A body on the line


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The death of Lambert Disney

At 6.30 am on Friday 13 December 1867 platelayer William Greatholder came upon a dreadful sight in Shugborough railway tunnel near Stafford. The still warm body of a man was lying between the rails with its head and one foot severed. At the ensuing inquest the driver of a luggage train, John Matthews, stated that he had entered the tunnel at 5.30 am and had felt a sudden jerk near the southern end. At Colwich he reported a problem with the track and Greatholder was dispatched to the tunnel to inspect it. There he made his gruesome find. The remains proved to be those of Captain Lambert Disney, paymaster of the 2nd Staffordshire Militia in Stafford.[1]

Herson Figure 8.1

Shugborough Tunnel where Disney met his death. In the dead of night he walked into this entrance of the tunnel. Near the far end, 777 yards away, he was run down by the train.

Lambert Disney came from a group – the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy of southern Ireland – who have been largely ignored in Irish migration. Writings on Protestant emigrants concentrate on the Scots-Irish of Ulster and particularly the Orangeism that many, though not all, brought to Britain. No study has been done of Church of Ireland adherents from the South who came to England in substantial but uncharted numbers. They lack historical visibility and it is generally assumed that their emigration was opportunistic and that they integrated easily into English life and culture. The Disney family contradicts that assumption. Their emigration came about through family crisis and their settlement in England was reluctant and uncommitted. They arrived in Stafford through Disney’s role in the militia, but the ultimate explanation for their insecurity and his death on the railway line must be sought from before as well as during his militia service.

Disney’s background in Ireland

Lambert Disney was baptised at Glasnevin, Dublin, on 28 August 1808, the son of Thomas Disney, a land agent. Although Thomas Disney’s large family normally lived in Dublin, they also had business interests and property in the Trim area of Co. Meath and from the 1820s increasingly seem to have resided there.  In the 1840s Lambert Disney himself held about 150 acres of land in Galtrim parish.[2]  The social networks of the Protestant Ascendancy always opened up opportunities and Disney benefited. By the late-1830s, he had become agent on the Earl of Darnley’s estate around the small town of Athboy, Co. Meath. His father had previously managed the Earl’s property in the 1800s.[3] In the 1830s the Earl was a minor and Disney first comes to notice when he tried to eject Thomas Anniskey, ‘a most wretched, squalid-looking old man’, from bog land near Jamestown. That demonstrates the easy and arrogant use of power that Ascendancy attitudes inculcated in men such as Disney. At the Quarter Sessions the eviction was held to be illegal.[4] In that time of agrarian unrest Disney was a likely target of hatred, even more so because he was also a local magistrate. In 1842 he was the victim of a ‘robbery of daring boldness’ when his horse and harnesses were stolen from his residence, Clifton Lodge, at Athboy.[5]

Clifton Lodge Athboy house crop

Clifton Lodge, Athboy, Co. Meath, the residence of the Disney family in Ireland. When Lambert Disney moved to Stafford he named his house Clifton Lodge in memory of his previous home but the Stafford house was much smaller and less grand.

More positively, in 1843 Disney got the Earl’s guardians to agree a twenty-five per cent reduction in estate rents, ‘an act of great liberality’.[6] During the Famine he was chairman and treasurer of the Relief Committee in the Barony of Lune, based at Athboy.[7] He undoubtedly worked hard but with mixed objectives. On the one hand he pursued the local public works programme with vigour in order to get at least some money into the hands of local people and keep them on the land. On the other hand he operated the Darnley estate’s ‘landlord-assisted’ emigration policy to get rid of ‘surplus’ tenants. Some ended up destitute in Quebec when his agent there failed to give them the promised start-up money.  ‘No blame can fairly be attached to me’ was his off-hand response when the issue was publicised.[8] It seems clear, however, that the exertions of the Famine period sapped Disney’s health and in the end he was the victim of a ‘severe and protracted’ illness which led him to give up his duties in 1850.[9]

There was another facet to Disney’s character, however, which was to lead more specifically to the railway track in Shugborough Tunnel. His Anglo-Irish Protestant background put him continually on the defensive against perceived threats to his status and religion. That was common in people of his class, but Disney seems to have so internalised the politics of Irish religion and class that it ultimately gnawed at his whole being. The evidence is fragmentary but telling. In the second half of the 1830s, in an attempt to head off the Repeal movement, the Irish government pursued policies to move respectable Catholics into positions of influence that were previously reserved for Protestants , such as the magistracy. This ‘green’ shift was also associated with attempts to undermine the Orange Order. The Protestant landlord class accused the government of attacking property rights and showing dangerous signs of weakness towards rural crime and popular movements.[10] On 24 January 1837 a ‘grand aggregate meeting of the Protestant nobility, gentry, clergy &c of Ireland’ was held at the Mansion House, Dublin, and ‘Mr Lambert Disney of the County of Meath’ was there on the platform amongst scores of others. He publicly gave support to a plethora of speeches and resolutions that repeated the mantras of ‘no surrender’, ‘preserving life and property’, ‘our Protestant institutions menaced’ and so on.[11]

Disney’s attendance at the meeting in Dublin shows he carried the baggage of Protestant ruling class insecurities in nineteenth-century Ireland. It does not prove he was mentally obsessed by these issues, however. For that we have to turn to other evidence. In 1844 he filed a libel suit against the proprietor of the Athlone Sentinel alleging that the latter had published a fake letter ‘with reference to the private concerns of Mr Disney and his political and religious tendencies and his conduct in relation to the tenantry of the Ballyleeran estate’ of which he was agent.[12] No smoke without fire. It seems that Disney’s obsessions were widely known.

Other evidence survives from his death. It was reported in the press that ‘the deceased was religiously disposed and, on more than one occasion, he has circulated among the inhabitants of the town religious and other publications.’[13] Though we do not know the content of those publications, they suggest he was on a one-man crusade against threats to his religion and his class. That brings us to a second point – the timing of his death on 13 December 1867. It was the height of the Fenian campaign in Britain – indeed the Clerkenwell Prison bombing took place later the same day.[14] As a Protestant military man Disney would have seen the Fenians as the ultimate threat to his religious and political identity.

But the same period also saw the public conversion of Gladstone and the Liberals to Irish reform, notably the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and around the land question. Gladstone had come out for disestablishment in May 1867 and he was to make his famous Southport speech on Ireland six days after Disney’s death.[15] We know Disney was no friend of the Liberals. Stafford was a two-member seat, but, in the general election of 1865 there was only one Conservative candidate although there were two Liberals.  Disney voted only for the Conservative.[16] Fenianism and Gladstone’s shift of policy both struck at Disney’s whole world view and could have been the factors that tipped this obsessive man towards suicide.


At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’. That was a polite fiction to save the family from shame. The evidence points to suicide. A key role was played by a militia associate, Trench Nugent. He testified that he had been with Disney on the evening before his death and that he ‘had not been in his usual spirits. He had, indeed, been suffering much depression – of a religious character – for some time past.’ Nugent claimed that Disney had never given him reason to think he might be suicidal, but the evidence of his behaviour that night is bizarre. Having gone to bed but then not sleeping, he got up in the early hours of the morning and left the house. Nugent tried to explain this by saying he possibly wanted to see his doctor who lived at Colton near Rugeley and that the railway line was the most direct route. But why go in the middle of the night and along such a dangerous and illegal route? It would have been difficult to walk along the track in the dark and no witness said he was carrying a lantern. When the level crossing keeper at Queensville asked where he was going he failed to respond but turned quickly on to the road up Radford Bank.[17] He must have subsequently returned to the railway track and walked into the pitch-black of Shugborough Tunnel. He was near the far end when the luggage train came up behind him. He must surely have heard it and even perhaps seen its headlamps. He could have sought refuge by stepping on to the opposite track, squeezing against the tunnel wall or lying down between the rails. He did none of these things. Instead, his head was on the rail itself. They said it was a tragic accident, but the evidence points to depression and suicide.

Lambert Disney’s story shines a rare light on Ascendancy Irish emigrants in England and a later post will examine more of his family’s life in Stafford.

  1. Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867. The story of the Disney family and Trench Nugent is discussed more fully in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Immigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2016,) pp. 221-229.
  2. The complexities of the Disney family’s background have been investigated recently by Anne van Weerden in her interesting book Catherine Disney: a Biographical Sketch (Stedum, Netherlands, J. Fransje van Weerden, 2019), esp. pp. 12-24. Born in 1800, Catherine Disney was Lambert’s elder sister and her story was also tragic. She fell in love with the famous Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Catherine was, however, forced by her family to marry William Barlow, a clergyman who was also her brother-in-law. She remained deeply in love with Hamilton and in 1848 she tried to commit suicide. She was weakened by the attempt and died five years later. Catherine was only able to tell Hamilton of her undying love shortly before she died.
  3. Griffiths Valuation, Meath, Ballynamona Townland, Galtrim Parish, c.150 acres leased by the Representatives of Lambert Disney to Margaret Gallagher and Denis Sweeney. Ancestry Database accessed 10 February 2013.
  4. Van Weerden, Catherine Disney, p. 16. Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 2 February 1839.
  5. Freeman’s Journal, 27 September 1842.
  6. Freeman’s Journal, 29 September 1843.
  7. Famine Relief Commission papers, 1844-7, RLFC3/1: 4338, 15 July 1846; 2809, 6 March 1846; 2943, 6 June 1846, Ancestry Database accessed 5 February 2013.
  8. Daily News, 13 January 1848.
  9. Freeman’s Journal, 4 March 1850.
  10. Bew, Ireland: the Politics of Enmity, pp. 144-9.
  11. The Times, 27 January 1837. Extracts from the speeches of the Marquis of Downshire and Earl of Donoughmore.
  12. Freeman’s Journal, 13 November 1844. The judge granted an order against Daly.
  13. The Times, 17 December 1867.
  14. Quinlivan and P. Rose, The Fenians in England, 1865-72: a Sense of Insecurity, (London, John Calder (Publishers) Ltd., 1982), p. 87.
  15. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2, (London, Macmillan & Co., 1903), pp. 241-3; R. Jenkins, Gladstone, (London, Pan Macmillan, 2002), pp. 280-4; D.G. Boyce, ‘Gladstone and Ireland’ in P.J. Jagger (ed.), Gladstone, (London, The Hambledon Press, 1998), p. 107.
  16. London Metropolitan Archive & Guildhall Library, UK Poll Books and Electoral Registers, 1865, July 12, Borough of Stafford. Ancestry Database, accessed 4 February 2013.
  17. Birmingham Post, 16 December 1867.

The Stafford Workhouse and the Irish: Part Two


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On 3 April 1881 the census enumerator knocked on the door of no. 7 Snow’s Yard in Stafford. John and Bridget Kearns lived in that cottage. The Kearns family had been amongst the first Irish to settle in the town, having been there since the 1820s.[1] The couple said that their 10-year old son Thomas was living in the house with them and he was duly listed on the return. They were lying. Thomas was actually in Stafford Workhouse. He was listed there on the same night. Whilst he might have been ‘normally’ resident at no. 7, he was still incarcerated in the Workhouse a year later and described in the records as an ‘orphan’.[2]

Stafford workhouse 2 contrast

Stafford Workhouse, built 1837-8, demolished in the 1970s.

The Poor Law overseers presumably knew a lot about the troubled Kearns family and they probably labelled Thomas an orphan because he was known not to be John and Bridget’s real son even though Bridget had registered him as such on 22 March 1871. One possibility is that he was actually the illegitimate child of John and Bridget’s daughter Hannah, conceived when she was working as a young servant girl. Although she would only have been about fourteen at the time, such was the fate of many girls forced into service. Another possibility is that she was raped by one of the many lodgers who passed through the Kearns’ unregistered lodging house. The possibility of an incestuous pregnancy by her father cannot be ruled out either. Whatever the truth, poor Thomas seems to have been brought up by his disgruntled and neglectful grandparents. It was they who off-loaded him into the Workhouse for at least some of his childhood.

Thomas Kearns’s route to the workhouse was just one instance of the ways Victorian people could become entangled with the Poor Law system. Although clearly of Irish ancestry, Thomas Kearns grew up as a Staffordian and his contact with the Workhouse was one of thousands amongst the poor, both Staffordian and Irish, who spent time there during the 19th century. The last post looked particularly at the Workhouse’s role during the Famine immigration in the later 1840s. We saw that many Irish passed through the casual wards and temporary accommodation erected during the crisis year of 1847.

By 1851 Workhouse affairs had returned to ‘normal’, and at the time of the Census that year there were only four Irish-born out of the 177 ‘inmates’ inside its walls. As the graph shows, in the succeeding decades the Irish-born were never present in large numbers in the Workhouse.

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Fig. 1: Inmates at Stafford Workhouse, Census Enumeration Returns 1841-1901

What is also apparent from Figure 1 is that the number of people who were ‘pauper inmates’ in the Workhouse rose over time, especially after 1871. The rise was partly a reflection of general population growth in the Stafford Poor Law Union area but it also resulted from trends within the Poor Law system itself. The static picture of the number of inmates actually present on Census nights fails, however, to capture the endless churn of people entering and leaving the Workhouse. This can be seen from the Admission and Discharge Registers. Not all the Registers have survived for the Stafford Workhouse but Figure 2 shows the number of admissions for the complete years that do exist in the records.[3] It is apparent that in the early years of the Poor Law Reform Act the numbers being admitted and discharged were much higher than in later years. By the 1860s and early 1870s the numbers were half what they had been in the 1840s and they only rose somewhat again after 1880.

Figure 2 also shows that the number of Irish admitted to the Workhouse remained relatively modest – an average of 6.6% of people over the whole period. The Irish were, nevertheless, over-represented in proportion to their numbers in the Stafford area. That was inevitable because, like the Kearns family, many were poor and living on the economic margins. The Famine crisis of 1847 stands out. In that year 92 Irish people were recorded into the Workhouse but that figure is undoubtedly a gross underestimate. Between 16 July and 27 September 1847 the flood of destitute Irish was so great that Workhouse staff gave up registering admissions and no data survives from that period. Admissions of Irish people remained above average to the end of this group of complete records in 1851.

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Figure 2: Admissions to Stafford Workhouse, 1843-1900

A major factor affecting admissions to the Workhouse was the state of the economy. When times were hard, particularly in the ‘Hungry Forties’, many people of working age were forced into the Workhouse through unemployment. The upturn of the economy that took place during the mid-Victorian boom was reflected in a decline of admissions between 1858 and 1872. This was a time when farming prospered in the Stafford region and the town’s shoe trade was growing fast. Conversely, the higher numbers entering the Workhouse after 1880 reflected in part the ‘Great Victorian Depression’ which began in 1874 and lasted until the end of the century, with only slight improvement around 1889. Farming went into decline because of imports of cheap food from overseas and Stafford’s shoe trade began to experience competition from the USA. So Workhouse admissions were to some degree a barometer of economic trends.

There were, nevertheless, changes in the role of the Workhouse which were reflected in who ended up there. The New Poor Law aimed to make the Workhouse so hard and forbidding that people would only enter for a short period through unemployment, utter destitution or domestic crisis. The fact that admissions in 1851, for example, were approaching four times the number of actual inmates enumerated in the Census shows the relatively short stay and turnover of entrants. The majority of adult inmates were people of working age who stayed as short a time as possible.

Figure 3. shows the age and gender breakdown of Workhouse inmates in 1841. Well over

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Figure 3: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1841

half were children under sixteen, a shocking statistic which belies any romantic notions of the cohesive Victorian nuclear family. When we look more closely (Figure 4) we see that over 60% of those children appeared to be unattached to any obvious parent in the Workhouse. They seem to be complete orphans. Some may, of course, have been sent to

Who Blog 4 Figure 4: Children in the Stafford Workhouse, 1841

the Workhouse by their parents or other relatives living in the town, just as poor Thomas Kearns was in 1881. We cannot know how many were in that situation or had in fact been completely abandoned to the Poor Law system. Figure 3 also shows that there were twice as many young women in the 16-30 age group in the Workhouse than men. The obvious reason is that they were single parents suffering the Victorian prejudice against sin, illegitimacy and poverty. They accounted for over one third of the children in the institution (Figure 4).

Move on forty years to 1881 and we see the role of the Workhouse changing (Figure 5).

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Figure 5: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1881

Children now formed only about 30% of the inmates, nearing half the proportion in 1841. The Workhouse had now switched in large measure to being a grim de facto old folks home, particularly for middle-aged and old men with nowhere else to go. When I noticed this I speculated that many of these men would have migrated to the Stafford area from elsewhere and once they could no longer work were forced into the Workhouse because they had no local relatives to care for them. I was wrong. Over 70% of them were local – from Stafford town or the immediate countryside around. Over 40% had never married and had reached a lonely old age with no one to take them in. The same proportion were widowers and loss of their marriage partner had similarly left them alone but also, in many cases we must presume, abandoned by their surviving children. It is striking that these same fates happened far less to older women, despite their greater likelihood of survival into old age. Perhaps old women, as grandmothers, had a greater use value as carers in the family economy than ‘useless’ old men with no experience of domestic work. Over 60% of these men had either worked as farm labourers or in Stafford’s boot and shoe trade. Both were occupations bedevilled by intermittent and often poorly paid work and when old age came many had no savings and little work to keep them going. The Workhouse was the only refuge for such men.

What of the Irish? In 1881 there were fifteen Irish-born inmates (Figure 6) and in most ways they conformed to the pattern discussed above. Most were men over 45 years old and indeed well into old age. Ten of them had been farm labourers, the majority from

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Figure 6: Irish-born inmates of Stafford Workhouse, 1881

the mid-west area of Ireland from which many of Stafford’s Irish originated. The five women were, or had been, domestic servants or similar. Three of the Irish were in the Workhouse tramp ward thus emphasising an opposite role for the institution as a temporary refuge for the homeless on the road. With their miserable circumstances all these Irish people represented some of the human wreckage of the Famine, its aftermath and the fractured relationship between Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century.

[1] For the history of the Kearns family in Stafford see my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester University Press, 2015), pp 82-94.

[2] Stafford and Stoke Record Office, D659/1/4/52, Stafford Poor Law Union Indoor relief List, 1882/3.

[3] The Stafford Workhouse registers are held in the Stafford Record Office under ref. D659/1/4/1-13; the basic admission and discharge data can be found on the Staffordshire Names Indexes website at https://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/default.aspx?Index=E

The Stafford Workhouse and the Irish: Part One


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The threat of the workhouse and the Poor Law loomed large in Victorian society. People of almost all classes might find themselves poverty-stricken or destitute through the inhumanities of the capitalist economy, or through illness, personal tragedy and the host of other threats people experienced in a society with no other form of social security. The migrant Irish were particularly vulnerable to these dangers and many ended up in the workhouse, or dependant on outdoor relief, for part of their lives. Many died in those unforgiving wards.

This research on Irish families in Victorian Stafford has not particularly concentrated on their interactions with the Poor Law system. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the project has been to document the diverse life outcomes of the immigrants and their descendants. The stereotypical image of the Irish poor in the wreaking slums has been modified, though by no means dispelled. This blog focuses in, however, on some of the evidence we do have about the Irish and the Stafford Workhouse.

Stafford’s Workhouse was built in 1837-8 on the northern edge of town up the Marston Road. It was designed by local architect Thomas Trubshaw and followed the cruciform plan laid down by the Poor Law Commissioners in 1835 after the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act. Thousands of Staffordians passed through its forbidding walls for over a hundred years. In 1948 it finally metamorphosed into Fernleigh, an old peoples’ home and hospital for the chronically sick. It still carried, nevertheless, the stigma of the Workhouse and I well remember my gran speaking of the place with pity and foreboding in the 1950s. It was finally demolished in the early 1970s.

Stafford Workhouse, built 1837-8, demolished in the 1970s.

The history of the Irish in Stafford shows that the Workhouse carried out a range of functions down the years. Firstly, it accommodated countless numbers of vagrants, tramps and destitute migrant workers both before and after the Famine. In 1871, for example, it was reported that 7,000 vagrants (all of them, not just Irish) had passed through the Workhouse in the previous year, a steep rise in numbers since 1864 when the number had been 2,500.[1] Many Irish seasonal workers and vagrants were amongst these ‘inmates’ and the Poor Law Guardians were always anxious to make the accommodation in vagrant or casual wards as unpleasant as possible to stop people, as they saw it, using the Workhouse as free board and lodging on the way to somewhere else. It was frequently alleged that groups of Irish sent the money they had earned from farm work back to Ireland with one of their number whilst the others claimed destitution and were admitted to workhouses on the way home.

The second role of the Stafford Workhouse was specific to the Famine crisis of 1846-9. People forced out of Ireland started to appear in Stafford in February 1847 and they had become a flood by April of that year. Between April and June the Poor Law Guardians gave relief to around 2,400 ‘Irish paupers’. The destitute were forced into the vagrant wards.[2] Many were suffering from typhus or relapsing fever – then collectively diagnosed as ‘Irish fever’ – and if they did not have it already, they were likely to pick it up in the appalling conditions of the Workhouse. The physician at Staffordshire General Infirmary complained

‘of the filthy state in which fever patients were sent from the Union Workhouse to the Infirmary, and the long period patients suffering from fever were kept in the vagrant wards before their admission into the Infirmary.’[3]

A ‘temporary detached building’ was built to separate the Irish from other Workhouse inmates. By July the fever wards were full and in the chaos the Irish were all crammed in together – the sick, the dying, the apparently well, those relapsing into fever and the convalescent. The Workhouse only took in those who were ill or had nowhere else to go. It was a refugee camp for the absolutely ill and destitute, and the parallels with current refugee crises are stark and by no means in favour of the modern age. For example, at the height of the Famine, on 18 October 1847, William Coleman (b. 1805) was stricken with fever and taken into the Workhouse.[4] He was there for five weeks. This is the first record of a family which later become well established in Stafford. William Coleman farmed a small patch of land that family legend believes was in Knock, Co. Mayo.[5] Like many families stricken by the Famine, William had probably come to Stafford in a desperate attempt to earn money to save his family from the loss of their land. He may already have known the place from earlier seasonal work or from contacts who did. His wife and children were not with him in 1847 but they had arrived by 1851. Catherine Coleman and four of her children were then living in Margaret Morris’s lodging house at No. 9 Sash Street, although William was not present and nor were three of his children. They seem not to have been in England at all, so perhaps they were still clinging to the land back in Mayo. Whatever the reasons, this staggered arrival in Stafford shows how family settlement could be a drawn-out process which ironically began in the Workhouse.

During the Famine the Workhouse could have become, however, a general holding centre for refugees being deported back to Ireland – again with parallels to the present day. It did so for one family – the Kellys. James and Jane Kelly came from Co. Mayo and their arrival in Stafford during the Famine is documented in some detail. This was because, uniquely, the Poor Law authorities tried to deport them back to Ireland. The first definite record of the family is on 10 July 1847 when the Relieving Officer, Edward Brannington, applied for 2s 1d for Jane Kelley (sic), ‘an Irish pauper’. A ‘Thomas Kelly’ had already been admitted to the Workhouse on 29 June, however. He came in because of illness. He was so ill that he was removed to the Infirmary on 1 July. ‘Thomas Kelly’s’ recorded age tallies with that of James, and they were in fact one and the same person. Jane and her eight year old daughter Mary were destitute because of James’s illness, and this would explain why she got outdoor relief. A week later she had received £2 3s 2d, and on 7 August she got another £1 1s 2d, with a further 2s 5d on 21 August.[6]

The Poor Law authorities were struggling to cope with the Famine Irish and the Guardians started to panic at the cost. On the same day that Jane Kelly got her final payment the Guardians resolved ‘that the Act to amend laws relating to the removal of poor persons from England (10 & 11 Vic. Cap. 33) be put into force under the direction of the Overseers of the several parishes of the Union’. The destitute Irish were to be deported back to Ireland.[7]

In practice the authorities in Stafford proved reluctant to implement the procedure and the Kellys became a test case. On 24 September 1847 James Kelly was again admitted to the Workhouse because of illness. The authorities refused to give Jane any more outdoor relief, and she and her daughter were forced inside as well. In effect they were imprisoned there before the next move. The family was discharged on 17 October and an order made for their removal from the parish – and England.[8] A month later came the reckoning. On 13 November Brannington presented his bill of £4 4s 9d ‘for conveying three Irish paupers – James Kelley, Jane his wife and one child – to Liverpool and the amount of their fair by steam packett to Dublin’(sic).[9] At this point the Guardians refused to pay up. They thought the relieving officer had exceeded his powers and that the expenditure was too high. They passed the bill to the parish overseers of Stafford with the excuse that the Kellys were chargeable to that parish. The overseers there refused to pay and passed the buck back to the Union. Two weeks later Brannington presented his bill again together with the Order of Removal. This time the Guardians questioned the legality of the Order but cravenly decided to seek guidance from the Poor Law Commissioners in London. The Commissioners’ ruling does not survive, but the matter surfaced again on 22 January 1848 when Brannington was cross examined over his actions in the Kelly case. The Chairman supported the relieving officer, arguing that ‘Birmingham and other places were removing great quantities of Irish …. and Stafford must do the same’. The other guardians were not convinced and they did nothing. There is no evidence that the Stafford poor law authorities removed any more Famine Irish from the town. They decided it was too much trouble. The Kelly family had, in the short term, been the unlucky victims of a failed experiment. They had the last laugh, however. Although Brannington claimed for their boat fare to Dublin, the family either slipped the net in Liverpool or got the first boat back from Ireland. They returned to Stafford. We know they were back in the town by 1848 because their son Martin was baptised at St Austin’s in October of that year. They went on to become a family with a fairly notorious reputation in the town.[10]

After around 1849 conditions in and around the Workhouse in Stafford became more ‘normal’ with the decline of the immediate Famine crisis, though Irish immigration resulting from it continued at a high level into the 1850s. The next blog will look at the roles played by the Poor Law system in Stafford in relation to the Irish in the decades after 1850.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser, 23 September 1871.

[2] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D659/8a/4-5, Stafford Poor Law Guardians, Minute Book 1844-1848 (7 July 1847).

[3] SRO, D659/8a, Stafford Poor Law Union Board of Guardians Minute Book, 29 May 1847.

[4] SRO D659/1/4/8, Stafford Workhouse Admission and Discharge Book, 24 September 1847-30 March 1850.

[5] The late Peter Godwin, 2002, and Kathleen Boult, descendants, 2003. In 1852 William Coleman was described as a ‘husbandman’ on his daughter Catherine’s marriage certificate.

[6] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845- 3 February 1849.

[7] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845- 3 February 1849.

[8] SRO, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union: Workhouse Admissions, 1847-8.

[9] SRO, D659/8a/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians Minute Book, 17 April 1845-3 February 1849, 13 November 1847.

[10] The full history of the Kelly family is covered in my book: John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp. 113-122.

‘Beaten when she deserved it’. The lives of the Neild family


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‘A state of utter filth’

In March 1893 Marion and Edmund Neild were brought before Stafford magistrates charged with neglecting their children. The couple were living at 24 Eastgate Street, a poor dwelling in the town centre. The Medical Officer of Health reported what he had seen in the house. The front room was occupied as some sort of shop but the back room was ‘in a state of utter filth’. There were no signs of crockery or any other household utensils. ‘An abominable smell emanated from the beds and some flocks on the floor were covered in filth’. The situation in the Neild household had presumably been reported to the authorities by neighbours. They said the children went about in a very dirty condition, with their clothes in rags.

Behind this superficial picture of squalor lay marital violence and tragedy. In evidence, Marion Neild said ‘she had no heart to do anything in the house or for the children as her husband continually beat her.’ Her twelve years of marriage had been a life of ‘systematic cruelty at the hands of her husband’. In misery and despair she had sought refuge in drink and had been forced to beg bread for her children.

Edmund James Neild was a printer and compositor by trade. His story was that he earned 27 shillings a week of which he gave his wife 24 shillings. He said she had neglected the children and even pawned their clothing. He did admit to having beaten his wife ‘when she deserved it’ but he denied that he spent most of his time in public houses. The magistrates gave both Marion and Edmund a month in prison, a pointless sentence that did nothing to help their neglected children.[1] When they came out Edmund stayed on in Stafford. But Marion disappeared. I’ve found no trace of her, either alive or dead, after that fateful day in 1893. So what happened to her and what was the background to the disastrous Neild family?

Marion Neild had been born Marion George in Worcester in 1862. Her father Robert was a machinist in the city and he and his wife Emma, had six children. They were Protestants and the evidence suggests they were a skilled working class family strongly based in the city. Nevertheless, sometime in the late 1870s Marion left Worcester and came to Stafford. The first we know of her coming was when she arrived at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford on 8 August 1880 to marry Edmund Neild.[2] It is significant that neither of the witnesses was from Marion’s family nor was apparently connected to her. One was Edmund’s sister Rebecca and the other was George Keogh, a ‘club manager’ living three doors down from the Neilds’ house in Eastgate Street.

As a printer and compositor Edmund Neild was a skilled and presumably literate man in a reasonably secure job. Both he and his wife superficially looked as though they would settle down to become a respectable working class family in Stafford. We have seen it alleged, however, that Edmund was violently abusive towards his wife from the start of their marriage. What was this man’s background?

Edmund’s background

Edmund’s father was James Neild (see the outline genealogy). We know this because Edmund gave his name for the St Austin’s Marriage Register, but there is otherwise almost no simple evidence as to who he was. The only definite fact is that James Neild married Rebecca Donnelly in Salford, Lancashire, in the early months of 1851.[3] Rebecca always said she had been born in Manchester, so it is reasonable to conclude we are dealing with the correct couple. Neither is traceable in the 1851 Census, however, and the reason is almost certainly that James Neild was serving in the military. Although he has not been traced in the military records, their first child, Edmund, was born soon afterwards in 1852 in Queenstown, Co. Cork (modern Cobh) and that made him technically Irish. Queenstown (Spike Island) was a major British military base. Was James Neild himself Irish? It’s possible, but even if he wasn’t, it’s pretty clear that his wife Rebecca Donnelly came from an Irish family despite having been born in Manchester. And the couple were Catholics.  James and Rebecca may have had more children in the 1850s and early 1860s but, if so, they didn’t survive, and Edmund’s only surviving sibling was his sister Rebecca Teresa who was born in Colchester, Essex, in 1854.[4] Colchester was also a garrison town which again suggests James Neild was in the forces. Neild-George Geneal conct

It is possible James and Rebecca Neild came to Stafford when James was drafted to the militia barracks some time after 1864. It was a common posting for soldiers at the end of their military career. If so, James didn’t settle in Stafford and, indeed, there is no actual proof of his presence in the town. I’ve traced no record of his death – he just disappears from history. Edmund Neild must therefore have had a fairly disrupted childhood in shifting environments and an unstable relationship with his father. Domestic violence could well have been part of existence both for him and his mother. We know today that many abusive adults themselves experienced abuse in childhood. Edmund may have been one of them.

After James’s death or disappearance Rebecca Neild did not let the grass grow under her feet. In 1871 she married an Irishman, John Higgins.[5] He was a printer and compositor who had been born in Ireland around 1828. In 1861 he had been living in Liverpool with his widowed mother and two sisters and he was working as a compositor at that time too. They have not been traced before that, so presumably they were Famine immigrants to Britain during the 1850s. John Higgins must have moved to Stafford during the 1860s, presumably for work. There is no obvious previous connection between Higgins and the Neild family, so John must have met the Rebecca after he settled in the town. When Rebecca married Higgins in 1871 the couple set up house at 52 Eastgate Street and as part of the deal Higgins accepted the two step-children, Edmund and Rebecca. Edmund, who was now 19 years old, was described as a printer in the 1871 census and it seems very likely he entered the trade – and got a job – through his new step-father.

During the 1870s John and Rebecca Higgins proceeded to have three surviving children, Ellen (b. 1873), William (b. 1874) and Cicely Edith (b. 1876). They moved to No. 11 Railway Street , a respectable address in Newtown. There is no other record of their doings during that decade but things did not run smoothly. John Higgins died in 1879 at the early age of 51.[6] For a second time Rebecca was left to face the world alone and bring up her three young children.  Just eight months after her husband’s death Edmund moved out and began his abusive marriage with Marion George.

What happened to Marion?

It seems clear that, by her own admission, Marion caved in in the face of Edmund’s violence and took to drink. The squalor that Dr Bloomer found in their house was clearly no temporary lapse but before the events of 1893 we have no evidence of the family’s problematic situation. There are no recorded events where either Edmund or Marion were involved in drunken, disruptive or violent behaviour in public. The crisis was unfolding indoors and only the children’s neglected condition finally exposed things to wider gaze. By this time the widowed Rebecca Higgins was living back in Eastgate Street, at No. 72, and it seems surprising that she did not become involved, if only to help her grandchildren. She certainly did become involved after 1893 and took in Edmund and his remaining young children. In 1901 Edmund, together with Edith (b. 1888) and William (b. 1891), were living at No. 72 with Rebecca and her Higgins children William and Cicely. He still described himself in the census as ‘married’.

By this time Marion had been absent for a number of years and we have seen that she just seems to have disappeared. Her appearance at the magistrates’ court must have been pathetic but, even allowing for newspaper licence, she was able to coherently expose the frightful conditions under which she lived, her own mental state and Edmund’s role in creating them. That suggests she was not a total drunken wreck. It also suggests she was a woman with some spirit who perhaps challenged the dominant male role in her Victorian marriage. After her release from gaol she may have used the opportunity to do a bunk. Although there is no record of her returning to her family and her home town of Worcester, perhaps family members paid for her to emigrate. She certainly seems to disappear from the British historical record.[7]

Edmund’s later years

Having moved in with his mother, Edmund Neild stayed on in Stafford. There must have been stresses in the household. Edmund’s relationship with Rebecca’s son William Higgins, a labourer, was probably poor but in this case it was the younger man who was problematic. In the 1900s William had a number of convictions for theft and in October 1904 he was in court for the theft of a pistol (value £1) from Edmund.[8] He sold it George Powell, the landlord of the Duke of York pub in Tipping Street. The incident is interesting because it suggests yet again that Edmund’s father James was in the military. Edmund must have inherited the gun after his father’s death or disappearance. Apart from a conviction in 1907 for not having a dog licence, Edmund kept out of trouble with the law.[9] His mother, meanwhile, had died in 1902 but Edmund continued to live in the family house at No. 72 Eastgate Street. In 1911 he was still there with his son William (Neild) and a married couple and their child as lodgers. He still said he was ‘married’. He finally died in Stafford in 1921.[10]

Edmund and Marion’s children mostly showed little attachment to Stafford and left the town in early adulthood. Their traumatic early years cannot have given them much attachment to the place, although their family circumstances seem to have stabilised when they moved in with their grandmother. James Robert Neild (b. 1885) did stay on in Stafford, however, and in 1917 married a Protestant woman, Bertha Ward.[11]  The couple stayed in Stafford but no children have been traced.

A problematic family

The story of Marion George and Edmund Neild shows the difficulties of reconstructing circumstances and motivations from limited historical data. The facts exposed in their household in 1893 were clear enough but building the wider picture has proved much more difficult. Edmund Neild was violent and abusive towards his wife and I’ve speculated on possible reasons in his background for this. His behaviour after 1893 shows, however, no continuing evidence of disruption or violence. In the aftermath he was not disowned by his mother and the children were brought up in the new family household.  The Neild/George marriage was obviously a tragic mistake but the pathological reasons for that are now difficult to fathom.

Another incidental point emerges from the story of the Neild family. Were they Irish? We have seen that in practice the ethnic pattern revealed by this family was complex and it emphasises the dangers of generalising about ethnic stereotypes and the need to examine the actual patterns of ethnicity revealed in real families in their historical context.


[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 March 1893.

[2] Parish of St Austin, Stafford, Register of Marriages, 1858-1880.

[3] Salford Registration District (RD), Marriages, January-March 1851, James Neild and Rebeca (sic) Donnelly, 20/781.

[4] Colchester RD, Births, July-September 1864, Rebecca Teresa Neild, 4a/245.

[5] Stafford RD, Marriages, January-March 1871, John Higgins and Rebecca Neild, 6b/35.

[6] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 04/6897, John Higgins, compositor, 23 December 1879.

[7] I’ve tried looking for her under both her married and maiden surnames and just by searching likely-looking ‘Marions’, since it was a relatively uncommon forename. No likely person emerged from these searches.

[8] SA, 15 October 1904.

[9] SA, 13 April 1907.

[10] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 11.9783, 30 March 1921, Edmund J Neild, printer.

[11] Stafford RD, Marriages, October-December 1917, James Robert Neild and Bertha Ward, 6b/37.

Migrant contrasts: Martin McDermott and Sandford Cooper


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Sometime between 1851 and 1857 Anthony Fisher, a German watch and clockmaker, arrived in Stafford and set up in business. In 1857 he married Catherine Clarke, a local woman, and by 1861 the couple were living at 34 Garden Street in Forebridge. They already had three children and were sharing the house with Catherine’s parents and their three other children. It must have been very crowded. Anthony Fisher seems to have done well enough in Stafford, occupying premises in Foregate Street for many years before retiring with his family to Birmingham in the 1890s.

Thousands of people were leaving the German states in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century – like Trump’s ancestors – and Anthony Fisher’s arrival in Stafford was just one incident in a tide of emigration that in sheer numbers equalled that from Ireland.  In general Stafford was not an attractive destination for such continental emigrants – London, Manchester and above all North America had much more to offer – but Anthony Fisher’s story makes the simple point that many people even in a small town like Stafford had originally come from elsewhere. This blog compares the Irish with the town’s other in-migrants. In doing this it is important to compare like with like and initially I shall look at men from elsewhere who were married or partnered and heads of households settled in Stafford. In a later blog I’ll look at apparently independent female and male migrants whose life stage situation was rather different.

For this blog I’m going to compare the details I already had for Irish-born men who were heads of households with those of a sample of men who were born outside Stafford but not in Ireland. I’ve chosen the year 1861 because the number of Irish-born reached its peak in Stafford around that time.  First of all, the general picture (Fig. 1).[1] The Census unfortunately doesn’t tell us how many people were short-distance migrants from elsewhere in Staffordshire, since they were lumped together with those born in Stafford itself. Three-quarters of the adult males had in fact been born within the county, were therefore local and are excluded from Fig. 1. Nevertheless a quarter were incomers even in this predominantly rural area, an indication of the amount of movement in Victorian Britain. The biggest proportion of in-migrants had come relatively short distances – from the adjoining counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire or Shropshire or from other Midland counties. Just over a fifth had travelled the much longer journey from Ireland and significant numbers were there from the South-East and Northern England. Why had they come to Stafford?

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Fig 1: Birthplaces of in-migrant male household heads, Stafford, 1861

In 1861 there were 121 Irish-born and apparently married male household heads living in Stafford and Fig. 2 shows the different sectors of the local economy in which they worked.[2]  The data on the non-Irish-born is taken from a sample of 229 adult male household heads from the Census returns who were born outside Stafford but not in Ireland. The sample roughly reflected the proportion of people born in different regions of the country in the published Registration District data.

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Fig. 2: Employment sectors of Irish and non-Irish migrant male household heads, Stafford, 1861

Fig. 2 shows obvious differences between the Irish and non-Irish migrants. Over half the Irish in 1861 were working on the farms and over a fifth were other sorts of labourers. The stereotypical picture of the Irish in Britain as unskilled or semi-skilled labourers is amply borne out by this evidence. Very few of the British movers did that sort of work. Very few were on the farms or labouring. Over half were engaged in some sort of manufacturing and most of the rest were either in retail jobs or public service.

The division between the Irish and the British migrants was reflected in their relative occupational status (Fig. 3). Seventy per cent of the Irish were either unskilled or semi-skilled, the latter being the ones doing various sorts of farmwork. Only just over a tenth of the British came into these categories. The vast majority were skilled manual or clerical, of whom over a third worked in the Stafford shoe trade.  Nearly a fifth were entrepreneurs or managers.

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Fig 3: Occupational status of Irish and non-Irish male household heads, Stafford, 1861

It is clear, then, that Stafford’s non-Irish migrants came to the town because it offered opportunities to get on in relatively higher status jobs. There was little point in moving there if you had no skill to offer. The Irish were already dominating those jobs along with the locally-born unskilled. Typical of the sort of outsiders who did settle in Stafford was William Beardsley. He’d been born around 1820 in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, and began work as a framework knitter, a local trade but a dying one. Sometime in the 1850s he gave that up, became a shoemaker and came the relatively short distance to Stafford. In 1861 we find him living in St Chad’s Passage with his new Stafford-born wife Jane and baby son, then aged just one.  William showed the adaptability typical of many migrants. Shoemaking in Stafford was a competitive and over-populated trade and during the 1860s William got out of it and took over the tenancy of the Queen’s Head pub in the Broad Eye, a fairly poor part of the town. He was still there in 1881 and by then he and Jane had had five children. William Beardsley did well enough through his move to Stafford. He died in the town in 1883 but Jane continued the business and was still running licensed premises, by then in Mill Street, in 1901.[3]

James Harrison from Newton-le-Willows had been born around 1823 and came of age in time to work for that expanding sector of the Victorian economy, the railways. He became an engine driver for the London and North Western Railway and, like most railwaymen, was moved about. In the late 1840s he was in Birmingham, by 1849 he had moved to Crewe and around 1856 he was at Rugby shed.[4]  Stafford became a more important shed on the LNWR main line in 1861 and that was the reason significant numbers of railwaymen came to Stafford.[5]  James was moved there in 1860-1. In that year were find him living in Tenterbanks, near the station, with his Birmingham-born wife Elizabeth and their five children. Stafford proved to be James’s last move and the family established themselves in respectable houses off the Wolverhampton Road, latterly at no. 28 Telegraph Street.

Sandford Albion Cooper was an example of the entrepreneurs who made it in Stafford. He had been born in Lambeth, London, around 1820. He seems to have lived around Canterbury in Kent in the 1840s and in 1846 married Martha Peters from Tunbridge Wells.[6] By 1851 they and their little daughter Emily had arrived in Stafford, although it is impossible to say why they moved there.  They were living in Rickerscote and Sandford was described as a ‘journeyman gas fitter’. During the 1850s he changed tack and opened a business, trading variously as an ironmonger, general dealer and/or furniture dealer at premises around Foregate Street, Gaolgate Street and Gaol Square. He remained in business until the 1890s, although Martha had died in 1878.[7] By 1901 he and Emily had retired to a house in nearby Gnosall and Sandford died there in 1907. He left an estate valued at £1650 (about £188,700 at 2017 prices), so he had clearly done well enough during his time in Stafford.[8]

The lives of these non-Irish migrants contrasted sharply with that of Martin McDermott. As we have seen, most (though not all) Irish immigrants ended up in farm or general labouring jobs (Figs. 2 and 3). Martin McDermott was pretty typical of these people. He arrived in Stafford, probably from Co. Galway or Roscommon, in the 1850s with his wife Elizabeth and son Michael. Martin was already a middle-aged man in his 40s by that time and he worked as a farm labourer in the fields surrounding the town. The family was clearly poor and they and their descendants remained rooted in the slum-filled Clarke’s Court and Back Walls area until beyond the Great War. In the early 1870s Martin had to give up farmwork. He was now becoming an old man and both the walk to the farms and the heavy manual work involved were too onerous. The farm jobs were disappearing anyway, so Martin had to find another occupation. His new job typified how immigrants, then as now, often end up with the dirty work  people in the host society don’t want to do. He was taken on at the Borough Surveyor’s depot at Coton Field. Stafford still had no effective sewerage and Coton Field was where the night soil carts emptied their noisome contents. Martin’s job was to clean out the stinking tubs before their next journey into town. It was miserable and heavy work and he did not survive long, dying in February 1877. His wife Elizabeth survived for another twelve years and his son Michael became a house painter, married and his descendants lived on in Stafford into the twentieth century.[9]

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Fig. 4: Employment sectors of Irish-born male household heads, Stafford, 1871

Martin McDermott’s shift of occupation in the 1870s reflected a wider trend amongst the settled Irish. Fig. 4 shows how jobs in farmwork collapsed during the 1860s and by 1871 were less than a third the proportion of ten years previously. The Irish were now widely scattered amongst a variety of job sectors, though many of the farm labourers had moved to labouring jobs in the town or left the district altogether. The range of occupations done by the Irish was beginning to shift more towards that of non-Irish migrants and that process became more marked as the second generation entered the job market. The Irish job profile in 1861 had been heavily skewed to the hardest and least skilled work but it was typical of the first phase of stressful immigration, not a portent of the permanent position of Irish and Irish-descended people in Stafford.


[1] Data was only published for the Stafford Registration District which covered both the town and the surrounding rural area. The statistics are therefore biased somewhat towards people born locally because the Stafford town attracted more immigrants than the countryside. 1861 Census, West Midland Counties, Table 22, Birthplaces of the Inhabitants in Superintendent Registrars’ Districts, District 367, Stafford.

[2] Data on the Irish taken from the writer’s database of Census returns, 1841-1901.

[3] Deaths, Stafford Registration District (RD), April-June 1883, William Beardsley, 6b/12.

[4] This can be ascertained by the birthplaces of his children.

[5] See my case-study of the Larkin family in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920 (Manchester UP, 2015), pp 197-206.

[6] Marriages, Blean RD, April-June 1846, Sandford Albion Cooper and Martha Peters, 5/49.

[7] Deaths, Stafford RD, Oct-Dec 1878, Martha Cooper, 6b/5.

[8] National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Adminstration), 1858-1966, Sandford A Cooper, died 16 January 1907. Ancestry database, accessed 29 January 2018.

[9] For the full story of the McDermotts see my Divergent Paths, pp. 134-7.

The Hamiltons – a Protestant shoemaking family


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In my last post I looked generally at the Stafford shoe trade and its relationship to Ireland and the Irish. Many Irish shoemakers came to Victorian Stafford, forced out of Ireland by the collapse of Irish shoemaking in the face of competition from aggressive firms in towns like Stafford.  This post traces the story of the Hamiltons, Protestant Irish from Ulster who were victims of this process.[1]

The Hamiltons came from Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim. Their surname suggests they were originally a Scottish planter family. The first we know about them in England was when, on 5 June 1860, Edward Hamilton, a nineteen-year-old boot and shoemaker, married Harriet Adelina Lockley, a shoe binder. The marriage did not take place in Stafford but at St Andrew’s Church, Ancoats, in Manchester.[2] Andrew Brew, the workers’ leader mentioned in the last post, had also lived there, and Edward Hamilton took the same route from Ulster to Stafford. One reason was that his wife was from the Stone area north of Stafford. The newly-weds presumably decided that Stafford offered more than the Ancoats slums and within a year they had moved to the town. In 1861 they were living in a mean house in Clark Street in the town centre. They were not alone, however. Edward’s sixty-year-old widowed father, also a shoemaker, was there and the census return identifies him as the head of the household, so we can conclude father and son had come to England together. They were clearly poor and had to take in lodgers – a middle-aged butcher, William Packer, and his wife Marian.

Three members of the Hamilton family had in fact came to Stafford because in 1861 a William Hamilton, ‘cordwainer’ (the traditional name for a shoemaker), was lodging with the Harris family at 37 Gaol Road in the north end. He was a year older than Edward Hamilton and they were probably brothers. William left Stafford in the 1860s and disappears from history.[3] The same applies to his father. Perhaps they moved off together and emigrated. In the end only Edward and Harriet Hamilton settled long-term in Stafford and even they took time to become committed to the town. Although their first child, Albert James was born there in 1861, they had moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme by the time their daughter Mary arrived in 1864. That was a brief sojourn because they were back in Stafford the next year for Arthur’s birth. The couple went on to have eight children, but three died as infants and there was a considerable gap in the surviving family between Edward born in 1868 and Ada, the final arrival, ten years later.

Poor lives in Stafford

The Hamiltons remained a poor shoemaking family. Their history shows that Protestant Irish immigrants did not necessarily merge seamlessly into English society. They had no natural supporters in the local community and they had no Protestant Irish connections to help them on their way.[4] If they were Orangemen, as many Church of Ireland people in Ulster were, Stafford was barren territory. Harriet’s Staffordshire origins were no help since her family were humble labourers from fifteen miles away. Even worse, the Hamiltons settled in Stafford just when the shoe trade was starting its shift to machine production in workshops and factories. In 1871 Edward described himself as a ‘journeyman’ which implies he had served his apprenticeship as a craft shoemaker. Times were moving against him, however, since the new production methods brought division of labour and de-skilling.


A Victorian domestic shoemaker – Edward Hamilton’s workplace doubtless looked rather like this, though probably gloomier.

By 1881 Edward had sunk to being a ‘shoemaker finisher’, a relatively low grade occupation at the end of the production process. It was still mostly outwork, though even this was being brought into the factories.[5] In the same year Harriet was a dressmaker, also a marginal and sweated occupation, and in 1891 she was selling second hand clothes, something she still did in 1911.The Hamiltons therefore subsisted on low-grade, ill-paid and uncertain work on the margins of the economy, and their lives reflected that. In 1878 Edward was fined for not sending his children to school. It suggests one or more of the children were working to supplement the family income.[6]  The family earned a modest living but little more.

Their housing was mean. They lived in at least nine different houses between 1861 and 1915 but showed no evidence of upward social mobility. They shifted from the dreary town centre locality of Clark Street to Mill Street, little better, in the second half of the 1860s but had an intervening period in Newcastle-under-Lyme. They then had a rather better address on Sandon Road in the north end around 1876.[7] From 1878 until the 1900s they lived in three different houses in dingy Browning Street and in their declining years they ended up round the corner in Grey Friars. These repeated house moves undermined the Hamiltons’ ability to create a stable and nurturing home environment, although their aspiration to a basic respectability is indicated by membership of the Stafford Humane Burial Society in the 1870s. They needed to claim the Society’s insurance payments because, between 1871 and 1875, Harriet had three successive babies who died within months of their birth.[8] Those years must have been particularly miserable and stressful for the family.

Despite glimmers of respectability, Edward Hamilton’s behaviour also undermined family life. He was a drinker and could be violent. In 1868 he was arrested for being drunk and, when in the cells, assaulted a policeman who had gone down to stop him kicking the door and making a racket. The fight allegedly went on for some minutes.[9] Nineteen year later he was out with his son Arthur at the Crown Inn, Hyde Lea, and joined in kicking a police inspector who had already been attacked by the violently drunk Arthur.[10] These incidents were probably only the tip of an iceberg of anger and violence that existed within the Hamilton household and of which Harriet and the children were probably the chief victims.

Sectarian and Loyalist?

Edward Hamilton came from Carrickfergus, a strongly Protestant town, and we must speculate to what extent he, his brother and his father carried their Ulster Protestant identity with them to Stafford. Edward was, of course, a young man when he arrived in Stafford and his marriage to a local woman immediately gave his family a mixed identity. Even so, in the 1868 election he voted Tory, probably swayed by hostility to the proposed disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and concessions to Catholics.[11] It seems that for many years Edward in fact wanted to obscure his Irish origin. Although in the 1871 census he specifically said he had been born in Carrickfergus, in the three succeeding census returns he changed his story and said he had been born in Scotland. If that had happened once it might have been an enumerator’s error, but three times suggests a conscious decision to deny his Irish origin.

There is also one known incident that suggests anti-Irishness, and perhaps anti-Catholicism, in the family. In April 1888 Edward Hamilton’s son Arthur was fined ten shillings for an assault at the Working Men’s Club in Stafford. The key witness was Thomas Maloney, an Irish Catholic who was an official at the club. In a dispute over membership rules Arthur Hamilton called Maloney ‘an Irish something’ (laughter in court), assaulted him and then ran away.[12] Trivial as the incident was, it clearly indicates that at least one of Edward Hamilton’s children had no inherited Irish identity and some apparent antipathy to the Irish. The attitude was probably general in the family and it suggests that although they were near the bottom of the social hierarchy they strove to differentiate themselves from those they regarded as inferiors, the Catholic Irish.

The Hamilton children depart

Harriet and Edward Hamilton’s children showed little commitment either to their family or to Stafford when they grew up. Born between 1861 and 1877, they entered the labour force when the shoe trade was often depressed and jobs were beginning to disappear. Their parents had barely managed to scrape a living from shoemaking, so it held little attraction for the children. Neither Edward nor Harriet was well enough connected to get their children secure jobs in footwear or anywhere else in the local economy. Stafford’s economic base was beginning to diversify into engineering and administration, but before 1900 the switch had not yet created enough new jobs and more people were leaving the town than coming to it. With their stressed home life and interrupted schooling, the Hamilton children emerged with poor skills and prospects. Their subsequent lives generally reflected this.

The three Hamilton boys all joined the army, a classic refuge for youths with poor prospects. Albert James (b. 1861), was with the 12th Lancers, a cavalry regiment, on active service until 1891 and another five years in the reserve, but his record was mediocre. He never rose above private and had a number of infractions resulting in imprisonment.[13] Arthur (b. 1865) started work as a butcher’s boy but in 1889 joined the Royal Artillery. He served for just over three years, including one spell in India but also one in prison. In 1892 he was discharged as medically unfit because he had received a compound fracture of his leg whilst on duty. The army just threw him on the scrap heap with a pension of twelve pence a week for one year.[14] He died in Cannock in 1897, aged only thirty-two.[15] Edward Hamilton (b. 1868) also died relatively young. He joined the Royal Artillery in 1886 but his record was notable only for two cases of gonorrhoea. In 1892 he was diagnosed with primary syphilis. His conduct was described as ‘indifferent’.[16]  He finally died of ‘hemiplegia’ in 1907, aged only thirty eight. This was almost certainly tertiary syphilis, so his army past had caught up with him.[17]

The Hamiltons’ daughter Mary (b. 1864) also had a problematic life. She was still living at home in 1881 working as a dressmaker but she subsequently had at least three illegitimate children, one of them supposedly born in Brighton. Mary’s elusive but clearly promiscuous behaviour suggests she may have made money from casual prostitution. It has proved impossible to trace her after 1891. She could have changed her name and identity and gone off to ply her trade elsewhere. The Hamilton’s final child, Ada (b. 1877), also left Stafford. She was the only one to work in the shoe trade. She became a paste fitter, a menial female job. In 1901 she married Charles Conlin, a railway fireman from Crewe but they have not been traced again in Britain. It can only be assumed they left amidst the tide of emigrants in the 1900s.[18]

The elusive Hamiltons

Harriet Hamilton died in 1915 and old Edward seems to left Stafford after he became a widower. His death has not been traced. They had been a poor family with internal stresses who had struggled to survive in an economic climate that was against them. The children’s strategy was to get out of Stafford but with limited success. This pattern must have stemmed, at least in part, from their family and social environment in Stafford.

The Hamiltons entered a society alien to the secure reference points of Ulster Protestant political and religious life. Edward Hamilton only became committed to England because of his marriage to Harriet. The picture that emerges of the couple’s relationship is mixed. On the one hand they fulfilled, in later life, their obligations by taking in their wayward daughter Mary for a time and bringing up her illegitimate children. On the other hand we see in incidents of Edward and Arthur’s drunkenness, violence and indifference to schooling evidence of a disordered household and weak family ties. They were a deprived family that continually moved house and found it difficult to provide a nurturing home.

Evidence is elusive of how the Hamilton family related to their neighbours and the wider working class community. They needed contact with other shoemakers and employers to get the outwork on which they depended, but their failure to get better houses suggests those contacts were fickle. Harriet’s switch to selling second hand clothes indicates a family relating to Stafford’s poorest rather than the artisans who could still make a respectable living in the shoe trade. Their frequent switches of address imply they never built close relations with their neighbours, whilst Arthur’s fracas at the Working Men’s Club suggests ineffectual, perhaps even abrasive, relations with working class peers. It seems clear that Edward wanted to negate his Irish background, but in claiming to be Scottish he was still admitting a different identity from native Staffordians, and we are left with the picture of a mixed-ethnicity family aloof from local society. All in all, this Protestant shoemaking family’s life in Stafford was difficult and their circumstances were as poor, or poorer, than those of many Catholic Irish families.

[1] A longer history of the Hamilton family can be found in my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, ppbk. ed. 2016), pp. 246-252.

[2] Parish Registers, St Andrew’s Church, Ancoats, Manchester, Ancestry Database, accessed 3 April 2013.

[3] No death or other place of residence in Britain has been traced.

[4] Church of England clergy officiated at the family’s four recorded burials in the cemetery. Stafford BC Burial Records: 2/3970; 3/5362 and 3/4460; 10/7651. The Hamilton boys gave their religion as ‘Church of England’ when they were attested into the army.

[5] A.M. Harrison, ‘The development of boot and shoe manufacturing in Stafford, 1850-1880’, Journal of the Staffordshire Industrial Archaeology Society, 10 (1981), p. 37.

[6] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 14 September 1878

[7] In 1871 they were at 4 Mill Street but by 1875 they had moved next door to no. 5. William Salt Library, Jones Collection, Accessions 0/00-9/0, sale catalogue, 1875, “valuable freehold house properties, … 2 houses, gardens & premises at 5/6 Mill Street in the occupation of Edward Hamilton & Nicholas Maddocks.” By 1877 they were living at Victoria Terrace, Sandon Road. SRO D4338/E/1/5 Stafford & District Humane Burial Society Register, 1876-1930s. In 1881 they were living at 31 Browning Street but by 1891 they had moved to 18 Browning Street, a small four-roomed cottage; in 1901 they were next door at no. 17.

[8] They lived at 7 Grey Friars in 1911 and Harriet died at no. 9 Grey Friars in 1915.

[9] SA, 2 May 1868.

[10] SA, 13 August 1887.

[11] SRO, D5008/2/7/11/1, Borough of Stafford Poll Book, Elections of 1868 and 1869.

[12] SA, 21 April 1888.

[13] NA, WO97, service record of No. 2296 Private Albert James Hamilton, FindMyPast database, accessed 27 February 2013.

[14] NA, WO97, service record of No. 72126 Private Arthur Hamilton, FindMyPast database, accessed 27 February 2013.

[15] Cannock RD, Deaths, January-March 1897, 6b/328, Arthur Hamilton.

[16] NA, WO97, service record of No. 52897 Private Edward Hamilton, FindMyPast database, accessed 27 February 2013.

[17] Nantwich RD, Death Certificate, 8a/210 No. 475, 16 May 1907, Edward Hamilton; opinion of Dr. Richard Nelson, Chester, 21 April 2013.  

[18] Stafford RD, Marriage Certificate, 6b/25 No. 149, 27 April 1901, Ada Hamilton and Charles Henry Conlin.

The Stafford shoe trade and the Irish


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The shoe trade

In October 1855 over 500 shoemakers, both men and women, attended a mass meeting in Stafford’s Market Square. They were protesting against the trial of a sewing machine by Edwin Bostock, one of the town’s leading shoe manufacturers. The meeting passed a number of resolutions and

‘The fourth resolution proposed by Mr A. Brew and seconded by Mr A. Prosser condemned machinery as injurious to the interests of the working classes and solicited the higher and middle classes of Stafford to assist them with their sympathy and support.’[i]

The proposer, Andrew Brew, was Irish, and until his death in 1866 he was in the forefront of the fight by Stafford’s shoemakers to prevent the introduction of machinery. He was born in Downpatrick, Co. Down, in 1806, one of eight children from a poor Protestant family. He became a shoemaker and in the late 1820s or early 1830s he emigrated to Manchester. There he married an Irish woman, Ann Turpin.[ii] In 1841 they were living close to Angel Meadow, a notorious slum that was home to many Catholic Irish families, but in the 1840s the Brews decided they would do better in the specialist shoe town of Stafford than in the squalor of east Manchester.

Andrew Brew was one of many Irish shoemakers who came to Stafford during the nineteenth century. Between 1841 and 1901 almost one in ten of the town’s adult Irish workforce was in the footwear industry, and many of the children of Irish families entered the trade when they grew up.[iii] This body of workers was a classic example of how emigration and settlement were fuelled by the shift in economic power between Irish and British capitalism. Ireland suffered ‘deindustrialisation’ in the nineteenth century, and Stafford’s shoe trade illustrates how industrialisation and deindustrialisation were complementary forces.[iv]

Traditionally shoes were bespoke products made by cobblers selling directly to their customers, but in Britain the growth of London and the industrial cities created a profitable market for mass-produced ‘ready-mades’. This was exploited most profitably when entrepreneurs could use economies of scale, division of labour and cheaper road and rail transport. The trade increasingly concentrated in specialised shoe towns and villages of which Stafford was one.[v] Here the development was mainly due to William Horton (1750-1832), the first ‘manufacturer’ to orchestrate production on a large-scale, although most of the work was still done in workers’ houses.

Apprentice domestic shoemaker in the 19th century.

Apprentice domestic shoemaker in the 19th century. Image taken from The Band of Hope Review November 1861. Found within The Band of Hope Review 1861-67 and Child’s Paper Vol. 2 1853. London: S.W. Patridge. Parker Collection BF

Shoemaking remained a sweated domestic trade until the second half of the nineteenth century. The shoe manufacturers marketed their products both home and abroad, and Stafford’s growing dependence on the overseas and ladies fashion markets meant its trade was subject to booms and slumps.[vi] This volatility forced shoemakers to often go ‘on-tramp’ in search of work elsewhere. They had an easily transferable skill which used simple tools and had an organised system to provide support during the search for work. By the 1820s the Dublin trades had tramping links with England and in the shoe trade there was a broadly open labour market between Britain and Ireland.[vii]

The collapse of the Irish shoe industry

Shoemaking declined drastically in nineteenth century Ireland. In 1841 50,334 ‘boot and shoemakers’ were recorded in the census. The number had dropped to 45,421 by 1861, a decline of nearly ten per cent and the industry’s decline after 1861 was precipitous.[viii] Employment fell to 25,650 in 1881 and 13,627 in 1911. By the 1900s the majority were not makers of shoes but shoe shop assistants or cobblers repairing footwear imported from British factories.[ix] This decline was a direct result of what was happening in the British shoe industry. In Stafford Andrew Brew had fought the introduction of sewing machines, but he and his comrades lost the battle. The employers imposed them rapidly in the 1860s and followed up with other machines that de-skilled the work and reduced the unit costs of production. The industry was moved into purpose-built factories and workshops.

Mason & Marson

Mason & Marson’s shoe factory, Sandon Road, Stafford – a photo taken in the 1980s when the building was up for sale. Note the Hop Pole pub on the opposite corner of Wogan Street.

These more efficient methods as well as vicious competition by British shoe firms eliminated artisan producers in Ireland and more or less strangled the growth of factory production there.[x]  The 1907 Census of Production recorded a mere 2,026 factory shoemakers in Ireland.[xi] British firms particularly targeted the Irish market because overseas sales were hit by tariff barriers and American competition.[xii] Mass-produced ware from Britain flooded an Irish economy that was becoming more commercialised in the decades after the Famine. The dealers, shops and mail traders who encouraged the purchase of imported boots and shoes played a major part in undermining the native Irish shoe industry. They were the middlemen between Stafford’s manufacturers and the Irish consumer.[xiii] Imported ladies’ shoes, Stafford’s speciality, dominated the Irish market.[xiv] In these conditions it is no wonder that Irish shoemakers turned up in Stafford.

Work in the shoe trade

In Stafford the number of male workers in the shoe trade rose from 899 in 1841 to 1,607 in 1871, an increase of seventy-nine per cent.[xv] By then footwear workers formed nineteen per cent of the total population of the town. Census returns recorded 175 Irish-born shoemakers in Stafford between 1841 and 1901; the real number who passed through was probably three times that number. They formed only a small minority of the shoemakers who left Ireland in the nineteenth century, but those who settled were a microcosm of the mass.

Until the 1880s Stafford’s shoe trade attracted many in-migrant workers and their families, not just the Irish. In 1871 almost one third of the town’s shoe operatives had been born elsewhere, nearly one fifth outside Staffordshire.[xvi] That meant that outsiders were common and there was general acceptance of the shoemaker’s right to come and go in search of work. A perennial shortage of housing meant that many households included lodgers and were overcrowded. Although initially instrumental in motivation such households could develop quasi-family relationships around work, social life, sexual intimacy, bonding and marriage. Because shoemaking was still largely domestic until the 1870s, ‘home’ was often the workplace.

Booms and slumps meant work was difficult to get and incomes varied from week to week. Times were often hard. The nature of the work meant a shoemaking household and its family environment could be inherently stressful. Gender roles were complex, with women often both home-making and earning money in lower grade jobs like shoe binding. Their children were exploited with long hours, hard work and insanitary conditions. [xvii] Even when the work was moved into workshops children were still exploited, and it was said around 1880 that boys were paid ‘wages only just a remove from the pauper’s dole.’[xviii]

Mason & Marson wsp

The move to factory production. The finishing room at Mason and Marson’s factory in the 1900s.

At home men were likely to dominate the household, particularly if they did ‘superior’ work like clicking and hand sewing. The male shoemaker’s sense of self was moulded by the worth of his skill, a willingness to go anywhere and solidarity in the face of hard employers and uncertain work. Male domination could, however, be diminished when the men were forced into low grade work or were unemployed. Domestic routines were frequently disrupted, particularly by the shoemakers’ fabled addiction to weekend and ‘St Monday’ drinking.[xix] Even so, ‘St Monday’ was as much a symptom of the shoemakers’ independence as of their intemperance. Running through their lives was a sense of craft pride under threat, and that encouraged solidarity and determination to control as far as possible the terms of their work. The national Rivetter’s Union was founded in Stafford in 1874 but the battle to control pay and conditions was long and hard. Most workers remained outside the union and many endured a life of drudgery, uncertainty and crippling work done in unhealthy conditions.[xx]

The significance of shoemaking

The shoe trade peaked as Stafford’s major industry in the generation following the Famine and it played a significant role in the history of Irish families in the town. Capitalism’s uneven development meant that Stafford’s gain was Ireland’s loss. In Stafford the trade was, however, the route by which many second generation Irish found a footing in the core of the local economy. The increasing sub-division and deskilling of the labour process provided openings for young people from an unskilled labouring background like many of the Irish. Furthermore, the trade was open to both women and men. Although jobs remained markedly gendered, women in many shoemaking households played a major role in income generation as well as in home-making.

Shoemaking therefore offered the possibility of a modest but attainable step in upward social mobility. In the short term it was no automatic passport out of slums like Plant’s Square and Snow’s Yard. The incomes of shoe trade workers remained low and fickle and most still lived cheek by jowl with Stafford’s unskilled working class in the town centre and north end. Nevertheless, the diversity of jobs and the increasing concentration of work in factories and workshops offered advancement possibilities to ambitious people which were seized by some Irish families.


[i] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 October 1855.

[ii] Information from Rachel Clayton, a descendant, May 2006.

[iii] For an extended review of the Irish and the Stafford shoe trade, including family case studies, see John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015; ppbk 2016), chapter 9.

[iv] For reviews of the issues, with differing perspectives, see C. Ó Gráda, ‘Did Ireland ‘under’-industrialise?’, Irish Economic and Social History, Vol. 37 (2010), pp. 117-23, A. Bielenberg, Ireland and the Industrial Revolution: the Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Irish Industry, 1801-1922, (London, Routledge, 2009); C. Ó Gráda, Ireland: a New Economic History, 1780-1939, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. Chapter 13; F. Geary, ‘Deindustrialisation in Ireland to 1851: some evidence from the census’, Economic History review, Vol. 51:3 (1998), pp. 512-41; J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: a Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850, (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1985), esp. Chapter 6 & 7.

[v] M. Harrison, ‘The development of boot and shoe manufacturing in Stafford, 1850-1880’, Journal of the Staffordshire Industrial Archaeology Society, No. 10, 1981, p. 1.

[vi] VCH Stafford, p. 217; A. Middlefell, The Ancient Town of Stafford from the 8th to the 20th Century, (Stafford, Privately published, 2000), pp. 50-54.

[vii] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The tramping artisan’, in Hobsbawm, E, Labouring Men, Studies in the History of Labour, (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 36.

[viii] Census of Ireland, 1841, General Summary and County Tables: Table VI, Table of Occupations; Census of Ireland, 1861, Part 4, Vol. 2, Occupations.

[ix] J. Press, The Footwear Industry in Ireland, 1922-1973, (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1989), p. 20.

[x] Press, The Footwear Industry, pp. 18-20; J. Press, ‘Protectionism and the Irish footwear industry’, Irish Economic and Social History, Vol. 13 (1986), p. 75; A. Fox, A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, 1874-1957, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958), Chapter 2.

[xi] Census of Ireland, 1881, Occupations, Tables 18/19; Census of Ireland, 1911, Occupations, Table XX, Occupations of males and Females by Ages, Religious Persuasion and Education; A. Bielenberg, ‘What happened to Irish industry after the British industrial revolution? Some evidence from the first UK Census of Production, 1907’, Economic History Review, Vol. 61:4 (November 2008), Appendix, Table 3.

[xii] Press, The Footwear Industry, p. 18.

[xiii] Ó Gráda, Ireland: a New Economic History, p. 268.

[xiv] L.M. Cullen, An Economic History of Ireland since 1660, (London, B.T. Batsford, 1972), p. 163.

[xv] The 1841 figure for women, 94, is clearly defective. Census, 1841: County of Stafford: Occupations, Stafford Borough; Census 1871, Occupations of Males and Females in Principal Towns: Stafford Borough.

[xvi] Derived from Harrison, ‘Boot and shoe manufacturing’, Figure 16.

[xvii] Report on Bootmakers, Tailors, Hatters, Glovers etc., Children’s Employment Commission, 1862, 4th Report, Parliamentary Papers, 1865, XX, ‘Bootmakers’, pp. 123-6.

[xviii] British Library of Political Science, London School of Economics, Webb Trade Union Collection, Vol. 24, National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, p. 142.

[xix] D.A. Reid, ‘The decline of St Monday, 1766-1876’, Past and Present, Vol. 71, (1976), pp.

[xx] Webb Trade Union Collection, pp. 96-9, 112, 160, 201.

Bribery and intimidation: the 1868 Stafford election


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‘In former times ….very great corruption existed in the town’[1]

1868 was a General Election year in Britain and Ireland.  The main political argument during the campaign was Gladstone’s proposal to disestablish the (Protestant) Church of Ireland. It was to be part of his ‘mission to pacify Ireland’ but the Tories – and quite a few Liberals – violently opposed it. Because of the Irish dimension the Liberals had every incentive to mobilise Irish Catholic and Non-Conformist voters in their favour. Conversely, the Tories’ goal was to get its Anglican and anti-Catholic supporters to the polls.  It was inevitable, then, that the election would be hotly contested, and in Stafford it proved to be yet another corrupt and violent poll in the borough’s long history of electoral malfeasance. This blog post describes the events of 1868/9 in Stafford and the minor but nevertheless significant role played by local Irish people.

The 1868 General Election was the first to be held after the passing of the 1867 electoral reform act and the last before the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. The 1867 reform gave many working class men the vote, but defining the right to claim that vote was complicated and open to challenge. Stafford was a borough where Freemen (Burgesses) had had the vote since medieval times and they retained this right even after the 1867 Act. The attraction of this was not any idealistic belief in the virtues of democracy – far from it. A good part of the electorate was composed of working class Freemen – ‘bare-breeched burgesses … in rags’. [2] They were lured by the prospect of material reward and every Freeman’s vote therefore had its price. It was an open invitation to corrupt practices.[3] Just over 1000 Burgesses were qualified to vote in 1868.[4]

The admission rules meant that almost no Irishmen qualified as Freemen in 1868, but some did get the vote through the provisions of the 1867 Act which enfranchised rate-paying house owners or sole tenants and also lodgers paying at least £10 rent unfurnished. In both cases this was as long as they had occupied the premises for at least one year.[5] It was therefore in each party’s interests to get their supporters registered and, conversely, to challenge the registration rights of their opponents.  The Poll Book for 1868 shows that 58 Irish-born men were registered and they comprised around 2.8% of the householder voters and 2.4% of the total voters list.[6] At that time Irish-born people formed 2.5% of Stafford’s population so the Irish voters were more or less a representative proportion of the electorate. The number of householder and lodger voters was estimated as 2070 or 2124 in 1868/9, an increase of around 227% over the pre-1867 reform number.[7]

In the system of open voting that then operated candidates had every incentive to maximise their vote by treating or bribing potential supporters and by intimidating likely opponents.  In 1865 Stafford had returned a Liberal, Arthur Bass from the brewing family, and Col.  Walter Meller, a Conservative. In the succeeding years both sitting MPs kept their supporters sweet by distributing money, coal, blankets and the suchlike at Christmas. In 1867 Bass spent £720 (equivalent to nearly £74,000 today) on such gifts whilst Meller spent £250 a year (£25,700) every Christmas after his election. It was alleged that his voters got 5s (£25) each if they had split their vote in 1865 but ‘plumpers’ who had only voted for Meller got 10s (£51).[8]

The main way in which the Meller and his agent Fernie kept his working class supporters happy was by setting up a ‘Working Mens’ Conservative Association’. This body operated through ‘committees’ based at 36 or more public houses in the town. Their main activity was drinking. The committee members, who were supposed to be Tory supporters, paid a contribution of 4d (£1.72) and that entitled them to a shilling’s worth of drink, just over £5’s value in today’s money.[9]  In other words, two thirds of the cost of these social gatherings came from Tory funds. The publicans were reimbursed by Meller and Fernie for the drink they supplied and also made money directly by hiring their rooms to the Tory committees.

By 1868 the Tories therefore had a body of mobilised (but probably drunken) voters ready to turn up at the polls when the election was held. The Liberals, influenced by Non-Conformity and the temperance lobby, maintained their support more by direct political activism rather than cheap drink, though at least one drunken session took place in a private house where the resulting damage was  paid for by the Liberal agent, Redwin. Their supporters also colonised some of the town’s pubs although there were no organised committees like those of the Tories. When the election arrived the Liberals proved well able to mobilise the mob into battle against their Tory enemies.

The ‘magic hat’

Hugh Woods Gibson was by origin an Ulsterman. His father was a prosperous Presbyterian farmer from Co. Down but Hugh came to Stafford as a young man in 1840 and got a job with one of the leading shoe and leather manufacturers, Thomas Benson Elley.[10]  By the 1860s Gibson had become a partner in the firm and been elected to the Borough Council. He was a Liberal and in 1868 had risen to be chairman of the local Liberal party, very much the local kingmaker. He was a strong temperance advocate and a leading light in the local Congregational chapel but he showed no public signs of sectarianism and was willing to work with anyone, even Catholics, to further his political and business aims. He galvanised the local Liberal party into support for Irish Disestablishment and at a public meeting in August 1868 clearly went for the Irish Catholic vote by inviting the priest, Fr. Fanning, on to the platform with him.[11]

In 1865 Gibson had nominated Henry Davis Pochin, a Welsh coal and iron entrepreneur and alderman on Salford town council, as one of the Liberal candidates but he had lost to Meller the Tory. Gibson nominated him again in June 1868. Arthur Bass seems to have been out of sympathy with the radical disestablishment views of Gibson’s Stafford Liberals and in October 1868 departed for the East Staffordshire constituency. Gibson therefore proposed R.C. Chawner, a magistrate from Lichfield, as Bass’s replacement.[12]   The Tories, meanwhile, had re-adopted Meller as their candidate.

Henry_Davis_Pochin._Etching_by_L._Nassard._Wellcome_V0004726 03

Henry Davis Pochin, Liberal candidate, 1865 and 1868. Unseated for intimidation, 1869

By now the election campaign was up and running.  In August 1868 Meller held a public meeting at which he denounced the Liberals’ disestablishment policy, but he got an angry reception and there were disturbances in the body of the hall.[13]  He thereafter retreated to private gatherings amongst his supporters. In October the Working Men’s Conservative Association committees were transformed into Meller’s local election committees, each one organised by agents and canvassers. These men were paid a total of £572.12s (£59,460) during the campaign whilst £417.12s (£43,376) was spent on ‘committee rooms’. Large amounts of this money were in fact spent on food and drink to treat Meller’s supposed supporters. The 4d payment was abandoned. Instead, there was a system called the ‘magic hat’. When the drink was being handed round a collection was made in a hat. It was alleged that ‘halfpence and bits of tobacco-pipe’ found their way into the hat and the whole thing was a blatant pretence. Meller was reported to have said at one meeting that he was not allowed to treat the men to beer when all the while jugs of his beer were staring him in the face ‘which caused considerable amusement’.[14]

In practice closet Liberal supporters were able to infiltrate the Tory drinking sessions. John Arnold, a cordwainer (shoemaker) went to the Abercrombie Inn on a number of occasions. One night he had two free quarts of ale and on another sat down to a free hot supper with fifty other people. Thomas Gerard went to Meller’s committee room at the Rose and Crown. There was plenty of eating and drinking and ‘everything that was good. All sorts of liquors, rum, gin and brandy. Nothing to pay’. It was even alleged that a Liberal, George Machin, established a ‘sham committee’ at the Unicorn which took the Tory money, handed out free drinks but betrayed Col. Meller by canvassing for Liberal votes. Machin, who was paid £15 (£1557) by Meller as a canvasser, denied the charge but said ‘I was not particular as to the persons I put on [the committee]. [15]

All the while canvassers were getting their supporters registered to vote. Liberal Registration Association workers went door-to-door hunting for eligible householders and lodgers and in October it was said 285 persons had made new claims to vote, though the Tories objected to many of them. There was nevertheless ‘a gain of about 80 to the Liberals’ and many of the objections were described as ‘frivolous’.[16] The Tories, of course, were doing the same, primarily by attracting potential voters to their free drinking sessions. The stage was set for the poll.

Election day

Polling was on 17 November 1869 and it proved to be a torrid affair. The Liberals’ command headquarters was at the Swan Hotel and also at Hugh Gibson’s house. The Tories were primarily based at the Vine Hotel and, of course, at all their other client pubs in the town.  During the day the pubs filled up with drinkers being primed to turn out for the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals. Both parties now resorted to direct bribes to get their votes. ‘No tip, no vote’ was the common demand by those being canvassed and the going rate was alleged to have been anywhere between ‘a sovereign and a piece of pork’ to £6, £8 and even £10 (£1037) per vote.[17] At the Fountain voters got their free meal and drink and were promised £5 if they plumped for Meller. They were given a printed card and the secretary wrote the voter’s name on the back. It acted as an IOU and they were told to claim their money after the election.[18]  Meller’s declared expenses came to more than £100,000 in today’s money and were probably even more. It is small wonder that the Tory withheld his election accounts until forced to reveal them by the judge at the petition trial in May 1869.[19] At these hearings each side accused the other of bribery and tried to deny doing it themselves but it is clear that payments were rife.

The Liberals probably bribed less but their weapon of choice was mob violence. They had already set up a so-called Vigilance Committee to watch the Tory pubs where treating and bribery was going on. Meller’s supporters had now to get from the pubs to the polling booths and for many this was a hazardous trip. It was alleged that a Liberal mob of 2-300 men and boys was marauding around the centre of town, breaking the windows of Tory supporters, threatening Tory voters and in some cases assaulting them. They were incited by Fallows, a Liberal agent, who was reported as shouting, probably with justification, ‘All as comes up to vote for Meller …. is bribed. I’ll tell you what to do, make them vote pure; don’t let them give a bribed vote. Stop ‘em’. The Rev. Vincent, chaplain at Stafford Gaol and a known Tory, was abused by Fallows – ‘we’ll give you political parsons something today; you have had your day, it is ours now’, a clear reference to the religious issue in the election. Vincent was hit over the head, pulled off his horse and badly injured.[20] The mob stopped a man named Smallman from going to the poll booth in Browning Street. When he went back with two other voters under police escort he was struck over the head with a stick. On leaving the booth he was knocked down and badly kicked. Henry Woollams was too scared to vote, having been threatened as ‘a ____ Tory’ and that if he voted for Meller they would ‘break his ____ neck’. [21]

All day the running battle went on and the violence was by no means confined to the Liberals. Oiled-up Tories were also in a fighting mood and ‘numerous pugilistic encounters occurred.’ One elector who had his windows broken retaliated by firing on the crowd, though it seems no-one was injured. The local police gave up the streets to the mob and spent the rest of the day hiding inside the Shire Hall.[22] The situation was out of control but the authorities turned a blind eye to what was going on. The Mayor, Richard Podmore, a shoe manufacturer and a Liberal, subsequently said he ‘did not think it was necessary to swear in special constables’ despite agreeing that ‘there was some disturbance on election day.’[23]  The Chief Constable claimed to the magistrates that ‘nothing of a serious nature occurred in the town during the day.’[24]

The result

The declared result of the election was:-

Alderman Pochin (Liberal)                       1189 votes

Colonel Meller (Conservative)                  1124 votes

Richard Croft Chawner (Liberal)             1107 votes

This meant that Pochin and Meller were elected but Chawner had missed out by just seventeen votes. In this tight poll the Irish vote proved very significant for the Liberals. Of the 58 Irish-born voters 45 (78%) voted Liberal and nearly two thirds of these (64%) were labourers of one sort or another who had been newly-enfranchised by the 1867 Act.[25] The rest were an assortment of manual workers apart from Hugh Gibson, the Liberal supremo. Another eleven Liberal voters were either second generation Irish or were English men married to Irish women. The Liberals had, therefore, mobilised the Irish working class and largely Catholic vote and without it Pochin would have been topped the poll by just nine votes. It was a result that was bound to spark recriminations and challenges.

The aftermath

The Liberals immediately alleged the Tories’ victory came from bribery whilst the Conservatives claimed intimidation of their voters had prevented many of them from voting. Within two days of the election various people were up before the magistrates on charges of assault including two young Irishmen, Hubert and Martin Malley. Their case was dismissed when they counter-claimed that the ‘Mellerite’ had knocked Martin down ‘without provocation’ using a poker.[26] A week later John Coghlan, along with five English youths, was found guilty of breaking the windows of a Tory pub landlord’s house. They claimed Meller’s committee at the Boot Inn had prevented Liberal voters getting to the polls.[27] In the first week of January 1869 the Tories initiated grand jury proceedings at the Quarter Sessions alleging riot, unlawful assembly, carrying of weapons and assault against fifteen Liberal supporters, five of whom were from Irish families. Although the jury found there was a case to answer, none of these men was in fact committed for trial.

Publication1 Bham DP

Bribery and violence: the opening of the petition hearing on the Stafford election. Extract from the Birmingham Daily Post, 5 May 1869

Meanwhile, supporters of both parties had submitted legal petitions contesting the return of Meller and Pochin.[28] Before the proceedings began the Liberals objected to 912 of Meller’s voters, alleging, amongst other things, that 66 had been bribed, 465 treated and that 118 people were guilty of treating. The Tories claimed 497 of the Liberal voters were invalid, with 251 treated, 31 bribed and 31 acting as treaters.[29] The trial finally opened on 4 May 1869 and lasted ten days. A parade of witnesses provided evidence and allegations of illegal practices before the judge, Mr Justice Blackburn. Although both sides denied point blank most of the accusations made against them, the proceedings laid bare the squalid electioneering that had taken place. They have provided much of the evidence for this blogpost and there is little reason to doubt the truth of much of what was said. The judge was, however, clearly looking for excuses to dismiss the petitions but in the end he was forced to declare Meller’s election invalid specifically because the printed cards with voters’ names handed out as IOU’s were clearly documented bribery. Although he felt Pochin ‘had honestly endeavoured to make the election pure’, he nevertheless had to lose his seat because of the intimidation and violence directly encouraged by his agents.[30] The third candidate, Chawner, couldn’t benefit because his election campaign had been totally tied to the misdemeanours of Pochin’s.

Stafford was therefore left with no Parliamentary representation and a by-election had to be held on 7 June 1869. The town’s electors were fed up with the whole business and the political parties had had a sharp warning about illegal conduct, so the second poll was a dull affair. The Liberals succumbed to in-fighting and their vote dropped by over 200 whereas the Tories saw a slight increase for their two candidates. The result was that the Borough sent two Tories to Parliament for the next five years.


The bribery, corruption and violence of Stafford’s 1868 election were commonplace in the nineteenth century and throw a dark light on the workings of supposed parliamentary democracy in that era. The similarities between then and now are instructive, however. In the 2017 we had a Prime Minister who more or less hid from the wider electorate and only talked to favoured supporters, just as Meller did in 1868. There were clear differences in economic and social policy between the parties, just as there were over Irish church disestablishment in 1868. Money from big business and off-shore funds paid for a battery of propaganda to influence voters in the 2010s much as Meller and Bass’s money did more openly in the 1860s. While election day attacks were thankfully absent in 2017, violent events beforehand and politicians’ reactions to them may have influenced the result just as the violence and intimidation very directly did in 1868 Stafford. The recent election also saw the re-emergence of public campaigning before massed crowds, a return to former times when politicians like Gladstone – and even Pochin and Meller – could directly move and influence voters by their speeches. Big efforts were made in 2017 to get all eligible voters registered which undoubtedly affected the result just as the Liberal and Tory campaigns to register new voters did in 1867/8. And finally, Britain’s relationship with Ireland was central to the 1868 election and to the politics of that period – and it remains so today.

[1] Mr Justice Blackburn during his judgement on the Stafford election petitions, The Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1869.

[2] A report during a by-election in 1826 in the Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 27 December 1826 which quoted a  London Globe story that ‘upwards of one hundred bare-breeched burgesses appeared in rags to poll’.

[3] A Freeman was admitted either ‘by birth’ as the son of a Stafford burgess or ‘by servitude’ after serving an apprenticeship in the Borough. J. Kemp, The Freemen of Stafford Borough, 1100-1997, (Stafford, the Author, 1998).

[4] The actual number was estimated at 1043 in August 1868 and 1017 in June 1869. SA 8 August 1868 and William Salt Library, 7/140/00 Poll Books, Stafford … for the poll …. 8 June 1869.

[5] The Representation of the People Act, 1867, with explanatory notes by R. Wilkinson (London, Stevens and Haynes, 1868).

[6] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D5008/2/7/11/1, Borough of Stafford Poll Book, Elections of 1868 and 1869.

[7] Calculated from figures quoted in SA, 8 August 1868.

[8] The Times, 10 May 1869; Birmingham Daily Post, 13 May 1869. Much of the evidence for electoral corruption comes from reports of the judicial hearing into events at the Stafford election that was held in the town between 4 and 13 May 1869.

[9] The Times, 10 May 1869.

[10] For more details of Hugh Gibson’s history see J. Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015), pp 268-273.

[11] SA, 15 August 1868.

[12] SA, 12 September 1868 and 24 October 1868.

[13] SA, 15 August 1868.

[14] The Times, 5 May 1869.

[15] The Times, 11 May 1869.

[16] SA, 17 October 1868.

[17] The Times, 11 May 1869 and 6 May 1869.

[18] Manchester Courier, 12 May 1869.

[19] The Times, 5 May 1869.

[20] Birmingham Daily Post, 13 May 1869.

[21] Birmingham Daily Post, 7 May 1869.

[22] SA, 18 November 1868.

[23] The Times, 10 May 1869.

[24] Birmingham Daily Post, 7 May 1869.

[25] SRO, D5008/2/7/11/1, Borough of Stafford Poll Book, Elections of 1868 and 1869.

[26] SA, 18 and 21 November 1868.

[27] SA, 5 December 1868.

[28] SA, 5 December 1868 and 20 February 1869.

[29] SA, 1 May 1869.

[30] Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1869.

Irish and/or Catholic? Questions of identity


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My last post highlighted the widespread loss of memories and legends amongst the Stafford Irish-descended families whom I interviewed between 2002 and 2005. At that time there were still significant numbers of people who, when they were young, had known relatives born in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. The interviews were therefore a snapshot of evidence from people whose ranks have since been thinned by the passage of time.[i]

One of the issues frequently debated in Irish migrant studies is that of identity. Earlier writers often argued that the ‘Irish’, normally the Catholic Celtic Irish, retained a collective identity as a defence against the hostile society into which they had moved. It was often asserted that this identity was then passed on to succeeding generations. Research over the past thirty years has produced a more nuanced picture but it still tends to focus on some general view of ‘the Irish’ and their leaders rather than on ordinary individuals and their descendants.[ii] The role of the family in the process of identity formation has been almost totally ignored. The family is, however, a key force moulding identity. It has been suggested that the Irish in practice demonstrated ‘mutative ethnicity’ depending on where they settled. Irish identity would only be maintained as an active force when it continued to bring meaningful benefits such as jobs or housing. If these failed to exist because the numbers of Irish were too few and intermarriage diluted ethnic distinctiveness and segregation, then Irish identity would decline as a social force.[iii] The interviews I carried out in the early 2000s threw some useful light on the identities present among the descendants of Stafford’s Irish immigrants

The first issue probed was whether, before I met them, the respondents had actually been aware of their family history. What was their attitude to their Irish background and heritage? Most, but not all, of the respondents were interested in their family history but only four had done much work on their family trees. In three cases other relatives had done some work. In every case I was able to add to their factual knowledge of their Irish ancestors.

How did these people see their identity? The views were somewhat conflicting. When asked at the start how they saw themselves, only one of the respondents said they were significantly – or at all – Irish. Another person saw herself primarily as a Catholic and another mentioned a working class identity. All but one of the rest described themselves as ‘English’ and/or ‘Staffordian’, often with the epithet ‘born and bred’.

When asked more generally about their attitude to their Irish background, the responses were more mixed. The woman mentioned in my last post who was the only one with two Irish parents expressed her Irish pride most forcefully. She commented that it was ‘nothing to be ashamed of – why reject it?’ and went on to say she was ‘proud of it even now’ since ‘Ireland was the land of saints and scholars’. Such poetic views were not to be found amongst the other, ethnically mixed, respondents. In four interviews a sort of defensive pride was expressed in their Irish roots, reflecting a clear feeling that the social environment in Britain could be hostile to the Irish.  In one interview people commented that they were proud to be one quarter Irish, but that ‘people can be derogatory’ about it. At the other extreme, in six interviews the people had never seen an Irish background as being significant in their lives, either in their upbringing or now. ‘Interesting, but so what – it’s nothing to do with me’ was one comment.

There was, nevertheless, a hint in two cases that these attitudes came from people wanting to distance themselves from relatives who conformed to crude stereotypes of Irishness – drink, gambling and so on. In one case the people claimed they hadn’t known about their Irish heritage when young but had developed an increasing awareness of it in later life, partly because of the Troubles. Having an Irish surname name had led to hostile comments at work in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings (1975).

All but one of these interviewees were three or more generations away from their Irish immigrant ancestors and all but one was the product of varying degrees of mixed parentage. They showed evidence of hybrid identities. None had any interest in overt declarations of Irish nationalism or identity, though for some this reflected nervousness about the position of the Irish in a potentially hostile British society, a reaction that Brexit may well stoke up again. The amount of ‘ethnic fade’ amongst these people was very high. One person expressed it very cogently: ‘the first generation immigrant looks to home, the second faces both ways, the third says “forget it”’.[iv]

This fading had been occurring down the generations, and it was worth probing peoples’ knowledge of how their ancestors saw their identity. What was their attitude to their Irish backgrounds, and did their ancestors retain any obvious Irish connections?

Only one group of respondents could remember any surviving Irish-born in their families and this was because the family emigrated in the later nineteenth century. In all the other cases time had broken the link with the Famine emigrants and their mid-century successors. It is unfortunate that oral history was not carried out with such people in the earlier twentieth century. A person in one interview had been born the same year (1921) as two key Irish-born family members had died. His comment on one of these people – ‘as Irish as they came – a full-blown Irishman’ – implied a real personal memory, and it illustrates the need to check the veracity of statements against the hard evidence. In this case, he was actually reporting family memories that were current in his childhood.

Although direct knowledge of the immigrant generation was generally lacking, in all but two of the interviews the respondents had known some second generation people born in England in the second half of the nineteenth century. The picture in relation to these people was mixed. The strongest expression of Irish identity was in the lady born in Stafford in 1917 of Irish immigrant parents. She said that ‘it was drilled us into by our father that we were Irish Catholics’. …. ‘Neither of my parents forgot their Irish roots’. The respondent’s father had sung Irish rebel songs, although her mother’s response to this was ‘shurrup, Mick, you’ll get us all hung’.[v] This family had migrated from Blackburn to Stafford in 1915, and their strong Irish identity may have reflected the stronger Irish environment in densely settled Lancashire as compared with Stafford.

The respondents in one interview reported that their father ‘went to Ireland at the drop of a hat’ when they were young, partly because of the continuing dispute over the family’s lost small-holding in Co. Roscommon. They also said he was ‘well spoken’ when sober but ‘as Irish as they came’ after a drink. There was, in other words, clear evidence of transmitted Irish identity to the second generation of this family, but very little from thence into the third. They also had memories of their Irish-born grandfather and his Walsall-born (but Irish) wife. Of the latter they commented that ‘she was as Irish as they came’. The specific memory was that she used to frighten the people in Browning Street Co-op by arriving five minutes before closing and aggressively buying the goods being sold off cheap. They remembered her as having an Irish accent despite being born in Staffordshire. Their grandfather ‘was a real old Irish gentleman – broad Irish’.[vi]

The two families discussed above showed the clearest signs of the survival of Irish identity and perhaps patterns of behaviour into succeeding generations, but the late arrival of these families in Stafford to some extent set them apart from the other families in the interviews. The longer time scale since immigration in the others inevitably tended to produce more ‘ethnic fade’ from a twenty-first century vantage point but, even allowing for this, there is also evidence that in most other families there was greater rejection or obscuring of their Irish origins. Respondents in five interviews suggested that some of their ancestors or people in other branches of their families had done this partly in pursuit of respectability within the local Stafford community. Other peoples’ inability to point to known evidence of Irish identity amongst ancestors is its own commentary. It seems to have waned quite quickly amongst most of the Stafford Irish.

Overall the lack of historical knowledge and legend in the families, as well as the general shift away from Irishness in the second and third generations, suggests a fundamental discontinuity imposed by migration to England or its aftermath. This raises the question of what produced such a result.

One way in which Irishness is commonly held to have faded or been ‘denationalised’ was through its change to an English Catholic identity.[vii] Many of the Stafford Irish families did indeed show evidence that in the second and third generation Irish identity was largely converted into a Catholic identity, in some cases very staunch, in others rather nominal. In one case this identity had clearly been contested and ultimately displaced by class identity through their ancestors’ involvement in trade unionism and Labour politics.

St Pats School Class

The force for ‘denationalisation’? A class at St Patrick’s School, Stafford, c1910. The children look remarkably well-dressed, given the amount of poverty in the school’s catchment area. Something special was obviously going on that day. (Photo courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell; his Aunt Nell, born 1902, is the 2nd from the right in the first girls’ row.)

To look at this in more detail we need to look at peoples’ experiences. In eleven out of the thirteen interviews the respondents had been brought up in Stafford, and in ten cases they have lived most or all of their lives there. What did they think were the most influential factors in their upbringing? The answer was very clear. Although parental influence was mentioned, the impact of schooling and the Church was paramount. Twelve of the twenty-one respondents had been to one or other of the three Catholic schools in Stafford, and half had been to St Patrick’s in the town’s traditionally poorer north end.[viii]  These people emphasised the importance of the schools, churches and their linked social activities – youth clubs, scouts/guides, soirées – in their lives when they were young. They were also clear that Irish issues were almost totally marginalised, particularly at school. They normally celebrated St Patrick’s Day, but no other side of Irish culture, history or current affairs was ever raised at school or church. The school was, however, strong on saluting the (British) flag and other symbols of British nationalism.

Herson Figure 10.3

The development of the Catholic community: St Patrick’s ‘tin church’, erected in 1895. (courtesy of Mary and the late Roy Mitchell)

Although the first priest at St Patrick’s, James O’Hanlon (1893-99), came from an Irish background and had shown some interest in Irish affairs, almost all the succeeding priests were English. The priest most remembered by respondents, Fr. Bernard Kelly, was described as ‘very English’ despite (or perhaps because of) his name. Opinions of him were mixed but one respondent described him as a snob who looked down on poor (often Irish-descended) families in the parish. Despite this the Church and school, both at St Patrick’s and at the other church, St Austin’s, were clearly seen as the focus of a very strong Catholic community in Stafford. Until these interviews, none of the respondents had been conscious that the basis for that community was partly an Irish Catholic heritage. Stafford had a significant English working class Catholic population due to the long tradition of Catholic recusancy in the area. This gave English Catholic influences greater strength than in many other places.[ix] Nevertheless, about half St Patrick’s congregation in the 1900s and beyond came from ethnically Irish backgrounds.[x]

To what extent was the creation of this ‘Catholic community’ a reaction to anti-Irish or anti-Catholic hostility? This issue was probed through peoples’ own experiences and views of the extent of anti-Irishness and anti-Catholicism in Stafford. All but one of the interviewees had lived through the period of renewed Irish immigration during and after the Second World War. None of them argued there had been strong and widespread anti-Irishness or anti-Catholicism in Stafford, though some cited individual incidents. They found it difficult to distinguish between incidents of anti-Irishness and anti-Catholicism, but two people were clear they had experienced anti-Catholicism rather than anti-Irishness. The fact that they had Stafford accents they felt removed any threat of the latter.

The oldest person did, however, express strong, though rather contradictory views. She said that ‘people used to call the Irish everything – but not me. People could be hostile to the Irish in Stafford – they thought you were below them.’[xi] She said that Staffordians ‘resented the Irish’ in the generation that grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, but her niece, born in 1940, claimed not have experienced such reactions during her life. This lady grew up, however, with a local surname and a local accent, both of which would have shielded her. Thirteen of the respondents had grown up with an ‘Irish’ surname and four referred to problems they had experienced with that. The nine others claimed to have had no difficulties.

In day-to-day life these people and their immediate ancestors were indistinguishable from totally ‘English’ native Staffordians. Their general view was that Stafford was a tolerant town, but in one case it was described as ‘cliquey’. This was linked to class attitudes – that the middle and upper classes tended to belittle poorer working class people. The majority of respondents who still lived in Stafford were nevertheless generally positive about their experience of the town and they emphasised that in the past it was a community and that ‘everyone knew everyone’. One person emphasised the social significance of Roman Catholics amongst the town’s professional and commercial classes.

The Church had made, therefore, strong and partially successful efforts to build a Catholic community in Stafford. One reason was that the Church’s strength was undermined even in the second half of the nineteenth century by wider social interaction, intermarriage and ‘leakage’.  All my Stafford Irish interviewees were descended from Catholic families, but there was a complex picture of the strength of Catholicism amongst both them and their ancestors.  Six of the families had retained Catholicism in the generations from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, though in two cases adherence became nominal on the male side. Respondents from five of these families remained active Catholics in the early 2000s. In six cases interviewees came from earlier mixed marriage families and the Church’s historic concern about ‘leakage’ was borne out by these families’ behaviour. In four cases the Catholic partner’s adherence to the Church had weakened and none of the people descended from these marriages was still Catholic.

St Pat's Church 1991

The Catholic Community triumphant? The second St Patrick’s Church, opened 1953, with the presbytery and parish hall alongside. (From a photo by John Beswick, 1991)

One interview was interesting because the parents in a mixed marriage had ‘split’ their children. One interviewee was brought up as a Catholic (and had retained his Catholicism) whereas the other was not and had no connection with the Church. In total, seven of the respondents remained active Catholics, but they were a minority of those interviewed. Eight respondents were never Catholics and six had lapsed from the Church. In one case people had rejected the Church when they were young because of bad experiences at St Austin’s Catholic School. They felt they were picked on because they were the poor children of a religiously-mixed marriage. Their parents took them away from the school and the male child had also joined the Boys’ Brigade connected to the Baptist Church because it was more welcoming than St Austin’s.

The evidence from these interviews suggests, therefore, that the Catholic Church and schools were a force for ‘denationalising’ the descendants of the Irish immigrants but that the immigrants themselves and their children also actively buried their Irish heritage. In the long term a majority of the descendants also lost or rejected their Catholic heritage.

Stafford’s nineteenth century Irish population and its descendants were a numerically small population that was distributed throughout the working and middle class areas of the town. It increasingly intermarried with the local population. By 1884 a majority of Catholic marriages in Stafford involving an Irish-descended person were ethnically mixed and by the 1900’s the proportion was over ninety per cent.[xii] This basic fact was reflected in the families of the people I interviewed in the early 2000s. But it must also apply to the majority of descendants of the immigrants from Ireland who came to Britain in the nineteenth century. These people do not form some relict Irish ‘community’ but are a complex ethnic intermixture of people descended from that period.

The evidence from the interviews reflects these circumstances. There has been massive attrition of evidence about their past amongst the descendants of the Irish in Britain. Ethnic dilution, fear of British attitudes and ‘denationalisation’ are three reasons for this but first and second generation immigrants also possibly wanted to make a clean break with their Irish past. Their response to the Famine and the trauma of emigration may have been to blank it out of the family record. This is a finding that contrasts with the common belief that these events left an indelible stain on both individual and collective memory and identity. As ever, more research is needed in other areas amongst other Irish-descended families to explore the truth of this.

[i] This post is a revised and updated extract from John Herson, ‘Family history and memory in Irish immigrant families’ in K. Burnell and P. Panayi (eds.), Histories and Memories: Migrants and their History in Britain, (London, Tauris Academic Studies, 2006) pp. 210-33.

[ii] Reviewed in R. Swift, ‘Identifying the Irish in Victorian Britain: Recent trends in historiography’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3, July/November 2009, pp. 134-51.

[iii] A. O’Day, ‘A conundrum of Irish diasporic identity: mutative ethnicity’, Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3, July/November 2009, pp. 317-39.

[iv] The late Peter Godwin, interviewed in 2002.

[v] The late Kathleen Cochlin née Crosson, interviewed in 2003.

[vi] The late Daniel Ryan and Patrick Ryan, interviewed in 2003.

[vii] M. Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity: State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, (Aldershot, 1997), Chaps. 3-5

[viii] St Patrick’s school had been founded in 1868 and was linked to St Patrick’s Church which was established as a separate mission in 1893. St Austin’s school was founded in 1818 linked to its eponymous Catholic church founded in 1791. One person had been to the Convent run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny who set up in Stafford in 1903.

[ix] M.W. Greenslade, St Austin’s, Stafford, 1791-1991, (Birmingham, Archdiocese of Birmingham Historical Commission, 1991), pp. 3-9.

[x] John Herson, ‘The Irish, the English & the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923’, Midland Catholic History, 14 (2007), pp. 23-46.

[xi] The late Kathleen Cochlin née Crosson, interviewed in 2003.

[xii] John Herson, ‘Migration, “community” or integration? Irish families in Victorian Stafford’, in R. Swift and S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Victorian Britain: the local dimension, (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1999), p. 173.

Lost memories


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My research on Stafford’s nineteenth century Irish migrant families has involved extensive contact with their descendants by letter and by digital means. In addition, between 2002 and 2005 I carried out a number of face-to-face interviews with descendants of the Stafford Irish to particularly probe what they knew of family memories, anecdotes, legends and myths concerning their ancestors. The results were revealing but sometimes not in ways that might have been hoped for or expected.[1]

Families are the conduit down which memories, legends and attitudes are transmitted to succeeding generations but research suggests there is a continuous process of decay which severely reduces memories beyond three or four generations back. [2] The potency of specific memories such as the trauma of migration could also be reduced by intermarriage across ethnic, cultural or religious boundaries and by the growth of competing family identities. Nevertheless, memories might be preserved, as in the case of emigrant Irish families, by a history of collective trauma, notably the Famine and its aftermath.

To find out what had happened amongst Stafford’s immigrant Irish twenty-one people were interviewed at thirteen interviews. They were descended from twenty-one different Irish families. Thirteen were women and eight men and the oldest person was born in 1917. She was the only person in the cohort who had 100% Irish ancestry. All the other respondents had some degree of mixed ancestry because of intermarriage down the generations. The people with Victorian Irish ancestry who were available for interview in the early twenty-first century were therefore the product of intermixing over the previous hundred or more years. None of them was motivated by any desire to express and perhaps romanticise their Irish identity.

Almost all the people interviewed were descended from Catholic Irish families originating in the Connacht area. Some of the original immigrants had left Ireland during the Famine or the 1850s and had settled in Stafford immediately or shortly thereafter, but in six cases the Irish ancestors had arrived in Stafford after 1870, having previously lived elsewhere in England. The majority of the original immigrants had worked in unskilled labouring and domestic service after their arrival, though a few had been in more skilled manual trades like joinery and shoemaking. These respondents’ families therefore reflected the majority of Stafford’s Victorian Irish, though the 10-15% of immigrants from Protestant backgrounds were not represented.

Three factors complicated the interviews. The first was that a two-way dialogue inevitably occurred at the start of the interview about the respondents’ family history since in almost all cases I had information previously unknown to the respondents themselves. The reaction to this information was heart-warmingly positive but inevitably cut across a rigorous interviewing process. There was, secondly, the potential problem that my information might itself influence the attitudes and even the identity of the interviewees, though I concluded this was not actually an issue. Finally, some interviews involved more than one person. These arose because a number of people were so interested that they asked if other descendants could be present, a request I could hardly refuse. Some of the results therefore represented a degree of ‘corporate’ rather than individual response.

The first area discussed was what people actually knew about their family history. In most cases their detailed and accurate knowledge stopped in the early 20th century and in only four interviews did information go back as far as the actual immigrants from Ireland. In one of these cases the immigrants had in fact been late-nineteenth century arrivals. Some respondents had little or no perception of their Irish ancestry before contact with me. It was clear, then, that there had been a massive loss of knowledge amongst a majority of families about their origins.

Some researchers have enlightened Irish studies by using letters and similar memorabilia that have survived from the immigrants themselves.[3] It was hoped that some of the Stafford interviewees might have such material from their ancestors. That proved not to be the case. No contemporary letters, diaries or other written materials had survived, and only four respondents had pre-1919 photographs of family members. The struggle for existence, inevitable moves of house together with family conflicts over possessions had resulted in a huge attrition of physical evidence from the past.

I attempted to get a picture of past relationships in the respondents’ families – to see what they saw as the key family dynamics and to place their Irish ancestry within wider family realities. People were asked what legends there were about family relationships, family problems and the marriages that had taken place. In three interviews respondents reported that English ancestors had regarded ethnically Irish marriage partners as socially inferior. This related to marriages from widely spread dates – the 1860s, the 1890s and the 1930s. The hostility clearly reflected a mix of attitudes towards the Irish because of their ethnicity, their Catholic religion and the perceived lower occupational status either of the marriage partners themselves or their families. Although the Stafford Irish intermarried extensively with the host population, it was not necessarily a smooth process of ethnic intermixing.


Bernard Tatton (1896-1971), grandson of Ann Moran (1832-74), Irish immigrant, and James Dale (1825-97) from a Stafford Catholic family. (Picture courtesy of Elizabeth Moncrieff)

Whilst family hostilities had been caused by Irish ethnicity, people also highlighted the significance of conflicts not linked to ethnicity. Half the respondents reported squabbles over inheritance and/or from perceptions within Irish families that certain people or branches were either socially inferior or were (as it was put in one case)  ‘perfect snobs’ trying to hide ‘that they had come up from nothing’. In two cases people said their ancestors had never really talked of their background, suggesting they wanted to obscure or forget it or, in one case, ‘that there was something not quite right’ about it.[4] Drink was mentioned in two interviews. It is important to stress, therefore, that in these families Irish ethnicity was only a subsidiary element in the legends about their family history.

It was important to find out if they knew of any legends about where their ancestors came from in Ireland, why and when they left, why they had settled in Stafford and their experiences in the town after arrival. In asking these questions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I was clearly at or beyond the extreme boundary of communicated memory and people might in fact have been influenced more by media-generated knowledge of Irish migration and settlement. In terms of actual family legends, the results were very limited. In only three cases could people tell any story about their families’ origins in Ireland.  The most complete picture was painted by two respondents whose ancestor had come from Co. Roscommon in the 1880s. The family had had a smallholding in the county that was too small and had been taken over by a relative. The ancestor had then emigrated to Stafford, but a dispute over rights to the smallholding had carried on down the generations. These people reported that their father’s failure to resolve the legal problems ultimately resulted in the evidence being destroyed some decades ago. They could not even identify where in Co. Roscommon their family had originated. There was also a legend that they had been involved in ‘fishing off the coast’, something difficult to square with an origin in land-locked Roscommon.

Family legend was also unclear about why these people had settled in Stafford. Four rather conflicting explanations were offered. The first was that they had come to Liverpool and bought a train ticket to as far as they could afford, which happened to be Stafford. The second was that they came to Stafford because they already knew someone there, which is quite likely. The third was that they worked for a company building an extension to Stafford gasworks and they had then got a job in the retort house, whilst the final suggestion was that the ancestor had married an Irish woman working in the Walsall leather trade and the couple had moved to Stafford because of town’s boot and shoe industry. These ideas all came from two people who were only three generations away from the original immigrants, yet even for them the family legends were extremely vague and unsubstantiated.

In two cases people reported family legends about their specific geographical origin – from  Knock, Co. Mayo and from Co. Tipperary. Here census evidence previously unknown to the respondents proved them to be true. In two other cases vague family legends about the place of origin did not appear to be substantiated by the census. In only three cases did respondents make unprompted reference to the Famine as a factor in their families’ migration, and it seems clear that this was to some degree influenced by general knowledge of the Famine tragedy rather than any specific family legend relating to it. In half the interviews there were no family legends at all about peoples’ Irish origins or why they settled in Stafford.

Curley Mary Rev

Mary Curley (1857-1907), grand-daughter of William and Jane Coleman from Co. Mayo. (Picture courtesy of Kathleen Boult)

In most of the families there had been, therefore, a massive loss of knowledge, memory and legend about their Irish origins. There appeared, in fact, to be a cut-off point of knowledge and legend around the second generation after immigration, almost as though a line had been drawn across the family’s previous history. Apart from the Roscommon case just described, people could offer no specific and plausible reason why their ancestors had settled in Stafford of all places. One person suggested it was ‘as far as they could go’ but she also suggested it might be because they ‘dug the canals’, a clearly false conclusion since the nearest canal to Stafford had been cut in the early 1770s, seventy years before the family in question had settled in the town. Even in the case of the latest family to arrive in Stafford, who settled in 1915, the respondent did not know why her father had moved to the town from Blackburn in Lancashire. It seemed likely he came because of wartime building work at an army camp on Cannock Chase.

There are a number of possible reasons for this poverty of knowledge and legend about the families’ Irish origins and settlement in Stafford. The first is that the Irish element was by the 2000s only a minority proportion of the ancestry of people in eight out of the thirteen interviews. The Irish, in other words, were just not that important in their family history any more. This was undoubtedly a factor in some cases, but the correlation was by no means perfect. Some respondents with a minority of Irish blood had better knowledge of facts and legends than others with stronger ethnic ancestry.  The second factor is obviously the general decay or dilution of family knowledge that is likely to occur after the third generation. The fact is that in most families knowledge and legends are likely to be sketchy beyond the grandparents’ generation – there is superficially no reason why these Stafford families would be any different. Nevertheless, it might have been expected that the trauma of emigration and settlement, especially connected with the Famine, would have offset this – that it would have been a lurking shadow passed down the generations. Although the common collective memory of the emigrant Irish, especially in the North American diaspora, often suggests this, the evidence from Stafford shows it failed to be transmitted down the generations of those families who settled and intermarried here. It was also clear that the Stafford respondents showed no sign of being influenced by – or even aware of – a collective memory of Irish exile or Irishness in the world-wide diaspora.

The loss of family memories or legends about the emigration suggests a further possibility – that family ancestors in the generation after settlement in Stafford actively rejected or eliminated from memory their previous family history in Ireland. Such a view contrasts with the view that the Irish in areas of denser settlement transmitted Irish identity to succeeding generations born in the country of settlement. In a town like Stafford, where the number of Irish was quite small, there was little incentive to maintain an Irish identity in the face of the need to survive in a new environment.

That is not to say that all the Irish who came to the town found it an attractive place to live and quickly abandoned their Irish identity. Many Irish people and their descendants left Stafford for other places in Britain or abroad. Much of this out-migration reflected lack of job opportunities, but one can also speculate that many Irish people – particularly those keen to retain and express their Irish and Catholic identities – found Stafford a claustrophobic and unrewarding place.[5] Those who settled in the town, and their descendants, were a self-selected population who almost certainly decided – implicitly or explicitly – that their future lay in broadly conforming to the norms and values of the Stafford community as they found them. It seems clear that such people sought integration and ultimate assimilation through their social life, working relationships and intermarriage. The descendants who were available for interview in the early 2000s reflected this fact.

A final factor in this loss of memory may have been the activities of church and state. Mary Hickman has argued that the Catholic Church and schooling acted, in concert with the state, to incorporate the Irish Catholics into English Catholicism, ‘denationalising’ the Irish in the process.[6] There is certainly evidence to substantiate this process in Stafford.

The final element of legend and memory probed was the families’ experiences of life in Stafford up to the end of the Great War. Were they positive or negative? Three respondents were unable to offer opinions on this, although in one case that was because the respondents were not now Staffordians and were descended from a family line that had left the town in the early twentieth century.[7] The perspective amongst most other respondents was that their ancestors’ lives had been hard and poor. In one family a legend was of a grandmother who had a coal business and carried the coal sacks around on her shoulders, but the same person also reported the view that both Irish families from whom she was descended had worked hard, had succeeded and that Stafford had proved a positive place to settle. The oldest person interviewed was able to speak from experience of the hard life her family led in Snow’s Yard in the 1920s, the slum court that has featured so many times in this blog. She described the landlords as cruel people who thought nothing of putting families and children out on the streets. Children from other neighbourhoods looked down on them and would not play with them.

Mannion Jane

Jane (Jinny) Mannion nee Kenny (1882-1964), daughter of Roger and Jane Kenny from Co. Galway. She married into the Galway Mannion family and is shown standing outside her New Street home in the 1950s. (Picture courtesy of Sandra Coghlan-Murray)

People whose Irish ancestors lay farther back in the nineteenth century also emphasised poverty but suggested that memories of them being specifically ‘Irish’ families had probably been obscured by the basic struggle for existence. One person said their families had been ‘typical working class stock’. Three people were descended from Irish families whose members had achieved a modest respectability by the end of the nineteenth century, and in these cases the family memory was more positive about the Stafford experience, emphasising how hard work and steady employment had avoided the extremes of poverty.

One interview was unusual in that it involved descendants of an Irish family in which there had been a well publicised tragic event, one mentioned, in fact, by people in two other interviews. It is perhaps the one significant incident involving an Irish person that has passed into the collective memory of Staffordians. It concerned Edward O’Connor, born in 1879, the son of mixed Irish/English parents. In 1921 he was hanged for the murder of his son Thomas. Evidence suggests there was more to the case than met the eye and that O’Connor’s actions were partly explained by long-term stresses within an ethnically Irish family. He failed to receive a proper legal defence and his appeal against the death penalty was rejected with the apparently flawed logic that ‘he cut the throats of three or four of his children in a brutal and mad (sic) manner and there was no evidence of insanity in law’.[8]

In November and December 1921 over 13,000 Stafford people signed a petition for O’Connor’s reprieve, about half the population of the town at that time. This remarkable response suggests there was a widespread view that he deserved better than he got. Although there is a family legend that Edward O’Connor was abused as ‘a drunken Irishman’, it seems there was little or no antipathy towards him on ethnic grounds when faced with the manifest imperfections of British justice. The memory of the family involved therefore coping with a trauma far more significant than anything caused by emigration. It shows in stark form that a whole range of family relationships and historical incidents can undermine and complicate the survival of ethnic identity in family memories.


[1] This post is a revised and updated extract from John Herson, ‘Family history and memory in Irish immigrant families’ in K. Burnell and P. Panayi (eds.), Histories and Memories: Migrants and their History in Britain, (London, Tauris Academic Studies, 2006) pp. 210-33.

[2] Jan Assmann, ‘Collective memory and cultural identity’, New German Critique, 65 (1995), p. 132

[3] D. Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia, (Cork, 1994); L.W. McBridge (ed.), The Reynolds Letters: an Irish Emigrant Family in Late Victorian Manchester, (Cork, 1999); K. Miller, A. Schrier, B. Boling & D. N. Doyle (eds.), Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815, (New York, 2003)

[4] The historical evidence in this case does not support this perception.

[5] The one clear example of this was the Walsh family. John Walsh was a bricklayer’s labourer who came to Stafford from Co. Galway around 1862 with his wife Mary Mannion and child. They had five more children in Stafford. Walsh was involved in trade union activity, and in 1881 he chaired a ‘numerously attended’ meeting to protest against the Coercion Bill. Resolutions were passed referring to “the Irish electors of Stafford” and it was unanimously agreed to form a branch of the Irish National Land League in the town (Staffordshire Advertiser [SA], 19 February 1881). It is not known whether this was done, but there were no more reports. John Walsh and his family left Stafford shortly afterwards.

[6] M. Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity: State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, (Aldershot, 1997), Chaps. 3-5

[7] These respondents did, nevertheless, have one of the best photographic records of their Stafford Irish family.

[8] SA, 19 December 1921