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The lives of Irish families in Stafford are sometimes quite well documented but that of Margaret Carr is quite otherwise.[1] We only have the most basic sources to trace her presence in the town. She is a classic case of someone whose testimony is now lost but who deserves recognition precisely because of she was one of the generally forgotten and ignored people of the past. There were, furthermore, thousands of migrants like her who existed with no obvious blood relatives to provide mutual support.

Margaret Carr was born in Belfast around the year 1801. She was a Catholic but we know nothing about her life before she came to Stafford in the 1850s.[2] By then she was a widow but where and when her husband died is unknown. We have no idea why she ended up in Stafford. The first we know of her was when, on census day in 1861, Edward Dawson, the enumerator, worked his way up Tipping Street in the town centre. He came to No. 14, a decrepit cottage backing on to the pig market. There he found Harriett Riley, an unmarried shoe binder of twenty-nine. This woman was eking out her sketchy earnings by taking in other lone women who had fallen on hard times. All her lodgers came originally from outside Stafford. Ann Heywood and Ann Parker were destitute widows of seventy-seven and eighty, both reduced to being ‘paupers on the parish’. They were dead within eighteen months.[3] Matilda Moore was a young shoe binder from Gloucestershire. And there was Margaret Carr. She was by then sixty years old and described herself as a washerwoman. This assorted group of women crammed together in a small cottage exemplifies the countless Victorian households in which people were forced into intimate contact with strangers by poverty and housing shortage. Margaret Carr’s associates formed a shifting ‘pseudo-family’ whose members co-existed and maybe supported each other but also suffered all the tensions of living with people thrown together by random circumstances.


Margaret Carr’s drudgery – a Victorian washerwoman

Margaret may not have lost all her family links, however. Just round the corner stood No. 88 Eastgate Street, a much more elegant dwelling occupied in 1861 by the Rev. Thomas Smith Chalmers, a Non-Conformist minister. He was running a ‘classical and commercial boarding school’. And the servant there was another Margaret Carr. She was a twenty-six year old single woman who had been born in Ireland. Was she old Margaret Carr’s daughter? It seems likely. If so, the elderly Margaret may have made some money by taking in washing from the school. It was not to last, however. By 1871 the Rev. Chalmers had moved to a much posher house in Rowley Park but his servant Margaret had gone. She left Stafford altogether and she may have emigrated, possibly in 1865.[4] The family kinship bond was broken and old Margaret now depended totally on strangers.

In 1871 we find her lodging at No. 17 Mill Street with the White family. Ellen White, a forty year old charwoman, came from Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, a classic town of origin for Stafford’s Irish. She was, at this time, living alone with her three children whilst her husband, a labourer, was working elsewhere. It was a poor household. Ellen would have earned a pittance, her daughter Mary very little more as a shoe binder whilst her son Thomas was an unemployed labourer. Margaret Carr’s rent was therefore a vital supplement to the household income, but her ability to earn money was now feeble. The relationship between the White family and Margaret was purely instrumental. If she could not pay or became seriously ill she would have to go and for her there was only one destination – the Workhouse. She died there, a pauper, in June 1873.[5]

Margaret Carr lived in Stafford for at least twelve years – probably more. Her passage through the town went almost unnoticed and left little in the historical record. She had a life of poverty and shifting personal relationships. Her battle to survive ultimately meant that blood relations, ethnic identity or religious bonds counted for little. Margaret died alone amid the corporate anonymity of the Workhouse and her sojourn as a lone individual proved to be an extreme example of a terminal ‘family’ that died out in Stafford.


[1] This is a slightly revised version of a case study in my book, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2016), pp. 190-1.

[2]Stafford BC, Burial Record 04/3551, 20 June 1873; the priest at the committal was Catholic.

[3]Stafford RD, Deaths, October-December 1862, 6b/13, Annie Heywood; July-September 1862, 6b/4, Ann Parker.

[4]New York Passenger Lists, arrival 2 November 1865, Margaret Carr, servant, aged about 26, Irish, port of departure, Liverpool, ship ‘Sir Robert Peel’. This might have been the young Margaret from Stafford, though it is impossible to prove. Ancestry Database, accessed 10 March 2013.

[5]Stafford BC, Burial Record 04/3551, 20 June 1873. There appears to be no record of her admission to the main body of the Workhouse so she was probably admitted straight into the sick ward when she was close to death. Staffordshire Name Indexes: Index of Admission to and Discharge from Poor Law Union Workhouses, Stafford Workhouse, 1836-1900. https://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/default.aspx?Index=E accessed 14 February 2017.