Stafford in 1847


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

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

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

Stafford 19c Map Rev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] VCH Stafford, p. 191.

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

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

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

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

1847: the Irish Famine and Stafford


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The mass suffering and exodus of Irish people during the Famine had many parallels with the world refugee crisis of today. Major issues in the rural Irish economy, in government policy and in the political relationship between Ireland and Britain were exposed by the failure of the potato crop in 1846/7. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people had no option but to get out of Ireland and seek refuge where they could in other parts of the world. The sufferings they endured have been widely documented, including by me in this blog. Perhaps the biggest difference between the crisis of 1846/7 and that of today is that nineteenth century governments were largely passive observers of this vast population movement, whatever their actions had been in causing it. Today governments and world agencies wring their hands and come up with ad hoc fixes designed mainly to head off domestic xenophobia whilst generally worsening the sufferings of the refugees themselves. Governments in the nineteenth century might not have done much to help the refugees but they also demonstrated less of the hypocrisy on show today.

In my last posts (11 and 20 April 2016) I looked at the Famine in the Castlerea area of west central Ireland. This post deals with the crisis year of 1847 and its impact on Stafford. Already by February 1847 a correspondent to the Staffordshire Advertiser was writing that ‘it is painful to see these poor [Irish] fellows in their wanderings through the country. Their suppliant and unoffending manner, and the patience with which they appear to endure the weather and the cravings of hunger appeal powerfully to every humane mind.’[1] Between April and June 1847 the Poor Law authorities in Stafford gave relief to no less than 3557 paupers, about two thirds of them vagrant, destitute and diseased Irish.[2]

The Castlerea district showing some of the originating localities of Stafford's Famine immigrants.

The Castlerea district showing some of the originating localities of Stafford’s Famine immigrants.

We don’t know exactly how many Irish refugees came to Stafford in 1847 but some idea of their relative numbers is the fact that the town’s Irish population quadrupled between 1841 and 1851, rising from 131 to 526 people and amounting to 4.6 per cent of the inhabitants. That was a much greater proportional increase than in England and Wales overall (+80 per cent) or in the existing big centres of Irish settlement like Liverpool (+69 per cent) or Manchester (+53 per cent). Many of these people must have come in 1847. Why did they come to Stafford?

There are three possible reasons. The first is the links between Staffordshire and the Castlerea area built up before the Famine by the thousands of seasonal workers coming over for harvest work. I’ve emphasised these links in my posts on pre-Famine and Famine conditions in the Castlerea district. Many people knew about the town and the possibilities of work – and survival – it might offer.

A second reason for the influx was that Stafford was directly in the path of those Irish heading from Liverpool to Birmingham and the Black Country. It was the only major settlement on the road for fifteen miles in each direction and was therefore a natural staging post for many. For some an overnight stop turned into a longer stay, particularly if people succumbed to fever and utter destitution. On 17 April 1847 Martin Traynor was the first of many Irish admitted to the Workhoue vagrant ward with fever; four days later he was dead.[3]  On 1 June Hannah Killeen and her son were admitted because they were destitute; her husband was ill with fever in the Infirmary.[4]  Hundreds of Irish people sought refuge in the Stafford Workhouse during 1847 and the authorities struggled to cope. The admissions system collapsed in the summer and between 16 July and 26 September no record was kept of the people admitted and discharged. Temporary buildings had to be erected for the wave of ‘paupers’ besieging the Workhouse, many of them ill with fever. Sanitary conditions were terrible and those who were still healthy refused to wash the clothes of those who were sick. Paupers were recruited as ‘nurses’ but even they were reluctant to tend to the needs of the sick. Nearly £600 was spent between April and June on outdoor relief for destitute Irish people in the town, over seven times the normal amount.[5] Things were so bad that, desperate as they were, people didn’t stay in the Workhouse longer than necessary. Even more moved on from the squalid lodging houses in the town. Most set out again on the road south, but nevertheless some stayed on in Stafford. Ann Malley and her two children, for example, were admitted to the vagrant ward through illness in July 1847 but she stayed and was living in the town with her labourer husband in 1851.[6]

Stafford Workhouse, the scene of much suffering in 1847. It was built in 1837-8, it was finally closed in 1974 after having been used as an old peoples' home and hospital called Fernleigh since 1948. Going to Fernleigh was as feared as entry to the old Workhouse. (Picture from Roy Lewis, Stafford Past, 1997)

Stafford Workhouse, the scene of much suffering in 1847. It was built in 1837-8 and finally closed in 1974 after having been used as an old peoples’ home and hospital called Fernleigh since 1948. Going to Fernleigh was as feared as entry to the old Workhouse had been. (Picture from Roy Lewis, Stafford Past, 1997)

A third reason to come to Stafford may indeed have been the relatively liberal attitude of the Poor Law authorities. The only case of Irish people being expelled from Stafford during 1847 was the Kelly family which I described in my post on 24 March 2015. They came back more or less immediately and settled in the town. Although the Poor Law Guardians sometimes blustered about removing the Irish, in practice they did nothing and appeared worried about its legality. The fear of removal back to Ireland was prevalent amongst the Famine immigrants but, even if they struggled to cope, if the Stafford Poor Law Guardians had a reputation for being relatively liberal that fact might have become known and the town regarded as a safe, if temporary, haven.

No real record survives of how native Staffordians reacted to the mass of suffering refugees in the town from April 1847 onwards. Members of the local elite had been collecting money ‘for our poor famishing fellow creatures in Ireland’ since late 1846.[7] A local committee to organise relief was set up in January 1847 and included both the Catholic priest, Edward Huddleston, and the virulently anti-Catholic Ulster-born Presbyterian minister Edward Speers. [8]  There was, however, no reported elite reaction once the refugees had arrived. An oblique reference to common feeling was made when it was reported that ‘so many bad things are said of the poor Irish who throng our streets and roads’ but the story concerned ‘an honest Irishman’ in the Potteries rather than Stafford town.[9] There is, however, no record of direct hostility or violence against the Irish. It seems most people just ignored the suffering people in their midst and left it to the Poor Law authorities to deal with things.

The number of Irish who only stopped in Stafford briefly in 1847 must have been large. Ninety per cent of those discharged from the Workhouse had disappeared from the town by 1851. Nevertheless, a residue of Famine migrants ultimately settled long-term in Stafford – I estimate about fourteen per cent – and these people formed a core of Irish families for many years. Some remained a permanently and ultimately their families became woven into the social fabric of the town.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 February 1847.

[2] Stafford and Stoke on Trent Record Archives (SSTA), D659/8a/4-5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Minute Books of the Board of Guardians, 25 May 1844 to 3 February 1849.

[3] SSTA, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Register, 1847.

[4] Ibid.

[5] SSTA, D659/1/1/5, Stafford Poor Law Union, Minute Books of the Board of Guardians, 17 April 1847-3 February 1849.

[6] SSTA, D659/1/4/7-8, Stafford Poor Law Union, Workhouse Admission Register, 1847. Census returns 1851.

[7] SA, 2 January 1847.

[8] Ibid., 16 January 1847.

[9] Ibid., 10 July 1847.

Eviction and the Poor Law in the Castlerea district


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In my last post on 11 April 2016 I looked at starvation and destitution in the Castlerea area during the Famine. But although thousands left the district to escape immediate hunger and destitution, many others were forced out in other ways that are the subject of this post.

Eviction by landlords was a scourge during the Famine years. Many of the local estates were badly-managed and semi-bankrupt before the Famine, whilst on others landlords had already been removing tenants from the smallest holdings and stopping the annual lease of patches of land for basic subsistence (conacre). With the collapse of food supplies and the inability of many tenants to pay rents, the Famine provided a golden opportunity for landlords to get rid of smallholders and conacre plots.

Famine evictions started early in the Castlerea district and the area was the scene of one of the most notorious ‘exterminations’ to take place in Ireland during these years – the Gerrard case near Mount Bellew, Co. Galway, that I described in my post on 17 June 2015. Sixty-one families were violently thrown out of their houses and left to fend for themselves. Dramatic as the Gerrard eviction was – and the word ‘Gerrardising’ became commonly used for evictions in this area during the Famine – it was only one case amongst many. By August 1846 the Roscommon Journal was saying eviction was ‘the order of the day’ and in January 1848 the Journal reported some of the consequences. The Poor Law Guardians were refusing the take more people into the Roscommon Workhouse, and

‘so early as seven o’clock our streets were studded with creatures almost dead or dying. … Affected with contagious fever, young and old were huddled together. … The wailing and dying moans of the unfortunates as they were obliged to wend their way back to their respective localities was truly heart-rending. Homes they had none, friends they had not any, and food they had no hope of getting. Several of them died before they left the town, and hundreds, unable to quit the streets, are strolling about black with fever. This is the fruit of last year’s extermination. This is the result of the ‘Gerrardising’ of 1847.’[1]

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

A year later the paper summed up the results of evictions:

‘The crusade against the Tenantry in this part of the country is daily increasing. … Depopulation has now become so general it excites not the least surprise or astonishment to hear of hundreds being daily turned into the ditches to famish. … The tenant and small farmer … has fled to another and happier country. The poorer class have either perished or become inmates of the Workhouse. … The solvent and industrious tenants have emigrated.’[2]

The Poor Law system was a massive incentive for landlords to evict their small tenants. In April 1848 27 families, or 189 people, were evicted by a landlord near Castlerea.[3] These people were victims of the £4 clause in the Irish Poor Law Act which said landlords were responsible for paying the poor rates of tenancies valued at under £4 a year. Now that small tenants couldn’t pay their rents, landlords rushed to clear their properties of such people. They forced tenants to give up their land or, if they went to the workhouse, demolished their houses and made them totally destitute while they were away.[4]

Many other people were evicted by the workings of the Gregory clause, the provision introduced in June 1847 which denied poor relief to any tenant who held more than a quarter of an acre of land. On 23 June 1849 the Tuam Herald reported that there had been 94 ejectment cases at the quarter sessions that week, an ‘unusually large amount’. It blamed ‘the power of landlords and the Gregory clause’ and earlier had said

‘if any one doubt that the Gregory clause has produced these sad effects [he] should take a drive …into the country. … Evidence [is]…everywhere…[of] roofless cottages and the blackened walls and the desolate hearths which were once the humble but happy houses of a peaceable and contented peasantry.’ [5]

In my post on 17 February 2016 I looked the Raftery family from Co. Roscommon. They held 32 acres of land in Kiltullagh parish.[6] Because they had more than four acres they were directly liable for poor rates, and these rose dramatically as thousands of destitute and starving people sought relief from the Poor Law. The local press was very clear that the burden of the poor rate was now a major force driving people like the Rafterys to emigrate. In October 1848 the Roscommon Journal said that

‘The enormous expense attending the working of the machinery of the Poor Law, and consequent increased taxation, has had its blighting effects on this country. The tide of emigration bears ample evidence of the fact – the very bone and sinew of Ireland are crossing the Atlantic to seek in a foreign clime what has been denied them in their native land. ….Farmers are selling off the produce of the land to enable them to quit it.’[7]

The links between eviction, destitution and emigration were underlined by a report from Castlerea in 1849. Mr Auchmuty, the Temporary Poor Law Inspector, wrote that

‘The means of the poor are exhausted; they are in a most deplorable condition, some of the persons lately admitted are actually in a state of starvation; all employment, I may say, has ceased, the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution; there is fresh difficulty in discharging paupers from the workhouse who have been in the house for any length of time; they have no homes to go to, the moment they come in , their cabins are levelled by the landlords. There has been a great many evictions in this Union lately. ….it is astonishing, everwhere I go through the Union, to see how fast the cabins are disappearing.’[8]

Evictions went on beyond the normally accepted end of the Famine around 1850. Landlords, many of them newcomers taking advantage of the 1849 Encumbered Estates Act, continued to clear their properties of small tenants during the 1850s. Nearly 17,500 people were evicted in the Castlerea area between 1849 and 1856 and some of these victims continued to arrive in Stafford throughout the decade.

In 1850 the Tuam Herald made the important point that the

‘emigrants of the latter years are those who battled hard with circumstances…. [Emigration] results from long and painful calculation, and the reasons given are “they can hold out no longer”, “landlords will not give fair reductions of rents”, ”taxation is impossible to bear”. ….Every day witnesses the departure of whole families who only regret they did not go three years ago. … The class of small farmers and cottiers, who made a livelihood by mere tillage, can hold out no longer.’[9]

Most of tenants who emigrated because of rising poor rates, landlords’ refusal to reduce rents and a generally hopeless view of the future decided to go to America. There were, nevertheless, families or individuals who ended up in England either by choice or the force of unfortunate circumstances. The continuing inflow of people from the Castlerea district to Stafford in the 1850s underlines the fact that there were different, if limited, options.

In my post on 28 July 2015 I looked at Patrick Corcoran’s family from Castlerea. Patrick worked as a joiner. Around 1855 he, his wife Catherine and their children emigrated to Stafford, and his move illustrates another reason why people were forced out of Ireland during the Famine and its aftermath. Corcoran’s occupation depended on getting work in the building trade. The Famine undermined many small to medium-sized farmers, as well as those landlords whose estates were effectively bankrupt. These people now had neither the need nor the money to pay craft workers for their services, so people like Patrick were in turn impoverished. Many had to emigrate. It seems clear that Patrick used existing connections to make Stafford his bolt-hole rather than the more uncertain option of emigration to America. He may, of course, been so poverty-stricken that the cheaper English option was the only one open to him anyway.

In 1849 the Mayo Constitution described the Famine’s impact on the various classes in that county:

‘The small farmer class are suffering the greatest hardships, denied out-door relief because they cling with tenacity to their little holdings. …. The hitherto extensive farmer and grazier class, once the most important grade in the country, are swept away between Poor Law taxation and destructive free trade. The merchant and tradesman are one by one passing away into utter oblivion….’[10]

Many of those who emigrated early on could help other family members later by sending money for their travel as well as information and promises of support. During the worst of the Famine families ruthlessly tore themselves apart. Destitute wives sought relief from the Poor Law authorities because they had been deserted by husbands who had gone to England or America. This claim of ‘desertion’ was often used to get relief before money arrived from abroad and in 1849 it was said ‘the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution.’[11]

Despite North America’s dominance as an emigrant destination it was still unattractive for some and the closer option of England was less risky. The local press publicised evidence of emigrant scams, shipwrecks and hardships in its campaign against emigration and oppression by the Poor Law and the landlords.[12] It is impossible to say whether this had any effect in directing some people to England rather than the New World, but it may have done. The opening of the railway from Chester to Holyhead in 1851 opened up a faster and less sickening passage to England. That would certainly have made the trip to Stafford a more attractive option for those with the money, connections and will to go there.[13]

During the Famine and its aftermath the people who ended up in Stafford were an infinitesimal part of the emigrant tide but there were logical reasons for their arrival in the town. Irish settlement in the diaspora was by no means a process of completely random and panic-stricken movement, as is sometimes suggested.  The contacts developed through seasonal harvest work before the Famine opened the way for larger numbers to settle there during and after the Famine disaster.

[1] Roscommon Journal (RJ), 29 August 1846; 29 January 1848.

[2] RJ, 13 January 1849.

[3] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-1849 (The Columba Press, Blackrock, 1999), p. 304.

[4] James S. Donnelly, jr., The great Irish potato famine, (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001), pp. 110-116.

[5] Tuam Herald (TH), 23 June 1849; 16 June 1849.

[6] Tithe Applotment Book (TAB), Co. Roscommon 25/10, (National Library of Ireland microfilm),, 1825; TAB 25/17, 1833.

[7] RJ, 7 October 1848.

[8] PP1849, Papers relating to aid to distressed unions in the west of Ireland; letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 4 May 1849.

[9] TH, 19 October 1850.

[10] The Times, 3 May 1849 quoting from the Mayo Constitution.

[11] Parliamentary Papers, 1849: Papers relating to aid to distressed unions, letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 29 March 1848 and 4 May 1849.

[12] For example, RJ, 13 April 1850, 11 May 1850, 30 November 1850.

[13] Advert in RJ, 25 October 1851.

The Famine in the Castlerea district


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In my last two posts (17 February and 22 March 2016) I looked at the Raftery families who settled in Stafford in the nineteenth century. The first of these, the ‘Roscommon Rafterys’, were in many ways classic Famine emigrants, destitute people forced out of Ireland at the height of the Famine in the dreadful year of 1847. This post, the first of two, looks at what was happening in the area of about fifteen miles radius round the town of Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. It encompassed the north west of Co. Roscommon and adjacent areas of Cos. Galway and Mayo and it suffered extreme population loss during the Famine.

MapIreland1882Roscommon cropped

The Castlerea area, Co. Roscommon and adjacent parts of Cos Galway and Mayo. (From Phillip’s Map of Ireland, 1882,

By the mid-1840s a scattering of people had already gone to Stafford from the Castlerea district. I looked at the reasons why in my post on 26 August 2015. Each year they were joined by harvesters from the area and this pattern might well have carried on for decades. The Famine changed all that. Even the small town of Stafford was to feel the impact, and the link between the Castlerea area and Staffordshire proved to be vital for many of the Famine’s victims.

On 23 September 1845 it was reported that around Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, ‘The potato crop … is both ample and good … bountiful and healthy.’[1] At the same time the first reports were coming in from eastern Ireland of a new disease affecting the crop and on 20 October a constabulary report from Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon, said that ‘incipient disease of the potato crop has shown itself in a partial way in this district within the last few days.’[2] Two weeks later the rot had become general, ‘there being no instance in which the crop has wholly escaped the infection. … The general opinion, particularly since the wet weather has set in, is that at least one half of the whole crop will be destroyed before the first of next month.’[3] The deadly potato blight, phytophthora infestans, had arrived in the district.

As a direct result of the Famine the population of the Castlerea district fell from an estimated 255,779 in 1845 to 186,063 in 1851 – a loss of nearly 70,000. In other words, more than a quarter of the entire population disappeared from the area in just six years. Many people died from starvation, privation and disease, but large numbers also emigrated. It is impossible to say exactly how many because there is no accurate record of the people who died during the Famine, but between 30,000 and 50,000 may have died and 20,000 to 30,000 people emigrated from the Castlerea area during these terrible years.[4]

People emigrated during the Famine for five interlinked reasons. The first was the most direct impact of the Famine – starvation, destitution and inability to pay rent. This often triggered a second factor – eviction or the threat of eviction from the land because people couldn’t pay the landlords’ rent. In some parts of Ireland ‘landlord-assisted emigration’ – giving tenants money for passage to England or America – was a way of effectively evicting people, but the landlords of the Castlerea area were too poor, too uninvolved or too mean to adopt this approach. The third force driving people to emigrate was the impact of Poor Law forcing out small land-holders, a factor that became more devastating in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Fourthly, many people in secondary and tertiary occupation, such as carpenters, builders and traders, found their incomes disappearing as the Famine depressed the economy and demand for their goods and services dwindled. These four ‘push’ factors were increasingly complemented by the ‘pull’ force of contacts with people who had already left and sent money, information and prospects of help to those left behind.

The Tory government of Sir Robert Peel established a Relief Commission in November 1845 to organise food depots and respond to the efforts of local relief committees. [5] Local community leaders – magistrates, landlords, clergy – in the Castlerea area developed a comprehensive patchwork of such committees during the early months of 1846. The government made arrangements to secretly import Indian corn (maize) from America and from December 1845 schemes were developed to provide employment on public works. Wages of eight pence or ten pence a day were paid to men who could do this work but that was ‘insufficient to support themselves, much less their starving families.’[6]

Even the stored potatoes were destroyed by blight. In January 1846 it was reported from Lough Glynn in Tibohine parish, Co. Roscommon, that ‘within the last fortnight and even the last few days the potatoes in pits are nearly all diseased or quite rotten.’[7]  This sudden loss of staple food immediately brought hunger to the masses and by March 1846 it was reported that there was ‘great distress’ in the Baronies of Dunmore and Tiaquin (Co. Galway) and that in the Barony of Castlereagh (sic) ‘the distress prevalent in the district (was) likely to increase’.[8] Conditions rapidly worsened during the late spring and in July 1846 it was obvious that the potato disease was striking the new crop even more virulently than the previous year. On 22 August the Tuam Herald reported the ‘total annihilation of the potato crop’.[9] At the same time the Whig Russell Government that had taken office on 30 June 1846 ordered the winding up of the Public Works programme. This took away the only sustenance for those with enough strength to work for the measly wages offered.

By the autumn of 1846 the Castlerea district was in the grip of starvation and destitution. Although the public works were restarted during the autumn, they never brought enough money to those most in need, and the local Famine Relief Committees reported harrowing starvation and death. William French, a member of a large landowning family in the Frenchpark area of Roscommon, wrote that

‘You can scarcely conceive the state of privation and misery to which (the populace) are now reduced in consequence of the great scarcity, the exhaustion of their means and the high price at which every article of food has arrived. I have actually seen many after spending their day in Frenchpark return in tears to their family without a particle of food, and latterly the men have become fierce and wicked, and disposed to commit outrage if their wants are not supplied. The works have not recommenced to any extent, but at all events no monies have yet been received for labour, so that I really fear for the lives of the weak and all those who are unequal to the struggle.’[10]

By November 1846 deaths from starvation were reported from Drumatemple, and a ‘population of 262 families (are) totally destitute of support’. Things rapidly worsened over the winter, so that on 14 January 1847 the secretary of the Ballintobber Relief Committee (Roscommon) reported ‘Thousands of persons are absolutely perishing through want. Sickness is making frightful havoc among them’[11] At Killererin (Killeroran), across the border in Galway,

‘at least two thirds of the population (are) without means. …. I know a family last week to shut themselves up in their house and let the parents and seven children lay down and give themselves up to death….and one poor widow who got three days refuge in a poor person’s house. When she left the house her daughter had to carry her on her back begging, and in that position she died and was taken dead off her back.’[12]

From all over the district starvation and death multiplied. In February 1847 Charles Strickland, the chairman of the Lough Glynn famine relief committee wrote of ‘the dreadful state of the poor in these districts. We are daily witnessing deaths of starvation which no means in our reach at present can avert.’[13] Localities dominated by absentee landlords were particularly suffering, and the reasons were sometimes linked directly to the land holding system. In Cloonygormican and Dunamon in Co. Roscommon it was stated that

‘The district is unfortunately circumstanced in its means of receiving relief. The landlords are, in almost every instance, absentees, and, from the proprietors of a large portion of the district, no relief is likely to be received as their estates are under the control of the Court of Chancery……Another circumstance which tends, in a great degree, to prevent us from receiving relief is the extent to which subletting has been carried on in the district, and on properties on which are the largest proportion of paupers.’[14]

In Kilcorkey and Baslick parishes (Roscommon) another aspect of the land system was emphasised, together with the vagaries of the public works programme.

‘This district …. is very large and from the circumstances of its being mostly a grazing country, the people were in the habit of living solely on the conacre system……The distress is still greater here owing to the suspension of public works in part of the district by the board who, to punish some persons who made an attack on one of their overseers, have thought fit to punish the innocent with the guilty for the span of more than one month. The provisions are so dear and scarce that the people are dying around me from starvation.’[15]

Week by week the local newspapers documented the suffering. In February 1847 the Tuam Herald wrote that ‘The condition of the people … is becoming daily worse. …. They are perishing in hundreds by the roadside. “Starvation inquests” are alas! still held in abundance.’ Three weeks later it poignantly described how, in the town, ‘the hearing of persons dying from want or destitution has now become as familiar to our ears as the striking of the clock.’[16]

By the beginning of 1847 there was a rising tide of emigration. On 23rd January The Times carried a report that

‘A gentleman, whose statements are entitled to the highest respect, gives a most deplorable picture of the condition of the county of Roscommon….He says that whole villages are depopulated, either by death or by the flight of such as have the means of transport to England, Scotland or America.’[17]

In April 1847 the Tuam Herald reported that ‘for some weeks past our town has been crowded daily with hundreds passing through, collected from all quarters, making their way to the nearest seaport where ships can be had to take them away from the land of their fathers.’ The paper took the view that ‘the emigrants are not those people who cannot find food or employment – they are the pith and marrow of the land – comfortable farmers who take all their means with them, leaving only the destitute behind them’.[18]

It was direct emigration to America from local ports like Galway City that most impressed local commentators, since these were the people who could afford to pay for their passage. Many of the emigrants from the Castlerea area going to America had to pass through Tuam town and these were the people crowding the streets in the Herald’s description. The route in the opposite direction was the one taken by the people who ended up in Stafford. In February 1847 a traveller from Roscommon to Dublin ‘passed on the roads crowds of young men, and not a few young women, and some children, journeying towards Liverpool with the intention of proceeding thence to America.’[19] The parallel with the plight of the refugees in Europe today is striking.

It is often thought that the emigrants who finished up in Britain were those too poor or dissolute to get to better destinations overseas – a kind of Irish residuum at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Stafford evidence suggests a more mixed picture but many of the Famine arrivals were nevertheless destitute labourers and conacre holders. They had to flee whilst they had any means and opportunity to do so. Famine refugees began to appear in Stafford in April 1847 and the numbers reached their peak in the summer of that year. The most unfortunate – the starving, the destitute, the ill and the dying – ended up in the vagrant ward of the workhouse or the infirmary. Some of the families who settled in Stafford, like the Roscommon Rafterys, the Sweeneys from Galway and the Colemans from Knock, Co. Mayo, arrived in the town at the height of the Famine in 1847.

01 Catherine Colemancrop

Catherine Coleman with her granddaughter Catherine Moore, Stafford, c.1900. Catherine Coleman had been born in Co. Mayo in 1835 and came to Stafford with her parents as a childhood refugee from the Famine.

In the autumn of 1847 the Catholic dioceses of Ireland carried out a ‘destitution survey’, asking parish priests to report on the consequences of the Famine in their areas. In the Castlerea district it was an appalling picture. On average the priests reported that around thirty per cent of the families were absolutely destitute with most of the others in severe want. Upwards of seven per cent of the population had died as a direct result of the Famine whilst around sixteen per cent of the families had already emigrated.[20] In the next post I’ll look at the other forces at work in the district during the Famine.

[1] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-49, (The Columba Press, Dublin, 1999), p. 18.

[2] Swords, In their own words, p. 18.

[3] Swords, In their own words, pp. 20-1

[4] Various attempts were made to produce figures for the number of deaths and emigrants in the Castlerea district using estimates and techniques adopted by analysts of the national and county impact of the Famine. The fact that the study area overlaps three counties complicated this process, but the main problem was that there is a bewildering variety of death rate estimates during the Famine coupled to problematic assumptions about the impact of the tragedy on the birth rate. The estimates of deaths in the Castlerea district produced by the various techniques ranged from 51,795 down to 21,929, but the majority lay between the low thirty thousands to the upper forty thousands. The resultant emigration figures mostly ranged from the low to the high twenty thousands, hence the figures given in the text. It is impossible to be more precise, important as the issue is. See S.H. Cousens, ‘The regional pattern of emigration during the Great Irish Famine, 1846-51’, Trans. Inst. Brit. Geographers, Second Series, 28, (1960), pp. 119-134; W.E. Vaughan & A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Statistics: Population 1821-1971, (Dublin, 1978), Table 42; J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved, (London, 1985), esp. pp. 266-7.

[5] See, for example, C. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: the Irish Famine, 1845-52, (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1994), chapter 2.

[6] Tuam Herald (TH), 4 July 1846

[7] Charles Strickland, Lough Glynn to J.P. Kennedy, Dublin Castle, 23 January 1846,  Swords, In their own words, p. 24.

[8] House of Commons, 1846 (201), Weekly reports of Scarcity Com. Showing the progress of disease in potatoes: complaints and applications for relief, March 1846

[9] TH, 22 August 1846.

[10] National Archives of Ireland (NAI), RLFC3/2/25/38 Letter from William French to Fitzstephen French MP (forwarded to Dublin Castle), 8 October 1846.

[11] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/25, Letter from Patrick O’Connor, Chairman, Drumatemple Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 3 November 1846; NAI RLFC3/2/25/24, Letter from Michael Daniel O’Connor, Secretary, Ballintobber Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 14 January 1847.

[12] NAI, RLFC3/2/11/104, Letter from Mrs Henry Blake to Dublin Castle, 6 February 1847.

[13] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/44, Letter from Charles Strickland, 21 February 1847.

[14] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/26, Letter from J.E. Mennons, secretary, Cloonygormican and Dunamon famine relief committee to Sir Randolph Routh, 30 January 1847.

[15] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/36, Letter from Denis O’Connor, Chairman of the Kilcorkey and Baslick famine relief committee, 2 February 1847

[16] TH, 13 February and 6 March 1847.

[17] The Times, 23 January 1847

[18] TH, 10 April 1847 and 3 April 1847

[19] Lt-Col. Fitzmaurice, 10 February 1847, cited in R. Dolan, ‘The great famine in the barony of Roscommon, 1845-1850’, Unpub. MA dissertation, University College, Galway, p. 157.

[20] Usable reports of the Destitution Survey for the parishes of  Kilcorkey, Fuerty, Elphin, Baslick, Ballintubber and Drumatemple were published in the Roscommon Journal on 30 October 1847. Those for Dunmore, Crossboyne, Ballaghadereen, Kilcolman and Castlemore were in the Tuam Herald on 13 November 1847.

The Galway Raftery family


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In my last post I looked at the Raftery family who fled to Stafford from Kiltullagh, Co. Roscommon, during the Famine, and particularly at the sad life of William Raftery. This week we look at a second but unrelated Raftery family. They came from Co. Galway and they finally settled in Stafford in the 1870s, a point which emphasizes how Irish immigration was a long drawn out process.

These new arrivals were three Raftery brothers, Michael (b. 1836), James (b. 1842) and John (b. 1848). In the 1881 census John Raftery stated precisely where he was born – Glenamaddy in Co. Galway.[1] Glenamaddy was a very small town in the north-east of the county and in the 1850s Thomas Raftery held just one acre of land on its northern outskirts – plot 17 on the Griffiths Valuation map. Another relative, Timothy, held plot 1 on the map in partnership with two other men. Their land amounted to nearly five acres.[2]  The three brothers who settled in Stafford may have been sons of one these men.[3] They had clung on after the Famine but were existing in desperate poverty on these minute holdings. They lived in the heart of the area which exported many of Stafford’s Irish settlers and the Raftery brothers had many connections in the town before they finally settled there.

Raftery Snows Yard_0001 rev

Raftery land holdings in Glenamaddy, 1856, from the Griffiths Valuation survey.

They came to the Stafford district as early as 1862. At the beginning of September that year James and John Raftery were with a group of harvest workers who got involved in a fracas at the Greyhound Inn, Yarlet, to the north of Stafford.  James was accused of assaulting a policeman, and the chairman of the bench ‘warned the prisoner and his fellow countrymen that they must not import that form of brutality into this country or they would be severely punished.’[4] He was fined 40s plus costs or one month in jail.

The three Raftery brothers presumably continued to come to Stafford for harvest work during the 1860s and they seem to have finally given up in Ireland and settled in the town around 1874. In doing so they left the land and worked as bricklayer’s labourers. Michael Raftery had married a woman called Margaret in Ireland, and they came with two surviving children, Matthew (b. 1861) and Michael (b. 1867).  James and John arrived as single men, but they both married within a year and their marriage relationships were somewhat unusual. John Raftery married Margaret Hart (b. 1853) at St Austin’s on 29 September 1874.[5] Her father, Anthony Hart, was a Famine immigrant from Co. Galway. He worked as a farm labourer and almost certainly came from the same district as the Rafterys. More intriguing is the fact that Anthony Hart’s wife, Margaret’s mother, was Bridget Raftery! We know this from her sister Mary’s baptism record.[6] It seems that in Margaret Hart John Raftery was marrying a close relative, though how close it is impossible to say. John and Margaret Raftery set up house at 10 Snow’s (or Red Cow) Yard, the notorious slum court we have visited previously in this blog.

Raftery Snows Yard_0002 rev

Snow’s or Red Cow Yard in 1880 from OS 1:500 plan 37/11/7, Stafford Borough. Note the Red Cow pub at the entrance with its malthouse and brewery behind the houses.

The following year (1875) James Raftery married Margaret Hart’s sister Mary. It was not Mary’s first marriage. Her first in 1869 was to a cowman, John McCormick, who in 1861 was working at Highfields farm outside Stafford. He must have decamped or died in the early 1870s and Mary tried again with James Raftery in 1875.[7] It seems the couple then lived for a time in Manchester since their first child, Bridget, was born there in 1875. They settled back in Stafford shortly afterwards and moved into no. 11 Snow’s Yard next door to John and Margaret. On numerous occasions down the years they were all involved in fights, drunkenness and ‘Irish Rows’ in the yard and around the Red Cow pub at the entrance.[8] These immigrants had replaced the poverty of rural life in Ireland with an impoverished urban existence in England from which the only relief was drink. Their houses, thrown up in backland near the River Sow in the late 18th century, were overcrowded and squalid, and in these conditions trivial incidents rapidly escalated into violence. They were living the same brutalized lives as thousands of other poor Irish – and British – families in Victorian Britain. Most of the conflicts were purely within the Snow’s Yard community but in 1902 Margaret was convicted of assaulting George Collins, a bailiff, in the Maid’s Head Vaults. She struck him twice in the face and ‘accused him of robbing poor people’. With good reason – he had taken goods from her four years previously under a distress warrant, presumably for non-payment of rent. The landlords of Snow’s Yard were notorious for charging high rents for lousy properties and tipping people out on the street with no compunction.

Raftery Snows Yard_0003 rev

The Red Cow pub photographed around 1900 when it had been renamed the Falcon. The building dated back to the 17th century and was inherited by Justinian Snow in 1765. He built Snow’s Yard was down the entry to the left. (Picture courtesy of the late Roy Mitchell. Details from J. Connor, The Inns & Alehouses of Stafford, Part 2 (2014).

John and Margaret Raftery’s later life continued to be unstable, one symptom of which was frequent house moves. They got out of Snow’s Yard in the 1880s and lived in other slum houses in Stafford’s north end. They may have spent some time in Derbyshire since their son John was born there around 1887 but that was clearly a temporary move. In 1901 they were living at 75 Greyfriars, still close to Snow’s Yard. In September that year John Raftery was given a month in the gaol with hard labour for ‘a cowardly wife assault’.  He made a savage attack on his wife who ‘had not taken proceedings against him before and did not wish to press the case now as he had promised to behave better in future’. That exposed the violence taking place within the family as well as outside it. John failed to turn up in court and the magistrates were clearly unimpressed by his wife’s cowed explanation.[9]

In the midst of such family stress John and Margaret brought eleven children into the torrid world of Snow’s Yard but six failed to survive infancy in such conditions. Margaret (b. 1880), Agnes May (b. 1884) and John (b. 1887) went on to marry but the subsequent whereabouts of Bridget (b. 1893) and Annie (b. 1895) are unknown. John married Jane Burton in 1913 and most of the people in Stafford today who retain the Raftery name are probably their descendants.

Margaret Raftery was aged around 66 when she died in 1918, a reasonable life span given the ravages of pregnancy, drink and stress.[10]  John Raftery was still alive at that time; it is not known when or where he died. John and James’s brother Michael Raftery had died in 1880 – he didn’t survive long in Stafford.[11]  His widow Margaret seems to have remained there with her two children for some time but nothing more is known about them except that Matthew (b. 1861) died in Stafford Workhouse in 1916.[12]

James and Mary Raftery went on to have at least nine children, of whom only four survived to adulthood.  By 1901 three of them, Harriet (b. 1877),[13] Mary Ellen (b. 1881) and Agnes (b. 1883) had moved to Manchester and were living together in the Openshaw district. This suggests the family continued to have relatives or contacts in the city dating from the 1870s when James and Mary had been there. The move to Manchester got these young women out of their miserable Snow’s Yard environment. Agnes and Mary Ellen worked in a pickle factory, and Mary Ellen married George Adams, a railway worker, in 1907.[14] They went on to have a number of children and in 1911 were living in Wolverhampton. The subsequent history of James and Mary Raftery  is unknown  – they did not live in Stafford – but Mary finally died in the town in 1924.[15]

The Galway and Roscommon Raftery families lived separate but parallel lives in Stafford. By no means all Stafford’s Irish immigrants conformed to the stereotypical picture of Irish refugees, but the Rafterys in many ways did. Forced to leave Ireland, they struggled to make a living in the harsh world of Victorian England. They relied on casual manual work to keep body and soul together. They could afford nothing but the worst housing, and they often had to move from place to place; there was little stability in their lives. Life was a struggle and it brought its share of petty conflicts and violence, both stimulated and ameliorated by drink. Nevertheless, as time went on and new generations grew up the Raftery descendants who remained in Stafford took their place in working class society and progressively intermingled with it. There ultimately was no relict Irish community in Stafford. The Rafterys were people of Irish descent who added their distinctive character to the evolving social mix that characterised even this small town in Midland England.

[1] The name of the town can be spelt in many different ways, both historically and even today. The common form is Glenamaddy but the Irish Ordnance Survey uses two ‘n’s.

[2] National Library of Ireland, Griffiths Valuation of Ireland, Parish of Boyounagh, Township of Glennamaddy (sic), printed 1856. There were other Raftery families in Ballyhard and Stonetown townships some distance from Glenamaddy.

[3] Although the baptism register for Boyounagh RC parish (covering the Glenamaddy area) reveals many Raftery baptisms in the 1840s the three brothers do not appear. A church baptism cost 2s 6d and it may be that these Rafterys could not or would not pay the fee. Catholic Parish Registers, Boyounagh Parish, Co. Galway, 1838-65, Ancestry database, accessed 22 March 2016.

[4] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 6 September 1862

[5] Birmingham Archdiocesen Archive, St Austin’s registers, Stafford, P255/1/2.

[6] Birmingham Archdiocesen Archive, St Austin’s registers, Stafford, P255/1/2. Mary Hart had been born around 1851 in Ireland, but the Harts must have moved to Stafford when she was a baby since she was christened at St Austin’s on 15 May 1851.

[7] Information from Maureen Jubb, September 2006. There is no record of McCormick’s death in Stafford but numerous men of that name died elsewhere in England during this period. The fact that James and Mary, as Catholics, married in the Register Office suggests they had something to hide. Stafford RD, marriages July-September 1875, 6b/26.

[8] For example, see SA, 13 February 1875, 4 September 1875, 11 September 1875, 19 May 1877, 4 June 1881, 5 May 1883, 14 September 1901, 25 September 1909

[9] SA, 14 September 1901

[10] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 11, no. 8742, 26 April 1918.

[11] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 4, no. 6920, 6 January 1880.

[12] Stafford Borough Council Burial Records, Vol. 11, no. 8008, 8 May 1916

[13] In the 1881 and 1891 censuses her name is recorded as Margaret, but by 1901 she seems to have called herself Harriet.

[14] Ashton under Lyne RD, marriages, July-September 1907, 8d/1154. The marriage took place on 8 July.

[15] Stafford RD, deaths, April-June 1924, Mary Raftery, 6b/10.

William Raftery: a soldier’s life


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On 5 June 1886 the Staffordshire Advertiser carried the following story:-

“Family Affection”

“Mary Raftery, wife of James Raftery, 45 Broadeye [Stafford] was charged with assaulting Annie Raftery on 29 May and breaking four panes of glass in the house of Thomas Mann. The defendant pleaded guilty to the second charge. Annie Raftery’s husband was a soldier in the late Egyptian war. She is the defendant’s sister-in-law and lodges next door. Mary Raftery entered the house of Mrs Margaret Mann, called Annie Raftery bad names, knocked her under the table and beat her. Next morning Mary Raftery continued knocking at the door and then threw a jug through the bedroom window, breaking four panes. Mary Raftery said Annie Raftery was the aggressor but Mary Raftery was convicted and fined 5s plus costs or 14 days in prison and 2s 6d plus costs or 14 days for the second offence.”

Annie Raftery’s soldier husband – and Mary’s brother-in-law – was William Raftery. His life and that of his family shows the harder side of Irish immigrant life in nineteenth century Britain, even for those second generation Irish who were born in Britain. It also shows the problems of disentangling the evidence that has come down to us today. For a start, there is the name – Raftery. It could be spelt in a multiplicity of ways because its owners were largely illiterate and could not insist on a preferred version. Many of the people recording the name spelt it phonetically and they often confused it with the more common Irish surname of Rafferty. Modern on-line data sources have added to the confusion with inaccurate transcriptions of the name from the original documents. So identifying the correct Rafterys from a multiplicity of sources is a difficult detective job and it can’t be guaranteed that everything in this post has got it right. Even so, we can sketch the outline of William Raftery’s history.

Raftery Rosc summary 2

William Raftery’s close family relatives

William’s parents were Thomas Raftery and Mary Tulis. They had been married on 20 May 1848 at St Austin’s RC Church in Stafford, and that marriage is the first evidence we have that the Raftery family had arrived in Stafford during the Famine. Both Thomas and Mary had been born in Co. Roscommon around 1821 and they probably knew each other back in Ireland. Like many of his compatriots, Thomas was a labourer but the couple supplemented their income by running a lodging house in Allen’s Court, a slum in the centre of town.[1] A year later, on 6 July 1849, a second Raftery marriage took place at St Austin’s when James Raftery married Bridget Cunningham.  James was Thomas’s brother and in 1851 he was living at 17 Back Gaol Road with his in-laws from the Cunningham family and other lodgers. Seventeen Irish people were packed into this miserable cottage and another fourteen were at no. 18 next door. Among them were William, John and Ann Raftery, brothers and sister of James and Thomas. Also in the house was their widowed mother Catherine Raftery who had been born in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, around 1795. William, Ann and John Raftery said they had been born in ‘Glintivly’, Co. Roscommon. There was no townland with precisely that name in the county but there was a locality called Glantives (nowadays Glenties) in Kiltullagh parish. This was at the north western tip of Roscommon where it meets Co. Mayo, and Ballyhaunis where Catherine was born was only about four miles away.

Before the Famine we know there was a Raftery family living in Glantives townland, Kiltullagh. The Tithe Applotment Books tell us that in 1833 Pat and James Raftery leased 31 and 32 acres of land there, and there were extensive Raftery holdings elsewhere in the parish. A Thomas Raftery & Co. held 23 acres of arable and pasture in partnership in Ballinlaugh townland about two miles from Glantives.[2] Thomas, James and the others were just the type of small tenants who were forced out of Roscommon in the dark days of the Famine. They probably ended up in Stafford because one or more of them had come to the district before the Famine to do seasonal harvest work.

These Roscommon  Rafterys went on to produce a complex family in Stafford and elsewhere. Reconstructing their story is, however, further complicated because another Raftery family settled in the town in the 1870s. They came from Glenamaddy in Co. Galway and, despite the common surname, they were not related to Roscommon Rafterys and had no obvious dealings with them despite living similar poverty-stricken lives in Stafford’s slums. Disentangling these two families has been a knotty problem but their full story must await a later post. Today we return to William Raftery.

William’s childhood was spent in the miserable surroundings of Allen’s Court and Back Walls North. His lodging house home had a shifting cast of destitute Irish living on their wits to survive.[3] Violence stalked the surroundings. In 1861 William’s father was involved in a fracas in Back Walls and was fined for resisting the arrest of one of the other combatants.[4] With such a start in life and no schooling, William was destined to follow his father and brother James into the building trade. By the 1870s he was a plasterer but his work must always have been insecure and the lure of the pub was always there. He was fined at least twice for drunkenness and wilful damage and he must also have got into fights despite being a small man of slight build. [5] He bore the scars on both cheeks.[6] For a young man with no prospects the army was a way out, and sometime in the early 1870s he joined the part-time 2nd Staffordshire Militia. He was a classic militia soldier – a man in low-paid casual work for whom the money was useful and a periodic dose of army life a change from squalor, drudgery and insecurity.

With his Militia experience to call on William became a useful recruit to the full-time army and in 1876 he signed on for twelve years service.[7] He went into the Grenadier Guards and at the time of the 1881 census was stationed at Wellington Barracks in London, within a stone’s throw of Buckingham Palace. His army record form is incomplete but the military history sheet shows apparently continuous service in Britain. That is not the whole picture, however. By June 1882 he had completed six years full-time service and was transferred to the Army Reserve but on 4 August, just five weeks later, he was suddenly called back to the colours. This fits with him being sent to Egypt as Annie said in 1886. He must have been part of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s force of 16,000 that destroyed the nationalist uprising at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir (13 September 1882).[8]


Foot Guards at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, September 1882. William Raftery may – or may not – have been there. (Painted by Caton Woodville and in the Royal Collection)

His pensionable service record shows that after six months he was transferred back to the Reserves and sent to the Lichfield district. He was, in other words, back in Staffordshire. William was finally discharged from the army at the end of June 1888, having lasted for precisely the twelve years needed to earn him a military pension. He had gained little else from his period in the army. He never rose above a humble private and his conduct was described as ‘bad in consequence of acts of absence, drunkenness and insubordination.’[9] The army life had merely reinforced the habits of his youth.

We therefore know that William came back to Staffordshire and in 1886 had a ‘wife’ with him. But who was Annie? Despite diligent searches it is still impossible to say who she was and where she came from. There’s no record of William marrying anyone during his army service and the couple probably lived together in a fairly brief common law relationship. William’s brother James presumably got them a room in the Manns’ house next door but his wife Mary clearly disliked Annie enough to harass, abuse and beat her in 1886. After that Annie disappears from the record, not surprising given the squalid and fractious conditions William had found for her. William doubtless suffered all the problems of readjusting to civilian life that have become familiar amongst today’s ex-service personnel. He certainly didn’t stay on in the Mann’s house because in 1891 he was on his own and lodging in the Star Inn in Mill Street. There were nine other boarders packed in with him in this back street pub. He claimed to be working as a plasterer, his old occupation. From then on he went downhill and by 1901 he had sunk to the bottom. In that year he was a pauper incarcerated in the Cannock Union Workhouse ten miles from Stafford. He was less than fifty years old but described as ‘formerly plasterer’. The end came soon. He seems to have died in nearby Walsall in 1905.[10]

William Raftery’s life from being a child in the back streets of Stafford to his miserable end in the 1900s showed many signs of the dislocation that afflict the poor in any unequal society. He grew up in a family of Irish immigrants who had suffered the stresses of pre-Famine and Famine times and the upheaval of emigration. This multiplied his problems. His attempt to leave his background and find a new life in the army clearly failed to bring either ultimate security or fulfilling relationships. William Raftery was classically one of the chronic victims of the harsh environment of Victorian Britain.

[1] In January 1851 Thomas Raftery was summonsed for running an unregistered lodging house. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 1 February 1851

[2] Tithe Applotment Book, Co. Roscommon, 25/17 Kiltullagh Parish, National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

[3] E.g. SA, 24 April 1858, theft of clothing and articles by Maria Hughes, a lodger.

[4] SA, 31 August 1861.

[5] SA, 3 July 1875 and 4 September 1875.

[6] WO Chelsea Pensioners, British Army Service Records, 1760-1913, Attestation record of William Henry Raftary (sic), FindMyPast database accessed 15 February 2016. His height was five feet and his chest measurement was 34½ inches.

[7] Ibid.

[8] He may, of course, have been serving in home barracks to replace others soldiers from the regiment who were sent to Egypt. This account prefers to believe Annie, however.

[9] WO Chelsea Pensioners, British Army Service Records, 1760-1913, Attestation record of William Henry Raftary (sic), FindMyPast database accessed 15 February 2016.

[10] Deaths, Walsall Registration District, October-December 1905, 6b/403, William Rafferty (sic), aged 54. William Raftery is the only obvious candidate for this record, despite the variation in surname.

The Caulfield family, 1868-1920s


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Every refugee has a specific experience in reacting to the pressures forcing them to leave their homeland. This blog documents the experiences and subsequent history of people and families forced to leave Ireland in the nineteenth century and who ended up in one particular English town. Politicians today would do well to remember that  today’s ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘economic migrants’ are human beings who are following in the historic paths trodden by millions before them. Grim as the Irish experience in Britain and the New World often was in the nineteenth century, the treatment of many migrants today is arguably worse. For Engels’s ‘Little Ireland’ in 1840s Manchester, read ‘the Jungle’ in Calais today.

This post looks at some very ordinary Irish people who, from modest beginnings, formed a nuclear family whose descendants fanned out into the host society. They were not forced out of Ireland during the Famine itself but were amongst the waves of people who saw no future in the country in the succeeding decades. The Caulfield family initially lived elsewhere in England before finally settling in Stafford. They became a family that aspired to respectability despite apparently humble origins and were the sort of people who began to appear at the soirées I described in my last post.

The surname Caulfield can either be an Anglicisation of the Irish MacCathmhaoil or be derived from a 17th century English planter family. It is relatively common in Cos Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, the classic area of Stafford’s Irish immigrants, and Francis William Caulfield was indeed from Co. Galway and had been born there around 1846 at the height of the Famine. He seems to have come to England as a young man in the 1860s and worked as a gardener in Chester, a city which at that time had many market gardens in the surrounding area. We know he was there in 1868 because in that year he married Ann Sanders who had been born in Co. Mayo in the late 1830s.[1] In 1871/2 they were living in Hoole, an outer suburb of Chester, with their three young children, although their baby Mary Ann died early in 1871 when she was only about three months old.[2]

Between 1872 and 1874 the Caulfields left Chester and moved down the main railway line to the Tamworth area in Staffordshire where their daughter Annie was born in the latter year.[3] We know they finally settled in Stafford town in the next four years because poor Annie died in the town in the autumn of 1878.[4] The surviving Caulfield family therefore consisted just of Francis and Ann and their two sons Simon (b. 1869) and Francis Patrick (b. 1872). The family was Catholic.

Francis Caulfield probably moved to Stafford to get a better job because in 1881 he was described as a nursery foreman and the family was living in the respectable locality of New Garden Street. By 1891 they had moved to the equally respectable Telegraph Street in Forebridge. As befitted their status, Ann Caulfield was recorded at St Patrick’s soirée in 1896.[5] By 1901 Francis’s fortunes had declined, however. He had reverted to being a ‘gardener’ and as aging 60-year olds the couple were living in more straitened circumstances in the far-from–salubrious Cherry Street. Their two sons had left home in the 1890s. Francis and Ann ultimately ended up in a miserable cottage in Tenterbanks, and in 1911 Francis was making a bit of money as a ‘jobbing gardener’. They lived to a good age, however, because Ann died in 1918 aged around 81 and Francis in 1922 when he was 76.[6]

Francis and Ann Caulfield were, therefore, rather late in-migrants to Stafford. Although their circumstances were modest, they were clearly a hard-working and aspirant family. Their son Simon achieved a sound education and began work as a clerk in White and Westhead’s accountancy firm. In 1896 he married Emily Julia Deavall, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Deavall, a local Stafford Catholic family.[7] He must have been a diligent worker and in 1899 he was appointed chief clerk and cashier to the Stafford Borough Gas and Electricity Department. [8] He worked there for the rest of his career.  He was a respected local government officer and took a fairly prominent role in social and professional activities related to his work, as well as being active in the social life of St Patrick’s Church.[9] The couple lived at a respectable address in the north end, 86 Victoria Terrace, and they stayed there for the rest of their lives. They had eight children, five boys and three girls, and they have many descendants today living in the Midlands and elsewhere in Britain.

Stafford Gas Works EPW017027

Stafford gas and electricity works in 1926 where Simon Caulfield worked as clerk and cashier. The works were a polluting eyesore in Stafford town centre for well over 100 years.

Ann and Francis Caulfield’s son Francis Patrick went into Stafford’s traditional trade and became a shoemaker. Like many shoemakers he moved around in search of work, and in 1893 he must have been in the shoe town of Leicester because he married Minnie May Williams there.[10] She had been born in Chester in 1871 but the Williams family had moved to Stafford around 1872, the same time as Francis and Ann Caulfield. The two couples must have known each other in Chester. By 1901 Francis and Minnie had set up house at 43 North Castle Street and they went on to have at least nine children. Although most were born in Stafford, Gertrude was born in Manchester (1900) and Walter Francis in Leicester (1907), so this branch of the Caulfield family continued to move about in search of work. Walter Francis himself emigrated to Australia in the 1920s, and there are extensive descendants of this branch of the family in Australia today.[11]

The Caulfields were a respectable and aspirant Irish Catholic family who did reasonably well in Stafford. Although the original in-migrants Francis and Ann lived in modest circumstances and seem to have been poorer in later life, they attracted no trouble and took some part in Catholic social activities. Their son Simon did well and reached a respected middle-ranking position in the local authority. Francis was less prominent and perhaps made the wrong choice in going into the shoe trade when it was already past its peak. Overall, however, the Caulfields are an example of an Irish Catholic family and their descendants who integrated fairly seamlessly into life in Britain.

[1] Marriage, Great Boughton Registration District (RD), January-March 1868, 8a/477, Francis Caulfield and Ann Sanders.

[2] Birth, Chester RD, October-December 1870, 8a/349, Mary Ann Caulfield; death January-March 1871, 8a/266.

[3] Birth, Tamworth RD, October-December 1874, 6b/435, Annie Caulfield.

[4] Death, Stafford RD, October-December 1878, 6b/14, Annie Caulfield, aged 4 years

[5] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA)¸28 November 1896.

[6] Deaths, Stafford RD, September 1918, 6b/21, Ann Caulfield and March 1922, 6b/34, Francis William Caulfield.

[7] Marriages, Stafford RD, April-June 1896 6b/42, Simon Caulfield and Emily Julia Deavall.

[8] SA, 1 April 1899

[9] SA, 13 February 1904; 10 December 1910; 11 January 1913; 5 May 1917, 2 August 1919, 17 December 1921.

[10] Marriages, Leicester RD, July-September 1893, 7a/464, Francis Patrick Caulfield and Minnie Mary Williams.

[11] Information from Francis W. Caulfield, Hawks Nest, NSW, Australia, November 2005.



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My last post (6 January 2016) looked at some of the ways the Catholic Church in Stafford tried to fight secularisation and ‘leakage’ of Catholics from the faith. This post looks at one specific example of the Church’s social role which at first sight seems trivial but is nevertheless an indicator of the search by some Irish Catholic families for respectability and integration with the host Catholic population. These were the soirées that became a major part of the Catholic social scene in the decades before the Great War.

Stafford’s Catholic elite had always gone in for fund-raising tea parties and similar events and soirées were a development of this. The first mention of a soirée survives from 1873 when 250 people attended a tea party, concert and ball in the Shire Hall in aid of ‘St Austin’s and St Patrick’s poor schools’.[1] None of the participants’ names was given and we don’t know whether these were already regular events. The next newspaper report of a soirée dates from 1886, but thereafter the press covered them because they had become major events in Stafford’s social calendar. Almost all the later soirées were held in the Borough Hall (opened in 1877) and the basic format was that proceedings began with a tea party, the trays of refreshments being provided by subscribers either directly or by monetary donations. The local paper usually listed these people and the evidence is a good guide to the respectable people and families who organised the events. Most were Catholics, but not all. The soirées were yet another example of the overtly anti-sectarian stance of Stafford’s elite. Although the Catholic priests always attended, and the Stafford-born Bishop Ilsley came in 1891, the soirées were social rather than religious events and non-Catholics came in significant numbers.[2] The current mayor and civic dignitaries normally attended even though the mayors were all Protestants until 1907 when Dr E.W. Taylor became Stafford’s first Catholic mayor.

Stafford borough hall crop

Stafford Borough Hall, opened 1877 and the normal venue for Catholic soirees.

Press reports usually gave the numbers who ‘sat down’ at the tea party and the numbers rose from 250 in 1886 to 440 in 1889 and stayed in the four hundreds until St Patrick’s mission was established in 1893. Thereafter the two churches had separate events, St Patrick’s soirée being held in November and St Austin’s in February or March.  The numbers at each fluctuated between 170 and 300 in the twenty years before 1914. The tea party was followed by various entertainments and press reports often gave the names of the performers. These people were normally drawn from the church congregations and were often from a more modest social background than the aspirants who provided the tea trays. This gives some evidence of social involvement and the quest for respectability amongst the wider Catholic Community including the Irish Catholics. Dancing usually followed the entertainments, and whist drives had become part of the proceedings by 1913 when an amazing 884 people played in the ‘mammoth whist drive’ at the St Austin’s soirée.[3] By this time whist drives had become important fund-raising events in their own right.

The soirées were mainly organised in their early years by Staffordian Catholic families. There was, nevertheless, Irish involvement in the first reported soirée in the Borough Hall in 1886 and this increased in the succeeding years. The table summarises the Irish Catholic families recorded at the soirées between 1886 and 1914, but this is very much a minimum statement of Irish participation. There were doubtless others whose attendance at one time or another went unrecorded. Even so, this is a good guide to aspirant Irish Catholic individuals and families and also of their upward social mobility over time. Involvement in the soirées was one of the badges of respectability. They were hob-nobbing with the town’s elite Catholic families and potentially with other civic leaders as well. As a group, they were clearly aspirant and they were positively prepared to exploit the situation as they found it. Activities like the soirées clearly helped to promote the Catholic Church as a respectable institution at the heart of local society.

Soirees table

Irish families attending Catholic Soirees, 1886–1914.

Within a generation families like the Mitchells and Corcorans, active and early participants in the soirées, made the leap from unskilled impoverished immigrants to people of some substance and respectability in Stafford. They were not, of course, typical of the majority of the town’s Irish immigrants, particularly those from the Famine period. In the 1900s many descendants of the Famine Irish continued to work in low status jobs and lived in Stafford’s slum streets and yards. Even so, for some these people there was also a clear search for respectability and the soirées document this. During the 1890s members of the Carney, Concar, Dolan, Ruhall, Devlin, Coleman and other families began to appear as subscribers and performers in significant numbers. There was a gender dimension to this. Women typically organised the tea trays and often presided at the tables, though the latter was not exclusively done by women. It was female involvement with Church activities that played a pivotal role in demonstrating family identification with respectable Stafford Catholic society.

The social importance of the soirées in Stafford’s social life in the 1900s emphasised the respected position held by the Catholic Church amongst the town’s elite. In 1907 Dr E.W. Taylor, the organist at St Mary’s Anglican church, was a high-profile convert to Catholicism and in the same year he was elected Stafford’s first Catholic Mayor. The Civic Service was held at St Austin’s, and the priest, Fr Keating, made some cautionary comments on attitudes to the Church in the town when he said that

‘of course, in these days to enter the Catholic Church was not so astonishing a thing as it would have been 60 years ago. But still at the present time there were people, and people in Stafford, who would allow a man to follow his conscience along every road except that which led to Rome. And there were people – not many – but there were some still living who thought it was their duty to punish in whatever way they could anyone who joined the Roman Catholic Church. When the Mayor decided to become a Catholic he was willing to take the risks because he felt God had a claim on him. …. The citizens of the Borough had seen fit to honour him whom God had already honoured.’ [4]

This statement emphasises that the absence of violent anti-Catholicism in 19th century Stafford did not mean there was no insidious hostility in local affairs. Even so, the local elite’s anti-sectarian stance was articulated at the Civic service held at the Methodist chapel in 1909 when the preacher commented that

‘it was a pleasure to know that some Roman Catholics were present that morning. He thought that was a step in the right direction because the Kingdom of God was one.’[5]

The previous week the new Primitive Methodist mayor had attended Dr Taylor’s retiring service at St Austin’s. All of this evidence points to the fact that in Stafford there was no political mileage in public anti-Catholicism and that it could no more be a proxy for anti-Irishness in the 1900s than it had been in the mid-19th century.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 7 June 1873

[2] SA, 14 February 1891

[3] SA, 8 February 1913

[4] SA, 16 November 1907.  His conversion occurred before he was made mayor and members of the council therefore voted him into office with knowledge of the fact.

[5] SA, 20 November 1909

The Catholic revival in late-Victorian Stafford


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My last post (7 December 2015) looked at the problem of ‘leakage’ from the Catholic Church by the Irish and their descendants in late-Victorian Stafford. Working class families in Stafford’s north end were particularly likely to ‘leak’ and the opening of St Patrick’s School in the area in 1868 had by no means solved the problem. The Church needed more of a presence in the Foregate to retain the working class Catholics for whom St Austin’s was too far away in both distance and in the social exclusiveness of its English elite.

In 1884 a newly-ordained priest, Fr. James O’Hanlon, was appointed curate at St Austin’s with special responsibility for the north end Catholics.[1] O’Hanlon was of Irish descent, though he had been born in Scotland, but he made only modest and ‘safe’ gestures towards Irishness in this ethnically-mixed Catholic community.[2] He was determined to establish a permanent church in the north end, and a Mass centre was started in 1884 on the first floor of St Patrick’s School.[3] For the next ten years he waged a campaign for a separate church in the area, but Canon Acton at St Austin’s opposed the idea since it would reduce his congregation by 60 per cent and financially undermine his still-indebted church. He also feared the local Catholic population was too poor to support a new mission, but he had to balance this fear with the on-going threat that north end Catholics might be lost to the Church altogether. He finally agreed to back the proposal in the early 1890s, and on Christmas morning 1893 the new mission opened to serve an estimated 700 Catholics, of whom about half were Irish or Irish-related.[4]  Initially Masses continued to be held in the school building but in 1895 a ‘temporary’ pre-fabricated building was erected adjacent to the school.  The ‘iron church’ was to continue in use for 35 years.[5]

Fr. James O'Hanlon's legacy: the interior of St Patrick's 'iron church' erected in 1895. (courtesy of Mary and the late Roy Mitchell)

Fr. James O’Hanlon’s legacy: the interior of St Patrick’s ‘iron church’ erected in 1895. (courtesy of Mary and the late Roy Mitchell)

Although St Patrick’s was usually seen as serving Stafford’s poorer north end, there was in fact little difference in the social status of Irish and Irish-related Catholics in the two missions. In 1901 St Austin’s had in fact a slightly greater proportion of unskilled workers, 28 per cent as compared with 24 per cent at St Patrick’s.[6] The big difference between the missions was that St Austin’s retained the patronage of most (though not all) of Stafford’s elite English Catholics. Most of these people lived in the salubrious suburbs in the south end of town. St Patrick’s still needed to tap the financial resources of this group.

The foundation of St Patrick’s was a major contribution to the Church’s strategy to retain the adherence of Stafford’s Catholics, but other activities were also significant. The Church tried to evangelise amongst those Catholics who might be negligent. Visiting missions were organised. In 1882 the Jesuits came to St Austin’s and ‘attracted a large congregation …. [but the services] … had little of the character of propagandism, [their] object rather being the quickening of the spiritual life among those who are members of the Roman Catholic community.’ [There are] ‘very few of the Catholics in the town who have not been to their duties since the commencement of the Mission and the results are therefore considered most satisfactory’.[7] Attendance doubtless lapsed again, however, and further missions were reported in 1889 and 1895. The latter mission by two Franciscan fathers to St Patrick’s was ‘to urge more earnest observance of religious duties’ and was ‘well-attended’.[8] The emphasis seems to have been on earnestness rather than enthusiasm.

In July 1886 2-300 of St Austin’s parishioners went by special train on a pilgrimage to St Winifred’s Well at Holywell in North Wales.[9] It is not known whether this was a regular event, but it does show a continued attachment to older ‘English’ commitments in the face of continental or Roman ones. There are no reported pilgrimages to Lourdes before the Great War. Practices in Stafford certainly became more demonstrative after the Great War. In the early 1920s the new priest at St Patrick’s, Fr Daniel Kelly, introduced the office of Tenebrae during Holy Week and the Quarant’ Ore or Forty Hours Prayer. In 1923 the first public Catholic processions took place in the town since the Reformation with a procession in honour of Our Lady in May followed later by a Corpus Christi procession. These events were widely seen as showing the Church’s self-confidence and its acceptance in the life of the town.[10]

Procession in honour of Our Lady, Bridge Street, Stafford, May 1923.

Procession in honour of Our Lady, Bridge Street, Stafford, May 1923.

The Church also attempted to bolster faith through the establishment of religious societies and social activities. In 1895 the following religious societies were operating:-

  • Apostleship of Prayer – 130 members
  • Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament – 33 members
  • Confraternity of the Holy Family – 20 families
  • Children of Mary – 35 members
  • Tertiaries of St Francis – 8 members [11]

Catholic Sunday Schools were operating by 1887.[12] The Brothers of the St Vincent de Paul were also dealing with poverty amongst the working class through this period, although it is not known how many were actively involved. In the early 1880s the Catholic Club was opened in Broad Street ‘to provide a social centre for the Catholic men of the area’ and as a counterweight to the pubs.[13] In 1884 the establishment of the St Patrick’s Young Men’s Association backed up the new Church presence in the north end.[14] One of those involved was Bartholomew Corcoran from Castlerea, Co. Roscommon (see my post on 28 July 2015). He worked hard to become a man of influence and respectability within Stafford’s Catholic community and in the wider society.

In 1896 St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in some style at St Patrick’s.  Fr. O’Hanlon presided over a lecture on ‘The Young Ireland Movement’ that dealt with the history of Ireland from the time of the Union to the founding of The Nation newspaper. It discussed ‘the aims of the Young Ireland party and showed the application of their doctrines to the present day’. Bartholomew Corcoran was there to propose ‘a hearty vote of thanks’. The evening was rounded off by a concert of romantic Irish songs performed by various members of the congregation, but only three performers in fact came from Irish families. The rest were native Staffordian Catholics.[15] The inclusion of a lecture on Irish political history shows that some people had an interest and possible identification with Ireland that went beyond sentimental songs. It is, however, the only recorded instance of such a thing sponsored by the Catholic Church in Stafford. In his career as a town councillor Corcoran dealt only with parish pump issues and even avoided involvement in education affairs because ‘he didn’t want squabble but amicable work’.[16] Corcoran’s family history was always aimed towards integrating – some might say ingratiating – himself into respectable Stafford society.

During the 1900s Catholic social activity extended to sport. In 1906 a Stafford Catholic United FC played in the local league and, more significantly, there is mention of a Stafford Celtic club in 1908.[17] These clubs don’t seem to have survived long and Irish Catholic involvement in local sport was mostly in the secular clubs. Youth work by the church did continue with the foundation of the Catholic Boys’ Brigade linked to St Austin’s; it was operating by 1911.[18] In the Inter-War period the 8th Stafford Scout troop and 20th Stafford Girl Guides were established at St Patrick’s and they became an important social focus for Catholic children in the north end.[19]

The Catholic Churches developed, therefore, a network of social and religious activities that tried to build adherence to the faith and develop a Catholic community identity, particularly in Stafford’s north end. Irish and Irish-related people took part in these activities, but hard evidence of the precisely who was involved is only available spasmodically. It is clear, nevertheless, that the Stafford churches had a composite English-Irish congregation and one that was increasingly intermixed through social activities and marriage connections. Catholic religious affairs in Stafford cannot be used as a proxy for Irish social and religious affairs. The key issues are to what extent Irish involvement in these affairs reflected, but also influenced, their own evolving identity and, conversely, to what extent the Irish may have influenced the character of the town’s Catholic religious and social institutions. I shall look some aspects of this in the next post.

[1] See John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2015) pp. 287-291 for a fuller study of O’Hanlon’s work and life.

[2] The nearest he came was a magic lantern show, ‘A Tour of Ireland’, with ‘views of the scenery and humorous anecdotes’ which perhaps suggests a willingness to crack ‘paddy’ jokes. Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 27 November 1886.

[3] M.W. Greenslade, St Austin’s, Stafford, 1791-1991, (Birmingham, Archdiocese of Birmingham Historical Commission, 1991), p. 17.

[4] SA, 30 December 1893

[5] P.E. Donnelly, St Patrick’s, Stafford, 1895-1945: Recollections of a Parishioner, (Stafford, 1945), unnumbered but pp. 1-5; the history formed part of a Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of St Patrick’s, Stafford and Donnelly’s authorship is only obliquely stated in a postscript by the parish priest.

[6] Analysis of 1901 census returns for Irish-born and Irish-related males.

[7] SA, 25 March and 1 April 1882.

[8] SA, 6 April 1889; 7 December 1895.

[9] SA, 17 July 1886. The pilgrimage was reported because four people were injured in a road accident at Holywell. Two of them were Flora McDonald and her granddaughter from a Irish middle class Tory family.

[10] Donnelly, pp. 4-5. There is a photo in Greenslade 1991, p. 24.

[11] Birmingham Archdiocesan Archive, correspondence, St Austin’s, Stafford, B11560, 30 November 1895

[12] SA, 20 August 1887.

[13] M.W. Greenslade, St Austin’s, Stafford: a History of the Catholic Church in Stafford since the Reformation, (Stafford, W.H. Smith and Son Ltd., 1962), p. 25.

[14] SA, 23 February 1884.

[15] SA, 21 March 1896.

[16] SA, 14 April 1903.

[17] SA, 21 September 1906 and 15 August 1908.

[18] SA, 4 February 1911. One interviewee in 2003 remembered the Catholic Boys’ Brigade as unfriendly during the 1940s and he saw it as part of a wider hostility to poor children at St Austin’s School. He joined the Baptist Boys’ Brigade – ‘very welcoming’ – and lapsed from the Catholic Church.

[19] Reminiscences of Roy Mitchell, Daniel Ryan, Sheila Bayliffe and Peter Godwin, 2002-3.

‘Leakage’, mixed marriages and the Irish in late-Victorian Stafford


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In the late nineteenth century the Catholic Church was increasingly worried about ‘leakage’ of people from faith and from the Church and we see evidence of this in Stafford. The issue of mixed marriages (in religious terms) was regarded as central to leakage, although the occurrence of mixed marriages in many ways reflected leakage rather than causing it. In 1888 the new Bishop of Birmingham, Stafford-born Edward Ilsley[1], demanded a return from parish priests on mixed marriages over the previous ten years[2]. Canon Acton at St Austin’s reported that 58 out of a total of 108 marriages had been of mixed religion, of which 35 had been without dispensation. Although no people in these latter marriages had absolutely fallen away from the faith, he said ‘four attend Mass occasionally; the rest [are] negligent’. Of those with a dispensation the response to whether the Catholic partner had lost their faith was ‘none absolute[ly]; three practical[ly]; four fairly practical[ly]; the rest negligent’. Acton also commented ‘it may be useful to note that out of 12 known cases in which the non-Catholic was received into the Church for marriage, 8 have turned out unsatisfactorily’. His return did not distinguish Irish Catholics from the rest, but by the 1880s about 40% of Irish Catholic marriages were to non-Catholic partners. That proportion rose above half after 1895.[3]

St Austin's Church, Stafford, designed by Edward Pugin and opened in 1862.

St Austin’s Church, Stafford, designed by Edward Pugin and opened in 1862.

Canon Acton’s pessimism about Catholics in mixed marriages extended to Stafford’s Catholics generally. In 1895 he was asked to make a return on his congregation, which had just lost the north end Catholics to the newly created mission of St Patrick’s. He claimed there were 510 in St Austin’s congregation but that ‘there are about 50 or 60 baptised Catholics besides who never come – e.g. 30 children of mixed marriages where the Catholic party never comes, who are practically Protestants’.[4]

Canon Acton reported that the number of Easter Communicants had been 275. If we add perhaps 50 infants to this total, this means about 64 per cent of the congregation had attended on that important day. Although Acton was worried about the abstention rate, in fact attendance had climbed steeply from its lowest point around 1851 when there had been mass Irish absence in the aftermath of the Famine. Church action over the succeeding forty years had succeeded in reclaiming significant numbers of the Irish and their descendants for the church.  Many were, nevertheless, spasmodic or nominal Catholics and leakage through mixed marriages was increasing. The number of Irish and Irish-descended Catholics in Stafford was also falling by the late nineteenth century. The total of Irish-born Catholics in Stafford had peaked at an estimated 554 in 1861 and numbers fell away thereafter because many Irish workers, particularly farm labourers, left the district in the late 1860s.[5] Numbers continued to fall between 1871 and 1901 because of the departure and death of Famine-period immigrants. Such losses were only partly counter-balanced by new in-migrants because the Stafford economy, particularly the shoe trade, was faltering. Even so, the loss of Irish-born Catholics was counterbalanced to a great extent by increasing numbers of Irish-descended people, the numbers rising from 334 in 1861 to an estimated 520 by 1901.[6] Their Increase did not, however, fully offset the loss of Irish-born, and the total of Irish born and descended Catholics declined from a peak of around 855 in 1861 to 631 in 1901. In simple terms, the Irish Catholics were a declining group in turn of the century Stafford.

St Austins baptisms

Evidence from baptisms suggests both a decline in the Irish Catholic presence in the Church and a change in its character. The number of baptisms overall was tending to fall because of the declining birth-rate, but the fall was steepest in the Irish part of the congregation. The graph shows how the proportion of ‘Irish’ baptisms of all types dropped from an average of 60% around 1860 to about 47% by 1890. The character of ‘Irish’ baptisms also changed radically. In the 1850s the vast majority had been to ‘all-Irish’ parents, but by the 1880s most were to the parents of ethnically-mixed marriages. This shows graphically the extent of intermarriage between the Irish, their descendants and native Staffordians. The number of ‘Irish’ baptisms declined more steeply than those of ‘all-English’ children. This was partly due to the falling Irish presence in Stafford but partly because the Irish birth-rate dropped disproportionately from the very high ‘rebound’ rate of the post-Famine decade. Nevertheless, the intriguing possibly remains that part of the decline of ‘Irish’ baptisms stemmed from very real leakage of the working class Irish and their descendants from the Church in the late-nineteenth century. These lost people were disproportionately of people in the north end of the town for whom the long and wearying walk to St Austin’s at the south end was too far. St Patrick’s Church, founded in the north end in 1893, was designed to tackle this problem.

[1] He had been born of modest mixed English/Irish parentage in Appleyard Court, Stafford, and he clearly retained some affection for his birthplace after he became Bishop, attending local events on a number of occasions. M. McInally, Edward Ilsley: Archbishop of Birmingham, (London, 2002), p. 1

[2] Birmingham Archdiocesan Archive, P255/5/1, St Austin’s Mission Book, Copy of return to the Bishop of the Diocese on mixed marriages for 10 years ending 31 October 1888

[3] John Herson, ‘Migration, “community” of 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), pp. 172-4

[4] Birmingham Archdiocesan Archive, correspondence, B11560, return from St Austin’s, Stafford, 30th November 1895

[5] John Herson, ‘Irish migration and settlement in Victorian England: a small town perspective’ in R. Swift and S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939,  (London, Pinter Press, 1989), pp. 84-103.

[6] This figure is almost certainly an underestimate since it is impossible to trace every descendant of Irish immigrants through subsequent changes of family name through intermarriage.