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In my last post I described how the Famine Irish arrived in Stafford and their impact on the town in the late 1840s. This post tries to give some of the character of the town in which they found refuge during that terrible period.

At that time Stafford was still relatively small but growing fast. In 1821 its population had been just over 6,500 but by 1851 it had risen over 11,500.[1] Housing provision – left to private developers – never kept up with the surge of population and conditions got ever more crowded and miserable. After 1837 the town was divided into four distinct parts separated by the River Sow and its marshy tributaries. The Famine Irish mostly arrived down the Stone Road from the north and they first came to the Foregate, in popular parlance the ‘North End’ of Stafford.[2] This had mostly developed after the enclosure of the Foregate Field in 1807.[3] Any new arrival walked down a broad road – North Street and then Grey Friars – past a straggle of cottages and houses. Plant’s Square had been thrown up on an open patch of ground to the left of the road. A squalid court of nine tiny cottages, it was an immediate refuge for Irish families and lodgers during the Famine and for many years afterwards. New Street ran parallel to Grey Friars Street. Always a narrow and mean street, its worst houses were nevertheless a bit better than Plant’s Square and a number were later occupied by Irish families who had managed to escape from the worst slums.

From the junction with Browning’s Lane the main road became Foregate Street, a mixture of grand residences, old half-timbered dwellings and mean workers’ cottages. The Red Cow pub stood opposite the junction with Browning’s Lane and lurking down the alley beside it was Snow’s, or Red Cow, Yard, a place we have already met a number of times in this blog. Many Irish people ended up there. Going farther on, Sash Street went off to the left. This was another mean street where many Famine Irish found shelter. Just beyond came County Road, a rather better street, but beyond that in the despoiled field between Foregate Street and Gaol Road was Middle Row, a line of decrepit cottages that also became a refuge of the Famine Irish. Continuing down Foregate Street past the Staffordshire General Infirmary, the street then narrowed and kinked to left and right before entering Gaol Square.

Stafford 19c Map Rev

Stafford in the nineteenth century showing the four areas of Foregate, the Town Centre, Forebridge and Castletown.

Gaol Square dated from the early 1800s. The county gaol and the Gaolgate had been on the site until they were knocked down when the new Gaol was built on Gaol Road in 1793. Although a focal point for the streets in this part of town, Gaol Square was an untidy mix of mediocre buildings of various ages around a featureless expanse of road. The Square’s significance was that the roads entering Stafford from the north converged here because it was the only dry crossing point into the town centre. To the west the land sloped down to the River Sow, while to the east lay marshes drained sluggishly by Sandyford Brook, Lammascote Drain and Thieves’ Ditch. The main way into the town centre was straight ahead up Gaolgate Street.

The stench was probably the first thing to strike any new arrival to Stafford. The town’s low-lying site meant the drainage was poor and the surrounding watercourses filled up with reeking effluent. The town’s sewage flowed in open channels down the streets and the drinking water came from shallow wells contaminated by leakage from cess pits. An assize court judge in 1870 described Stafford as ‘the most stinking town I was ever in in my life.’[4]

Despite its malodorous nature, a walk up Gaolgate Street passed through part of the town’s commercial heart. Shops lined the street and there were seven pubs within 150 yards. Many of the buildings were still half-timbered and thatched, dating back to the seventeenth century. At the top of the street was Market Square, a civic space worthy of the town with the Shire Hall and other impressive buildings occupied by the town’s leading citizens, as well as shops, public houses and banks. Continuing southwards out of Market Square, Greengate Street was lined with shops, pubs and other commercial premises of a distinctly higher quality than those in Gaolgate Street. Notable among these was the Swan Hotel, but that was already in decline since the opening of the railway in 1837 had destroyed its stage coach trade. Charles Dickens was to nickname it ‘The Dodo’.[5]

Destitute Irish people arriving in 1847 would find nothing for them in the main street.  The side streets were a different matter. Within a few yards of the relative affluence of the centre lay the cramped, damp and insanitary cottages of the poor. In 1842 Dr. Edward Knight, Physician to the Infirmary, described the –

‘filthy state of those parts of the town occupied exclusively by the lower classes, [such] as the ‘Broad Eye’, ‘Back Walls’ &c. ….

These parts of the town are without drainage, the houses, which are private property, are built without any regard to situation or ventilation; and constructed in a manner to ensure the greatest return at the least possible outlay. The accommodation in them does not extend beyond two rooms: these are small, and for the most part the families work in the day-time in the same room in which they sleep, to save fuel.

There is not any provision made for refuse dirt, which, as the least trouble, is thrown down in front of the houses and there left to putrefy. The back entrances to the houses in the principal streets are generally into these, stabling, cow-houses, &c., belonging to them, forming one side of the street, and placed opposite to the poorer houses; so that they are continually subjected to the malaria arising from that, in addition to their own dirt.

The sedentary occupation of the working-classes (shoemaking being the staple trade of the town), their own want of cleanliness and general intemperance, form also a fruitful source of disease. ……

The situation of Stafford …. offers every facility for an efficient drainage; it is nearly surrounded by a large ditch, in which there might be a running stream of water, well calculated to remove all impurities; but it is always choked up, and in a stagnant state; the river ‘Sow’ is also close to the town. There are not any sewers even in the principal streets, the water being carried off by open channels.’[6]

The refugee in search of lodgings could have left Gaol Square by walking up a narrow, dingy street to the left. This was Back Walls North, one of the areas described by Dr Knight. As its name suggests, it was built along the line of the old town walls on the edge of the marshes, and it wandered off to the Eastgate lined with decrepit old cottages. One hundred years later it was still ‘a slum, with sacking over the broken windows of dilapidated terraced houses, half-naked children sitting on the doorsteps, no shoes on their feet and scabs of malnutrition on their pallid little faces.’[7] Lurking in the smoky gloom behind were Allen’s and Clarke’s Courts as well as the little alley of Malt Mill Lane and its court which linked with Salter Street. These were some of the hovels where Stafford’s poorest people already lived and the Famine Irish added to their number. Just past the site of the old gate Back Walls crossed Eastgate Street and swung sharply to the right to head back to the main street as Back Walls South. Half way along was a tannery whose smells, rats and flies were the residents’ neighbours.

The Back Walls were the worst areas of housing to the east of the town centre, but there were huddles of poor property elsewhere along Eastgate Street, in St Chad’s Place and in Appleyard Court off Tipping Street.   Things were much the same on the other side of the main street. Directly opposite the end of Back Walls South lay the entrance to Mill Bank, another narrow street lined with small cottages and similarly damp in its location close to the river. Stafford’s slum housing was a mix of decaying half-timbered structures dating back to the seventeenth century and niggardly brick cottages thrown up since the 1770s to profit from the rising population. Superficially the town might look more attractive than the grimy, reeking slums of the northern and midland cities where many of the Irish ended up. In Stafford town centre the classes still lived close to each other and a minute’s walk could span the range from the affluent to the squalid. Even so, for the impoverished shoemaker in Broad Eye, the farm labourer in Clarke’s Court or the refugee Irish alongside them the day-to-day grind to survive meant living conditions were as hard as those in the big cities. Life in Stafford was no country town idyll.

Broad Eye

Cottages on Tenterbanks at the Broad Eye. They may look picturesque in the sunshine but for Stafford’s poor they were overcrowded, miserable, damp and insanitary dwellings.

Mill Bank further along morphed into Tenterbanks. This was another straggle of poor dwellings that followed the course of the Sow to Broad Eye. The Broad Eye had developed as a tangle of streets and courts around the site of the old west gate. In the 1840s, as now, the locality was dominated by a large stone windmill, but otherwise it had little recommend it. Always low-lying, the area had become even more unpleasant in the 1830s when the town’s gasworks was built immediately to the north. One of the streets running off Broad Eye was Cherry Street. Despite its rustic name, Cherry Street was a mean area that, like Broad Eye, became home to many Irish families. Other courts and pockets of poor housing were to be found scattered in Stafford’s dank peripheries west of the main street like Dottell Street, Wilson’s Court and Bull Hill.

Since the middle ages Stafford’s had begun to extend southwards beyond the River Sow. This area was Forebridge, the third part of the town’s structure. There were substantial villas and other elegant residences here, particularly along the Lichfield Road, but there were, nevertheless, pockets of poor housing in Plant’s Court and Bailey Street. Irish people settled here both before and during the Famine. About a quarter of a mile up the Wolverhampton Road was St Austin’s Catholic Chapel. Its location at the southern edge of town was convenient for its generally respectable English congregation but inconvenient for most of the Catholic Irish.

The arrival of the railway in 1837 had resulted in the emergence of a fourth part of the town, the new suburb of Castletown between the River Sow and the railway. Its houses were fairly small and often enveloped in a pall of smoke from the engine sheds. Nevertheless, they mostly had back yards or small gardens and they were distinctly better than the workers’ housing in other parts of Stafford. As a relatively respectable working class suburb there was no accommodation here for the Famine Irish. They had to initially survive in the slums elsewhere or, in 1847 as we have already seen in this blog, in the vagrant wards and temporary huts of the Workhouse.

[1] These figures are based on a standard area definition of Stafford town which approximates to the borough boundary of 1877. The figures therefore differ from the published census population totals for Stafford Borough.

[2] Derived from personal knowledge and the following sources: John Wood’s ‘Plan of Stafford from Actual Survey, 1835’ in Staffordshire County Council Education Dept., Local History Source Book L.3, Stafford Maps, (Stafford, Staffordshire CC Education Dept., 1969); M.W. Greenslade, D.A. Johnson & C.R.J. Currie (eds), A History of Stafford, (Victoria County History of the County of Stafford, Vol. VI), (1979/1982), pp. 185-196; R. Lewis, Stafford: an Illustrated History, (Chichester, Phillimore & Co., 1997); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford as it was, (Nelson, Hendon Pub. Co., 1980); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Around Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford in old picture postcards, (Zaltbommel, Netherlands, European Library, 1984); R. Lewis, Around Stafford, Stroud, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 1999); R. Lewis, Stafford and District, (Wilmslow, Sigma Press, 1998); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1994); P. Butters, Yesterday’s Town: Stafford, (Buckingham, Barracuda Books, 1984).

[3] VCH Stafford, p. 191.

[4] VCH Stafford, p. 232; Lewis, Stafford Past, p. 57.

[5] Charles Dickens, ‘A Plated Article’, Household Words, 24 April 1852.

[6] Parliamentary Papers, 1842 (007), Commission on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain: Local reports on England: No. 15: “On the Sanitary State of the Town of Stafford” by Dr. Edward Knight, pp. 225-6.

[7] A reminiscence of the author’s childhood in Butters, Yesterday’s Town, p. 103.