Irish and/or Catholic? Questions of identity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Pats School Class

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

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

Herson Figure 10.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Pat's Church 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost memories


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Curley Mary Rev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mannion Jane

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] SA, 19 December 1921

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.