The conundrum of Thomas Kearns


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The challenges of revealing the histories of migrant families are well illustrated by the known life of Thomas Kearns. He was the son – or grandson – of John Kearns and Bridget Connor. John Kearns had been born in Stafford in 1828, the son of Farrell and Mary Kearns née Grenham. Farrell and Mary were Roscommon people who had settled in the town around 1826. Farrell worked as a labourer and the couple intermittently kept lodging houses. They were the first Irish family to settle long-term in Stafford in the nineteenth century although their presence finally ceased in 1914.

John became a shoemaker, so he entered Stafford’s staple trade and superficially achieved modest upward status over his father, Farrell. Having been born in Stafford and growing up there when the permanent Irish population was very small, we might expect John Kearns to have developed a mixed Irish-English identity, or even become a pure young Staffordian. That did not happen, however. He never went to school and never mixed with local children in the school yard. Neither did he come into contact with English Catholic norms in the classroom. His childhood was lived amongst other Irish people in Stafford’s worst slums, mainly Snow’s (or Red Cow) Yard. Sometime in the late 1840s he married Bridget Connor.[1]  She claimed to have been born in Co. Longford, an unusual place of origin for the Stafford Irish. Perhaps she had been a lone Famine immigrant who lodged with the Kearns family.

It was clearly a problematic relationship. The couple continued to live with Farrell and Mary Kearns but John and Bridget went on to have at least nine children, although three died in infancy. Being a shoemaker, John Kearns went ‘on tramp’ in search of work, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. He was prosecuted twice in the early 1860s for deserting his wife and family, leaving them chargeable to the parish.[2] Having missed out on education himself, he saw little value in it for his children. After compulsory primary education began in 1871 he was fined at least once for failing to send his children to school.[3]

That brings us to the case of Thomas Kearns, John and Bridget’s supposed final child. He was born in Snow’s Yard on 14 April 1871 but it took five weeks for Bridget Kearns to register the birth.[4] Although biologically just still possible – Bridget was at least forty-two by that time – it looks as though Bridget lied in her claim to be Thomas’s mother. Three years later, on 8 March 1874, Thomas was finally baptized at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford and there his mother was stated to be Anne Kearns, one of Bridget’s other children.[5] Evidence from some years later tends to substantiate this picture. In April 1882 the ten-year old Thomas was not living at home in Snow’s Yard. He was an inmate in Stafford Workhouse. He was there for at least six months and was described in the register as an ‘orphan’.[6]

The Workhouse authorities presumably knew a lot about the Kearns family. They were notorious amongst the denizens of Snow’s Yard, with lives filled with poverty and neglect in which relationships with parents, grandparents and siblings were blighted by disorder, drink and the threat of violence.[7]  Thomas was probably registered as an ‘orphan’ because the overseers knew he was not John and Bridget’s real son. As the illegitimate child of Anne, he was possibly conceived when she was working as a servant girl. In 1871 she had been just fifteen and such was the fate of many young girls forced into service. The possibility of an incestuous pregnancy by Anne’s father cannot be ruled out either. All we know is that in 1875 she married an Englishman, Thomas Moore, but the latter refused to take young Thomas as part of the deal. He was left to be brought up by his disgruntled and neglectful grandparents, hence his sojourns as an ‘orphan’ in the Workhouse. In 1891 he was, however, living with Bridget Kearns in Snow’s Yard and, like his ancestor Farrell, he was working as a labourer.

At this point another conundrum arises about Thomas which exemplifies the disordered circumstances of the Kearns family. In 1900 a man named ‘Thomas Kearns’ was given three months in gaol for assaulting Bridget, whom the Staffordshire Advertiser described as his ‘grandmother’.[8] That would be correct given the evidence about Thomas’s real mother from the 1870s. The problem with this story is that in 1900 Thomas, supposed son or grandson of Bridget, was not in Stafford at all. He was thousands of miles away in South Africa serving with the army Medical Corps during the Boer War. Back in 1891 he had taken the classic route out of his miserable surroundings by signing up with the army. His army papers confirm that his next-of-kin was his ‘mother’, Bridget Kerns (sic), of Snow’s Yard, Stafford, so we know it is the right person.[9]

So who was this violent Thomas Kearns in Stafford? I haven’t a clue, and if anyone out there has the answer I’d be pleased to know it! It seems that someone stole Thomas’s identity as soon as he joined the army because this same ‘Thomas Kearns’ was admitted to Stafford Workhouse ten times between 1891 and 1896. His claimed age was exactly the same as that of the ‘real’ Thomas.[10] The latter was all the time serving in the army, either in Egypt or at barracks elsewhere in Britain. Bridget and others must have known of the deception and acquiesced in it for reasons now impossible to fathom.

Raftery Snows Yard_0002 rev

The Kearns family home for more than fifty years: Snow’s or Red Cow Yard from the OS 1:500 plan 37/11/7, Stafford Borough, 1880.

It did her little good. According to the press report ‘Thomas Kearns’ entered the house in Snow’s Yard and created a disturbance. Bridget ordered him out but Thomas returned and crushed her against the stairs door, held up a poker and said that ‘if she didn’t go to bed he’d murder her.’ He then followed her upstairs. His behaviour was so frightening that Bridget decided to escape out of the bedroom window. She ‘slid down the spouting’, a feat of some agility for a woman now in her seventies. The police constable who was summoned to the scene found all the doors locked and Bridget Kearns shrieking ‘murder’ in the yard outside. Thomas was found lurking in the bedroom with a kettle of boiling water. When seized he threatened the policeman with a knife and four PCs were needed to get him to the Police Station. He was sentenced to three months in prison, to which his reply was ‘thank you: I will have three months more when I come out.’ [11]  Whoever he was, the evidence suggests ‘Thomas Kearns’ was at least unstable and possibly severely mentally ill.

Meanwhile, in the army the ‘real’ Thomas had broken free from his family’s disordered circumstances. He served for over twenty-two years and had an ‘exemplary’ record, ‘honest, sober and industrious’, latterly as a sergeant and with qualifications as a first-aid instructor and medical dispenser. He married a woman born in Yeovil in Somerset in 1907 and the family ultimately settled in Southampton where he died in 1931. There are probably descendants.[12]

When ‘Thomas Kearns’ attacked Bridget she had already been a widow for sixteen years. The shoe trade had gone into decline in the late 1870s and her husband John had found it difficult to get work. In 1881 he had been managed to get a labouring job at Venables’ timber yard on the Doxey Road. It was dangerous work and in August 1884 a pile of logs fell down and crushed him. He received severe head injuries from which he died a few days later.[13] Bridget herself died in 1906.[14] What became of ‘Thomas Kearns’ is unknown.


1 The marriage probably took place in Ireland; there is no obvious record of it in England.

2 Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 May 1861 and 5 December 1863. His was given three months with hard labour on each occasion.

3 SA, 17 April 1875.

4 Stafford RD, Birth Certificate, 6b/8, no. 75, 22 May 1871, Thomas Kearns.

5 Baptism, St Austin’s Church, 8 March 1874, Thomas Kearns, son of Anne Kearns, All England select births and christenings, Ancestry database accessed 16 March 2017.

6 SRO D659/1/4/52, Stafford Poor Law Union Indoor relief List, 1882/3.

7 For more about the Kearns family see pp 82-94 of my book Divergent Paths: Family           Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP,    2015).

8  SA,25 August 1900.

9 National Archives (NA), WO97 Chelsea: Royal Army Medical Corps, No. 10714, Sgt T.J. Kearns, Find My Past database, accessed 20 July 2013.

10 Staffordshire Name Index on-line; D659/1/4/10, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Book, 1836-1900.

 11 SA, 25 August 1900.

12 NA, WO97, RAMC, 10714, Sgt T.J. Kearns, attested Stafford, 26 August 1891 into the South Staffs Regiment. His claimed age in the army records accords exactly with his birth in Stafford in 1871. FindMyPast database, accessed 15 July 2013; Marriages, Southampton RD, Oct-Dec 1907, Thomas J. Kearns and Mary Ann Catherine Hamilton, 2c/58; Bury St Edmunds RD, births, Apr-Jun 1911, John Thomas Hamilton Kearns, 4a/914; Southampton RD, Deaths, October-December 1931, 2c/36, Thomas J. Kearns, born 1871.

13 SA, 23 August 1884.

14 Stafford BC Burial Register, 09/4658, 15 December 1906.

The shadowy figure of Margaret Carr


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

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


Margaret Carr’s drudgery – a Victorian washerwoman

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The execution of John Reynolds, 1833


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In early June 1833 Michael Faley landed in Liverpool from Ireland.[1] He was there amongst the thousands of Irish workers who came over to Britain every summer for seasonal work on the farms. Many went to Staffordshire, a convenient destination from Liverpool where there was plenty of work. Michael Faley’s trip was a bit different, however, because he wasn’t alone – he was accompanied by 85 pigs. He was one of the many people engaged in the export of farm animals from Ireland to Britain during the nineteenth century, a key aspect of the economic interdependence of Britain and Ireland that remains to this day.


Pig drovers and their problems. Picture from

Faley owned the pigs with a partner in Ireland and had brought them to sell in Staffordshire. The partner, it seems, did not accompany him and Faley was left alone to drive the animals out of Liverpool and 60 miles along the roads to Staffordshire.  Keeping 85 pigs together and going in the right direction was a task beyond any one man and in Liverpool Faley hired a 19-year old Irish youth, John Reynolds, to help him. Setting out around 5-6 June 1833, the two men made good progress and four days later they got to Aston on the main road between Stone and Stafford (today’s A34). A bit farther on they passed the Crown Inn which lay in an isolated spot on the road south of Aston and there Faley managed to sell a number of pigs to the landlord, a Mr Taverner. He received £5 7s 6d for them.[2]


The Crown Inn, Aston, today – still an isolated spot on the road. The Inn closed in 2007.

Michael Faley was now a man carrying a significant amount of cash and once they had set out again on the way to Stafford the temptation proved too much for John Reynolds. A mile down the road he viciously assaulted Faley, rendering him senseless with a blow from a large paving stone. He robbed him of his money – between £9 and £10 it was said – and legged it back down the road to Stone. There he stayed at the Antelope Inn and booked a ticket on the stage coach to Liverpool. Meanwhile poor Laley had been found badly injured at the roadside. He was taken by cart to Stafford Infirmary where he was described as ‘alive but in great danger.’[3] News of the attack spread rapidly round the district and the Irishman at the Antelope in Stone with money to spend – John Reynolds – was quickly seen as the likely culprit. He was arrested and taken down to Stafford where Laley did indeed identify him as his attacker.

Reynolds was committed for trial at the Stafford Summer Assizes on the charge of assault and robbery of Michael Faley. The machinery of British justice then ground remorselessly towards a tragic end for this young Irishman. At the time of his arrest he had been described as ‘having a very senseless countenance’ and in those days such a person, particularly an Irishman, would receive little understanding or consideration from the authorities. No lawyer represented him at the trial – he was left to fend for himself. His only reported argument was that Laley had refused to pay his wages. That cut no ice with either jury or judge. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death.

Reynolds’s situation clearly roused the sympathy and concern of other Irish people in the area. Michael Faley himself begged the judge to show mercy, a plea that fell on deaf ears. Father Edward Huddleston, Stafford’s Catholic priest, was ‘most assiduous in his attention to him’ and reported that Reynolds ‘evinces every mark of sincere contrition’. Huddleston made ‘exertions’ for his reprieve but again with no success. On 10 August 1833 the crowds gathered outside Stafford Gaol to witness John Reynolds’s execution.[4]  Amongst them ‘were a great number of Irish reapers who, before the fatal bolt was drawn, fell on their knees and appeared to offer supplications on behalf of their wretched countryman’.[5] Father Huddleston attended Reynolds on the scaffold and said that he ‘died very penitent’.[6] The fact that many Irish harvesters came to Stafford to demonstrate their feelings for their countryman shows how much communication there was amongst the seasonal migrants as well as their willingness to act together.


Where John Reynolds met his end.The portable gallows used for executions outside Stafford Gaol between 1817 and 1868. Picture from Dave Lewis, web-site, William Palmer: the Infamous Rugeley Poisoner,

John Reynolds’s fate was doubly unlucky. Had he carried out his robbery just a few years later he would have escaped the gallows because the number of crimes carrying the death penalty was drastically reduced during the 1830s. The last execution for robbery took place in 1836 and Reynolds was, indeed, the last person to be executed in Staffordshire for a crime other than murder.[7] In the same year the Prisoner’s Counsel Act ensured that those accused of serious crimes would receive legal representation in court, something denied to Reynolds.

History does not record what happened to Michael Laley or his pigs, though the latter were ‘preserved’ by the constables immediately after the assault. The case lifts a veil, however, on the agricultural links between Ireland and Britain, on the types of people who worked on them and the circumstances under which they worked. The coming of the railways gradually spelt the end for long-distance droving like that done by Michael Laley on the road from Liverpool to Staffordshire. The sound of Irish farm labourers tramping the roads of the county would nevertheless continue for decades beyond the 1830s.

[1] His surname was consistently spelt thus in the reports. It may, of course, have been a phonetic version of Feeley based on how he pronounced it.

[2] There is conflict on how much Faley received from Taverner since the Staffordshire Advertiser quoted £9 in its first report on 15 June 1833 but the lower sum in its court report on 3 August 1833. The latter is presumably more reliable.

[3] SA, 15 June 1833.

[4] SA, 10 August 1833.

[5] SA, 17 August 1833.

[6] Ibid.

[7] A.J. Standley, Stafford Prison, 1793-1916, (1996), Unpublished typescript, William Salt Library, Stafford.

James Mullins, school attendance officer, 1872-77


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One morning in May 1876 there was a hammering on the door of Ellen Murray’s lodging house in Shargool’s Yard, Foregate Street, Stafford. When she opened up she found, not an Irish labourer looking for a night’s lodging, but the stern figure of James Mullins. He was the School Board’s Attendance Officer and he was there to ‘caution’ – or threaten – Ellen with prosecution if she didn’t make sure her son Patrick went to school. Ellen was having none of it. She ’indulged in a stream of foul language’ and belted Mullins in the face with a dirty cloth, for which assault she was fined 5s and costs.[1]  The Attendance Officer was not a welcome figure in the courts and back streets of Stafford.

My last post exposed violence and poor teaching at St Patrick’s Boys School in Stafford in the 1870s. This post continues the education theme during the same decade by looking at James Mullins’s role as School Attendance Officer (SAO) in the early years of the Forster Education Act. In 1861 the Newcastle Commission had revealed the patchy and poor state of elementary schooling for working class children. Ruling class concern was not just about lack of educational provision but was also motivated by fear of the thousands of effectively feral children marauding the streets of towns and cities. They were seen to form the next generation of the dangerously alienated lumpen poor.  As a result, the state finally established structures for the elementary education of all children between 5 and 13 under the Elementary Education Act of 1870 – the so-called ‘Forster Act’.[2]

The Act required immediate returns on the extent of school provision in all local areas and if these revealed insufficient accommodation the government Education Department would cause a local School Board to be set up. Stafford Borough was one such area. In March 1871 the Stafford School Board was established and its nine members elected on religious lines, the lone Catholic being Francis Whitgreave, a leading figure in the local laity.[3] It was estimated that there were 2,245 children of school age in the town but only about 1,244 (or 55%) were actually attending school, a miserable total. The Board therefore decided to adopt the clauses of the Act requiring compulsory school attendance.[4]

Requiring compulsory attendance and actually achieving it were, however, two different things. Stafford’s ruling elite was perennially reluctant and niggardly when it came to spending money on public services and this proved to be the case with education as well. The Act (para. 36) permitted boards to appoint one or more school attendance officers to enforce attendance but it took the Stafford board over a year to actually appoint one. Even then the post was only part-time. The man who got the job was, as we have seen, James Mullins.

Mullins was a middle-aged Catholic Irishman and pretty typical of the sort of men who became SAOs. He was born around 1826-9 in Kilfarboy parish near Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.[5] The only family with that name in the Griffiths Valuation of the 1840s was that of Darby Mullens (sic) who occupied just a house in Leagard South townland valued at 15s a year. James Mullins’s background was, therefore, very modest and in the 1840s he escaped the area and probably the Famine by joining the British Army. Little is known of his active service except that he was with the 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot which in 1851 was serving in Newry, Co. Down, and in 1861 at Templemore, Co. Tipperary [6] In 1861 Mullins was not, however, in Ireland but in Walsall in the Black Country. He was living in Peal Street with his wife and six children and acting as a recruiting officer for the regiment. He had been in the town since at least 1854 since five of his children had been born there, and he had perhaps got this sinecure through being wounded on active service, though we have no evidence of this. James’s wife was Mary née Campbell and was also Irish. They married in Ireland around 1852, though the date and place have not been traced.[7]

Mullins reached the rank of sergeant in the 39th Regiment but left its ranks during the 1860s. Like many other soldiers nearing retirement his route out of the army was through the 2nd Staffordshire Militia. He was posted as a staff sergeant to the barracks in Stafford and was certainly there by 1866.[8]  In 1871 the family was living at Queensville about a mile out of town. Mullins was, however, looking for another job to supplement his pension income and the newly created post of School Attendance Officer fitted the bill. He in turn offered the School Board experience of exercising authority over awkward and potentially combative working class people. He immediately asked to be allowed to ‘enforce cleanliness of children attending school when needful’, something the Board was only too happy to agree.[9] The Board offered him a salary of £35 a year, a miserable sum that was typical of the poor pay many Irish would accept just to have a secure job in England.

Mullins set to work vigorously and within a month of his appointment the Board claimed his ‘efforts so far were not fruitless.’ The proportion of school age pupils actually attending in May 1872 had risen to 68%, a figure that was maintained in November of the same year.[10]  The improved results led the Board to increase Mullins’s salary to £45. By July 1874 there were nearly one hundred extra pupils on the books but the attendance rate remained stubbornly at just under 69%.[11] Nearly a third of children were still regularly absent from school.

In his early days on the job Mullins probably adopted the technique of getting to know the suspect areas of town and the ‘problem families’ within them, and mostly using verbal threats to cajole parents into sending their children to school. The limits of that policy were seen by 1874 and the evidence suggests Mullins and the Board then moved to more prosecutions of recalcitrant parents and publicly naming and shaming them. A review of press reports shows a sudden burst of prosecutions in 1875 and others in the second half of the decade.[12] The apparatus of the state was being used coercively against those determined to resist compulsion. This working class resistance reflected widespread antipathy to state compulsory schooling as an irrelevant and alien system designed to enforce deference and middle class value systems.  Most of the defaulters were poor families who had financial reasons for truancy – they needed the money their children earned from work and they could not or would not pay the school fees that were still demanded in the Forster Act system. School Boards were empowered to pay the fees of those too poor to pay but Stafford’s Board avoided such payments as far as possible and required needy parents to suffer the time-wasting and demeaning process of pleading for relief in person. In 1874 a ‘burly Irishman’ was forced to wait for two and a half hours to address the Board, meaning he lost a quarter of a day’s pay. He blamed Mullins for the delay but was patronisingly told that as he had ‘come to ask a favour, he could scarcely in justice think himself aggrieved.’[13]


There is no photo of James Mullins. This is Samuel Goodwin (1820-1907), SAO at Wivenhoe, Essex. He was roughly contemporary with Mullins, though this photo was clearly taken later in his life. Photo from the Wivenhoe Heritage web-site, Wivenhoe Memories Collection. www://

Mullins had to report defaulting parents and children to the Board and initiate court proceedings on the Board’s behalf. The limited evidence suggests Irish Catholic families were disproportionately targeted for prosecution though it must be emphasised that English families still formed the majority of cases.[14] The Irish families were uniformly poor and some – the Kearns, Devlin, Lyons, Ruhall and Mannion families for example – were stigmatised people often in trouble with the law in other ways. James Mullins classically represented the ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics who sought to distinguish themselves from their problematic compatriots and he was in a position to exercise social control over them. More specifically, in his job as SAO he stood on the fault lines between such families, the niggardly School Board and the Catholic schools that often treated poor children with contempt and resisted taking poor pupils unless their fees were paid by the Board.[15] As we saw in the last post, St Patrick’s boys’ school had major problems and it held little attraction for many poor children and their parents.  Even so, in 1873 the Catholic representative Canon Edward Acton stated that the average attendance at St Patrick’s was 98 out of 136 pupils on the books, a proportion (72%) slightly above the Stafford average. St Austin’s girls’ school got 72 out of 137, a much worse performance (53%) that probably reflected the lower priority many parents gave to girls’ schooling and conversely their imposed role as helpers at home.[16]

In 1872 James Mullins had taken on a grinding and ill-paid task that was hard and sometimes stressful work for a man moving into his fifties. He probably faced many other confrontations like that with Ellen Murray. In May 1877 he petitioned the Board for a salary increase because of his increased duties but their response was initially defer the issue.[17]  Six weeks later they decided to appoint a Poor Law relieving officer, John Whadcoat, on a six month contract, although a week later they appeared to change their mind and proposed to raise Mullins’s salary to £75 as soon as he got (and presumably paid for) ‘an office in the district.’[18] It seems that he was still only working part time and doing the job from his home in Queensville. This squabble over pay and accommodation was the final straw. In July 1877 Mullins resigned. It was noted that he had been the SAO for over five years but there is no record of any expressed appreciation for the work he had done. The Board merely went on to advertise the post as full time with a salary of £85.[19]

The Mullins family soon left Stafford and in 1881 they were living at 72 Mortimer Street near Oxford Circus in London. James was described as an ‘army pensioner’ but the enumerator noted that the address was that of the ‘Young Men’s Catholic Association’. Mullins may, therefore, have taken on another part-time job, but nothing more is known about it at this stage. Things did not run smoothly, however. It seems that James died sometime in the early 1880s.[20] In 1885 his son John Campbell Mullins, ‘who was well-known in Stafford’, was arrested with two others and charged with uttering forged cheques. Whilst in Stafford John had begun work as a clerk at a solicitor’s office (W. Hand). Like the rest of his family he had clearly been part of the aspiring Catholic laity: his ‘conduct before leaving Stafford appears to have been very good.’ Having moved with his family to London, by 1881 he was described as a clerk at the Inland Revenue. He subsequently found work with a London solicitor and it was there that the cheques were forged. Having cashed his share of the proceeds, Mullins ‘started on a pleasure trip to Ireland’ but he got no farther than his previous home base, Stafford. One of his co-conspirators then ran out of his ill-gotten gains and confessed to the deception which led to John being arrested at the Elephant and Castle pub in Gaol Square. He appeared at the Old Bailey, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years penal servitude.[21]

After James’s death and John’s disgrace the remaining Mullins family seems to have broken up and it has proved impossible to reconstruct their later lives. James’s daughter Ellen (b. 1856) was a teacher in 1881 and by 1891 had become a nun teaching at St Mary’s Industrial School in Croydon. In 1901 she was at the Convent of Mercy in Macklin Street, Bloomsbury, but after that her trail goes cold. The same is true of the rest of the family, though it is possible Mary Mullins died in Wandsworth in 1909.[22]

What of school attendance in Stafford after James Mullins’s departure? The School Board was increasingly riven by religious disputes but the task of whipping truanting families into line continued and achieved reasonable success in terms of attendance. In March 1886 it was reported that in the previous three years 799 parents had received threatening notices about their children’s irregular attendance. 162 parents were actually convicted in court proceedings. In the same period average attendance had reached nearly 80%, a clear improvement over the position in the 1870s.[23] That still meant, however, that a fifth of children were likely to be absent from school at any one time and the education received by those who did attend still left much to be desired.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 May 1876.

[2] D. Gillard, Education in England: a Brief History, (2011)( on-line version at accessed 18 November 2016; N. Sheldon, ‘School Attendance, 1880-1939: a study of policy and practice in response to the problem of truancy’, D. Phil. Thesis, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, 2007.

[3] SA, 4 March 1871 and 25 March 1871. In March 1877 Whitgreave was replaced by Edward Acton, the priest at St Austin’s. At that time there was one Catholic, two Presbyterian, five C. of E. and one ‘working man’s’ representative on the Board.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 3 June 1871.

[5] WO 116, Royal Hospital Chelsea: Pensioner Admissions and Discharges, 1715-1925, James Mullins, Sergeant, No. 2803, pension admission or examination date 2 June 1868. Ancestry database accessed 21 November 2016.

[6] Mullins’s full army record has not been traced. Location details from transcripts of the British Army Worldwide Index, 1851 and 1861, WO12/5284 and WO12/5294, Find My Past database accessed 21 November 2016 and Ancestry WO116 data.

[7] Her surname has been gleaned from the St Austin’s registers where it was specified at the baptism of her daughter Sarah on 26 August 1866. Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1/3, St Austin’s Stafford, Register of Baptisms.

[8] His daughter Sarah was christened at St Austin’s in that year; see reference 7. above.

[9] SA, 4 May 1872.

[10] SA, 8 June 1872 and 7 December 1872. The figures exclude St Paul’s School which was outside the Borough boundary.

[11] SA, 11 July 1874. The proportionate attendance in Stafford lay roughly midway between those found by Sheldon in Oxford (75%) and Bradford (60%). Sheldon, ‘School Attendance’, Chart 6 (p. 79), though she cautions that records of attendance are suspect (p. 35).

[12] E.g. SA 17 April, 1 May, 5 June, 18 September, 20 November and 11 December 1875.

[13] SA, 18 April 1874.

[14] No full analysis of the cases brought has been yet been undertaken but in those noted in the 1870s Irish Catholic families formed around a fifth of the defendants at a time when the Irish and Irish-descended Catholic population of Stafford was 4.4%.

[15] In February 1875 the managers of the Catholic schools refused to supply financial statements to the School Board because of the Board’s ‘refusal to pay the fees of poor children’. SA 6 February 1875. It is not known how long the stand-off continued.

[16] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255, St Austin’s Stafford, Mission Book, return ordered by the Bishop, 31 May 1873.

[17] SA, 12 May 1877.

[18] SA, 30 June and 7 July 1877.

[19] SA, 21 July 1877.

[20] Though no record of his death has so far been traced. It was mentioned in the Staffordshire Advertiser report of 29 August 1885.

[21] SA, 29 August and 19 September 1885. Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Ref. No. T18850914-814, 14 or 15 September 1885, on accessed 21 November 2016.

[22] Deaths, Wandsworth RD, October-December 1909, 1d/357. Without obtaining the certificate it is impossible to say this was Mary Mullins née Campbell’s death but it seems plausible.

[23] SA, 13 March 1886. It was stated that the average attendance in England as a whole during the same period was 75%.

A ‘bad boy’ and a teacher’s violence, 1876


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Eleven year-old William Ruhall was a ‘bad boy’. His father thought so and so did the teachers at St Patrick’s School in Stafford. And the penalty for allegedly bad behaviour at school by a poor Irish boy in 1876 was extreme. This emerged in court in October of that year when George Walsh, the only qualified teacher at St Patrick’s, was summonsed for assaulting William Ruhall. The motive for the attack was that William had ‘told an untruth’ regarding a dictation lesson, something that from today’s perspective seems a mysterious but essentially trivial allegation.[1]

George Walsh thought otherwise. He proceeded to give William Ruhall six strokes of the cane on his hands, but the master wasn’t finished with him. He then ‘beat him around the body and knocked him down with his knee.’ The lad got up off the floor but Walsh knocked him down again.

When he went back to his slum cottage in Back Walls North William reported what had happened at school. His father, John Ruhall, found the marks of violence on his body and went to the police station where William was examined by Sgt Hackney. The policeman told the court that he had found nine discoloured marks on his thighs and lower back which could not have been caused by a cane. The evidence that George Walsh had effectively beaten up poor William initially seemed damning but the wheels of justice then moved to protect an articulate middle class teacher against an uppity but poor Irish family. In his defence Walsh agreed that he had struck William ‘three or four times’ but denied knocking him down. He claimed the boy ‘fell down to avoid the cuts with the cane’. He was backed up by the pupil teacher at the school who said that Ruhall was ‘not a good lad and that on one occasion his father had brought him to school and expressed a wish that he should be chastised.’

That swung it. The Bench said that in general the courts should protect boys who were unduly punished, but that didn’t apply to William Ruhall because he ‘seemed to be a bad boy’. The case was dismissed and George Walsh left court a free man.

This cameo of pupil/teacher relations at St Patrick’s exposes some of the tensions inherent in the relationship between the English Catholic elementary school system and poor working class pupils from both Irish and English homes. St Patrick’s School had been established in 1868 explicitly with the aim of ensuring the Faith was maintained amongst the potentially errant working class of Stafford’s north end.[2] Early on it became just a boys’ school, the girls being sent to the more genteel St Austin’s School at the south end of town. The rougher St Patrick’s was under-funded. In 1873 136 pupils were on the books but there was just one qualified master and a candidate pupil teacher.[3] Attendance was chronically poor, partly because parents often neglected to send their children to school but also because of endemic infectious diseases amongst children of the courts and streets of the area. Even so, with an average attendance of 98 pupils, the single teacher and his assistant would have struggled to cope, and order could only be maintained using the draconian methods experienced by William Ruhall.


St Patrick’s School infants’ class, c1910. By this time the school had ceased to be a purely boys’ school and both the number and calibre of the teachers had improved over things in 1876. (Picture by courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell).

William came from a classically deprived Irish family. His father John was a farm labourer who had arrived in Stafford around 1861 with his wife Margaret (née Ryan). They had originally been Famine immigrants and seem to have lived somewhere in the Potteries in the 1850s.[4] They already had two children when they arrived in Stafford and Jane, Ellen and William were born after they settled in the town, William being the last child in 1865.[5] Tragedy was to strike, however. The children’s mother Margaret died in November 1866 and John Ruhall was left on his own with the five children.[6] Life must have been a struggle and food was probably short. Not surprising, then, that fourteen year-old John was arrested in August 1868 with his mate Peter Murray from another Irish family for stealing fowl from the Earl of Lichfield’s estate. He got one month in prison and three years in a reformatory. On his release he returned to the family home and in 1871 was working as a brickfield labourer.[7] By then the younger children were approaching adolescence and John senior was none too keen on sending them to school. He was fined twice for the offence in 1875.[8]

It is hardly surprising that young William was a difficult pupil when he attended school at all. He was just the sort of troublesome and apparently hopeless child likely to be treated with contempt by an overworked teacher like George Walsh. Walsh represented the aspirational and respectable side of English Catholicism. His relationship with the poor of his catchment area seems to have been problematic. Two months after his attack on William Ruhall he was back in the news, this time because he had refused a poor child admission to St Patrick’s because the charge for the boy’s school books had not been paid. Walsh argued that the Stafford School Board should pay the book charge in addition to the school fees whereas the Board claimed the Catholic school had no right to claim such an extra payment for poor pupils.[9] Three years later he was involved in another dispute. He refused to allow a pupil back into school who had had a skin disease. He insisted the boy first bring a certificate of recovery signed by the schools’ medical officer, something the latter refused to grant. He said it was ‘unnecessary’ since he had not been previously asked to certify his unfitness to attend.[10]

These incidents suggest Walsh was a pernickety as well as a potentially violent man. He came to St Patrick’s some time around 1873, and it is instructive to look at the evidence of his background and life. It was very different from the Ruhall family. There was one similarity – he, like William Ruhall, was the child of Irish parents, William James and Eliza Walsh.[11] They were born in Ireland in the 1810s, though it is not known from what part of Ireland they came. William may have had time in the navy but by 1851 he was a coastguard based in the Faversham area of Kent. He was earlier based in Rochester since George (b. 1848) and three other children were born there in the 1840s.[12] The family’s whereabouts for the next twenty years are not known but evidence suggests they were either in Ireland or elsewhere on an official posting since in 1861 their son Maurice John Walsh was a boarding pupil at the Greenwich Hospital Schools.

In 1871 George Walsh’s path finally becomes clear.  In that year he was a ‘pupil’ doing teacher training at Brook Green (St Mary’s) Roman Catholic College in Hammersmith. The college had been founded in 1850 by the Catholic Poor School Committee to provide teachers in primary education for poor Catholics throughout the country. Mary Hickman has argued that a key aim of the CPSC and its colleges was to produce respectable (English) working class Catholics out of the Irish masses, though the CPSC itself said ‘we should not try to make them in appearance other than the schools of the poor.’[13]  St Patrick’s in Stafford was a classic Catholic poor school and George Walsh was a classic product of the training system designed to staff it. It was a system that tended to encourage superior, patronising and even contemptuous attitudes towards poor children amongst trainees susceptible to such views. George Walsh appears to have been such a man.


The large building on the left of this photo is the original St Patrick’s School of 1868. The lower building at the other end of the site is St Patrick’s ‘tin church’ erected in 1895. (Picture courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell; original source unknown)

Walsh was probably assigned directly to St Patrick’s when he finished his training, though we don’t know precisely when he arrived in Stafford. He was certainly there by the mid-1870s. He would have been a key figure in the local Church and on close terms with the parish priest at St Austin’s. That fact becomes obvious with his marriage. In 1876 Walsh married a Staffordshire woman, Catherine Sarah Sharrod.[14]

Catherine came from a Catholic family in the Rugeley area and her father had been a miller and farmer. They were clearly an aspirant entrepreneurial family with close connections to the Church. Catherine trained as a teacher. The key connection is that in 1871 she was the teacher at St Mary’s Catholic School in Brewood, a traditionally recusant area with wealthy Catholic families like the Giffards of Chillingham Estate. She must already have been a financially secure young woman since we find her as a 23 year-old ‘certified teacher’ living on her own but employing both a housekeeper and a housemaid. Even more significant, she lived next door to the parish priest, Edward Acton. Brewood was a plum posting for Catholic priests in the midlands but in 1873 Acton was sent to an even better one – St Austin’s at Stafford. It can have been no coincidence that George Walsh came to meet Catherine (Kate) Sharrod either in Brewood through Acton or maybe because she moved to St Austin’s School  in the wake of Edward Acton’s translation to the Stafford mission.

After their marriage the Walshes lived in a respectable house on the Wolverhampton Road. It was within a hundred yards of St Austin’s Church, the presbytery and Edward Acton. It was a far cry from St Patrick’s School in both distance and social character and it demonstrates how the family had no interest in living in the catchment area of the school even though a house perfectly acceptable to their tastes could have been found in the north end. The impression is of an aspiring family who sought a nice lifestyle and social security amongst their own kind. It is interesting, nevertheless, that Kate Sharrod Walsh continued to teach even after her marriage, despite the fact that most females were, in those days, forced to give up the profession after marriage. She must have been a determined woman. Even more remarkable, the couple went on to have at least six children.

Walsh’s tenure at St Patrick’s remained problematic. In 1882 ‘there was a falling off of the grant … due to the want of regularity in attendance.’[15] In the following year there were complaints that when the fees of poor pupils were paid by the Board of Guardians and the parents were ‘too poor to pay for copy books, dictation books and slates, the education of the children was neglected.’[16] Edward Acton, the Walsh’s patron, left St Austin’s in 1880 and in 1884 a French priest, Louis Torond, was in post. He seems to have been an abrasive character who only lasted a year, but one of his acts may have been to sack George Walsh and his wife from their posts. All we know today is that male and female teachers were sacked that year and that ‘the state of religious instruction in the Boy’s School [St Patrick’s] has been among the least satisfactory for the last two if not three years.’ (sic)[17] We also know that the Walsh’s daughter Constance Kathleen was born in Stafford in 1883 whereas their next child, Ernest Wilfred, arrived in Camberwell in 1886. The Walshes clearly left the Stafford between those dates and their sacking by Torond could well be the explanation.[18]

So the Walsh family moved to London. Both George and Kate continued in the teaching profession in school board/county council schools, though whether they were still in Catholic schools is not known. They lived in modern and respectable terraced houses south of the Peckham Road in Camberwell, then a rapidly developing suburb, so it seems they were able to maintain their aspirant middle class lifestyle.[19]

The subsequent history of the Ruhall family was more divergent. Old John Ruhall died in Stafford in 1885, having dwindled to being a hawker before his death. [20] Young John left Stafford in the 1870s and may have emigrated but William went into the Stafford shoe trade. He remained a stroppy character, however. In 1882 he was an apprentice in the firm of Alfred Ward but in September that year he was charged with refusing to work and making threats against his employer’s foreman. He immediately absconded and only reappeared in court in January 1883. He was bound over to keep the peace for six months.[21] After that the trail goes cold. He may have emigrated, though the perennial problem of variations in his surname spelling bedevils any attempt to definitively track him down.

The two Ruhall girls, Jane and Ellen, also went into the shoe trade and they stayed on in Stafford. Neither of them married and they lived together at no. 88 Back Walls North for at least twenty years, probably longer.  It seems they tried to cast off the family’s problematic past.  There are two bits of evidence for this. In 1897 one of the sisters provided a refreshment tray at the St Austin’s soirée, a sure sign of involvement in the respectable social life of the Church; the other sister doubtless attended and may have contributed.[22]  Secondly, the sisters subtly finalised their surname as ‘Rowhan’, something confirmed in Jane’s own writing in the 1911 census return.[23] Ellen died in Stafford in 1932 but Jane’s death has not been traced.[24]

St Patrick’s School went on to become a central and generally well-liked institution in the social life of Stafford’s north end but problems remained at the school after George Walsh’s departure. In December 1890 an HMI report said ‘discipline is still the weak point here, the children being talkative and inattentive.’ Even so, the children’s work in reading, arithmetic, drill and marching was described as acceptable or even better.[25]  St Patrick’s problems were not unusual and in 1902 ‘Cardinal Vaughan accepted the accusation that his schools were among the worst in England’.[26] They were often overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded and St Patrick’s was probably no better and no worse than many. William Ruhall and George Walsh had met in a stressed environment where vulnerable and overworked individuals were often blamed for problems whose origins were structural to the system they were in. That remains the case today in the many public services subject to financial cuts and political neglect or hostility.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 14 October 1876.

[2] John Herson, ‘The English, the Irish and the Catholic Church in Stafford, 1791-1923’, Midland Catholic History,No. 14 (2007), p. 32.

[3] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1, St Austin’s Stafford, Mission Book, Returns ordered by the Bishop, 31 May 1873.

[4] Their children Mary Ann (b. c1851) and John (b. 1854) had been born in Stoke on Trent. The Ruhalls were not listed in Stafford in the 1861 Census but their child Jane was born in the town in July/August 1860. Ancestry database, England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, 5 August 1860, Jane Ruhall, daughter of John and Margaret Ryan Ruhall, File No 1999441, item 10. It is worth noting that the name ‘Ruhall’, whilst uncommon, was subject to many different phonetic spellings and underlines the limits of what can be found even using modern digital methods. The evidence is no better than the original sources and the transcriptions made of them.

[5] Ancestry database, England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, 5 February 1865, William ‘Rouhan’, son of John ‘Rouhan’ and Margaret Ryan, File No 1999441, item 10.

[6] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, 02/2528, Margaret ‘Ruhorne’, aged 40, wife of John ‘Ruhorne’, labourer, Back Walls North, 9 November 1866.

[7] SA, 8 August 1868.

[8] SA, 18 September 1875 and 11 December 1875.

[9] SA, 9 December 1876.

[10] SA, 8 November 1879.

[11] William James does not appear in any Census returns but his name was given at George Walsh’s marriage in 1876.

[12] Births, Medway RD, Kent, October-December 1848, 5/3, George Thomas Walsh.

[13] Mary Hickman, Religion, Class and Identity: State, the Catholic Church and the Education of the Irish in Britain, (Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing, 1997), pp. 160-173. The quotation comes from a report of the CPSC in 1849, quoted by Hickman.

[14] St Austin’s, Stafford, Register of Marriages, 8 January 1876, George Thomas Bernard Walsh and Catherine Sarah Sharrod.

[15] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, P255/5/1, St Austin’s, Stafford, Mission Book, yearly statement, 1882.

[16] SA, 6 October 1883.

[17] Archdiocese of Birmingham Archives, correspondence, R1607, letter from Bishop Ullathorne to H T Sandy, chairman of governors of the Stafford Catholic Schools, 28 June 1884.

[18] Stafford RD, births, July-September 1883, 6b/17, Constance Kathleen Walsh; Camberwell RD, July-September 1886, 1d/830, Ernest Wilfred Walsh.

[19] See H J Dyos, Victorian Suburb: a Study in the Growth of Camberwell, (Leicester, Leicester UP, 1966), pp. 106-107. Coincidentally Dyos discusses in some detail the development of Bushey Park Road, the street where the Walshes finally settled.

[20] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, 05/8875, 23 April 1885, John ‘Rouhall’, ‘hawker’.

[21] SA, 6 January 1883.

[22] SA, 6 March 1897.

[23] They are listed under the name ‘Rowan’ in the 1891 census and ‘Rowhan’ in 1901. In 1911 Jane gave their name as ‘Rowhan’.

[24] Stafford RD, deaths, September 1932, 6b/1, Helen Rouhan (sic).

[25] St Patrick’s School, logbook, 1890, quoted by S. Pyne (née Murfin), ‘The Irish in Stafford 1890-1893, with specific reference to Roman Catholic Education within the school of St Patrick’s, Stafford’, Unpublished BA Dissertation, Liverpool John Moores University, April 1994.

[26] S. Fielding, Class and Ethnicity: Irish Catholics in England, 1890-1939, (Buckingham, Open University Press, 1993), p. 62.

Baby farming in mid-Victorian Stafford


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Although this blog is primarily about the Irish families who went to Stafford in the nineteenth century, the experiences of the Irish were often similar to those of the English amongst whom they settled. Some people in this post did have Irish roots but the prime aim here is wider – to explore common circumstances that arose in poor working class families of all types, both English and Irish. The miseries that went with illegitimacy and premature death were horrifically exposed in Stafford by the 1872 ‘baby farming’ case.

The details were graphically reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser:

‘Baby farming – revolting disclosures’

‘At the Police Court on Wednesday John Hawkins, 63, and his wife Sarah Hawkins, 37, were charged with endangering the life and health of a child, Clara Litton, 16 months. Hawkins is a former grave-digger. A shoemaker named Dolan some few months ago lost his wife by death. He sent his family out to nurse; one child was taken by Hawkins at 2s 6d a week. On Monday a friend of Dolan named Perry, anxious about the welfare of the child, went to Hawkins’s residence in Startin’s Court, New Street. Mrs Perry found the child “so deplorably filthy and emaciated, with shoals of vermin swarming over it, that she at once removed it to the police office whence it was conveyed to Mrs Perry’s where, notwithstanding every attention, the child, which is aptly described as a living skeleton, is not expected to live.” Police Inspector Bowen and H.T. Lomax, surgeon, went to the Hawkins’s. They found seated in a chair an illegitimate child called Emily Adams, about 14 months old. She was sent three months ago by her mother. She “seemed much reduced” and was removed by the mother. Bowen and Lomax went upstairs. It was “a loathsome and disgusting sight.” From the room proceeded an effluvium … sickening … a sense of squalid misery and destitution … Scattered around the room the accumulated filth of years while there were three chamber utensils overflowing. These, with a washstand basin (in which was gathered the loathsome filth of weeks) and an old rickety bed, were the only articles of furniture in the place, over which human excreta was profusely scattered.


Startin’s Court behind New Street, Stafford. The arrow shows the probable house occupied by John and Sarah Hawkins.

‘At the foot of the bed lay huddled what seemed to be a human being. Its bed was a small filthy bag on which it had been lying for months and into which it had sunk like a sickly pig in a wallow. Over the little human creature was an old sack and on the bed and child and sack vermin crawled in hideous composure while the child’s hair was matted in its own filth. The little sufferer, whose name was Clara Litton, wearily endeavoured to concentrate its gaze on its unusual visitors. She was taken to the Police Office. She was 16 months old and weighed only 8lbs. She had not been washed for months. She was taken to the Workhouse.

‘Various rumours are afloat regarding the connection that may have subsisted between baby-farming and grave-digging.’ [1]

On 23 March the Advertiser reported further details about Thomas Dolan’s child. He had been two months old when he was sent to the Hawkins’s house because his mother was ill in the Infirmary. When the child was taken away it was “a mere skeleton. It was convulsed and seemed as if it had not had sufficient food while there were vermin bites on it”. Mrs Perry said “the back parts were in a pitiable condition from the filth not having been washed away, while its head was eaten away with vermin and not yet clean. It was so weak it could scarcely cry.”[2] She later said “the noise it made in crying was more like that of a fowl than a human being.”[3]

John and Sarah Hawkins were committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions accused of endangering the lives of Thomas Phillip Dolan, Emily Adams and Clara Litton. It was reported that they were receiving 2s 6d a week for each of the children boarded with them and that Sarah Hawkins had also worked as a boot binder for many years at the shoe factory of Elley, Gibson and Woolley. Her average earnings were 3s 4½d a week. John Hawkins was employed casually by two pub landlords, earning 4s 6d a week as well as another 1s 10d from cleaning Christ Church. It was said that he was “seldom at home” whilst Sarah claimed that while “I am guilty of not being clean … I have fed the children properly and well.”[4]

John and Sarah Hawkins were inevitably found guilty but their prison sentences – two years for her and eighteen months for him – seem pretty light in view of the seriousness of the case. After their release the couple returned to their miserable dwelling in Startin’s Court and they were still living there in 1881, although after that the trail goes cold. That fact underlines that it can be very difficult for historians to fully expose and interpret the actions of people in the nineteenth century who were alienated from the state’s crude control and data gathering functions and who often had every reason to obscure or lie about their activities. Furthermore, news reporters in those days were often as careless and cavalier about the facts as their modern counterparts. It can be difficult to weave a coherent and soundly based story from a number of scattered and often contradictory facts.

Poor Thomas ‘Dolan’ did not survive. He died and was buried with Catholic rites at Stafford Cemetery on 13 June 1872, just three months after his deliverance from the horrors of the Hawkins’s house.[5] But the newspaper never got his family’s name right. It was Doran, not Dolan. The confusion probably arose through a careless journalist who knew about an established Irish ‘Dolan’ family in Stafford and assumed Thomas was another of the clan. Thomas Doran did indeed have Irish roots but his father Thomas Phillip Doran had been born in Chester in 1851, the child of shoemakers from Ireland who probably came to Britain during the Famine.[6] When he grew up Thomas also became a shoemaker and that explains his arrival in Stafford around 1871. At the time of the Census that year he was boarding in Sash Street with 71 year-old Mary Bromley, a widowed domestic servant, but shortly after he returned to Chester to marry Annie Simpson, a young servant girl in the city.[7]  She may already have been pregnant because baby Thomas was born in Stafford early in 1872.[8] The couple set up house in Tenterbanks but, as we know, Thomas’s mother became ill and may have died soon after the birth – the newspaper reports are contradictory. No record has been traced of her death, however. All we know is that Thomas senior ended up with a child he either couldn’t or didn’t want to look after and so he was dumped in the Hawkins’s baby farm. Mrs Perry’s ministrations failed to save him and his father became a free agent to begin his life again. He left Stafford and perhaps returned to his roots in Cheshire but the evidence is unclear about his subsequent life.

The two other children involved in the Hawkins baby farm had equally sad circumstances. Clara Litton was born in January 1871, the daughter of Joseph and Clara Litton. Joseph Litton was a labourer struggling on an insecure and mediocre income. Mother Clara already had three young children to look after but around the time of baby Clara’s birth she died, perhaps in childbirth itself.[9] Joseph was left with a helpless new-born baby and three existing children aged between three and six, and his response was to immediately leave baby Clara with a couple close by in the Broad Eye who were running what suspiciously looks like a baby farm. This was the household of George and Elizabeth Fisher and at the 1871 Census we find Clara Litton in the house along with three other unrelated babies aged between two months and one year.[10] Some time over the next year Joseph Litton moved his baby daughter across town to the Hawkins’s dreadful place where she was discovered in March 1872. Perhaps the Hawkins couple charged less than the Fishers. She never recovered from the neglect and misery she had experienced there and died around eighteen months later. [11]

Clara Litton and Thomas Doran died as a direct result of the loss of their mothers and the inability and/or unwillingness of their fathers to look after them. They were the victims of family breakdown due to premature parental death, a common experience in Victorian Britain. Also common was the victimisation of illegitimate children and their mothers, and that was the fate of the other child found at the Hawkins’s house, Emily Adams. Her mother was Mary Adams, an eighteen year-old servant from a farm labourer’s family in the countryside around Penkridge (south of Stafford). In 1871 Mary and her three month-old daughter were ‘visitors’ in the household of John Spiers, a turner who already had his daughter, son-in-law and five children living with him in a tiny cottage in Pearl Terrace, Eastgate Street. We don’t know whether there was some family or social link with the Spiers family but we do know that neither Mary nor her co-residents were willing to look after baby Emily and around December 1871 she too was dumped with the Hawkins couple. Mary had a living to make and Emily was an embarrassing encumbrance in a world where a single mother was stigmatised as either feckless or worse. By the time of the trial in 1872 Mary had moved out of the Spiers’ house and was living in New Street close to Startin’s Court, though with whom is unknown.[12] Her proximity suggests she made little or no effort to check her daughter’s welfare in the hell-hole to which she had been consigned but once the case was exposed Mary did take Emily away. Where the couple then went is anybody’s guess. No record has been found of where they lived subsequently but it certainly wasn’t in Stafford. Mary presumably went off to make a new start elsewhere, perhaps under a new name. At least poor Emily seems to have survived – or at least there is no obvious record of her death in the 1870s.

These three children had a tragic start to their lives and two didn’t survive it. The Stafford case was but a small incident in the terrible history of baby farming in Victorian Britain with its cruelty, neglect and often wilful death. It was exposed most notoriously in the murder of babies – perhaps hundreds of them – by Amelia Dyer between the 1870s and 1896.[13] Even in a small town like Stafford there were many parents with unwanted or burdensome children. At the extreme they were willing or forced to offload their problems on to entrepreneurs like the Hawkins couple for modest payments and no questions asked. The awful consequences have been documented here. The grotesque result of entrusting such welfare provision to profit-seeking entrepreneurs in the private market continues to have echoes today in the abuses that periodically emerge in privatised front-line services.


Amelia Dyer, Victorian England’s most notorious baby farmer. She possibly murdered hundreds of babies given into her care.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 16 March 1872.

[2] SA, 23 March 1872.

[3] SA, 13 April 1872.

[4] SA 13 April 1872.

[5] Stafford Borough Council burial record 03/4240, Thomas Phillip Doran son of Thomas Phillip Dorna, shoemaker, Tenterbanks.

[6] There were a number of (probably interrelated) Doran families in Chester with sons named Thomas and more work would be needed to unambiguously assign the Stafford Thomas to the correct family.

[7] Chester Registration District, marriages, April-June 1871, 8a/537, Annie Simpson or Mary Barnes. Without acquiring the marriage certificate it is uncertain which of these two women Thomas Doran married but the circumstantial evidence points to Annie.

[8] Stafford RD, births, Thomas Phillip Doran, January-March 1872, 6b/4.

[9] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1871, 6b/3, Clara Litton, born 1835,

[10] Clara is listed as 3 years old in the return but this must be an enumerator’s error. Clara would have been about three months old at the time of the Census.

[11] Stafford RD, deaths, October-December 1873, 6b/1, Clara Litton aged 2 years.

[12] SA, 13 April 1872. At the Quarter Sessions Mary Adams was described as living in New Street.

[13] accessed 12 October 2016.

The Hingerty family: outsiders who survived to integrate


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The Hingerty family was mentioned in my last post on lodging houses in Victorian Stafford (25 July 2016). Patrick and Bridget Hingerty kept the lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North from around 1855 until the late 1870s but ultimately the family moved out of the twilight world of lodging houses and integrated into wider Stafford society. This post traces in more detail the process by which this occurred in the longer-term history of the Hingerty family.

Uncommon name, unusual origin: the Hingertys as outsiders

Although most of Stafford’s Irish labouring families came from the Castlerea area, the Hingerty family was one of the exceptions. They told the Census enumerators they came from Co. Tipperary. Hingerty is an unusual surname, and the Griffiths Valuation shows its was indeed found only in Tipperary. A Patrick Hingerty occupied a ‘house and small garden’ at Old Turnpike Road, Nenagh, and he could well be the Patrick Hingerty who later turned up in Stafford. Three other Hingertys lived in the same area of North Tipperary.[1] The Hingertys were one of only two families from the county who are known to have settled long-term in Stafford.[2]

The Hingertys must have survived the worst of the Famine but left Ireland in the early 1850s. They may indeed have been victims of the evictions on the Massy-Dawson estate near Nenagh.[3] Two Hingerty relatives came to England at this time. Denis Hingerty, his wife and two sons, travelled through Liverpool and settled at Oswaldtwistle between Accrington and Blackburn in Lancashire. A very extensive family descended from that line. Patrick and Bridget Hingerty came to Stafford with their sons Daniel and Michael Richard. Patrick was probably Denis’s brother. It is unclear whether any links were maintained between the two branches of the family, but if they were they are not known to descendants.

Hingerty Trees_0002

The immigrant Hingerty families in Stafford and Lancashire.

There is no family memory or legend as to why Patrick and Bridget Hingerty chose to settle in Stafford. It seems likely, however, that they were attracted there by two earlier ‘pathfinders’ from Tipperary already living in the town, Alexander James McDonald and Mary Kerrigan. We shall meet them again later.

The Hingertys were real outsiders when they settled in Stafford. Like the other labouring Irish they were initially outside Stafford’s working class social network, but they were also outsiders to the dominant Irish network from the Castlerea area. The family’s early history in Stafford reflects these facts. Their social connections were not with the Castlerea Irish even though they lived close to families from that background. A majority of the Hingerty children who grew up in Stafford did not marry, something that suggests a lack of suitable social contacts. The family’s establishment of deep roots in Stafford did not look likely even in the late nineteenth century. Emigration or withering away in Stafford would have been the expected prognosis for the family at that time. The Hingertys’ ultimate shift of fortunes is evidence that immigrant families could move in unexpected directions.

Although Patrick Hingerty was a labourer we know that as early as 1855 he and his wife began to make more money running the lodging house at 12 Back Walls North. In that year Patrick Hinnerty (sic) was fined ten shillings plus costs for infringing the lodging house bye-laws. [4]  At the time of the 1861 census eight lodgers, all of them Irish, were packed into this little four-roomed cottage on Back Walls. Including the Hingerty family, there were twelve people in the building. Only one of the lodgers had any connection with settled Stafford Irish families, something that demonstrates how lodging house occupants were often drawn from outsiders and the socially marginal.

Patrick Hingerty died in 1866.[5] Bridget was left to carry on the business, which she continued to do until around 1879. In 1871 there were seven lodgers in the house, but only one of them was Irish. Four were English farm labourers, one from Stafford and the others from rural Devon, Wiltshire and Norfolk. There was also an old Staffordian couple eking out their final years as rag collectors and apparently working with Michael Flanagan, a 40-year old Irishman in the same occupation. Bridget’s customers were still, therefore, people like themselves – poor outsiders marginal to the local and Irish social networks. The number of Irish farm labourers in Stafford was declining steeply at this time, but three of the Hingertys’ English lodgers had all come from counties where farm workers’ wages and rural poverty were worse than Staffordshire.

The 1860s and 1870s were a time of generational transition for the Hingerty family. Patrick’s son Daniel (b. 1839) was now in his late twenties, a single man living at home and working in the building trade as a bricklayer’s labourer. His social life probably revolved around the local pubs and he was arrested three times for being drunk and disorderly.[6] In the 1861 case he was out drinking with his brother’s father-in-law James McDonald. In 1873 he and two others refused to leave the Bricklayer’s Arms just round the corner in Gaolgate Street. His fellow boozers were James Hart and Michael Maloney, young men from poor Castlerea families.  This shows the son’s social connections had widened by this time. As Daniel got older he settled down, but he never married. He was still living with his mother in 1881, but by then they were in 10 Clarke’s Court. The move suggests they were very poor. He remained there in 1891. By then he was on his own, for his mother had died in 1890 after living into her 70s.[7] Daniel lived to a ripe age, but his must have been a poor and lonely life. He probably drifted into dementia because he died in the County Lunatic Asylum in 1917.[8]

The thin line of family survival: Michael Richard Hingerty and his children

Members of the family who live in the Stafford area today are all descended from one man, Daniel’s brother Michael Richard Hingerty (b. 1850 in Tipperary). Michael Richard had moved to Stafford when he was a young boy, and the shift to an urban lodging house in a different country would have been a shock. He would have found it difficult to make friends with other children from different Irish and Stafford backgrounds. When he grew up he worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, and later as a plasterer.

Hingerty Trees_0001

The children of Michael Richard Hingerty and Catherine McDonald.

The Hingertys did stay in contact with their predecessors from Tipperary, Alexander James McDonald and Mary Kerrigan. This couple lived in Stafford in the early 1850s and got married at St Austin’s in 1852.[9] They then moved to Walsall.  Sometime in the early 1870s Michael Richard Hingerty used his family’s contact with Alexander McDonald to also get work in Walsall. Then, in 1873, he married the McDonalds’ daughter Catherine in that town. The newly-weds initially stayed in Walsall, and their first three children, Daniel, James and Mary Ann were born there between 1875 and 1878.[10] Then they moved back to Stafford and settled permanently in the town. They were clearly poor, however. In 1881 they were living in a court off St Chad’s Place in the town centre. It was a small house and they were already a family of six, but they still had to take in a lodger, Mary Reddish, a hawker. There was another hawker, Mary McQue, there as a ‘visitor’. As she had been born in Walsall, she was probably a contact from their Tipperary background. The couple had three more children in Stafford but the marriage was not to last long. In 1885 Michael Richard died at the early age of 35. Catherine was left alone to bring up the six children in conditions of great poverty.[11]

The Hingerty family staggered only fitfully into the next generation. Four of Michael Richard and Catherine’s six children did not marry. The first-born, Daniel (b. 1875), was able to make a decisive leap into the core of the local economy by becoming a finisher in the shoe trade. Even so, he never married and lived at home for much of his life. He and his mother came to a tragic end. In 1922 they were living at 30 Back Walls North, a house Catherine had occupied for over 20 years and where she ran a small confectionary shop. On the morning of Monday 6 November Catherine and Daniel were found dead in their beds. They had been killed by gas escaping from a broken main outside the house. Two families in neighbouring houses also suffered gas poisoning and it was concluded that heavy traffic, perhaps a steam roller, had fractured the 3-inch main some time on Sunday.[12] A complaint had been made to the Corporation gasworks, but nothing was done in time to save Catherine and Daniel Hingerty.[13]

Two more of Michael Richard and Catherine’s sons also stayed single. James (b. 1876) worked as a paste fitter and laster in the shoe trade and lived at home until his death in 1909. He did not, however, lead a life isolated in an Irish household. He had associates in the Staffordian community. We have evidence of this when, in 1907, he was out in the countryside with three friends, all local men, when they were involved in a dispute with a local farmer. Abuse was hurled and stones thrown, though the case against James was withdrawn. He seems to have taken a low profile in the incident. There is also a family legend that he played football for Stoke City FC. Though this scarcely had the glamour and wealth of Premier League footballers today, it does show he was an active outgoing person. William (b. 1881) also lived at home but died in 1913. He was probably a betting man. In 1902 he was amongst 25 people arrested during a police raid on the Trumpet pub in Foregate Street. The landlord was fined £50 for running a betting business on the premises, but William Hingerty and the others were discharged as it could not be proved they had been in the pub to bet.[14] Both James and William died relatively young, probably due to their unhealthy jobs in the shoe trade and the poor living conditions in Back Walls.[15] Mary Ann Hingerty, the only daughter, was born in 1879 but lived just two years.

At this distance in time it is impossible to know why the three Hingerty boys failed to marry. They all went into Stafford’s core industry and would have had extensive social contacts at work. We have also seen some evidence of their contacts outside work. It may be that the three simply became ‘home boys’, happy to live with their widowed mother and with no reason to break the family bonds. Even so, they may have had an ambiguous identity that led them to avoid extensive and intimate contacts with local people from different social backgrounds.

Just two of Catherine Hingerty’s six children did break the bonds. John (b. 1885) did it by moving to Leicester in the 1900s. This was a common move for Stafford shoemakers but in his case it probably had the added attraction of breaking free of the family household. In Leicester he married Mary Godson, a Protestant. Their first two children, May and William, were born in Leicester in 1908/9, but the couple then followed the shoe trade back to Stafford and settled in the town. In the Great War John Hingerty served with the North Staffs Regiment. He survived the conflict and lived on till 1940.The couple had six surviving children and there are descendants in Stafford and elsewhere today.


John & Mary Hingerty with their children May, William, Sid, Alec and John, c. 1918. John is in the uniform of a private in the North Staffs Regt. (Photo courtesy of Mrs Christine Went)

The remaining son of Michael Richard and Catherine, Michael (b. 1883), married in 1909. His bride was Mary Elizabeth Norwood from a modest English family who also lived in Back Walls North. Her father originally came from Corby in Northants but he had moved about the country on labouring work before settling in Stafford in the 1890s. It is significant that Michael was drawn to someone from outside the local population. He also worked in the shoe trade but during the Great War he served as a private in the North Staffs Regiment. Like his brother, he survived. By 1922 the couple were living on the Weston Road, They had got out of the family’s traditional Back Walls base, a move that suggests modest prosperity and the aspiration to do better. There are also descendants of this branch of the family.

The Hingertys’ integration into Stafford society

 Although members of the Hingerty family were labourers and settled in Stafford in the aftermath of the Famine, their history was distinctive. Their origin in Co. Tipperary set them apart from the Castlerea social network and emphasises that just being ethnically ‘Irish’ did not necessarily cement social contacts or cohesion. The Hingertys retained more significant links with people from their own county. They were forced by poverty to live in the town centre slums close to many other Irish people, but they remained somewhat apart from them. Only slowly did contacts develop with both the Irish and local people.

The family’s lodging house at 12 Back Walls North was the refuge of the socially marginal, but they avoided the disorder of Jane Kelly’s establishments (last week’s post). Amidst a household filled with transients the Hingertys tried to build a strong home life. This attachment to home and family bonds strengthened as the years progressed. Though they had their scrapes, the second and third generations of Hingerty boys sought more stable lives through work in the shoe trade and some friendships with people from local society. They sought a modest respectability, and by the 1910s they seem to have achieved it.

The Hingertys were Catholics. Their children went to the Catholic schools and life’s events were commemorated at church. They always lived in the Back Walls area and this placed them in St Austin’s parish. It was the church of the Catholic middle class, and for many years the poor Hingertys would not have found it easy or attractive to get involved in the church’s social network. They almost certainly attended Mass, however, and by 1914 we find a glimmer of evidence that they were breaking into the Church’s social scene. In that year a ‘Mr Hingerty’ – probably Michael – went to St Austin’s annual soirée in the Co-operative Hall and won a prize in the whist drive. As I described in my post on Soirées (13 January 2016), those who went to these events were normally from relatively secure, aspirant and respectable families. The Hingertys were arriving at this position after more than sixty years in Stafford. In the end John Hingerty married a Protestant woman and adherence to the Church weakened substantially amongst subsequent descendants.

Attachment to any Irish identity ultimately seems to have withered away amongst the Hingertys. Bridget Hingerty’s death in 1890 removed the last person whose formative years and sense of self was demonstrably Irish. She had experienced the horrors of the Famine and certainly passed on to succeeding generations the fact that the family came from Tipperary. No legends were, however, passed on about their previous lives and the traumas they might have experienced. Here we have a family in which a mental break with the past was made in the generation after the Famine and emigration. The survival of the family then hung by a single thread through Michael Richard Hingerty but his children forged new lives as working class Catholic Staffordians. Subsequent marriage partners came from the wider population and the family merged into twentieth century Stafford society.


[1] Patrick Hingerty, entry reference 26, Griffiths Valuation, Co. Tipperary North Riding, 1852, Ask about Ireland website and Ancestry Database accessed 5 August 2016.

[2] The other was the Duggan family. John Duggan, a tailor, had been born in Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, and he came to Stafford in the late 1850s. He married a local woman and there is no evidence that he either knew or was ever associated with the Hingertys. John Duggan’s family always lived in the north end of the town.

[3] James S. Donnelly Jr., Great Irish Potato Famine, (Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2001), pp. 123-4.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 7 April 1855.

[5] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 2, Entry 2326.

[6] He was up before the magistrates on drink charges in 1861 and 1873. SA, 19 October 1861 and 22 November 1873. In 1869 a ‘Patrick Hingerty’ was before the magistrates in the company of Patrick Maloney for a breach of the peace, but this was probably an error and Daniel was the culprit. SA, 20 November 1869.

[7] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 6, Entry 10628.

[8] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 11, Entry 8531.

[9] Mary Kerrigan was working as a servant in Stafford at the time of the 1851 Census. Alexander James McDonald was not then present in the town but must have arrived shortly afterwards.

[10] Mary Ann, born in 1878, died in 1881. Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 4, Entry 7549.

[11] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 5, Entry 8751.

[12] Family legend communicated by Mrs Christine Went née Hingerty, April 2004.

[13] SA, 11 November 1922.

[14] SA, 17 May 1902.

[15] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 9, Entry 5676 and SA 4 October 1913.

Lodging houses


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My last post on 18 June 2016 looked at the squalid conditions under which most Irish immigrants existed in Stafford during the Famine and, indeed, beyond. That post ended with some comments about the Council’s harassment of Irish lodging house keepers for overcrowding their dwellings and the creation of ‘nuisances’.  That prompted me to look a bit more closely at the general role of lodging houses in Victorian Stafford and this rather long post is the result.

What was a lodging house?

In one sense the character of a lodging house seems obvious – it was the place where the poorest of the poor and the vagrants of Victorian society were forced to find a bed if they were not to sleep on the street or in the Workhouse. When it came to defining precisely what a lodging house was, however, Victorian legislators struggled and some of their problems also afflict the historian researching them today. Many households in Victorian times took in lodgers – so did that make them all ‘lodging houses’? Clearly the answer is no. The framework legislation on lodging houses in 1847 and 1851 failed to arrive at a workable definition.[1]  Finally, regulations issued under the 1853 Common Lodging Houses Act specified that the essential distinction between lodging houses and any other premises containing lodgers was that ‘persons being strangers to one another, that is, not being of the same family, and promiscuously brought together, are allowed to occupy the same room’.[2] Hotels, inns and taverns were explicitly excluded although at the margins many cheap pubs and beer houses in practice did operate as de facto lodging houses.

62 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end was continuously used as a lodging house. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910 (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

62/3 Foregate Street. Built around 1698, this grand house was divided in the 19th century and the left hand end (62) was a lodging house from the 1840s to c1914. The right hand side was the Dewdrop Inn from 1860-1910. (Picture from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford: through the North Gate, 2014)

The 1853 definition is used for this study of Stafford with the additional limitation that households must have contained at least three unrelated ‘lodgers’ to qualify as a lodging house. This excludes places where one or two lodgers were taken in as a supplement to the family income, though inevitably the borderline can be fuzzy. It is also sometimes imprecise when there is a mixture of lodging nuclear families, couples and individuals. Another problem is that many of the houses in Stafford were miserable two room cottages packed into the back streets and yards. There are cases where two small dwellings were knocked through into one ‘lodging house’ or one house was packed with lodgers whilst the keeper’s family lived next door. A final practical problem is that house numbers were frequently changed during the nineteenth century and it can sometimes be difficult to trace the use of particular properties accurately.

The earliest registers of licenced lodging houses in Stafford do not appear to have survived and the extant data runs from 1878.[3] Even if they were available for the whole period, the list of registered lodging houses would certainly be an incomplete picture since many operators evaded the licencing authorities, particularly in the 1850s and 1860s. This study therefore uses the Register data but also identifies likely lodging houses from the Census returns and from contemporary newspaper reports.  Evasive householders may well have under-reported lodgers in the Census returns but they remain, nevertheless, the best source we have for snapshots of the overall picture.

Lodging houses formed a reserve housing stock catering for the migrant, the vagrant and often the deviant of Victorian society. They were regarded with suspicion by ‘decent’ society and they posed challenges to the authorities in terms of the responsibilities for inspection and control and the development of workable relationships with lodging house keepers.[4] These issues can be seen in the case of Stafford.

The overall picture

The graph shows the number and breakdown of lodging house occupants in Stafford from 1851 to 1901. The green sections show the Irish-born and descended occupants divided between lodging house keepers and their families (‘IFam’) and Irish-born and descended lodgers (‘ILod’), Similarly the non-Irish are divided into families (‘NFam’) and lodgers (‘NLod’). There were 41 identifiable lodging houses in 1851 and the number then dropped to 31 in 1861, 17 in 1871, rose to 19 in 1881 and then fell again to 12 in 1891 and 9 in 1901.

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging house occupants, Stafford, 1851-1901

Lodging the Famine immigrants

In January 1851 five Irish lodging house keepers were summonsed for keeping their houses ‘in a filthy and unwholesome state.’[5] Not surprising. Of the 533 Irish-born people in Stafford in 1851 – the vast majority of them Famine immigrants – two thirds (364) were living in 41 identifiable lodging houses in the town. An average over eleven people were crammed into each of these tiny dwellings. Typically about a third of them were the householder’s own family and the rest were families, part-families or lone individuals who were the destitute victims of the Famine and who desperately needed somewhere to live. On Census night in 1851, for example, Patrick Welsh was living at No. 4 Allen’s Court with his wife and baby and they had taken in eleven other people who were a mixture of lone individuals, married couples and one widowed woman and a tiny baby. Round the corner at No. 4 Malt Mill Lane Patrick’s brother John, his wife and two children were host to three couples, a widowed mother and her adult daughter together with William Flanagan, a young single labourer. These were typical Irish lodging houses during the Famine period. The Council got their knife into Patrick Welsh. In 1853 he was fined 40s for overcrowding his lodging house. It was the third time he had been prosecuted.[6]

Lodging houses in 1851

Lodging houses in 1851

A lot of the householders who took people in during the Famine crisis and its aftermath doubtless exploited their tenants – after all, income from lodgers was essential to their own survival. Living conditions were shocking in any case. These people were not, however, professional lodging house keepers. They had ended up in the role through chance and necessity and only one of those visible in 1851 ultimately made a long-term business of it. This was the Kelly family at 52 New Street. James and Jane Kelly are known to have kept lodging houses at various places in the town in the 1850s and 1860s and we shall meet Jane again in 1868.[7] Most were, however, offering accommodation and minimal support on a casual basis to compatriots from their own area in Ireland. At 18 Back Gaol Road, for example, Thomas Jones made sure the Census enumerator took full details of precisely where everybody in his house had been born.  All but one of the fourteen people there (from seven different families) came from the borderlands of Galway, Roscommon and Mayo that were the source of many of Stafford’s immigrants. A network of contacts and information was clearly at work, a feature which has, of course, been widely seen amongst more recent immigrants to Britain.

Not all the lodging house keepers were Irish, however. In 1851 nine of them were English and they didn’t offer much to the Irish. Most were linked to the shoe trade and typically took in shoemakers ‘on tramp’ but at 46 Foregate Street John Faulkner was already operating a fully-fledged commercial lodging house. The sixteen lodgers there in 1851 had a wide range of occupations but only John Connor, a farm labourer, was Irish. Faulkner was to continue in the lodging house business in the same area until his death in 1883, aged 77.[8]

Lodging houses and migrant labour, c1855-65

During the Famine crisis lodging houses had played a vital role housing the flood of destitute emigrants but that function died away as the Famine Irish either settled in Stafford in their own accommodation or moved on elsewhere. By 1861 the numbers using lodging houses had declined steeply and it had changed in character. Many Irish had long come to the Stafford area for seasonal harvest work and this process carried on after the Famine. These people needed lodgings. In 1861 over 60 per cent of the Irish males in lodging houses were agricultural labourers and another fifth were building labourers. In other words, the lodging houses were now catering for more ‘normal’ migrant workers and the lodging house keepers also changed. The number of lodging houses had dropped to 31 and seventeen of them were kept by men who claimed to be agricultural labourers. These were people who had settled in Stafford, continued to work (to some extent) on the farms but also probably acted as ‘gang masters’ with lodgings for migrant workers with contacts in their areas of origin in Ireland.

Lohos 1861

Lodging houses in 1861

This changed function for lodging houses also saw the emergence of professional Irish lodging house keepers. Seven of those operating in 1861 (or their families) continued in the business into the 1870s, 1880s and even the 1890s. The Hingerty family are an example. Patrick and Bridget Hingerty were outsiders to most of Stafford’s immigrant Irish because they came from Co.Tipperary. This ‘outsider’ status seems to have characterised a number of lodging house keepers and emphasises that it was a distinctly pariah occupation in Victorian society.  The Hingertys settled in Stafford in the early 1850s and by 1855 they were running a lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North. In that year Patrick Hinnerty (sic) was fined ten shillings plus costs for infringing the lodging house bye-laws. [9] Patrick died in 1866 but Bridget carried on there until the late 1870s.[10] These premises continued to operate as a lodging house right into the Inter-War period, although by then the Hingertys had long gone and their descendants had integrated into wider Stafford society.

The Kelly family were also outsiders in that they came from an area of eastern Mayo that was outside the region of Stafford’s other Irish immigrants. They are known to have operated lodging houses in New Street (1851), Bell Yard (1859), Cherry Street (1863-6), Mill Street (1866) and Malt Mill Lane (1868).[11] James and Jane Kelly’s lodging houses housed the floating poor – tramps, hawkers, itinerant workers and new immigrants from Ireland and they were before the magistrates on a number of occasions for flouting the by-laws and other types of trouble.[12] The end came in 1868 when the premises in Malt Mill Lane were exposed as the base for a gang of juvenile thieves. Jane Kelly herself was the organiser and received a cut of the proceeds. She was given a year in prison and settled in the Potteries for some years after her release. She later returned to Stafford and died there in 1881.[13]

The residual role of lodging houses, c1866 to the 1900s

From around 1866 increasing use of machinery meant Staffordshire farmers needed fewer seasonal and casual workers and this meant that the use of lodging houses by migrant Irish farm workers declined sharply. Agricultural labourers who doubled as lodging house keepers also largely disappeared from the market and the number of lodging houses dropped from 31 in 1861 to 17 in 1871. Eight out of the thirteen Irish lodging house keepers were now fully commercial operators. Michael and Mary Ward, for example, had started in the 1850s in the overcrowded slum of Middle Row, Gaol Road, but by 1871 they had moved to No. 42 Broad Eye and they operated a de facto lodging house there until Michael’s death in 1882. Mary continued the business until she died in 1888.[14] They never registered with the authorities but operated in the shady world of unlicenced lodging houses.

Thomas Durham did become a registered lodging house keeper. A bricklayer’s labourer from Co. Mayo, he seems to have arrived in Stafford in the early 1870s and by 1873 was already running a lodging house in Back Walls South. In April that year two tramps got drunk and the ‘house was made hideous with their noises.’ The male tramp got an axe and threatened his wife with it but he said ‘it was a playful way of showing affection’.[15] The incident gives a flavour of lodging house life at its worst. In 1879 Durham took over Hingertys’ lodging house at No. 12 Back Walls North and remained there until just before his death in August 1891, at which point he was described as a ‘ragman’. The business was re-registered in October by Elizabeth Perry, a Staffordshire woman, and it thereafter remained in English hands.[16]

Census evidence shows that the trend towards English domination of both the occupants and operators of lodging houses was interrupted around 1881. The number and proportion of Irish occupants in that year was substantially above that in 1871 and five new Irish operators were in the market, although all had ceased by 1891. This spike in activity must have been due to the new surge in emigration from Stafford’s traditional sources in Mayo, Galway and Roscommon brought about by the agricultural depression after 1879, with its renewed evictions, the Land League movement and the Land War. The newly arriving Irish found beds in transient lodging houses whereas the larger and established commercial businesses – 12 Back Walls North, 52 Back Walls South, 76 Foregate Street and 54 Grey Friars – now catered for a wide range of largely English occupants.  Elizabeth Lees’s establishment at 76 Foregate Street, for example, was registered for up to 28 lodgers in five rooms.[17] She was given a month in gaol in 1887 for buying a deserter’s army shirt, an example of the pathetic transactions that could occur with lodgers desperate for money.[18] In February 1896 the Council Public Health Committee removed Lees from the register because she had failed to notify the authorities about two cases of smallpox in her lodging house ‘and in other ways had shown herself to be incompetent’. All the lodgers and the whole house had to be disinfected and the premises ceased at that point to be a lodging house.

Lodging houses in 1901

Lodging houses in 1901

By 1901 lodging houses in Stafford primarily catered for English itinerants; there were very few Irish occupants because, in Stafford at least, immigrants had mainly settled there in earlier decades and there were relatively few new immigrants arriving. Other places in Britain and overseas were more attractive. One new part-Irish family did, however, emerge as lodging house entrepreneurs in the late Victorian period. Thomas Comar was a labourer who had been born around 1855 in Dunmore, Co. Galway, a classic place of origin for the Stafford Irish. He must have been one of the emigrants who came to the town after the crisis of 1879, perhaps because he already had contacts there. He married Ellen Best, a hawker from Worcestershire, in Stafford in 1884 and in 1891 they were living at 18 Sash Street.

In Sash Street the Comars were already taking in lodgers and in 1895 the couple moved on to much greater things. On 2 September of that year Ellen was registered as the keeper of a lodging house at No. 8 Back Walls South.  The place was a substantial old house that had now fallen on hard times since it was registered with seven rooms catering for 56 lodgers, by far the biggest lodging house in the town. On Census night in 1901 there were in fact 61 lodgers in the property, so the Comars were obviously happy to breach the regulations for extra money. Only one was Irish, Thomas Mitchell, a labourer who had been born in Dublin. In 1907 the registration of No. 8 was taken over by Alma Beatrice Moore née Churchley. [19]She was treated as Thomas and Ellen Comar’s daughter but the relationship was irregular and is difficult now to fathom.[20]  Alma and her husband Henry Moore continued to run the business in the succeeding years although Henry was killed in the Great War and Alma subsequently remarried.[21]  Ellen had died in 1909 but the widowed Thomas lived on in the lodging house. In 1911 he was a ‘sanitary worker’ for the corporation in 1911 and he was still living at No. 8 when he died a quarter of a century later.[22]

Council inspection and control

Lodging houses were perceived by the Victorian ruling and middles classes as potential dens of deviance and danger, and local authorities were encouraged to subject them to a degree of supervision and control beyond that applied to the rest of the housing stock. Stafford Borough seems to have been fairly rigorous in pursuing lodging house keepers guilty of misdemeanours and for much of the period that meant it was the Irish who were particularly targeted since they offered most lodgings. From Famine times onwards there were frequent prosecutions for breaches of lodging house by-laws, particularly for non-registration, mixed-sex occupation, failing to limewash premises and overcrowding beyond the permitted number.

The borough police force was given the job of enforcing the regulations and the force seems to have pursued suspected miscreants with vigour and officiousness, particularly if they were Irish. A typical case occurred 23 February 1881. At 5.30 am in the dark of this February morning a constable hammered on the door of Ann Mannion’s cottage at No. 3 Snow’s Yard.  He went inside and upstairs he found one person in excess of the licenced number and downstairs in the kitchen Ann and three children were sleeping in one bed and two other women were sleeping in another. Mannion said one of the people upstairs was her son ‘who had been to attend to the lodgers’ and that she was ‘ignorant of having broken the law’. The court was told, however, that she had been fined previously for the same offence and had been supplied with a copy of the regulations. She was fined ten shillings with seven shillings costs or the alternative of fourteen days in gaol.[23]

The widowed Ann Mannion was clearly the victim of police harassment of this stigmatised slum court and it is noteworthy that the incident took place during the surge of new Irish immigrants after 1879. Ann Mannion did not remain in the business professionally, though she probably took in casual lodgers again. As the number of lodging houses declined, and the houses became larger commercial businesses, prosecutions also fell away. By the 1900s relations between the police, council and commercial lodging house keepers were probably more collusive and prosecutions relating to lodging houses normally concerned criminal acts by lodgers not by the keepers.

Foregate St 62 today_0001

62/3 Foregate Street today. Now a listed building, the whole frontage has been reconstructed and all trace of the division between the old lodging house and the pub removed.


It is clear that the various types of lodging house in Victorian Stafford carried out the function of a reserve stock of accommodation sensitive to changes in need and demand. In broad terms we have seen three phases in lodging house history of which the first two particularly related to the Irish. Firstly there was the response to the Famine crisis and then there was the shift to accommodating seasonal migrant labour. Finally the sector contracted back to the ever-present residual role of providing cheap beds for mainly English itinerants and marginal workers. In that form it continued to exist until the creation of the Welfare State.

[1] The Town Improvement Clauses Act, 1847, the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1851 and the Common Lodging Houses Act, 1853.

[2] Quoted in ‘Shelters and Common Lodging Houses’ in the British Medical Journal, 21 September 1895.

[3] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D3704, Stafford Borough Council Register of Common Lodging Houses, 1878-1940.

[4] T. Crook, ‘Accommodating the outcast: common lodging houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Urban History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2008), pp. 414-436.

[5] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 1 February 1851.

[6] SA, 8 October 1853.

[7] John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, MUP, 2015), pp. 113-122.

[8] Stafford Registration District, Deaths, April-June 1883, 6b/6, John Faulkner.

[9] SA, 7 April 1855.

[10] Stafford Borough Council Burial Record, Vol. 2, Entry 2326.

[11] The Kelly family were still living at No. 5 Bell Yard at the time of the 1861 Census when James was described as an agricultural labourer and Jane a washerwoman. No lodgers were listed in the house but the Kellys may, of course, have been lying. It would have been in Jane’s character but it means they do not appear amongst the 1861 lodging houses in my list.

[12] E.g. SA, 30 June 1859, 6 October 1860, 6 January 1866, 30 June 1866, 25 January 1868.

[13] Herson, Divergent Paths, pp. 116-7 and 119.

[14] Stafford Borough Council burial records 04/7713, Michael Ward ‘hawker’ 9 April 1882 and Mary Ward ‘widow’ 22 April 1888.

[15] SA, 19 April 1873.

[16] SRO, D3704 SBC Register, entries 19 December 1879, 6 October 1891, 9 November 1896. SBC burial record 06/11075, Thomas Durham, 29 August 1891.

[17] SRO, D3704, 6 Register, September 1886, Elizabeth Lees.

[18] SA, 29 January 1887

[19] SRO D3704 Register, 26 November 1907.

[20] Alma Beatrice Churchley baptised 4 April 1886 at Bidford on Avon, father George Thomas Churchley, mother Mary Ann (perhaps Ellen Comar’s sister). Warwickshire County Record Office; Warwick, England; Warwickshire Anglican Registers; Roll: ENGL 09000 11 (Ancestry database accessed 24 July 2016)

[21] J & C Mort (publishers), Stafford’s Roll of Service in the Great War, (Stafford, 1920), Cpl Henry Moore, 1st Worcestershire Regt., France, 27 October 1914, 8 Back Walls South; Stafford RD, marriages, January-March 1921, 6b/30, William G. Penny and Alma B. Moore.

[22] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1909, 6b/15, Ellen Constance Comar and March 1935, 6b/26, Thomas Comar. Thomas’s effects were valued at £56 11s 11d, a paltry sum, so superficially he had made little from the lodging house. He may, of course, have prudently disposed of his estate to his daughter before death. England and Wales National Probate Calendar, 1858-1966 (Ancestry database accessed 25 July 2016).

[23] SA 26 February 1881.

Housing, squalor and the refugee Irish in Stafford, 1847-53


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My last post (2 June 2016) described the physical character of Stafford when Irish people sought refuge there during the Famine. Although superficially an attractive rural town, we saw that Stafford had many gloomy areas where most of the Irish were forced to settle. This post digs a little deeper into the conditions that the poor and destitute had to endure and the often ineffectual or damaging attempts by the borough council to deal with things.

Stafford had had Improvement Commissioners since a local Improvement Act of 1830 but they achieved little beyond some street works because the commissioners were unwilling to raise the rates or interfere with the rights of property owners.  In my last post Dr Edward Knight’s description of the sanitary state of Stafford in 1842 showed the squalid state of things.[1] The arrival of the Famine Irish in 1847 stirred the councillors out of their lethargy but the results were limited and skewed as we shall see. They were not generally bothered about the state of the slum houses themselves. The sanctity of private property had to be preserved. The council’s main concern was the externalities imposed by the slums, particularly the impact of sanitary ‘nuisances’ and potential disease on nearby residents in this closely packed town. The medical profession was alarmed and in June 1847 Dr Walter Fergus from the Infirmary was writing about the impact of ‘Irish fever’ which he said was ‘no more Irish than it is the companion of famine and want of attention to cleanliness’. [2] In November he drew attention to results of the year’s events in terms of the ‘enormous quantity’ of mortality in the town, much higher than the national average and not far off that in Liverpool.[3]  The Council’s response was (inevitably) to set up a committee ‘to inspect from time to time the sanitary state of the borough’. [4]

Action was still slow to come but evidence expands on the actual conditions facing Stafford’s slum dwellers. We saw in the last post that the houses in the poorer parts of the town were usually either decrepit cottages often dating back to the 17th century or jerry-built dwellings built since the 1770s. They were small, frequently just two rooms, and many had no proper water supply or sanitation. Even so, middle class commentators often blamed the poor for their wretched conditions. Mr Wogan, surgeon at the Infirmary, said ‘there were back streets in the town inhabited by some who preferred living in dirt to habits of cleanliness’. Nevertheless, he went on to report that ‘some’ of the poor in Back Walls North were forced to get their drinking water from the foetid ditch behind the houses that received a good part of the town’s raw sewage. They had no other supply.[5]  When cholera returned to England in 1849 it is not surprising that Staffordians feared it would strike their town. They were lucky – it never did – but councillors worried about the danger of the ‘open privies, cesspools, filthy drains and crowded houses’ of the town even though the source of the disease in polluted water was yet to be demonstrated.  The Council’s only remedy was, however, to distribute chloride of lime ‘to the poor people who applied for it’.[6] It also established a new Sanitary Committee with powers of inspection and ‘abatement’.[7]

In 1850 the Watch Committee of the Council turned its attention to ‘four houses in Eastgate Street inhabited by Irish families, part of which were in the most filthy state, none of them having back doors nor any place of convenience’.[8] The squalor of back yards being used as general latrines can be imagined. One of those issued with a notice for the ‘removal of nuisances’ was James Concur (sic.) from the Galway family whose story I told in a number of posts in 2015 (e.g. 11 August and 13 October 2015). Elizabeth – or Betty – Maguire was another Irish person served with notice, but two of the houses in Eastgate Street occupied by the Irish were in fact leased by Staffordian landlords, William Ecclestone and Joseph Weaver.[9] At the hearing a total of five English landlords were named to the authorities for allowing ‘nuisances’ on their premises which shows how the sufferings of the Irish were a source of profit to local property holders. The Council ordered the landlords to remove the nuisances but nothing was done to rectify the basic problems and conditions remained appalling for the residents.

In 1853 the Improvement Commissioners set up a Board of Health and yet more surveys were done of housing conditions. The reporter for the west side of the town centre, Mr Williams, reported that the area was ‘in a very unsatisfactory and unwholesome condition; the privies and piggeries were very bad and many of the dwellings of the lower class were in a most wretched and filthy state, several of them never having been cleansed with whitewash for up to ten years. …. The cesspools were badly constructed …. and were a continual nuisance.’ Alderman Boulton said that in the east side of the town centre there was an ‘entire absence in some of the dwellings … of any back premises … and another great nuisance was the draining of many of the privies into the Thieves Ditch. …. The water of the greater number of the pumps in the Back Walls was not fit to drink.’[10]

The area near the gasworks was particularly bad. In September 1854 effluent from the works was reportedly impregnating the soil and tainting the water. Cesspools were overflowing and Mr Bagnall complained about the ‘discharging the contents of cesspools into the channel of the street opposite his house. He said the stench was intolerable and … he had himself seen night soil floating in the channel.’[11]

Despite this lurid evidence, in the same month the Health Committee rather smugly received reports that ‘the sanitary condition of the district was much better than formerly’. The only exception, it was claimed, was Allen’s Court near the Vine Inn ‘inhabited by Irish labourers and which was said to be in a most filthy state.’ The landlord’s agent was ordered to cleanse the court which he seems to have done after being remanded by the town’s magistrates. It was said that the property in Allen’s Court was to be shortly be pulled down, with the implication that the problem would then disappear.[12] Allen’s Court in fact survived as a slum inhabited by Irish people and their descendants down into the twentieth century!

The main Council response to the Irish refugees proved to be the harassment of the operators of the lodging houses in which most were forced to find shelter. In August 1849 the Council adopted bye-laws (operative from October) that required the registration of lodging houses, imposed limits on maximum occupancy and other requirements, and gave powers to inspect premises. In the following years Irish lodging house keepers were frequently brought before the Mayor and magistrates for contravening these regulations.

A classic example was in August 1850 when ‘several Irish lodging house keepers in Lloyd’s Square were brought before the Mayor …. charged …. with keeping their houses in a filthy condition and allowing in several instances as many as sixteen individuals to sleep together in one room, contrary to the borough bye-laws. The defendants were severely reprimanded and ordered to pay the costs.’[13] Lloyd’s Square was better known as Plant’s Square and we have been there before in this blog (2 June 2016, 28 July 2015). It was a court of nine tiny 2-room cottages in Stafford’s north end with a pump and a row of reeking privies. The Irish may have paid the costs but nothing changed in the Square. In the 1851 Census 63 people were crammed into the five hovels that were clearly operating as lodging houses.

Plant's Square

Plant’s Square is shown just above and to the left of ‘Cross’ (Street) on this 1:500 OS plan of Stafford in 1881. Note how it was crammed in adjacent to other relatively superior houses with gardens, an example of the complex social geography of the town. The plan shows the privies and pump & trough serving the yard.

The Plant’s Square lodging house keepers were summoned again in February 1851 ‘for keeping their houses in a filthy and unwholesome state’ and with the same results. At the same time Thomas Rafferty (or Raftery) and Patrick Walsh from Allen’s Court were issued with costs for not registering their lodging houses.[14]  In June others were fined for having more people in their houses than the certificated number.[15]

Harassment of Irish lodging house keepers was, of course, doing nothing to solve the desperate housing needs of Irish refugees – it was making their problems worse. Although the response of Stafford’s elite to the influx of Famine refugees was muted and there was very little overt hostility to the Irish generally in the town, action against Irish lodging house keepers clearly stigmatised them as a troublesome group to be kept in check. In my next post I shall explore the role and significance of Irish lodging houses in Stafford at time of the Famine and its aftermath.

[1] Parliamentary Papers, 1842 (007), Commission on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain: Local reports on England: No. 15: “On the Sanitary State of the Town of Stafford” by Dr. Edward Knight, pp. 225-6.

[2] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 19 June 1847.

[3] SA, 20 November 1847. Stafford’s death rate was 1:33 compared with 1:29 for Liverpool and 1:45 in England as a whole.

[4] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 2 November 1841-3 July 1851, 23 November 1847.

[5] SA, 6 May 1848, Meeting of Stafford Improvement Commissioners.

[6] SA, 22 September 1849.

[7] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 September 1849.

[8] SA, 15 June 1850.

[9] Staffordshire Record Office (SRO), D1323/A/1/6, Stafford Borough Town Council Order Book, 11 June 1850.

[10] SA, 1 October 1853.

[11] SA, 9 September 1854.

[12] SA, 23 and 30 September 1854.

[13] SA, 10 August 1850.

[14] SA, 1 February 1851.

[15] SA, 14 June 1851.

Stafford in 1847


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In my last post I described how the Famine Irish arrived in Stafford and their impact on the town in the late 1840s. This post tries to give some of the character of the town in which they found refuge during that terrible period.

At that time Stafford was still relatively small but growing fast. In 1821 its population had been just over 6,500 but by 1851 it had risen over 11,500.[1] Housing provision – left to private developers – never kept up with the surge of population and conditions got ever more crowded and miserable. After 1837 the town was divided into four distinct parts separated by the River Sow and its marshy tributaries. The Famine Irish mostly arrived down the Stone Road from the north and they first came to the Foregate, in popular parlance the ‘North End’ of Stafford.[2] This had mostly developed after the enclosure of the Foregate Field in 1807.[3] Any new arrival walked down a broad road – North Street and then Grey Friars – past a straggle of cottages and houses. Plant’s Square had been thrown up on an open patch of ground to the left of the road. A squalid court of nine tiny cottages, it was an immediate refuge for Irish families and lodgers during the Famine and for many years afterwards. New Street ran parallel to Grey Friars Street. Always a narrow and mean street, its worst houses were nevertheless a bit better than Plant’s Square and a number were later occupied by Irish families who had managed to escape from the worst slums.

From the junction with Browning’s Lane the main road became Foregate Street, a mixture of grand residences, old half-timbered dwellings and mean workers’ cottages. The Red Cow pub stood opposite the junction with Browning’s Lane and lurking down the alley beside it was Snow’s, or Red Cow, Yard, a place we have already met a number of times in this blog. Many Irish people ended up there. Going farther on, Sash Street went off to the left. This was another mean street where many Famine Irish found shelter. Just beyond came County Road, a rather better street, but beyond that in the despoiled field between Foregate Street and Gaol Road was Middle Row, a line of decrepit cottages that also became a refuge of the Famine Irish. Continuing down Foregate Street past the Staffordshire General Infirmary, the street then narrowed and kinked to left and right before entering Gaol Square.

Stafford 19c Map Rev

Stafford in the nineteenth century showing the four areas of Foregate, the Town Centre, Forebridge and Castletown.

Gaol Square dated from the early 1800s. The county gaol and the Gaolgate had been on the site until they were knocked down when the new Gaol was built on Gaol Road in 1793. Although a focal point for the streets in this part of town, Gaol Square was an untidy mix of mediocre buildings of various ages around a featureless expanse of road. The Square’s significance was that the roads entering Stafford from the north converged here because it was the only dry crossing point into the town centre. To the west the land sloped down to the River Sow, while to the east lay marshes drained sluggishly by Sandyford Brook, Lammascote Drain and Thieves’ Ditch. The main way into the town centre was straight ahead up Gaolgate Street.

The stench was probably the first thing to strike any new arrival to Stafford. The town’s low-lying site meant the drainage was poor and the surrounding watercourses filled up with reeking effluent. The town’s sewage flowed in open channels down the streets and the drinking water came from shallow wells contaminated by leakage from cess pits. An assize court judge in 1870 described Stafford as ‘the most stinking town I was ever in in my life.’[4]

Despite its malodorous nature, a walk up Gaolgate Street passed through part of the town’s commercial heart. Shops lined the street and there were seven pubs within 150 yards. Many of the buildings were still half-timbered and thatched, dating back to the seventeenth century. At the top of the street was Market Square, a civic space worthy of the town with the Shire Hall and other impressive buildings occupied by the town’s leading citizens, as well as shops, public houses and banks. Continuing southwards out of Market Square, Greengate Street was lined with shops, pubs and other commercial premises of a distinctly higher quality than those in Gaolgate Street. Notable among these was the Swan Hotel, but that was already in decline since the opening of the railway in 1837 had destroyed its stage coach trade. Charles Dickens was to nickname it ‘The Dodo’.[5]

Destitute Irish people arriving in 1847 would find nothing for them in the main street.  The side streets were a different matter. Within a few yards of the relative affluence of the centre lay the cramped, damp and insanitary cottages of the poor. In 1842 Dr. Edward Knight, Physician to the Infirmary, described the –

‘filthy state of those parts of the town occupied exclusively by the lower classes, [such] as the ‘Broad Eye’, ‘Back Walls’ &c. ….

These parts of the town are without drainage, the houses, which are private property, are built without any regard to situation or ventilation; and constructed in a manner to ensure the greatest return at the least possible outlay. The accommodation in them does not extend beyond two rooms: these are small, and for the most part the families work in the day-time in the same room in which they sleep, to save fuel.

There is not any provision made for refuse dirt, which, as the least trouble, is thrown down in front of the houses and there left to putrefy. The back entrances to the houses in the principal streets are generally into these, stabling, cow-houses, &c., belonging to them, forming one side of the street, and placed opposite to the poorer houses; so that they are continually subjected to the malaria arising from that, in addition to their own dirt.

The sedentary occupation of the working-classes (shoemaking being the staple trade of the town), their own want of cleanliness and general intemperance, form also a fruitful source of disease. ……

The situation of Stafford …. offers every facility for an efficient drainage; it is nearly surrounded by a large ditch, in which there might be a running stream of water, well calculated to remove all impurities; but it is always choked up, and in a stagnant state; the river ‘Sow’ is also close to the town. There are not any sewers even in the principal streets, the water being carried off by open channels.’[6]

The refugee in search of lodgings could have left Gaol Square by walking up a narrow, dingy street to the left. This was Back Walls North, one of the areas described by Dr Knight. As its name suggests, it was built along the line of the old town walls on the edge of the marshes, and it wandered off to the Eastgate lined with decrepit old cottages. One hundred years later it was still ‘a slum, with sacking over the broken windows of dilapidated terraced houses, half-naked children sitting on the doorsteps, no shoes on their feet and scabs of malnutrition on their pallid little faces.’[7] Lurking in the smoky gloom behind were Allen’s and Clarke’s Courts as well as the little alley of Malt Mill Lane and its court which linked with Salter Street. These were some of the hovels where Stafford’s poorest people already lived and the Famine Irish added to their number. Just past the site of the old gate Back Walls crossed Eastgate Street and swung sharply to the right to head back to the main street as Back Walls South. Half way along was a tannery whose smells, rats and flies were the residents’ neighbours.

The Back Walls were the worst areas of housing to the east of the town centre, but there were huddles of poor property elsewhere along Eastgate Street, in St Chad’s Place and in Appleyard Court off Tipping Street.   Things were much the same on the other side of the main street. Directly opposite the end of Back Walls South lay the entrance to Mill Bank, another narrow street lined with small cottages and similarly damp in its location close to the river. Stafford’s slum housing was a mix of decaying half-timbered structures dating back to the seventeenth century and niggardly brick cottages thrown up since the 1770s to profit from the rising population. Superficially the town might look more attractive than the grimy, reeking slums of the northern and midland cities where many of the Irish ended up. In Stafford town centre the classes still lived close to each other and a minute’s walk could span the range from the affluent to the squalid. Even so, for the impoverished shoemaker in Broad Eye, the farm labourer in Clarke’s Court or the refugee Irish alongside them the day-to-day grind to survive meant living conditions were as hard as those in the big cities. Life in Stafford was no country town idyll.

Broad Eye

Cottages on Tenterbanks at the Broad Eye. They may look picturesque in the sunshine but for Stafford’s poor they were overcrowded, miserable, damp and insanitary dwellings.

Mill Bank further along morphed into Tenterbanks. This was another straggle of poor dwellings that followed the course of the Sow to Broad Eye. The Broad Eye had developed as a tangle of streets and courts around the site of the old west gate. In the 1840s, as now, the locality was dominated by a large stone windmill, but otherwise it had little recommend it. Always low-lying, the area had become even more unpleasant in the 1830s when the town’s gasworks was built immediately to the north. One of the streets running off Broad Eye was Cherry Street. Despite its rustic name, Cherry Street was a mean area that, like Broad Eye, became home to many Irish families. Other courts and pockets of poor housing were to be found scattered in Stafford’s dank peripheries west of the main street like Dottell Street, Wilson’s Court and Bull Hill.

Since the middle ages Stafford’s had begun to extend southwards beyond the River Sow. This area was Forebridge, the third part of the town’s structure. There were substantial villas and other elegant residences here, particularly along the Lichfield Road, but there were, nevertheless, pockets of poor housing in Plant’s Court and Bailey Street. Irish people settled here both before and during the Famine. About a quarter of a mile up the Wolverhampton Road was St Austin’s Catholic Chapel. Its location at the southern edge of town was convenient for its generally respectable English congregation but inconvenient for most of the Catholic Irish.

The arrival of the railway in 1837 had resulted in the emergence of a fourth part of the town, the new suburb of Castletown between the River Sow and the railway. Its houses were fairly small and often enveloped in a pall of smoke from the engine sheds. Nevertheless, they mostly had back yards or small gardens and they were distinctly better than the workers’ housing in other parts of Stafford. As a relatively respectable working class suburb there was no accommodation here for the Famine Irish. They had to initially survive in the slums elsewhere or, in 1847 as we have already seen in this blog, in the vagrant wards and temporary huts of the Workhouse.

[1] These figures are based on a standard area definition of Stafford town which approximates to the borough boundary of 1877. The figures therefore differ from the published census population totals for Stafford Borough.

[2] Derived from personal knowledge and the following sources: John Wood’s ‘Plan of Stafford from Actual Survey, 1835’ in Staffordshire County Council Education Dept., Local History Source Book L.3, Stafford Maps, (Stafford, Staffordshire CC Education Dept., 1969); M.W. Greenslade, D.A. Johnson & C.R.J. Currie (eds), A History of Stafford, (Victoria County History of the County of Stafford, Vol. VI), (1979/1982), pp. 185-196; R. Lewis, Stafford: an Illustrated History, (Chichester, Phillimore & Co., 1997); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford as it was, (Nelson, Hendon Pub. Co., 1980); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Around Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991); R. Lewis & J. Anslow, Stafford in old picture postcards, (Zaltbommel, Netherlands, European Library, 1984); R. Lewis, Around Stafford, Stroud, Tempus Publishing Ltd., 1999); R. Lewis, Stafford and District, (Wilmslow, Sigma Press, 1998); J. Anslow & T. Randall, Stafford in Old Photographs, (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1994); P. Butters, Yesterday’s Town: Stafford, (Buckingham, Barracuda Books, 1984).

[3] VCH Stafford, p. 191.

[4] VCH Stafford, p. 232; Lewis, Stafford Past, p. 57.

[5] Charles Dickens, ‘A Plated Article’, Household Words, 24 April 1852.

[6] Parliamentary Papers, 1842 (007), Commission on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain: Local reports on England: No. 15: “On the Sanitary State of the Town of Stafford” by Dr. Edward Knight, pp. 225-6.

[7] A reminiscence of the author’s childhood in Butters, Yesterday’s Town, p. 103.