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Eleven year-old William Ruhall was a ‘bad boy’. His father thought so and so did the teachers at St Patrick’s School in Stafford. And the penalty for allegedly bad behaviour at school by a poor Irish boy in 1876 was extreme. This emerged in court in October of that year when George Walsh, the only qualified teacher at St Patrick’s, was summonsed for assaulting William Ruhall. The motive for the attack was that William had ‘told an untruth’ regarding a dictation lesson, something that from today’s perspective seems a mysterious but essentially trivial allegation.[1]

George Walsh thought otherwise. He proceeded to give William Ruhall six strokes of the cane on his hands, but the master wasn’t finished with him. He then ‘beat him around the body and knocked him down with his knee.’ The lad got up off the floor but Walsh knocked him down again.

When he went back to his slum cottage in Back Walls North William reported what had happened at school. His father, John Ruhall, found the marks of violence on his body and went to the police station where William was examined by Sgt Hackney. The policeman told the court that he had found nine discoloured marks on his thighs and lower back which could not have been caused by a cane. The evidence that George Walsh had effectively beaten up poor William initially seemed damning but the wheels of justice then moved to protect an articulate middle class teacher against an uppity but poor Irish family. In his defence Walsh agreed that he had struck William ‘three or four times’ but denied knocking him down. He claimed the boy ‘fell down to avoid the cuts with the cane’. He was backed up by the pupil teacher at the school who said that Ruhall was ‘not a good lad and that on one occasion his father had brought him to school and expressed a wish that he should be chastised.’

That swung it. The Bench said that in general the courts should protect boys who were unduly punished, but that didn’t apply to William Ruhall because he ‘seemed to be a bad boy’. The case was dismissed and George Walsh left court a free man.

This cameo of pupil/teacher relations at St Patrick’s exposes some of the tensions inherent in the relationship between the English Catholic elementary school system and poor working class pupils from both Irish and English homes. St Patrick’s School had been established in 1868 explicitly with the aim of ensuring the Faith was maintained amongst the potentially errant working class of Stafford’s north end.[2] Early on it became just a boys’ school, the girls being sent to the more genteel St Austin’s School at the south end of town. The rougher St Patrick’s was under-funded. In 1873 136 pupils were on the books but there was just one qualified master and a candidate pupil teacher.[3] Attendance was chronically poor, partly because parents often neglected to send their children to school but also because of endemic infectious diseases amongst children of the courts and streets of the area. Even so, with an average attendance of 98 pupils, the single teacher and his assistant would have struggled to cope, and order could only be maintained using the draconian methods experienced by William Ruhall.


St Patrick’s School infants’ class, c1910. By this time the school had ceased to be a purely boys’ school and both the number and calibre of the teachers had improved over things in 1876. (Picture by courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell).

William came from a classically deprived Irish family. His father John was a farm labourer who had arrived in Stafford around 1861 with his wife Margaret (née Ryan). They had originally been Famine immigrants and seem to have lived somewhere in the Potteries in the 1850s.[4] They already had two children when they arrived in Stafford and Jane, Ellen and William were born after they settled in the town, William being the last child in 1865.[5] Tragedy was to strike, however. The children’s mother Margaret died in November 1866 and John Ruhall was left on his own with the five children.[6] Life must have been a struggle and food was probably short. Not surprising, then, that fourteen year-old John was arrested in August 1868 with his mate Peter Murray from another Irish family for stealing fowl from the Earl of Lichfield’s estate. He got one month in prison and three years in a reformatory. On his release he returned to the family home and in 1871 was working as a brickfield labourer.[7] By then the younger children were approaching adolescence and John senior was none too keen on sending them to school. He was fined twice for the offence in 1875.[8]

It is hardly surprising that young William was a difficult pupil when he attended school at all. He was just the sort of troublesome and apparently hopeless child likely to be treated with contempt by an overworked teacher like George Walsh. Walsh represented the aspirational and respectable side of English Catholicism. His relationship with the poor of his catchment area seems to have been problematic. Two months after his attack on William Ruhall he was back in the news, this time because he had refused a poor child admission to St Patrick’s because the charge for the boy’s school books had not been paid. Walsh argued that the Stafford School Board should pay the book charge in addition to the school fees whereas the Board claimed the Catholic school had no right to claim such an extra payment for poor pupils.[9] Three years later he was involved in another dispute. He refused to allow a pupil back into school who had had a skin disease. He insisted the boy first bring a certificate of recovery signed by the schools’ medical officer, something the latter refused to grant. He said it was ‘unnecessary’ since he had not been previously asked to certify his unfitness to attend.[10]

These incidents suggest Walsh was a pernickety as well as a potentially violent man. He came to St Patrick’s some time around 1873, and it is instructive to look at the evidence of his background and life. It was very different from the Ruhall family. There was one similarity – he, like William Ruhall, was the child of Irish parents, William James and Eliza Walsh.[11] They were born in Ireland in the 1810s, though it is not known from what part of Ireland they came. William may have had time in the navy but by 1851 he was a coastguard based in the Faversham area of Kent. He was earlier based in Rochester since George (b. 1848) and three other children were born there in the 1840s.[12] The family’s whereabouts for the next twenty years are not known but evidence suggests they were either in Ireland or elsewhere on an official posting since in 1861 their son Maurice John Walsh was a boarding pupil at the Greenwich Hospital Schools.

In 1871 George Walsh’s path finally becomes clear.  In that year he was a ‘pupil’ doing teacher training at Brook Green (St Mary’s) Roman Catholic College in Hammersmith. The college had been founded in 1850 by the Catholic Poor School Committee to provide teachers in primary education for poor Catholics throughout the country. Mary Hickman has argued that a key aim of the CPSC and its colleges was to produce respectable (English) working class Catholics out of the Irish masses, though the CPSC itself said ‘we should not try to make them in appearance other than the schools of the poor.’[13]  St Patrick’s in Stafford was a classic Catholic poor school and George Walsh was a classic product of the training system designed to staff it. It was a system that tended to encourage superior, patronising and even contemptuous attitudes towards poor children amongst trainees susceptible to such views. George Walsh appears to have been such a man.


The large building on the left of this photo is the original St Patrick’s School of 1868. The lower building at the other end of the site is St Patrick’s ‘tin church’ erected in 1895. (Picture courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell; original source unknown)

Walsh was probably assigned directly to St Patrick’s when he finished his training, though we don’t know precisely when he arrived in Stafford. He was certainly there by the mid-1870s. He would have been a key figure in the local Church and on close terms with the parish priest at St Austin’s. That fact becomes obvious with his marriage. In 1876 Walsh married a Staffordshire woman, Catherine Sarah Sharrod.[14]

Catherine came from a Catholic family in the Rugeley area and her father had been a miller and farmer. They were clearly an aspirant entrepreneurial family with close connections to the Church. Catherine trained as a teacher. The key connection is that in 1871 she was the teacher at St Mary’s Catholic School in Brewood, a traditionally recusant area with wealthy Catholic families like the Giffards of Chillingham Estate. She must already have been a financially secure young woman since we find her as a 23 year-old ‘certified teacher’ living on her own but employing both a housekeeper and a housemaid. Even more significant, she lived next door to the parish priest, Edward Acton. Brewood was a plum posting for Catholic priests in the midlands but in 1873 Acton was sent to an even better one – St Austin’s at Stafford. It can have been no coincidence that George Walsh came to meet Catherine (Kate) Sharrod either in Brewood through Acton or maybe because she moved to St Austin’s School  in the wake of Edward Acton’s translation to the Stafford mission.

After their marriage the Walshes lived in a respectable house on the Wolverhampton Road. It was within a hundred yards of St Austin’s Church, the presbytery and Edward Acton. It was a far cry from St Patrick’s School in both distance and social character and it demonstrates how the family had no interest in living in the catchment area of the school even though a house perfectly acceptable to their tastes could have been found in the north end. The impression is of an aspiring family who sought a nice lifestyle and social security amongst their own kind. It is interesting, nevertheless, that Kate Sharrod Walsh continued to teach even after her marriage, despite the fact that most females were, in those days, forced to give up the profession after marriage. She must have been a determined woman. Even more remarkable, the couple went on to have at least six children.

Walsh’s tenure at St Patrick’s remained problematic. In 1882 ‘there was a falling off of the grant … due to the want of regularity in attendance.’[15] In the following year there were complaints that when the fees of poor pupils were paid by the Board of Guardians and the parents were ‘too poor to pay for copy books, dictation books and slates, the education of the children was neglected.’[16] Edward Acton, the Walsh’s patron, left St Austin’s in 1880 and in 1884 a French priest, Louis Torond, was in post. He seems to have been an abrasive character who only lasted a year, but one of his acts may have been to sack George Walsh and his wife from their posts. All we know today is that male and female teachers were sacked that year and that ‘the state of religious instruction in the Boy’s School [St Patrick’s] has been among the least satisfactory for the last two if not three years.’ (sic)[17] We also know that the Walsh’s daughter Constance Kathleen was born in Stafford in 1883 whereas their next child, Ernest Wilfred, arrived in Camberwell in 1886. The Walshes clearly left the Stafford between those dates and their sacking by Torond could well be the explanation.[18]

So the Walsh family moved to London. Both George and Kate continued in the teaching profession in school board/county council schools, though whether they were still in Catholic schools is not known. They lived in modern and respectable terraced houses south of the Peckham Road in Camberwell, then a rapidly developing suburb, so it seems they were able to maintain their aspirant middle class lifestyle.[19]

The subsequent history of the Ruhall family was more divergent. Old John Ruhall died in Stafford in 1885, having dwindled to being a hawker before his death. [20] Young John left Stafford in the 1870s and may have emigrated but William went into the Stafford shoe trade. He remained a stroppy character, however. In 1882 he was an apprentice in the firm of Alfred Ward but in September that year he was charged with refusing to work and making threats against his employer’s foreman. He immediately absconded and only reappeared in court in January 1883. He was bound over to keep the peace for six months.[21] After that the trail goes cold. He may have emigrated, though the perennial problem of variations in his surname spelling bedevils any attempt to definitively track him down.

The two Ruhall girls, Jane and Ellen, also went into the shoe trade and they stayed on in Stafford. Neither of them married and they lived together at no. 88 Back Walls North for at least twenty years, probably longer.  It seems they tried to cast off the family’s problematic past.  There are two bits of evidence for this. In 1897 one of the sisters provided a refreshment tray at the St Austin’s soirée, a sure sign of involvement in the respectable social life of the Church; the other sister doubtless attended and may have contributed.[22]  Secondly, the sisters subtly finalised their surname as ‘Rowhan’, something confirmed in Jane’s own writing in the 1911 census return.[23] Ellen died in Stafford in 1932 but Jane’s death has not been traced.[24]

St Patrick’s School went on to become a central and generally well-liked institution in the social life of Stafford’s north end but problems remained at the school after George Walsh’s departure. In December 1890 an HMI report said ‘discipline is still the weak point here, the children being talkative and inattentive.’ Even so, the children’s work in reading, arithmetic, drill and marching was described as acceptable or even better.[25]  St Patrick’s problems were not unusual and in 1902 ‘Cardinal Vaughan accepted the accusation that his schools were among the worst in England’.[26] They were often overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded and St Patrick’s was probably no better and no worse than many. William Ruhall and George Walsh had met in a stressed environment where vulnerable and overworked individuals were often blamed for problems whose origins were structural to the system they were in. That remains the case today in the many public services subject to financial cuts and political neglect or hostility.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 14 October 1876.

[2] John Herson, ‘The English, the Irish and the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923’, Midland Catholic History,No. 14 (2007), p. 32.

[3] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1, St Austin’s Stafford, Mission Book, Returns ordered by the Bishop, 31 May 1873.

[4] Their children Mary Ann (b. c1851) and John (b. 1854) had been born in Stoke on Trent. The Ruhalls were not listed in Stafford in the 1861 Census but their child Jane was born in the town in July/August 1860. Ancestry database, England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, 5 August 1860, Jane Ruhall, daughter of John and Margaret Ryan Ruhall, File No 1999441, item 10. It is worth noting that the name ‘Ruhall’, whilst uncommon, was subject to many different phonetic spellings and underlines the limits of what can be found even using modern digital methods. The evidence is no better than the original sources and the transcriptions made of them.

[5] Ancestry database, England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, 5 February 1865, William ‘Rouhan’, son of John ‘Rouhan’ and Margaret Ryan, File No 1999441, item 10.

[6] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, 02/2528, Margaret ‘Ruhorne’, aged 40, wife of John ‘Ruhorne’, labourer, Back Walls North, 9 November 1866.

[7] SA, 8 August 1868.

[8] SA, 18 September 1875 and 11 December 1875.

[9] SA, 9 December 1876.

[10] SA, 8 November 1879.

[11] William James does not appear in any Census returns but his name was given at George Walsh’s marriage in 1876.

[12] Births, Medway RD, Kent, October-December 1848, 5/3, George Thomas Walsh.

[13] Mary Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity: State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, (Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing, 1997), pp. 160-173. The quotation comes from a report of the CPSC in 1849, quoted by Hickman.

[14] St Austin’s, Stafford, Register of Marriages, 8 January 1876, George Thomas Bernard Walsh and Catherine Sarah Sharrod.

[15] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1, St Austin’s, Stafford, Mission Book, yearly statement, 1882.

[16] SA, 6 October 1883.

[17] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, correspondence, R1607, letter from Bishop Ullathorne to H T Sandy, chairman of governors of the Stafford Catholic Schools, 28 June 1884.

[18] Stafford RD, births, July-September 1883, 6b/17, Constance Kathleen Walsh; Camberwell RD, July-September 1886, 1d/830, Ernest Wilfred Walsh.

[19] See H J Dyos, Victorian Suburb: a Study in the Growth of Camberwell, (Leicester, Leicester UP, 1966), pp. 106-107. Coincidentally Dyos discusses in some detail the development of Bushey Park Road, the street where the Walshes finally settled.

[20] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, 05/8875, 23 April 1885, John ‘Rouhall’, ‘hawker’.

[21] SA, 6 January 1883.

[22] SA, 6 March 1897.

[23] They are listed under the name ‘Rowan’ in the 1891 census and ‘Rowhan’ in 1901. In 1911 Jane gave their name as ‘Rowhan’.

[24] Stafford RD, deaths, September 1932, 6b/1, Helen Rouhan (sic).

[25] St Patrick’s School, logbook, 1890, quoted by S. Pyne (née Murfin), ‘The Irish in Stafford 1890-1893, with specific reference to Roman Catholic Education within the school of St Patrick’s, Stafford’, Unpublished BA Dissertation, Liverpool John Moores University, April 1994.

[26] S. Fielding, Class and Ethnicity: Irish Catholics in England, 1890-1939, (Buckingham, Open University Press, 1993), p. 62.