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My last post (2 June 2016) described the physical character of Stafford when Irish people sought refuge there during the Famine. Although superficially an attractive rural town, we saw that Stafford had many gloomy areas where most of the Irish were forced to settle. This post digs a little deeper into the conditions that the poor and destitute had to endure and the often ineffectual or damaging attempts by the borough council to deal with things.

Stafford had had Improvement Commissioners since a local Improvement Act of 1830 but they achieved little beyond some street works because the commissioners were unwilling to raise the rates or interfere with the rights of property owners.  In my last post Dr Edward Knight’s description of the sanitary state of Stafford in 1842 showed the squalid state of things.[1] The arrival of the Famine Irish in 1847 stirred the councillors out of their lethargy but the results were limited and skewed as we shall see. They were not generally bothered about the state of the slum houses themselves. The sanctity of private property had to be preserved. The council’s main concern was the externalities imposed by the slums, particularly the impact of sanitary ‘nuisances’ and potential disease on nearby residents in this closely packed town. The medical profession was alarmed and in June 1847 Dr Walter Fergus from the Infirmary was writing about the impact of ‘Irish fever’ which he said was ‘no more Irish than it is the companion of famine and want of attention to cleanliness’. [2] In November he drew attention to results of the year’s events in terms of the ‘enormous quantity’ of mortality in the town, much higher than the national average and not far off that in Liverpool.[3]  The Council’s response was (inevitably) to set up a committee ‘to inspect from time to time the sanitary state of the borough’. [4]

Action was still slow to come but evidence expands on the actual conditions facing Stafford’s slum dwellers. We saw in the last post that the houses in the poorer parts of the town were usually either decrepit cottages often dating back to the 17th century or jerry-built dwellings built since the 1770s. They were small, frequently just two rooms, and many had no proper water supply or sanitation. Even so, middle class commentators often blamed the poor for their wretched conditions. Mr Wogan, surgeon at the Infirmary, said ‘there were back streets in the town inhabited by some who preferred living in dirt to habits of cleanliness’. Nevertheless, he went on to report that ‘some’ of the poor in Back Walls North were forced to get their drinking water from the foetid ditch behind the houses that received a good part of the town’s raw sewage. They had no other supply.[5]  When cholera returned to England in 1849 it is not surprising that Staffordians feared it would strike their town. They were lucky – it never did – but councillors worried about the danger of the ‘open privies, cesspools, filthy drains and crowded houses’ of the town even though the source of the disease in polluted water was yet to be demonstrated.  The Council’s only remedy was, however, to distribute chloride of lime ‘to the poor people who applied for it’.[6] It also established a new Sanitary Committee with powers of inspection and ‘abatement’.[7]

In 1850 the Watch Committee of the Council turned its attention to ‘four houses in Eastgate Street inhabited by Irish families, part of which were in the most filthy state, none of them having back doors nor any place of convenience’.[8] The squalor of back yards being used as general latrines can be imagined. One of those issued with a notice for the ‘removal of nuisances’ was James Concur (sic.) from the Galway family whose story I told in a number of posts in 2015 (e.g. 11 August and 13 October 2015). Elizabeth – or Betty – Maguire was another Irish person served with notice, but two of the houses in Eastgate Street occupied by the Irish were in fact leased by Staffordian landlords, William Ecclestone and Joseph Weaver.[9] At the hearing a total of five English landlords were named to the authorities for allowing ‘nuisances’ on their premises which shows how the sufferings of the Irish were a source of profit to local property holders. The Council ordered the landlords to remove the nuisances but nothing was done to rectify the basic problems and conditions remained appalling for the residents.

In 1853 the Improvement Commissioners set up a Board of Health and yet more surveys were done of housing conditions. The reporter for the west side of the town centre, Mr Williams, reported that the area was ‘in a very unsatisfactory and unwholesome condition; the privies and piggeries were very bad and many of the dwellings of the lower class were in a most wretched and filthy state, several of them never having been cleansed with whitewash for up to ten years. …. The cesspools were badly constructed …. and were a continual nuisance.’ Alderman Boulton said that in the east side of the town centre there was an ‘entire absence in some of the dwellings … of any back premises … and another great nuisance was the draining of many of the privies into the Thieves Ditch. …. The water of the greater number of the pumps in the Back Walls was not fit to drink.’[10]

The area near the gasworks was particularly bad. In September 1854 effluent from the works was reportedly impregnating the soil and tainting the water. Cesspools were overflowing and Mr Bagnall complained about the ‘discharging the contents of cesspools into the channel of the street opposite his house. He said the stench was intolerable and … he had himself seen night soil floating in the channel.’[11]

Despite this lurid evidence, in the same month the Health Committee rather smugly received reports that ‘the sanitary condition of the district was much better than formerly’. The only exception, it was claimed, was Allen’s Court near the Vine Inn ‘inhabited by Irish labourers and which was said to be in a most filthy state.’ The landlord’s agent was ordered to cleanse the court which he seems to have done after being remanded by the town’s magistrates. It was said that the property in Allen’s Court was to be shortly be pulled down, with the implication that the problem would then disappear.[12] Allen’s Court in fact survived as a slum inhabited by Irish people and their descendants down into the twentieth century!

The main Council response to the Irish refugees proved to be the harassment of the operators of the lodging houses in which most were forced to find shelter. In August 1849 the Council adopted bye-laws (operative from October) that required the registration of lodging houses, imposed limits on maximum occupancy and other requirements, and gave powers to inspect premises. In the following years Irish lodging house keepers were frequently brought before the Mayor and magistrates for contravening these regulations.

A classic example was in August 1850 when ‘several Irish lodging house keepers in Lloyd’s Square were brought before the Mayor …. charged …. with keeping their houses in a filthy condition and allowing in several instances as many as sixteen individuals to sleep together in one room, contrary to the borough bye-laws. The defendants were severely reprimanded and ordered to pay the costs.’[13] Lloyd’s Square was better known as Plant’s Square and we have been there before in this blog (2 June 2016, 28 July 2015). It was a court of nine tiny 2-room cottages in Stafford’s north end with a pump and a row of reeking privies. The Irish may have paid the costs but nothing changed in the Square. In the 1851 Census 63 people were crammed into the five hovels that were clearly operating as lodging houses.

Plant's Square

Plant’s Square is shown just above and to the left of ‘Cross’ (Street) on this 1:500 OS plan of Stafford in 1881. Note how it was crammed in adjacent to other relatively superior houses with gardens, an example of the complex social geography of the town. The plan shows the privies and pump & trough serving the yard.

The Plant’s Square lodging house keepers were summoned again in February 1851 ‘for keeping their houses in a filthy and unwholesome state’ and with the same results. At the same time Thomas Rafferty (or Raftery) and Patrick Walsh from Allen’s Court were issued with costs for not registering their lodging houses.[14]  In June others were fined for having more people in their houses than the certificated number.[15]

Harassment of Irish lodging house keepers was, of course, doing nothing to solve the desperate housing needs of Irish refugees – it was making their problems worse. Although the response of Stafford’s elite to the influx of Famine refugees was muted and there was very little overt hostility to the Irish generally in the town, action against Irish lodging house keepers clearly stigmatised them as a troublesome group to be kept in check. In my next post I shall explore the role and significance of Irish lodging houses in Stafford at time of the Famine and its aftermath.

[1] 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.

[2] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 19 June 1847.

[3] SA, 20 November 1847. Stafford’s death rate was 1:33 compared with 1:29 for Liverpool and 1:45 in England as a whole.

[4] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 2 November 1841-3 July 1851, 23 November 1847.

[5] SA, 6 May 1848, Meeting of Stafford Improvement Commissioners.

[6] SA, 22 September 1849.

[7] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 September 1849.

[8] SA, 15 June 1850.

[9] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 June 1850.

[10] SA, 1 October 1853.

[11] SA, 9 September 1854.

[12] SA, 23 and 30 September 1854.

[13] SA, 10 August 1850.

[14] SA, 1 February 1851.

[15] SA, 14 June 1851.