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My last post on this blog (23 November 2020) outlined the history of Startin’s Entry in Stafford, a group of three slum houses hidden behind New Street in the north end of the town. This post continues the theme of slum housing, particularly in relation to the Irish immigrants who settled in the town in the nineteenth century. It deals with Plant’s Square, a group of houses off Cross Street, just round the corner from Startin’s Entry.

Plant's Square in 1881 from the OS 1:500 plan.
Plant’s Square in 1881
from the Ordnance Survey 1:500 Plan
Satchwell Street, Leamington Spa – a similar yard to Plant’s Square, though the houses here were probably taller and better. Taken from Leamington History Group, 19th Century Slums in Leamington Spa, leamingtonhistory.co.uk

Like Startin’s Entry, Plant’s Square was a piece of adventitious urban infill but in this case the court led directly off Cross Street and consisted of nine houses in two short rows facing each other. The extract from the 1:500 Ordnance Survey plan of 1881 shows the layout. I have found no photographs of Plant’s Square – Stafford’s slums largely escaped the interest of both local and council photographers – but the picture of Satchwell Street in Leamington Spa gives some impression of the type of houses to be found in Plant’s Square, though I suspect Plant’s Square houses were lower. They were miserable two-storey two-room dwellings. The room downstairs was both kitchen and living room. There was no running water – the only supply came from a communal pump in the yard. The slops were probably thrown back into the yard. The only sanitation was a row of communal privies at the entrance to the yard placed right next to one of the end houses. Upstairs the single bedroom was just 12 feet long by 9 feet wide and a mere 6’6” high.[1] The backs of the houses butted up against buildings on the two adjacent sites, so there were neither back doors nor back windows on the ground floor and probably not on the first floor either. They were, in other words, ‘blind back’ houses with no through circulation of air. The accommodation offered in Plant’s Square was, therefore, cramped, mean and a likely hotbed of infectious disease.

The development of Plant’s Square

Who had built these houses and when? Like Startin’s Entry, Plant’s Square was almost certainly named after its developer and/or owner, and in this case the name also cropped up elsewhere in Stafford. Plant’s Court was another rotten group of about 14 cottages lying behind the Lichfield Road frontage at the south end of town, a few doors down from the White Lion Inn. So we need to find a Plant family who might have been into property development or ownership, and the most likely was that of John and William Plant. Both men lived in Forebridge in the 1830s.[2] John Plant may have been William’s father or brother, but nothing more is known of him except that he died in 1838.[3]  We know a bit more about William Plant. In 1841 he was listed in the Census as a farmer at Queensville on the south-eastern edge of Stafford and with him were his wife Catherine (née Blakeman) and their five children.[4] In the 1851 Census William claimed to have been born in Silver Hill, Sussex in 1804 which tallies with the records, but he must have been in Stafford by the age of twenty, though why he came to the area is unknown.[5] By 1851 William was not just a farmer but was also an innkeeper,  licensee of the Crown Inn at Queensville. It still exists today but was renamed the Spittal Brook Inn in 1998. His first wife Catherine had died in 1842 but he married Ann Wright in 1844.[6] William in turn died in 1856, but Ann remarried and she and her new husband Joseph Wright kept the Crown until 1876.[7]

William Plant was clearly in business in a modest way and he may well have been attracted by property development or ownership. He, with or without John Plant, either developed or bought both Plant’s Court and Plant’s Square and became a slum landlord, at his death passing the property on to Anne and Joseph Wright. There are no other obvious local candidates. Plant’s Court at the south end of town was a typical bit of early nineteenth century infill built on the back gardens of older frontage properties. Plant’s Square was rather different. That part of the north end was being developed in the 1830s. The western end of Cross Street had been laid out as far as New Street by 1835 but no building had yet taken place.[8] Nevertheless, six years later in the 1841 Census 43 occupants of fourteen houses on Cross Street were recorded. Although Plant’s Square was not listed by name, some of the new houses must have been located there and it shows the Square was built in the second half of the 1830s.

Plant’s Square was cheaply and meanly built. It was a slum from the start and it was always likely to attract tenants who couldn’t afford anything better. It was described as a ‘rookery’ in 1881 and in 1892 one of the houses was summed up as ‘a tumbledown affair’ (which) ‘no matter what labour was bestowed on it always had a dirty appearance’.[9]  There is every reason to believe such descriptions applied equally to the Square’s early days in the 1840s and 1850s and we now need to look at its occupants during that period.

The table summarises the basic demographics of Plant’s Square between 1841 and 1911. Because it was not specifically identified in the 1841 Census we cannot be certain who was living in the Square in that year, but two of Cross Street’s inhabitants were John Lucas and Joseph Haines, Irish hawkers who shared a house with an apparently single mother, twenty year old Catherine Wright and her two young children. We can assume that, based on later trends, the two Irishmen were living in Plant’s Square. The neighbouring houses were occupied by six shoe trade workers, two labourers and a female servant – in other words, a cross section of Stafford’s poorer working class. Haines left Stafford in the 1840s but by 1851 Lucas was running the substantial lodging house at 62 Foregate Street that was illustrated in my post of 25 July 2016. That was an indicator of the forces which were to drastically affect Plant’s Square.

Plant’s Square: demographic history, 1841-1911. *1841 figures estimated (see text).

A refugee camp

From the 1820s onwards many Irish, particularly from Cos. Roscommon, Mayo and east Galway, had come to the Stafford area as seasonal workers on local farms. They came to know the area well and some settled more permanently in the town.[10]  That was important when the Potato Famine struck in the years after 1845. Hundreds of people who were starving, destitute and evicted from their land in Ireland came to Stafford, a place they either knew or where they had contacts.[11] To survive they had to find somewhere to live and for many that meant lodging houses run by people like John Lucas. Some were big establishments, but most were to be found in small slum houses that could be rented cheaply by Irish tenants who recouped their costs by taking lodgers. That is what happened to the tiny houses in Plant’s Square. In 1851 there were no less than 86 people living in its nine houses, an average of nearly ten per house. One was still occupied by an English family but the other eight were all lodging houses packed to the rafters with Irish refugees. These places were performing an essential function for desperate people, but the borough council’s only response was harassment. In late January 1851 four Irishmen in Plant’s Square were prosecuted for ‘keeping their lodging houses in a filthy and unwholesome state’.[12] The bare facts were doubtless true, but the council did nothing else to improve things; the men merely received reprimands (but were still charged court costs).

During the 1850s Plant’s Square was, then, a refuge for many desperate Irish emigrants. That might suggest it was a place filled with shifting, rootless people with little sense of community. The evidence suggests that was not the whole case. Many of the people settling there, if only for a time, came from Co. Roscommon and shared community links. The case of the Bowen family illustrates the possible benefits of this. They were remarkable for continuing to live in Plant’s Square for over thirty years.

When the Famine struck John Bowen fled Tibohine, Co. Roscommon and in September 1847 he staggered into Stafford ill and destitute. He was dumped in the temporary huts erected at the workhouse for the vagrant Irish and was there for eleven days, but by 4 October he had recovered enough to leave and find somewhere to live in town.[13] His Roscommon connections directed him to No. 9 Plant’s Square where Margaret Paton, a sixty-year-old widow, was running a lodging house. Margaret lived there with at least three of her children, one of whom was Ellen (b. 1831). In the cramped surroundings of No. 9 John Bowen and Ellen were inevitably thrust together and the couple married at St Austin’s Church on 7 May 1849.

John and Ellen Bowen quickly left her mother’s house and moved into No. 5, another lodging house run by the Hazle family but by 1861 John and Ellen had moved to No. 7. There they were able to set up home on their own, but life was tough. John Bowen worked as a farm labourer but when jobs in agriculture started to decline in the mid-1860s he became redundant and ended up a hawker selling goods on the street. Ellen could do little to supplement the household income because she had a growing family to look after in terrible conditions. Her first child, Sarah, died within a year but between 1854 and 1873 she had another nine children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood.[14]

A Roscommon community?

Despite these difficulties, the Bowen family emerged with some long-term success. Apart from purely personal factors, one reason was the nature of the Plant’s Square community. Despite the mean and squalid nature of the housing, a community of mostly Roscommon people, frequently related, dominated the Square from Famine times until the 1880s. A culture of mutual support appears to have existed to help struggling families like the Bowens. That cohesiveness meant that, in contrast to Snow’s Yard, another strongly Irish enclave which has frequently featured in this blog, Plant’s Square had no reported incidents of drunkenness or violence. The environment was altogether quieter.

Despite the Roscommon linkages, Plant’s Square was no static community. During the 1850s 37 of the Irish who lived there in 1851 left Stafford altogether and another 36 moved out and found accommodation elsewhere in the town. By 1861, of the original settlers, only the Bowen family remained. Plant’s Square’s role also changed. In Famine times the Square was, in effect, a small refugee camp for desperate immigrants not dissimilar to the circumstances we witness in Europe today. By 1861 that crisis had largely passed. The Square still performed, and indeed strengthened, its role as an Irish enclave. Irish families now occupied all the houses (bar one which was vacant) but none was a lodging house. Rather, each was now occupied by a nuclear family and they amounted to 32 people, only 37% of the number in 1851. Living conditions in the tiny houses were much less overcrowded. The Corcorans are an example. They came from Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, and arrived in Stafford around 1856. Catherine Corcoran had been widowed elsewhere in the Stafford area that year and her Roscommon connections, especially the Bowen family, found her and her three children a place at No. 5 Plant’s Square. For them, as with others, the Square was a staging post to better things and in the Corcorans’ case they moved into Greyfriars during the 1860s when Catherine’s son Bartholomew successfully developed his plumbing and glazing business.[15] Of the 32 people in the Square in 1861, no less than 30 proved to be from Irish families who settled long-term in Stafford, including, of course, the Bowens, still there at No. 7.

Housing Stafford’s poor

Fewer Irish people were settling in Stafford during the 1860s as the Famine crisis eased and preferable destinations opened up, particularly in America. Plant’s Square role as a refuge for desperate immigrants was largely over. It was now offering cheap housing for the poor and insecure, whatever their ethnic origins. By 1871 only five houses were occupied by Irish families and they made up exactly half the 36 people living in the Square. Those Irish (with a stated occupation) were a bricklayer’s labourer, two aged farm servants, two hawkers and a wheelwright (one of the Bowen children). Amongst the English residents there were five shoe trade workers, an agricultural labourer and a ‘pearl button carder’. Almost all these people were, in other words, subsisting on spasmodic, insecure and (in the case of farmwork) declining jobs. That pattern was repeated in 1881 when just four of the houses had Irish tenants. A new trend had also emerged – empty houses. In that year two of the nine properties were unoccupied. No one would live in Plant’s Square’s lousy houses if they could get something better at an affordable price. Stafford’s economy was starting to falter with the beginnings of decline in the shoe industry and a lack of new industries to diversify the economy.[16] The demand for rented housing slackened and the worst stock like Plant’s Square, became harder to let.

In the 1880s that trend increased and in 1891 no less than four of the nine houses were unlet. The Irish had all moved out, even the Bowen family. Only one family, the Willetts, now had any Irish connection in that Thomas Willett’s wife Mary Ann (née Tuckett) had been born in Ireland in 1848, the daughter of a soldier serving there. She was, however, ethnically English. Willett worked as a shoe finisher and Mary Ann a dressmaker, both insecure jobs. Plant’s Square was now confirmed as a refuge for struggling English families working either in the shoe trade or, in one case, as a labourer.

Some indication of this was given in the case of William Harvey, a shoe finisher living in the Square in 1892. He was charged with cruelty to his children, though his only obvious ‘crimes’ were poverty and probably stress.  It was said that the only food in the house was ‘a few pieces of bread and bacon not fit to eat…. The bed was an apology – a tick stuffed with bits of chaff and flocks and sawdust.’ The house was ‘a tumbledown affair …(which) always had a dirty appearance.’ His wages averaged just 13s. a week.[17] The year before Harvey had been living in Browning Street in Stafford’s north end. Arrival in Plant’s Square was an indicator of his family’s downward spiral. William had married Louisa Carnell in 1872 and by 1890 the couple had six surviving children living with them. But Louisa died in that year and William had to find work and look after his family on a miserable and insecure income.[18] He’d been forced to move out of Browning Street and rent a slum in Plant’s Square. He was patently unable to cope and may have been chronically sick, perhaps with that scourge of shoemakers, TB. The family ultimately broke up in poverty. William himself died in 1897, aged only 46, and by 1901, of his three youngest children, Reuben (b. 1884) had escaped into the army, that refuge of poor working class youths, Charles (b. 1885) was existing as a tramp in Comar’s lodging house on Back Walls South and Fanny (b. 1887) was left an orphan in Stafford Workhouse.[19]

Stafford’s housing crisis and Plant’s Square

In the later nineteenth century Stafford’s economy began to diversify beyond shoemaking.[20] That created new jobs, brought in new workers and their families, and increased the demand for housing. Even slum landlords like those in Plant’s Square could now let their properties more easily. In turn, poor tenants could make money from taking in lodgers. In 1898, for example, Thomas Talbot, a labourer living in Plant’s Square, was taken to court for creating nuisance by overcrowding his house. The paltry and low-ceilinged bedroom was occupied by two married couples and three children who were sleeping in a bedstead and two other beds on the floor. The case was ultimately dropped, and Talbot quit the premises, but it was a symptom of an approaching housing crisis in Stafford.[21] In 1901 all the houses in Plant’s Square were let, with no voids, entirely to ethnically English tenants. These people were still from the poor working class, with three shoe trade workers, three bricklayer’s labourers, a farm labourer, a washerwoman and an old widower living on his own means, but the pressure on housing meant the population of the Square had risen from 21 in 1891 to 32 in 1901.

Stafford’s now had a number of growing industries, the biggest of which was the Siemens electrical engineering plant, which brought many workers from its previous base in Woolwich after 1900. This growth led to a severe housing shortage in Stafford in the 1900s. Not only was housing short but significant amounts, like Plant’s Square, was of very poor quality – slums, in fact. The council did nothing beyond fruitlessly harassing tenants like Thomas Talbot for overcrowding. It was alleged, rightly, that this was because of the strength of landlords on the council who opposed the provision of council housing. Councillor Martin Mitchell, the son of Irish immigrants from the north end, spearheaded a campaign publicising Stafford’s slum conditions. In 1912 he said ‘there were places in Stafford where people would not keep animals, and yet men, women and children had been living there in insanitary dwellings and in a state of overcrowding.’[22] That clearly applied to Plant’s Square where, in 1911, 34 people were living in just seven houses, nearly five per house. He wanted at least 250 council houses built. The Local Government Board reported that the Council had failed to carry out its statutory duties under the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act.  In the end the council was forced to begin a building programme, though one much smaller than Mitchell had wanted or, indeed, was needed.

The end for Plant’s Square

The new council houses would make only the slightest dent in Stafford’s housing crisis and, indeed, it was to get worse because the Council was beginning to take action on the worst existing housing, thus reducing the stock even more. In 1911 two houses in the Square were unoccupied and that was almost certainly because they were under threat. In April 1914 the Council finally issued closing orders on 28 houses in the town because they were unfit for human habitation. The nine houses in Plant’s Square were rightly among them. The outbreak of the Great War may have reprieved them for some years, and it is not known when the Square was finally depopulated and demolished. The 1:2500 Ordnance Survey plan of the area surveyed in 1922 shows that most of the Square had been demolished by then, but two houses and the row of privies were still there suggesting a lingering occupation. We can, however, say with confidence that after 80 years Plant’s Square was condemned in 1914 and finally disappeared in the 1920s.

We have seen that Plant’s Square from the start was a slum catering for those in direst housing need. Its original inhabitants were mostly poor Staffordian working class people, but during Famine times it changed its role and became a vital refuge for Irish people desperate for any accommodation, however overcrowded and squalid. They in turn were replaced by a more settled Irish community which from the 1860s gradually dissolved as its members found better houses elsewhere. By the end of the century the Irish had been replaced by Stafford’s indigenous poor who themselves experienced stress due to the sheer lack of housing in the borough. Plant’s Square therefore shows many of the processes of social change that operated in nineteenth century Britain but also the continuity of incomes gained by landlords who provided desperate people with minimal housing under conditions of chronic market shortage.

[1] These dimensions were given in the Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 12 March 1898.

[2] White’s Stafford Directory, 1834, Plant, Mr John and Plant, Mr William, both of Forebridge.

[3] Stafford Registration District (RD), deaths, January-March 1838, John Plant, 17/109.

[4] Marriage, William Plant and Catherine Blakeman, Castle Church, 16 April 1824. England, Select Marriages, Ancestry database.

[5] Birth, William Plant, 29 July 1804, Salehurst, Sussex. England, Select Births and Baptisms, Ancestry database.

[6] Death, Catherine Plant, 10 January 1842, Stafford, (Staffs Birth, Marriages and Deaths indexes); Marriage, William Plant and Ann Wright, 1 January 1844, St Mary’s, Stafford, (England, Select Marriages).

[7] John Connor, The Inns and Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, (Kibworth Beauchamp, Matador, 2014), p. 117. Deaths, Stafford RD, October-December 1856, William Plant, 6b/11.

[8] John Wood, Plan of Stafford from Actual Survey, 1835.

[9] SA, 25 June 1881, 23 April 1892.

[10] John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), chaps. 2 and 4.

[11] Herson, Divergent Paths, chap. 5.

[12] SA, 1 February 1851.

[13] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D659/1/4/8, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admissions and Discharges, 24 September 1847-30 March 1850.

[14] For more details of the Bowen family and the sources, see Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 252-260.

[15] See my post of 28 July 2015 and Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 174-190 for more on the Corcoran family.

[16] See Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 46-47.

[17] SA, 23 April 1892.

[18] Marriage, Stafford St Mary’s Church, 20 May 1872, William Harvey and Louisa Carnell. England and Wales marriages, Ancestry database. Deaths, Stafford RD, October-December 1890, Louisa Harvey, aged 38, 6b/7. Both Harvey and Carnell had been born in Stone and lived there until the mid-1880s.

[19] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1897, William Harvey, 6b/22; Census Returns, 1901, Stafford (Charles and Fanny) and Whittington Barracks, Lichfield (Reuben). For more on Comar’s lodging house, see my post on 25 July 2016.

[20] In particular, engineering and allied firms such as W.G. Bagnall, Rooper and Harris, Dormans and, from 1900, Siemens Brothers opened factories in the town, attracted especially by its good communications.

[21] SA, 12 March 1898.

[22] SA, 9 March 1912. See my post on Martin Mitchell on 16 March 2015.