of contact with rural Ireland.[3]  The Irishman Joseph Lyons and his wife Mary arrived in Stafford in the early 1860s and his family ran a fish stall in the market for over twenty years. He was clearly a “rogue trader”, charged at various times with selling bad fish, assault and various market rules offences.[4] The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of modern lock-up shops such as Mottrams. They took over the clothing business of another Irishman, John Crosbie from Ulster, when he went bankrupt in 1878. Another of Stafford’s Ulster Irish, Hugh Gibson, was a promoter of the Stafford Mutual Permanent Benefit Building Society amongst his many business and political activities.

The expansion of Stafford’s service functions therefore meant there were more jobs in shops, warehousing, cartage, refuse disposal and so on which opened up opportunities for the Irish. Their desperate need for housing was met by numerous Irish lodging house keepers about the town. The general expansion of Stafford meant more or less continual activity in building and construction. The building trade employed around 15 per cent of the male workforce, many of them Irish.  Some farmworkers switched to building work when the number of jobs on the land declined in the late 1860s.

A second factor contributing to Stafford’s dynamic performance in the nineteenth century was its strategic location in the transport network. The arrival of the railway in 1837 was fundamental. Irish navvies worked on the railway’s construction but none stayed in Stafford afterwards; they moved on up the line and on to the next project. But Stafford now lay on the new trunk railway network and as traffic built up the station, engine sheds, goods facilities and signalling systems expanded. The number of railway jobs grew and by 1901 nearly a thousand people worked on the railway. Down the years a significant number of them were Irish.

Stafford’s key industry was, of course, the manufacture of boots and shoes. I shall do a special post on the shoe trade and Ireland at a later date but here I just want to emphasise how rapidly it grew in the nineteenth century. As a craft, although often a sweated one, the shoe trade directly attracted Irish workers who already had the necessary skills. There was a long tradition of shoemakers going “on tramp” to seek work, and to a great extent Britain and Ireland formed a unified labour market. Irish shoemakers attracted to Stafford, for example, were Protestants like the Andrew Brew or Hugh Gibson and Catholics like John Gavan, John O’Connor and John Mulrooney. There was no work in the shoe trade for the unskilled labouring Irish, but it did provide openings for their children who grew up in the town.

After 1874 the shoe trade ran into problems caused by overseas competition but this proved to be Stafford’s only major setback in the nineteenth century. Although the town became relatively less attractive to the Irish, the manufacturing economy began to diversify with the growth of firms like Dorman’s engineering factory, Bagnall’s locomotive works and Rooper’s artificial grindstone business (later the Universal). The biggest development was the opening in 1903 of the Siemens dynamo works which helped restore Stafford’s economic dynamism in the 1900s. Many of the children of Irish immigrants found work in these new industries as well as in the shoe trade.

The growth of public services and institutions also attracted some Irish to Stafford. Municipal reform forced the reluctant council to shoulder more responsibilities and employ more workers. The gasworks was bought by the council in 1878 and was a source of both labouring and clerical jobs. The borough police force was established in 1836, and the county force in 1842. Irish men worked in both. Education reform also created jobs, particularly for women, and both immigrants and second generation Irish children went into the teaching profession. In 1874 the first Medical Officer of Health, a Protestant Irishman, was appointed and for ten years he vigorously pursued the public health reforms needed in this “stinking” town. The new waterworks, sewage works and other services created labouring, technical and clerical jobs in the public sector.

Stafford also had its four major public institutions – the Infirmary, the County Lunatic Asylum, the Coton Hill Asylum and Stafford Gaol. Each provided jobs open, in various ways, to Irish immigrants and their children. Between 1852 and 1882 Stafford was also the base of the 2nd Staffordshire Militia, and down the years many Irish regular soldiers were drafted to the Militia barracks. A significant number settled in the town and formed a distinctive but varied element amongst its Irish families. John Cronin in my last post was one of these.

The Irish who came to Stafford in the nineteenth century were therefore attracted by many different things. There was no single and simple reason for their settlement. In the end, however, they had to get work to live, and it was the jobs created by the diversity and dynamism of the town’s economy that attracted many of the immigrants, just as they continued to do in much of the twentieth century.

[1] If you want to know how I worked out these net migration figures, please get in touch.

[2] M.W. Greenslade and D.A. Johnston (eds.), A History of the County of Stafford, Vol. VI, (Oxford, OUP for the Institute of Historical Research, 1979), p. 91.

[3] VCH Stafford, pp. 213-215.

[4] For example, see Staffordshire Advertiser, 21 April 1864, 28 April 1866, 15 February 1868, 16 December 1871, 3 May 1873, 29 June 1878.