The challenges of revealing the histories of migrant families are well illustrated by the known life of Thomas Kearns. He was the son – or grandson – of John Kearns and Bridget Connor. John Kearns had been born in Stafford in 1828, the son of Farrell and Mary Kearns née Grenham. Farrell and Mary were Roscommon people who had settled in the town around 1826. Farrell worked as a labourer and the couple intermittently kept lodging houses. They were the first Irish family to settle long-term in Stafford in the nineteenth century although their presence finally ceased in 1914.
John became a shoemaker, so he entered Stafford’s staple trade and superficially achieved modest upward status over his father, Farrell. Having been born in Stafford and growing up there when the permanent Irish population was very small, we might expect John Kearns to have developed a mixed Irish-English identity, or even become a pure young Staffordian. That did not happen, however. He never went to school and never mixed with local children in the school yard. Neither did he come into contact with English Catholic norms in the classroom. His childhood was lived amongst other Irish people in Stafford’s worst slums, mainly Snow’s (or Red Cow) Yard. Sometime in the late 1840s he married Bridget Connor. She claimed to have been born in Co. Longford, an unusual place of origin for the Stafford Irish. Perhaps she had been a lone Famine immigrant who lodged with the Kearns family.
It was clearly a problematic relationship. The couple continued to live with Farrell and Mary Kearns but John and Bridget went on to have at least nine children, although three died in infancy. Being a shoemaker, John Kearns went ‘on tramp’ in search of work, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. He was prosecuted twice in the early 1860s for deserting his wife and family, leaving them chargeable to the parish. Having missed out on education himself, he saw little value in it for his children. After compulsory primary education began in 1871 he was fined at least once for failing to send his children to school.
That brings us to the case of Thomas Kearns, John and Bridget’s supposed final child. He was born in Snow’s Yard on 14 April 1871 but it took five weeks for Bridget Kearns to register the birth. Although biologically just still possible – Bridget was at least forty-two by that time – it looks as though Bridget lied in her claim to be Thomas’s mother. Three years later, on 8 March 1874, Thomas was finally baptized at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford and there his mother was stated to be Anne Kearns, one of Bridget’s other children. Evidence from some years later tends to substantiate this picture. In April 1882 the ten-year old Thomas was not living at home in Snow’s Yard. He was an inmate in Stafford Workhouse. He was there for at least six months and was described in the register as an ‘orphan’.
The Workhouse authorities presumably knew a lot about the Kearns family. They were notorious amongst the denizens of Snow’s Yard, with lives filled with poverty and neglect in which relationships with parents, grandparents and siblings were blighted by disorder, drink and the threat of violence. Thomas was probably registered as an ‘orphan’ because the overseers knew he was not John and Bridget’s real son. As the illegitimate child of Anne, he was possibly conceived when she was working as a servant girl. In 1871 she had been just fifteen and such was the fate of many young girls forced into service. The possibility of an incestuous pregnancy by Anne’s father cannot be ruled out either. All we know is that in 1875 she married an Englishman, Thomas Moore, but the latter refused to take young Thomas as part of the deal. He was left to be brought up by his disgruntled and neglectful grandparents, hence his sojourns as an ‘orphan’ in the Workhouse. In 1891 he was, however, living with Bridget Kearns in Snow’s Yard and, like his ancestor Farrell, he was working as a labourer.
At this point another conundrum arises about Thomas which exemplifies the disordered circumstances of the Kearns family. In 1900 a man named ‘Thomas Kearns’ was given three months in gaol for assaulting Bridget, whom the Staffordshire Advertiser described as his ‘grandmother’. That would be correct given the evidence about Thomas’s real mother from the 1870s. The problem with this story is that in 1900 Thomas, supposed son or grandson of Bridget, was not in Stafford at all. He was thousands of miles away in South Africa serving with the army Medical Corps during the Boer War. Back in 1891 he had taken the classic route out of his miserable surroundings by signing up with the army. His army papers confirm that his next-of-kin was his ‘mother’, Bridget Kerns (sic), of Snow’s Yard, Stafford, so we know it is the right person.
So who was this violent Thomas Kearns in Stafford? I haven’t a clue, and if anyone out there has the answer I’d be pleased to know it! It seems that someone stole Thomas’s identity as soon as he joined the army because this same ‘Thomas Kearns’ was admitted to Stafford Workhouse ten times between 1891 and 1896. His claimed age was exactly the same as that of the ‘real’ Thomas. The latter was all the time serving in the army, either in Egypt or at barracks elsewhere in Britain. Bridget and others must have known of the deception and acquiesced in it for reasons now impossible to fathom.
It did her little good. According to the press report ‘Thomas Kearns’ entered the house in Snow’s Yard and created a disturbance. Bridget ordered him out but Thomas returned and crushed her against the stairs door, held up a poker and said that ‘if she didn’t go to bed he’d murder her.’ He then followed her upstairs. His behaviour was so frightening that Bridget decided to escape out of the bedroom window. She ‘slid down the spouting’, a feat of some agility for a woman now in her seventies. The police constable who was summoned to the scene found all the doors locked and Bridget Kearns shrieking ‘murder’ in the yard outside. Thomas was found lurking in the bedroom with a kettle of boiling water. When seized he threatened the policeman with a knife and four PCs were needed to get him to the Police Station. He was sentenced to three months in prison, to which his reply was ‘thank you: I will have three months more when I come out.’  Whoever he was, the evidence suggests ‘Thomas Kearns’ was at least unstable and possibly severely mentally ill.
Meanwhile, in the army the ‘real’ Thomas had broken free from his family’s disordered circumstances. He served for over twenty-two years and had an ‘exemplary’ record, ‘honest, sober and industrious’, latterly as a sergeant and with qualifications as a first-aid instructor and medical dispenser. He married a woman born in Yeovil in Somerset in 1907 and the family ultimately settled in Southampton where he died in 1931. There are probably descendants.
When ‘Thomas Kearns’ attacked Bridget she had already been a widow for sixteen years. The shoe trade had gone into decline in the late 1870s and her husband John had found it difficult to get work. In 1881 he had been managed to get a labouring job at Venables’ timber yard on the Doxey Road. It was dangerous work and in August 1884 a pile of logs fell down and crushed him. He received severe head injuries from which he died a few days later. Bridget herself died in 1906. What became of ‘Thomas Kearns’ is unknown.
8 SA,25 August 1900.
9 National Archives (NA), WO97 Chelsea: Royal Army Medical Corps, No. 10714, Sgt T.J. Kearns, Find My Past database, accessed 20 July 2013.
10 Staffordshire Name Index on-line; D659/1/4/10, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Book, 1836-1900.
11 SA, 25 August 1900.
12 NA, WO97, RAMC, 10714, Sgt T.J. Kearns, attested Stafford, 26 August 1891 into the South Staffs Regiment. His claimed age in the army records accords exactly with his birth in Stafford in 1871. FindMyPast database, accessed 15 July 2013; Marriages, Southampton RD, Oct-Dec 1907, Thomas J. Kearns and Mary Ann Catherine Hamilton, 2c/58; Bury St Edmunds RD, births, Apr-Jun 1911, John Thomas Hamilton Kearns, 4a/914; Southampton RD, Deaths, October-December 1931, 2c/36, Thomas J. Kearns, born 1871.
13 SA, 23 August 1884.