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During the 1851 Census, when the enumerator had finished listing the people at no. 47 New Street, Stafford, he had to dive up an entry to deal with three small houses lurking in the court behind the street frontage.[1] This was Startin’s Entry.[2] Living there were three families. In No. 1 was Thomas Simister, a 44-year old shoemaker and his ‘housekeeper’ Mary Atkins aged 35. Next door was Joseph Horobin, a 30-year old farm labourer, with his 38-year old wife Elizabeth. They already had five children, so the little cottage must have been very crowded. Robert Newbold, another shoemaker, lived in the third house with his wife Mary, a shoebinder, and their three-year old daughter Ann.

Startin’s Court or Entry behind New Street, Stafford, a piece of backland infill probably built in the 1830s.

Having done the three houses in Startin’s Entry, the enumerator went back to the next (unnumbered) house in New Street and there he found John Startin and his family. He was listed as a ‘builder’. It seems certain that John Startin had developed both the court bearing his name and an unknown number of houses along the New Street frontage. This blogpost seeks to throw light on the contrasting histories of the families associated with this little court, histories which spanned England, Ireland and the United States. It is a small case study of housing provision for the poor in Victorian England, of the people who did it and of those who lived in what was provided.

New Street, at the heart of the shoemaking quarter in Stafford’s north end, began to be sporadically developed after the enclosure of the Foregate Field in 1807.[3] By 1835, as shown on John Wood’s map of that year, the terrace that included the access to Startin’s Entry had already been built but the houses in the court were not yet there, although Wood may just have missed them. We can say, nevertheless, that this little group of houses probably dated from around the 1830s. It was a bit of backland infill typical of urban growth in the first half of the nineteenth century which was designed to maximise the profit from developing land and housing at a time of rapid population growth.

The builder – John Startin and his family

So what was the origin of John Startin whose name was enshrined in this little bit of Stafford’s history? Startin himself claimed in the Census of 1851 that he was 46 years old (i.e. b. 1805) and had been born in Stafford. The age was correct but there is no record of his birth in Stafford. The only likely candidate is John Startin, son of Henry and Mary Startin, who was baptised in Longdon, a village between Rugeley and Lichfield, on 5 April 1805.[4] Henry Startin had married Mary Derry in Longdon on 24 June 1801.[5] It has not so far proved possible to definitively go further back into the family’s genealogy. There is a problem because we know from later evidence that the Startins, at least in the nineteenth century, were Methodists, and it may be that they refused the legal requirement to register their life cycle events with the Established Church. We are on firmer ground with John Startin’s marriage, however. On Christmas Day 1827 he married Sarah Powell in Penkridge south of Stafford.[6] She was the daughter of Henry Powell and Mary Walford who had been married in 1785 in Lapley, the next parish west of Penkridge.[7]

It seems clear that the Startin family was of relatively humble stock. John Startin had probably moved already to Stafford by the time of his marriage to Sarah and he maybe met her in the town where she might have been working as a servant. They were, in other words, rural people who moved to the nearest town like thousands of others during the Industrial Revolution. All we definitely know is that by 1841 the couple were living in Greyfriars in the north end of Stafford and John was working as a bricklayer.[8] He and Sarah already had six surviving children. John’s designation as a ‘bricklayer’ was probably an understatement. He must have been doing the work in houses that he himself was developing around New Street, property that he then rented out. He continued to do this successfully during the 1840s and by 1851 he was calling himself a ‘builder’. His two sons Allen and David were working for him as bricklayers.

John Startin’s hard work and commercial acumen was to a definite end – emigration to better himself and his family elsewhere. On 8 April 1850 the ‘George Washington’ docked in New York from Liverpool and aboard were John Startin (junior, b. 1831) and his brother Frederick.[9] They had gone to the States as pathfinders. In April 1851 the rest of the family must already have been packing when the Census enumerator called at their New Street house because within a month (2 May 1851), and a year after the two sons, the other Startins all arrived in New York on board the ‘Constitution’.[10]

John and Sarah Startin. A photograph taken in Wisconsin some years after their emigration from Stafford.

The family didn’t just depart rapidly for America but they equally rapidly arrived at their chosen destination which was Wisconsin. Wisconsin had just been made a state (1848) and was developing fast with plenty of land available. It also seems to have had many Methodist settlers which may also have made it attractive to the Startins. By 29 May 1851 they were in the town of Portage, Columbia County, and they then settled in the growing settlement of Dekorra just on the other side of the Wisconsin River. What is equally remarkable is that John Startin reputedly arrived with $1,200 in gold, $500 of which he used immediately to purchase land in the neighbourhood of Dekorra. John and his family went on to farm their holding and also to work as builders and developers in the area. John Startin became an active member of the Methodist Church in the county and contributed liberally to its development.[11] The family did very well and there are many descendants in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the States today.  John died in 1892, Sarah having predeceased him in 1880.

It is clear, then, that John Startin arrived in America with a substantial fortune – well over £100,000 in today’s money. It is possible that he – or his two preceding sons – made some money through shrewd trading after their arrival in America, but the main body of their wealth must have been made in Stafford. There is no obvious evidence that it was inherited and much presumably came from selling off the houses John had built before they left. Their wealth is a sign of the fabled dedication of Non-Conformists to hard work and prudence but it also emphasises how building, owning and investing in residential property, even of the meanest sort, was a profitable business in nineteenth century Britain, just as it is today.

Startin’s Entry in the 1840s – poor but largely respectable

The success of John Startin and his family contrasts substantially with the profile of the people who over the years lived in the property bearing his name. We cannot identify the Entry’s occupiers before 1851 but the three households living in Startin’s Entry when the Startins left for America in that year had all moved elsewhere by 1861 – with one exception.[12] That was the ‘housekeeper’ Mary Atkins. Thomas Simister, the lone shoemaker with whom she lived, had moved to mean lodgings in Clark Street in the town centre and clearly remained poor; his relationship, such as it may have been, with his housekeeper had come to nothing. Mary had baggage, however. Twelve years before she had had an illegitimate child, James, who in 1851 was living with his grandparents in Brook Street, Stafford. In 1853 Mary moved out of Simister’s house and married a new resident of Startin’s Entry, John Tipper, a labourer.[13] She had to – her daughter Sarah was born shortly after the marriage.[14] In 1861 the family was living at No. 3 and Mary’s son James had joined them. After that their trail goes cold. They may have emigrated in the 1860s but, unlike the Startins, there is no surviving evidence.

Farm labourer Joseph Horobin, his bootbinder wife Elizabeth and their children moved out of Startin’s Entry during the 1850s but only as far as New Street itself. There they lived for at least twenty years before ending up in Rugeley, closer to Joseph’s origins in Hixon, in 1881.

The third family in the Entry in 1851 was that of the 23-year old shoemaker Robert Newbold. He and his wife Mary, a shoebinder, worked in Stafford’s staple industry throughout their lives and seem to have made a steady living at it. They certainly managed to get out of their miserable house and by 1861 were living on the Lammascote Road at the eastern edge of the town centre. They stayed there for at least thirty years and they show every sign of seeking and achieving respectability.

The emergence of an urban slum

The fortunes of the inhabitants of Startin’s Entry in 1851 subsequently spanned paths from the fairly poverty-stricken to more solid working class security. The court’s houses had functioned as a minimal resource for those unable to afford anything better or as ‘starter homes’ for those aspiring to do better. It was a mean and unattractive place, however, and from the 1850s its social character increasingly reflected that. By 1861 Nos. 1 and 2 Startin’s Entry had new occupiers.  At No. 1 was the Caffey (or McCaffrey) family – Patrick, his wife Mary, his sister Margaret and their two children. Patrick was an agricultural labourer, one of the many such Irish men (and some women) who settled in Stafford during and after the Famine, working on local farms.[15] Patrick had married Mary Caulfield, also Irish, in Stafford in 1854, so we know the couple were in the town during the first half of the 1850s.[16]  Casual jobs on the farms were disappearing, however, and in the 1860s the McCaffreys left both Startin’s Entry and Stafford. Their subsequent whereabouts have not been traced but it is very likely they took the same path as the Startin family and emigrated.

The other new family in the Entry in 1861, living at No. 2, were the Hawkinses. They stayed in their house until the 1880s and proved to be notorious occupiers whose full story I covered in my post of 12 October 2016. John Hawkins was nominally a farm labourer and his wife Sarah née Astbury a shoebinder. The couple had married in 1856 but back in 1851 Sarah had already had an illegitimate girl, Mary, who lived with them.[17]  The Hawkinses made much of their money, however, through ‘baby farming’. For a weekly fee they took in babies and small children whose parent(s) wanted to offload them for whatever reason, no questions asked. They were left unwashed and more or less imprisoned in appallingly filthy and verminous conditions. At least two children died as a direct result of their treatment there. John and Sarah both served a spell in prison in the early 1870s as a result, but on their release they came back to Startin’s Entry. Their dirty and disordered household, the central one in the row of three, must have made them dreadful neighbours and emphasised the rapid social decline of the court. By 1871 John Tipper and Mary née Atkins at No. 3 (already discussed) had escaped but their whereabouts have not been traced. Perhaps they too had emigrated.

In 1871 the Hawkins family had John and Ann Blundon as their neighbours at No. 1. I dealt with the Blundons’ story in my blogpost of 10 July 2015 but, in summary, they were another problematic family. Both were from Co. Galway and had arrived in Stafford after the Famine. They met in the town and got married. John nominally worked as a street hawker and they lived in a succession of miserable dwellings, one of which was Startin’s Entry. It was a wretched household. John was a violent drunkard and his wife bore the burden; things worsened when Ann’s son by a previous marriage, John Ryan, came to live with them in the 1870s after his discharge from the Army. Ryan was also unstable and violent and may well have had what we would recognise as PTSD. The family carried on their torrid existence through the 1870s and were still living at No. 1 in 1878 but by 1881 they had moved out to Ball’s Buildings on Common Road at the northern edge of the town.[18]

In 1871 George Griffin, a shoemaker, and his wife Mary Ann lived at No. 3 on the other side of the Hawkins household. Griffin had originated in Dudley in the Black Country and the couple moved to Stafford from Sheffield in the 1860s. Nothing more is known about them but they could not have stopped long at No. 3. In 1880-81 we find George languishing in Stafford Gaol; Mary Ann has not been traced.[19] More research would be needed to know why he was in prison but it probably says little for his character. It is another indicator of Entry’s increasingly low social status.

New Street, Stafford, looking northwards. The photograph was taken in 1953 when the street was decorated for the coronation and about six years before it was demolished. Startin’s Entry was on the left side of the street behind the terrace which lies beyond the distinctive higher buildings.

The Entry continued to be the refuge of the socially marginal into the 1880s. In 1881 the Hawkins household was still there at No. 2 but the aged John Hawkins – he was now about 70 – had sunk to being a scavenger. Next door at No. 3 they had been joined by John and Mary Cavanagh (or Cavener). That was not surprising because Mary Cavener was in fact Mary Astbury/Hawkins, the daughter of Sarah Astbury/Hawkins. The couple must have replaced George Griffin around 1871 because they had married at Christchurch on 13 June 1870. At the time of the marriage Mary was already pregnant but her baby was ultimately registered (in 1871) as Emma Hawkins which suggests she was not John Cavener’s.[20] Emma’s suspect status was underlined in the 1881 Census when she was recorded living with her grandparents at No. 2, although now with the surname Cavanagh. By then John and Mary had had four more children. John Cavener had been born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the son of Thomas Kavanagh (sic), a farm labourer from Co. Galway. By 1881 he was doing the same job – scavenger – as his father-in-law, so the family was poor and of very low status. They were probably friends of the Blundons and in 1891 were living next door to them on Common Road.

The social decline of Startin’s Entry was emphasised by 1881 by the occupants of No. 1. The Blundons had gone and been replaced by another Irish family, that of widow Margaret Rafferty and her son Matthew, a bricklayer’s labourer. Margaret and Matthew were clearly running an unlicenced lodging house because four other unmarried Irishmen, all named Michael, were listed as lodging on the premises. It must have been crowded and the men all doubtless slept in relays in whatever bedding was provided.

Startin’s Entry and Stafford’s housing

I do not know who owned the houses in Startin’s Entry after John Startin had sold the property around 1851. Whoever it was, by 1881 they must have had a very poor bag of assets. These court houses had been cheaply built. Their flimsy structures had had a continual turnover of poor tenants, had often been overcrowded and/or had been occupied by people like the Hawkinses whose neglect and filth would themselves have degraded the fabric. As long as the rent money came in the landlord(s) would have been content and, like most such owners, they would have tried to get away with doing as little maintenance or repair as possible. But such a policy could not continue indefinitely and the end for Startin’s Entry seems to have come in the 1880s.

I have not found a definite date for the court’s abandonment and demolition but no people were recorded as living there in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses despite the address being noted in the enumeration district description for those years. The houses do not appear on the 1901 1:2500 Ordnance Survey plan of the area so they must have been demolished by then. Although removal of such appalling properties looked like a social benefit, in those days before the provision of (now late-lamented) council housing, their occupants just had to find some other lousy overcrowded slum in which to move. In Stafford that was difficult. The town had a chronic shortage of housing at affordable rents. That problem ultimately provoked controversy in the 1900s when the landlord-dominated council still refused to use its powers to begin a proper council housing programme.[21] When it was forced at last to take some action it was, of course, too late for the people who had finished up in Startin’s Entry.

Most of Stafford’s worst slums – places Like Plant’s Court, Wilson’s Court, Snow’s Yard and Roger Square – survived into the 1950s before they were cleared. The houses in New Street, always regarded as a poor area, were finally demolished in 1959.[22]  To be abandoned and demolished as early as the 1880s, Startin’s Entry must have been a particularly squalid group of houses, but their history was a microcosm of entrepreneurship and urban life in the nineteenth century.


  1. That was the street numbering in 1851 when it was fairly disorganised. It was subsequently rationalised and no. 47 became no. 62.
  2. From the 1860s onward Startin’s Entry was more often called Startin’s Court but the names seem to have been used interchangeably.
  3. M.W. Greenslade et al., A History of Stafford, (Reprint of part of Vol. VI of the Victoria History of the County of Stafford), (Staffordshire County Library, Stafford, 1982), p 191.
  4. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, Ancestry Database, accessed 10 November 2020.
  5. England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973, Ancestry Database, accessed 10 November 2020.
  6. England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973, Ancestry Database, accessed 10 November 2020.
  7. England and Wales Marriages, 1538-1988, Ancestry Database, accessed 17 November 2020.
  8. He was listed in the Census as ‘John Sterling’ but we clearly have the correct family. Down the years many officials got the name wrong, perhaps because John himself may then have been illiterate and could not correct them.
  9. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1957, Ancestry Database, accessed 10 November 2020.
  10. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1957, Ancestry Database, accessed 10 November 2020. They arrived on 2 May 1851. John was listed as ‘John Martin’, a ‘labourer’, but again we are clearly dealing with the correct family.
  11. J.E. Jones (ed.), A History of Columbia County, Wisconsin: a Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People and its Principal Interests, (Chicago, Lewis Publishing Co., 1914), Vol. 2, pp. 453-455. I am indebted for this reference, additional information and the photograph of John and Sarah Startin to a correspondent in America who is a descendant of the Startin family and who found the reference to Startin’s Entry on this blog.
  12. In the 1841 Census the occupants of New Street were enumerated but the house numbers were not recorded and those in Startin’s Entry, if it existed then, were not specifically identified.
  13. Stafford Registration District (RD), Marriages, April-June 1853, John Tipper and Mary Atkins, 6b/18.
  14. Stafford RD, Births, July-September 1853, Sarah Tipper, 6b/1.
  15. John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), Chaps 5 and 6.
  16. Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives (BAA), P255/2/1, Stafford, St Austin’s, Register of Confirmations, Marriages and Burials, Vol. 7, 1828-1857, 2 August 1854, Patrick McCaffry and Mary Caulfield.
  17. Stafford RD, Marriages, January-March 1856, John Hawkins and Sarah Astbury, 6b/20; Births, April-June 1851, Mary Astbury, Mother: ‘Astbury’, 17/159.
  18. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 17 August 1878. Report of a drunken violent incident in the Blundon/Ryan household.
  19. Staffordshire Record Office, Index to Stafford Gaol Photographs, 1877-1916: 10 July 1880, D6957/1/1, George Griffin, Prisoner No. 3611. Census Enumeration Return, 1881, HMP, Stafford.
  20. Stafford RD, Marriages, April-June 1870, John Cavener (sic) and Mary Asbury (sic), 6b/24. The exact date and place are given in England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973. Stafford RD, Births, April-June 1871, Emma Hawkins, 6b/2. In the 1871 Census Emma was listed as six months old but she must have been older than that. Emma’s birth registration was very delayed.
  21. See Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 155-6. Much of the political campaigning for council action was done by Martin Mitchell, the son of Irish immigrants who was brought up in Stafford’s north end.
  22. Stafford Borough Council, Housing Act 1936: Register of Houses in Clearance Areas. Miscellaneous documents including a list, July 1956, of 26 named courts which had received demolition orders in the mid-1930s but, because of the war, were only cleared in the early 1950s.