Righteous Among The Nations


Plaque at Mary Stevens Park, Stourbridge

I often walk the dog in Mary Stevens Park, in Stourbridge, and walk through the grand, now-restored gates. This morning though, it was a plaque on the wall to the right of the gates that caught my eye. There’s a tribute there to one Frank Foley, a Devonian by birth but one who died in Stourbridge in 1958 – he had retired to a house in Eveson Road after the war. So why the plaque?


Captain Frank Foley [Yad Vashem]

Captain Frank Foley, a World War One veteran, was stationed in Berlin from 1922 to 1939 as Passport Control Officer at the British Embassy (and less openly, head of the Berlin MI6 station). This was one of the wildest places and times in modern history, of course: the Weimar republic was in full swing but nearby in Russia, the Bolsheviks won their civil war and commenced purging; in Italy, Mussolini was appointed PM and fascist dictator; in Spain, Franco was beginning to make rumbles; in Britain and the US, the great depression was bringing old certainties to their knees; and everywhere, across the world, nerves were jangling in the aftermath of an unprecedented war and an unresolved larger situtation. As he was there he will have heard of Hitler’s Munich beerhall putsch in 1923, the demilitarisation of the Ruhr, the publication of Mein Kampf, the hopeful Kellogg-Brian pact, the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1932 (over Hitler), the appointment of Hitler as chancellor and the beginning of the Nazi state in Germany a year later. He would have seen the Reichstag Fire, the completion of Dachau, the Enabling Act, the Nuremburg Laws, the Berlin Olympics, the formation of the Gestapoand the SS, the Anschluss and the Kristallnacht and ultimately, the beginning of war.

While Foley was there though he broke every rule. He didn’t have diplomatic immunity in his position, but risked everything to issue visas – legally or sometimes not – to 10,000 Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms and state-led persecution of the Jews in Germany. Those in need of escape flocked to him (secretly of course) and he found them ways out of persecution. He went into concentration camps to get people out, and by the time of Kristallnacht, harboured Jews in his own home, including Leo Baeck, chairman of the Association of German Rabbis. When he was recalled, he left a thick wad of visas ready to be passed on.

Marc Bloch said that history never repeats itself – events always take place in a new environment. But the point of historians is that they can teach us trends and what to do, or not to do. We are not in Nazi Germany now, but we are in world where the Daily Mail’s headlines are not a million miles from their 1938 one berating the German Jews “pouring” into the country. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where religion has become mixed up with race, and a perception that a certain people are naturally wrong’uns is widespread (although not, I believe, in the majority). We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where a powerful, thin-skinned, controversial leader has swept to power in a blaze of racism, scapegoating and virulent nationalism. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where individuals are being targeted for discrimination based on the country of their birth and not on anything they’ve done. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where our leader has just flown to this leader’s country and praised him, and failed to condemn his actions, and is returning proclaiming the success of her visit. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, racist rhetoric has been stoked and stoked for political gain and newspaper sales.

Captain Frank Foley was recognised in 1999 by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, as one Righteous Among The Nations. I have no desire to be a hero – I’m a coward. When people say “if I was there in Germany,” I have to confess that I’d have been no Frank Foley. I’d have been the quiet non-dissenter, too scared to stick his head above the parapet. I don’t want that though, and I want to figure out what I can do to dissent, to stand up for what is right. I don’t know exactly how to do it. It feels a little like we’re at the beginning of something awful, and I don’t know how to proceed. I want to though. You?

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The desi dialectic

Recent blog posts have been a little sparse, and that’s mostly a function of learning to be a freelancer – sometimes, apparently, work comes in thick and fast and leaves little time for much else. However, it has it’s upsides: whether through teaching, writing, researching or anything else I’ve been getting a tremendous overview of history that applies very much to the Black Country, and that brings all sorts of unforeseen connections to my mind.


McGhee’s Bar on Wheeler’s Fold, Wolverhampton

One of the subjects that comes up time and again in my research on the Irish of Victorian Wolverhampton is pubs. The small area I’m studying contained around 35 of them, and probably a number more unlicensed premises and illegal breweries or distilleries. They were numerous on the main streets and acted as corner shops for the back streets, sources of contact, conversation, sociality. They were also interesting from the point of view of migration – pubs like the Hibernia, the Rose & Harp, the Shamrock, the Limerick, these were all targeted towards the Irish community. Right? As it turns out, it’s not so straightforward – the owners, licensees and tenants often differed significantly, so that it’s very difficult to tell who ran the pub for whom. Were these Irish-run pubs for Irish migrants? English-run pubs hoping to cash in on the lucrative market? Irish-run pubs offering Celtic cordiality to the Black Country locals? It can be hard to know.


O’Neill’s in Worcester [James Vincent]. Note the careful semiotics: vintage Guinness ads, Celtic typefaces, a recipe for Irish stew painted on the wall…

The Irish pub in England has a long history and is still a modern phenomenon. O’Neills run their chain across the country, and more or less authentic Irish-themed pubs can be found across the world. There was a spate, I seem to remember, alongside the change in British public opinion of the Irish; from the resentment of the Troubled 70s and 80s to the advent of Father Ted, Graham Norton etc. which made being Irish an attractive thing, rather than the opposite. And pubs are a sight of many such integrations (and capitalisations) – there are Russian vodka bars, penthouse cocktail bars, rock bars, indie bars, you name it.


The Vine in West Bromwich [Geograph]

My current obsession is a peculiarly Black Country phenomenon, the desi pub. These are found across the region but most commonly in Smethwick, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. It’s probably highly debatable which was the first, although The Vine on Roebuck Lane has a fair claim. It was a scruffy street corner boozer sat under the M5 (in fact, it still is from the outside) in the 1970s, at a time when many pubs were finding it hard going staying open. It was taken over by a Punjabi landlord and over the years has changed entirely: it is still a pub first and foremost, with snugs and a bar and everything; but proceed past the bar and you find yourself in a huge restaurant with an indoor barbeque, a covered garden restaurant and, by all accounts – some of the best grilled meat you could hope for.


The Red Lion, West Bromwich, by Aidan Thomson

This is a pattern found time and again across the area, whether in the Red Lion in West Brom, or the Red Cow in Smethwick, the New Soho Tavern in Hockley or the Talbot or the Sportsman or the Prince of Wales… The Black Country is a metalworking region. It has been for centuries. When labour was short after World War 2 it seemed eminently reasonable to search out those willing to work, particularly the hard, unskilled jobs in steel and iron foundries, the night shifts and the dangerous jobs. The shortage was met from all over the Commonwealth but particularly from the Sikh Punjab in Northern India.


One of the truly epic mixed grills from the Red Lion (via Smoke and Umami)

The hostility and resentment faced by these workers is well-known – if nothing else, the Smethwick election of 1964 has become a by-word for racist politics in a supposedly liberal country. But the workers survived. They worked hard and endured much; not a few found comfort and sustenance in the local pubs. Eventually, the desi pub emerged – run by Punjabi landlords but catering for a mixed clientele. The Vine is still packed of a lunchtime with factory workers, just as the Red Lion is busy every evening with diners and drinkers of every colour. It’s a testament to a genuine mixing of cultures to bring something new out. They are homegrown and relaxed, with no trace of imported multiculturalism or anything like that. I find them a very hopeful sign that actually, wonderful new things do grow out of immigration and the mixing up of different social groups. Plenty of ink could be spilt on the (very real) hardships faced by Indian workers in the 1960s, or the racist elements of the working class, or schemes to get people to integrate. But this is a joyful story for me, which perhaps suggests a solution to many of society’s problems: food and beer.

It’s also been interesting for me to compare my Irish pubs of 150 years earlier. Were they by the Irish or for the Irish or what? Or does the Indian migration to the Black Country bear more similarities to the Irish migration, with creative new culture being formed out of a seeming polar dialectic. There were those decrying the habits, the speech, the look of the Irish; and there were the Irish, struggling to get along in a place only barely of their choosing. In fact, did the town’s resulting culture grow from a new synthesis of these elements?

Read more

Creative Black Country recently celebrated the desi pub with a series of commissioned artworks, photography and film – it’s worth a look here.

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Black Country Irish: lies, damned lies and statistics


Blast Furnaces, Night by Edwin Butler Bayliss

We’ve had a quick look at some of the stories and statistics behind the Irish in the Black Country, particularly focusing on the census data for 1851. Data is an essential part of the story, but it is just a part. The historian can do loads with that, but it stops being interesting before too long: there were only so many posts I could write to say x number of Irish lived in y part of Black Country town. More interesting are the stories that go alongside them: the red-headed Kilcoigns of Stourbridge, the Hiberno-Liverpudlian anchormakers of Noah Hingley & Sons, a priest’s dramatic global vision, the family heritage of a music hall star. But I do want to sum up with an overall view of the Black Country as a place of immigration for the Irish.

I have to say that my limited GIS abilities are getting me down slightly, but it might also be to do with the available data, which varies from parish to census district to whatever. I was going to make a grand map of the Irish in each parish, and it’s not working for me, so I gave up. However. Suffice to say, the 1851 census shows the Black Country Irish immediately post-famine, and that this is famine emigration. The Irish-born population actually peaks in 1861, after which a sizeable community of different generations is found across the region. In 1851, 10,881 Irish-born individuals are recorded within Black Country parishes.


This is a proportion of 3.5%, which is above the overall English average of 2.9%, but significantly under some of the key cities like Liverpoool, where at times the Irish-born constituted up to 22% of the population. I’ve been trying to figure out the appropriate statistical test to figure out the tendency for immigration towards larger urban centres, but have given up on that as well. This is one hazard of any sort of data-driven analysis of the Black Country, which seems to pride itself on the perversity of its measurement units. I can show that Wolverhampton, for instance, has both a large population (17,652) and the highest proportion of Irish-born residents (3,763, or 21.3%). But I also see that the small town of Sedgley has a much larger population of 29,447. This is one of many absurdities that come from extended historic parishes, of the fragmentary nature of development, employment and economy in the Black Country, and so on. In this instance, data has to be taken with significantly more than just a pinch of salt – it needs interpretation.

Highs and lows


Ordnance Survey First Series, 1834 [Vision of Britain]

Using my local knowledge then, of the sizes of towns in the period, I can see a general trend (echoing the national) for the Irish to migrate to the larger population centres. This is true of Wolverhampton and Walsall, although the latter is split into Borough and Foreign parishes, which skews things a bit – in the town centre there’s a high proportion of 10.5%. Other smaller towns including Wednesbury (5.9%), Stourbridge (5.3%), Oldbury (5%) and Bilston (5%) all have large groups. Exceptions though include Dudley at 2% and West Bromwich at 3.2%.

At the other end of the spectrum, it certainly is the looser, more hamlet-y parishes that have fewest Irish migrants. Wollescote, Lye, Hill and Cakemore all register under 0.3%. There’s a much greater tendency towards the Southern Black Country as well: of the 20 parishes with the lowest concentrations, only Sedgley, Wednesfield, Bushbury and Pelsall might be described as in the Northern half of the region.

Why there?

I think a few factors come into play here. Manchester and Liverpool, two of the most Irish-heavy cities in the country were massive cities, its true, but they were also overwhelmingly focused on a handful of unskilled industries, in particular cotton and dock work respectively. That’s not the case in the Black Country. This is not the land of the “dark, Satanic mill”; it’s the world of the little master, the backyard nailshop, the small collieries run by middle-men. The towns which had few Irish are particularly like this: Lye and Wollescote with their inward-looking populations making nails in the backyard hearth; Hasbury, Bushbury, Halesowen, with their semi-rural peripheral locations; Sedgley, Cakemore and Amblecote with their mining and subsequent labour organisation; Wednesfield’s locks and Cradley’s chains were specialist industries with barriers to entry not just from the workers and employers but the skill levels needed to work there.


John Bradley’s New Foundry in Stourbridge, prior to its redevelopment in recent years [stourbridge.com]

On the other hand, there was plenty of unskilled work of all sorts in the big cities, and in certain smaller ones too. Wednesbury and Bilston were iron towns, full of large works making pig iron from raw materials – not manufacturing that into specialist things. Oldbury was similar, with larger brickworks and quarries than elsewhere – well connected too for the many large ironworks in the vicinity. Stourbridge – which most people think of as a glass or local market town – was home to the largest ironworks in the world at one point.


If there are any trends here it’s toward unskilled employment, but it’s probably complicated by social and cultural factors too. The presence of a Catholic community may have been an indicator of an older Irish community, which in turn may have been an encouragement for familial and community-based emigration. Cheap housing is another key point – the bigger town, the more likely it was to have vacant housing that the English working classes avoided if they possibly could, and the Irish often ended up there via sympathetic boarding houses – again more common in larger towns.

Theories focusing on the availability of housing, work, even community support, have to balanced against the labour-supply-side theories. 1851 was not the same as 1961: Irish migrants were fleeing a discrete event (the Great Famine, although this was not the first famine and continued to have major repercussions after the blight receded); Commonwealth migrants were drawn in by work and conditions better than the everyday ones at home.

My experience of the Irish migrants in the 1850s broadly fits within several of Ravenstein’s famous laws of immigration: they headed towards “the great centres of commerce and industry” and their migration was based on economic factors. But I hope this series has shown that place, types of industry and labour, and cultural factors like family and religion can have a significant impact on who ends up where.

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That particular articulation of social relations which we are at the moment naming as… Doulton Brook

bsrA break from the Irish this week. I’ve been mostly reading Doreen Massey this week – if you’re not familiar with her she’s an urban geographer of major importance, who died earlier in the year (2016 striking again). She was a radical, a feminist, an unorthodox Marxist, and one of the best at problematising what we think of when we think of “space.”

For historians, perhaps the best starting points are her 1994 essay “A Global Sense of Place” and a 1995 contribution to History Workshop Journal, “Places and their pasts.” Her way of reading the competing histories of a place (or perhaps better, “that particular articulation of social relations which we are at the moment naming as that place” – “a conjunction of many histories and many spaces”) is particularly compelling for me, and as we did ages with Lefebvre, I want to try thinking through her thought process with a local example. For Massey, what we think of as a place is infinitely open-ended through space and time, and is always a reflection of forces local and global, weak and strong. On a practical note, this leads her to a radical reconception of place, away from the “idealized notion of an era when places were (supposedly inhabited by coherent and homogenous communities” and towards a place where its “history [is] imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages, both local and to the wider world.”

Doulton Brooke


Doulton Brook, off Wollaston Road, is “an exciting development of 2 bedroom apartments and 3 & 4 bedroom homes” being developed by Taylor-Wimpey and straddling the River Stour in Wollaston, near Stourbridge. As a brand new “community” the developers needed to come up with a name – in our first example of choosing what history to write into a place, they went with Doulton Brook. There is no Doulton Brook – the Coalbourn Brook joins the Stour from the opposite bank under the bridge, and there’s some suggestion that there was once a Dividale Brook somewhere in the Wollaston vicinity, but not now. The name comes from Royal Doulton, owners of the Webb Corbett glassworks that’s now the Ruskin centre. As important a role as Doulton had in the industry, it only owned the glassworks, on the opposite side of the canal, from 1969 before closing it c.1995. Perhaps Taylor-Wimpey were hoping it would give the site a suggested elegance from association with the well-known porcelain, but it seems a bit tenuous when you think Doulton had no connection with the actual site of the new housing at all.


In fact, it was rather unglamourous factory buildings before it was cleared. The river was culverted under a large steel-framed building used by Sunrise Medical and Caparo. In 2012, both firms were told their leases were non-renewable by the property owners, and closed their respective mobility-aid factory and aluminium foundry making motor components. Sunrise moved to Lye, but Caparo – part of the multinational of the same name – closed down completely. Caparo was a frequent source of complaints about pollution, an interesting sign of the times in the Black Country. That this small firm was considered unacceptable in a region once dominated by belching furnaces is quite something. Massey’s point about global-local connections is key here: Caparo was founded in Oldbury 1968 by the Indian-born Baron Paul and made a success out of mergers and acquisitions across the UK, India and North America. The company was a victim of the downturn in steel last year, blaming cheap Chinese imports – a globalised world has its effects locally.



Prior to this however, the site was one huge factory, that of Birmingham Sound Reproducers. Despite the name, this was a Black Country business originally founded at Powke Lane, Old Hill. They established their factory in Wollaston in 1959, culverting the river and building a vast new site, after their turntable record-changers were adopted by the new “Dansette” record player, which just happened to coincide with much wider, global social changes – among other things, more disposable income meant more records to buy, new types of music like rock’n’roll, the birth of the teenager, and so on. BSR boomed, by 1977 producing over 250,000 units per week for something like 87% of the world market. If you had a record player in London, New York, Paris – chances are it was partly made in Wollaston.

Isaac Nash


They had bought the site from a failing metal-working firm. But of course, failing is not bounded by time or space, and the Wollaston Mill that was acquired by Isaac Nash in the 1880s was not a business that was always failing. Nash moved his tool-making firm here from Belbroughton (in rural Worcestershire, and for many years capital of the scythe-making industry) in the 1880s, building Isaac Nash & Co. Edge Tools into one of Stourbridge’s largest employers. Nash is commemorated in one of the new Doulton Brook road names (as is Hydes Mill, which is in Kinver, several miles down the road…). Nash represent a classic Black Country metal story. The site expanded from the 18th century mill onto the marshy ground adjacent to the canal, and forced out several other edge tool manufacturers with its aggressive undercutting. The Southern Black Country was at one point full of them, clustering with historical continuity in steep-ish valleys with fast-flowing streams, reflecting their beginnings in water-powered forges.


Nash became a prominent local citizen, chairman of the UDC. His firm’s prosperity didn’t last much beyond World War 2 however. They stretched to national proportions in 1950 after a merger with Joseph Tyzack & Co. of Sheffield (another area of steep-sided valleys and fast-flowing streams). Tyzack is an old Stourbridge name, Huguenot of origin, but I’m yet to find the link between the towns. The next year saw a merger with William Hunt & Sons of the Brades Works, Oldbury to form the inventively named Brades & Nash Tyzack, before merging themselves out of existence. If you go into the garden centre today and buy a Spear & Jackson trowel, it’s descended from here.

Wollaston Mills


 Nash took the Mill over as an existing ironworks, incorporating and then expanded upon its buildings, just as later Caparo and Sunrise took over existing buildings after BSR’s radical re-imagining. Its existence as an ironworks built on a former Mill on the Stour that had been there since at least 1760. Before that, presumably, it was common – perhaps the Dividale Common that appears on the map of the course of the Stourbridge Canal, which was completed around 1779.

Names and networks

Clearly, names have come and gone throughout the site’s history. Sometimes they persist – Massey uses Walter Benjamin’s words that “the forces of perversion work deep within these names, which is why we maintain a world in the names of old streets.”  Sometimes, things are wiped clear: “if the past transforms the present, helps thereby to make it, so too does the present make the past.” Massey tends to think of places as processes, a site of articulated social relations. Doulton Brook is of course just that. It represents a company’s vision of somewhere to live that is safe, clean and modern. It undeniably includes some great things: the opened up Stour Valley is infinitely more aesthetically-pleasing than the tatty factory reminding us of decay and times of failure. The daylighting of the river in particular comes with wonderful ecological and environmental benefits.

Yet in naming this place “Doulton Brook” they are imagining away a world of social relations that many can remember – although (for example in the case of pollution) some might prefer not to. Have a walk around Stourbridge and see how many people’s parents worked at BSR, or grandparents at Nash’s. Consider too the difference in who is there now. With its cul-de-sacs and barriers between the public space of the footpath and the semi-private estate, this has become a class-defined, bounded space. That’s particularly true since Taylor Wimpey managed to argue against including any so-called affordable housing in the scheme on economic grounds – a reminder that they are a business first, not lifestyle gurus (for all their marketing) and that affordable housing – an essential thing for millions – is not a natural state of affairs for the private housebuilding sector. So, Doulton Brook is for those who can afford to buy, at more than the going rate for the town. It is cleaner and tidier and more consistent than my street, or many of the others in Stourbridge. It is named for a convenient nearby connection, with past associations reduced to street names. The developers have sought to manage both the time and the space of the site to the exclusion of those who are desperately short of housing. They have created attempted to reduce the global reach of this ‘place’ into a generic development which wouldn’t look out of place in any town in the country. In a region where locally-made bricks built the majority of homes, there is none of the red earthy local marl on display here.

Radical place

Perhaps here is the opportunity for historians and history to be, as Massey wished it, radical. Spaces get co-opted, places get invented; yet history remains, in all its varied readings. It’s up to us to ensure that the narratives of the past are not ignored or wiped clean, but front and centre in all their gritty glory, so that exclusions might become a thing of the past themselves.

Posted in Black Country, History, Housing, Space, Stourbridge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Black Country Irish: Willenhall


Townland in Co. Monaghan – the closest picture I can find on Geograph to Glencorick.

The rule of thumb with any sort of migration, especially when looking at the industrial era, is the larger the town, the greater the gravitation pull. Thus, London drew from all over the country, Birmingham pulls mostly from the Midlands counties, and Wolverhampton mostly from Staffordshire and Shropshire. It works with longer-distance migrants such as the Irish too: bearing in the mind the geographic effects of port of arrival, they tended to settle most numerously in larger towns like London, Liverpool and Manchester.

That meant that the straggling, inter-connected villages of the Black Country were often not characterised by early Irish migration. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any, of course, and Willenhall is the case in point today. Narrowing down clusters of Irish-born population (as we did in Walsall), we find that in 1851 over a third of the recorded 107 were living in Portobello, a small hamlet to the West of town. A bit closer and there are five Irish families (24 people, including lodgers and children born in England) living nearly next-door to each other on Bird Street. I’ve not been able to locate this on an OS map – I suspect it’s one of the clusters of courts and makeshift alleys on the South side of the high street, with picturesque names like Brevitt’s Buildings, Ten House Row and “Monkey Island”.

portobello 1887.JPG

Portobello in 1887. Bird Street was likely among the clusters of courts on the South side of the main road between Willenhall and Wolverhampton.

This isn’t surprising in many ways – Portobello was the poorest, most unhealthy and most overcrowded part of a town which was already all those things. If you were a poor Irish migrant, this is probably where you had to live, rather than chose to. By 1861, there are 311 Irish-born residents in the town, and as you’d expect, there’s a much wider spread. However, we still find the biggest clusters in districts 12 (Portobello south side), 13 (Portobello South-West) and 14 (Portobello North, the largest cluster).

So much for the statistics. I really want to think about the opposite side of the town, Clarkes Lane. The first sighting of this name (according to the Willenhall History Society) is the 1851 census – before this the area is referred to as Little Island. In 1851 it really was a little island of habitation in a sea of space: still in the first OS map in 1881 it’s surrounded by marshy ground, small fields, farmland likely belonging to the nearby County Bridge Farm. To the South, the young River Tame oozes, carrying all of Willenhall’s dirty water and disease on towards Walsall. To the North, the recently-opened Bentley Canal crosses the recently-opened Midland Railway at Short Heath. Along the lane, 36 cottages are strung in two main rows, including the Noah’s Ark pub.


This 1947 Aerofilms shot shows the Southern end of Clarkes Lane with the huge interwar John Harper works. Clarkes Lane goes from left to right across the picture, with the Armstrong stamping works on the right hand side and the Bentley Canal in the top-left.

There is speculation that Little Island is a corruption of Little Ireland – a common term for any district noted for its Irish population. The most famous is in Manchester, and was the subject of lengthy description by JP Kay in the 1830s and Engels in the 1840s. Kay’s and Engels’ writing emphasised the separation or segregation of the Irish, and the fact that the “hosts” and “migrants” did not mix. Little Irelands – which Karl Marx noted in every industrial city – were imagined to be isolated, distinct in social and physical form, almost ghettoes. While some writers on Irish immigration have taken this as a starting point, this is where local studies (such as mine in Carribee Island, Carl Chinn’s in Birmingham, Graham Davis’s in Bath, Lynn Hollen Lees’ in London, and so on) prove their worth – this formal segregation or isolation was almost never really true. An area may have felt like a Little Ireland, especially if a Catholic church was built close by, or pubs catered to the Irish population; but the Irish were very rarely (if at all) a numerical majority in, say, Digbeth, Bath’s Avon Street, or London’s St Giles. It’s well worth a read of Davis’s chapter on this.


Little Island, Willenhall, in 1886

If Little Island really was supposed to be a very Irish area, then this critique is true here too. In the post-famine census, in 1851, just one Irish family lives in the row. In the (very limited) 1841 census, I can’t find any evidence of Irishness, which sort of gives the lie to this idea. There’s little other evidence either: the one newspaper report that gives a William Gough as a resident of “Little Ireland” is, I think, a typo or an assumption on the part of the Birmingham-based reporter (Birmingham Mail, repeated in the Post).

The Pettys live towards the top end of the street, close to the canal. Jeremiah, an iron(?) labourer; Mary his wife; and their children Ann, George and Elizabeth. The last was born in Willenhall earlier that year; George in Darlaston in 1849. Given that their eldest, Ann, at six years old, was born in Ireland it appears that the family moved here during the great famine of 1845-51. There’s an extended family living here also though: a 21-year-old George Petty, 16-year-old Elizabeth Petty and 14-year-old Job are listed as servants. Job is a leather worker, George a labourer, and Elizabeth a coal pit labourer – one of the famous pit bank wenches of the Black Country. They are joined by three of Jeremiah’s brothers-in-law: John, Michael and Malachi Greaham, all working in mining.

Unusually for this census, the enumerator took the time to record the Pettys’ town of birth. Mostly, census takers just scrawled “Ireland” and were done with it, although they were supposed to write the county at least. It’s not easy to read: it could be Glen Covrick, Glen Corrick, Glen Corsett. And when you search for these Pettys in other censuses, they are frustratingly fleeting – lots of could-be-thems, lots of not-sures. Victorian handwriting continues to confuse even the toughest Optical Character Recognition, and the search databases of the likes of Ancestry.com can never be entirely reliable.

However. Checking through the list of names I get to the last, Malachi Greaham, and finally a hit. A full sixty years later, Malachi Graham, born in Glencorick, Ireland, is at home at 12 Cornwall Street, Birmingham. A widowed and retired policeman, he is kept company by his unmarried daughter Mary (a Brum-born cashier in a dining room), and granddaughter Florence (also born in Birmingham, a paper-box maker in the nearby jewellery trade. I can finally find somewhere in Ireland that matches the name, a small townland in County Monaghan.


Glencorick townland viewed using the OS of Ireland’s Geohive historical maps layer.

It’s curious that the family should have been so keen to have their tiny historic home recorded. There’s almost nothing there, just a farmhouse. Once this small space would have supported several tenant farmer families, of which the Pettys were one. Yet they all made sure the census enumerator recorded this small space in 1851, and Malachi made sure to mention it in 1911. He’d made his way as a policeman in the St Paul’s area of Birmingham, with a fine family, and had never thought to mention it. At 77, he was looking back over a life of movement, of new experiences and of change. The Birmingham of 1911 was a world away from the Birmingham he policed in 1871, let alone the semi-industrial scrub farmland of the Black Country in 1851. And even further back than that, did he remember the green farmlands and lakes of Monaghan? With fondness? Regret? Despair?

So many of our historical subjects are just traces in a record makers form somewhere. They flit in and out of perception by historians, despite the vast resources now available to those trying to trace a family history. The Pettys and Grahams touched down in Little Island, but it could have been for 20 years, it could have been for 20 days. We can trace the Pettys to Double Row, Netherton, ten years later, then they scatter. I wonder if they kept those same recollections when Jeremiah worked in the mines in the 1860s. I wonder if he worked alongside George his son and told him of Glencorick that George had never seen?

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Black Country Irish: Oldbury


Benjamin Williams, landlord of the Malt Shovel, Low Town, Oldbury, standing proudly outside his pub with his wife, child, and – in the top window – his wheelchair-bound brother Harry [source]

The 1881 census records just under 200 people living in the parish of Oldbury, then in Worcestershire, but having been born in Ireland. The census is of course a snapshot, and that’s particularly true of the newly-transient working class of the nineteenth century, for whom moving for work was very important. Here’s an example.

Greet’s Green

Born in Carrow Beg , close to the famine-hit Westport in Co. Mayo, John Judge emigrated to Greets Green, West Bromwich around 1870, joining his brother Rodger, who had moved out ten years previously. He brought with him his two sons, John and James (though both Johns were nicknamed “Jack”). They all lived together at No.2 Whitehouse Buildings, Greets Green Road – unskilled labourers all. John Jr in fact worked at John Dawes’s Bromford Iron Works, a major business in the area, situated not far from today’s Sandwell & Dudley station, until he was laid off in 1877, another victim of the long depression.

greets green 1890.JPG

Greet’s Green in 1890 – a typical Black Country sprawling hamlet, surrounded by collieries, canals and wasteland.

Later that year, John Jr was to move to Oldbury, when he married the Oldbury-born Mary McGuire. But as her name suggests, Mary was the daughter of Thomas and Jane McGuire, who had emigrated themselves from Ireland to Oldbury in the 1850s. They lived at Low Town, Oldbury. Mary married John Jr at St Francis Xavier on Pinfold Street, Oldbury in 1871; four years later, young James married her sister Ann.

Growing up in Low Town

John and Mary’s first child – another John, that I’ll call Jack – was born on 3rd December 1872. He had two younger sisters, and they grew up in Low Town, playing by the canal at the back of their house, and no doubt getting into mischief. Oldbury used to lie within a loop of the Birmingham Canal’s original mainline – the loop was later bypassed then filled, but in 1872 it served foundries, brickworks and saw mills. It was in this canal that Jack almost drowned, aged four.


Plan of Bromford Iron Works in 1851 [Tame Past Present Future]

Escape to Carribee Island

The insecurity of unskilled labour was a brutal thing, and capital holds no regards for family ties. The Judges had to move to find work, and they ended up in Wolverhampton. Here they found a much larger Irish community than that of Oldbury, and ended up living opposite St Patrick’s on Carribee Street. Yes, that Carribee – what started as a blog post about Oldbury has found itself smack bang in the district I’m studying for my PhD. St Patrick’s was built specifically for the mass of Irish immigrants in the Stafford Street district of Wolverhampton – the infamous “Carribee Island”. If the Judges moved there in the late 1870s then it was an odd time in the district: 1877 saw the passing of the Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme Act which enabled the council to knock down the very houses that they were living in. This was the Irish quarter though, and although work and the home may have been precarious, the church was very convenient – as were pubs such as the Limerick, the Erin-go-bragh and the Dan O’Connell.

They are there in the 1881 census, but moved to Moseley, in Birmingham, shortly after, before both John and the big-for-his-age Jack managed to take up employment at Bromford again in 1883. Their life in Oldbury is sadly typical of the poor Irish in the Black Country. John died of tuberculosis in 1888, leaving eight children and a widow to mind the fish stall that he had set up in 1885. Jack and his sister Jane Ann, who had a tough day job making bricks, hawked shellfish around Oldbury in the evenings to make ends meet. Two of the youngsters died of measles in 1891, and the older Nellie of TB in 1897. Mary remarried in 1893, but her new husband Bill Withey died in 1908.


Birmingham Street, Oldbury, c.1900. The stall in the foreground is almost exactly where John Judge’s stall was.

“He can tell a good tale, he can sing a good song…”


Jack in 1906

With heavy manual day jobs and busy evenings around town, it’s a wonder any of the children had time for leisure. Yet in the 1880s, Jack and Jane Ann were regulars at the Gaiety Music Hall in the centre of Oldbury. They began to enter talent competitions, with the big, stocky, red-headed extrovert Jack quickly becoming a popular turn. His was an old-style variety performance – singing, whistling, jokes and banter with the crowd was his stock in trade. His charisma enabled him to get booked further afield than Oldbury – but as the man of the Judge household, the business kept his ambitions very much in check. There were other draws to staying in Oldbury too – in 1895 he married Jinny Carroll, a quiet young lady from Oldbury Irish stock, at the same church where his parents had wed 23 years earlier. Jinny began to help Mary in what was now a fish shop and Jack eventually gave up his foundry work to run the place.


An advert for Judge’s fish shop in 1905 [Bones Oldbury Directory [source]]


Jack’s home was nextdoor to the Malt Shovel pub in Low Town, which in 1903 was taken over by Benjamin Williams. He moved in with his brother Harry, who was confined to a wheelchair. Jack and Harry became firm friends. Harry’s disability didn’t stand in the way of him being a first-rate pianist, and together with Harry’s knack for wit and rhyme, they put together a catalogue of songs. Jack was soon out at music halls across the country, especially after placing third in a London competition; it was enough for him to describe himself as a “comedian” in the 1911 census. Out of the dregs of his memories of these songs, Jack won a bet to write a song on the spot one night at the Stalybridge Grand, and the rest is history. If you’re from Oldbury, you’ll already have figured this one out, but if not you might be wondering why the name Jack Judge sounds familiar. The song was “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary” which went on to become one of the defining cultural touchstones of the epoch-changing First World War. Written on a whim it hit a mark in the English and the Irish, the working-class soldiers of the war and the publishers of the day.


Jack Judge in the 1920s [Sandwell Archives]

For the first forty years of his life, Jack Judge presents a fairly typical story. Born in the Black Country of Irish stock, like thousands of others he worked his guts out in the iron foundries. He saw tragedy all around him yet maintained a good humour – unlike others in Oldbury. He had to scrape for work, and hit some very low points – I imagine finding yourself in Carribee Street in 1881 was a miserable experience in many ways, although bonded by kinship, countrymen and church in a way that modern lives rarely are. It was an purely serendipitous finding Jack here – his excellent biography here mentions him in Wolverhampton, but it’s good to be able to flesh him out a bit. It’s a good news story in the end: although the lot of the Irish communities improved as the 19th century turned into the 20th, few had the success or fame of Jack Judge. Despite this, he never strayed far from Oldbury – to a council house in Rood End then a larger one in Whiteheath, staying in the fish business until 1937. An Irishman who made the most of his roots, and who celebrated them, played with them, and exploited them where he could, nevertheless Jack Judge remained a true Black Country mon all his days.

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Black Country Irish: Wednesbury


Forge workers in the axle turning shop at Isaiah Oldbury’s Reliance Works, Wednesbury [source]

The town of Wednesbury was home to probably the most significant Irish population in the Black Country, after Wolverhampton. The nationalist journalist Hugh Heinrick reckoned that in 1872 there was at least 3,000 in the Irish community (based on his own definition of Irishness, in which one Irish voter probably equates to about 7 Irish men, women or children, in the area). He disapproved of their manners, the “jargon of the mines” and the “indulgences in strong potations,” but blamed these on the English workers around them – an interesting twist on the usual discourse the other way round, as promulgated by Engels, Carlyle and others.



St Mary’s, Wednesbury’s Catholic church [source]

Today’s main story, though, is a more global one than I’ve so far come across among the Black Country Irish. Our heroes (or possibly not) are several, but we’ll start with Father George Montgomery. Born in 1818 and raised a Protestant in Dublin, Montgomery converted to Catholicism during the Tractarian period and was ordained in 1849. He served a while lecturing in and around Bilston before taking up the priesthood of Wednesbury in 1850. He was a highly enthusiastic man and set about righting the wrongs of the treatment of his largely Irish flock, who had arrived along with many of their countrymen during the previous decade, and would continue to pour into this rapidly expanding town. He stopped the frequent fighting amongst the Irish, built a new church and even published his own newsletter, The Rev. G. Montgomery’s Register (surely a forerunner of a blog). His ministry to the poor led him to believe that the British state was dead against the integration of his countrymen into society, and that they would be far better served by moving on to another part of the world. Of course, there was little point them going back to their hungry and stricken homeland; but many must have dreamed of going on to America.


The port of Itajai, Brazil [source]


Enter William Scully. Another Irishman, Scully was a newspaper editor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His newspaper, the Anglo-Brazilian Times encouraged migration to the resource-rich Brazilian interior at a time when Emperor Dom Pedro II was also attempting to assert his power and grow his country’s economy. Many European settlers travelled to South America, including 55 German immigrants who settled in the forested mountains on the right bank of the Itajaí-Mirim river in the southern Santa Catarina state, at what became Colônia Itajahy (now Brusque). They were joined in the 1860s by a wave of Confederate emigreés from the Southern USA, and other countrymen of theirs from the North, including Irishmen from New York, who soon developed a tough reputation.


German settlers in 1874, probably in Blumenau, a town in the same state but on the Northern branch of the river, the Itajai-açu [Wikimedia Commons]

Scully wrote in 1867:

The Irishman, perhaps justly accused of unthriftiness and insubordination at home, for he is hopeless there and has the tradition of a bitter oppression to make him feel discontented, becomes active, industrious, and energetic when abroad; intelligent he always is. He soon rids himself of his peculiarities and prejudices, and assimilates himself so rapidly with the progressive people around him that his children no longer can be distinguished from the American of centuries of descent.
Anglo-Brazilian Times, 23 January 1867)

One individual who read these words and saw in them a hope that the Black Country’s Irish could be cured of their wicked ways and find new prosperity and spiritual fulfilment in the Americas was – you guessed it – George Montgomery. As the iron trade slumped around him, as poverty deepened, as preachers like William Murphy swept through the town causing uproar and persecution, the fertile fields and fruit trees of Brazil seemed a fine home for those Irish in his care, and he duly wrote to Scully, and to Joseph Lazenby, a Jesuit priest who described the new settlement of Colônia Príncipe Dom Pedro – on the left bank of the Itajaí-Mirim, opposite Itajaí itself. Montgomery was sold, and on 12th February 1868, 339 Wednesbury migrants set sail to the new world.


They arrived on 22nd April. It didn’t start well. Despite an official greeting from the Emperor himself, William Scully tried to advise them to find somewhere else to settle. All was not well in the settler town – the behaviour of certain Irish immigrants had caused a general displeasure towards the Irish that wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to these poor immigrants from back in the Black Country, and the American, German, English (the only English settlers in the state), French, Italian and other settlers in the Colonia were less than receptive. But they ploughed on, and arrived in the new town.


Modern day Brusque, Santa Catarina State

Making their way

Life was tough. Not only were the new Irish settlers unpopular, but they found themselves amid wrangling for power between other immigrant groups. Infrastructure was poor, making the town feel even more distant from the major markets than it was. Allocation of plots of land was bungled, leaving the Irish in flood-prone areas, and when the floods came, all they had was washed away. The hardiest lasted just over a year, but soon had to return to Rio de Janeiro in tatters to seek help there. The Irish were the hardest hit, but eventually all English-speaking settlers were persuaded or forced out, their places taken by new Polish migrants to become the city it is today. Our Wednesbury Irish were forced onto charity, and subscriptions raised eventually sufficed to send them back to Britain or Ireland, or in some cases, steelworking towns in Pennsylvania – another kind of Black Country…


European migrants picking coffee in Brazil in the early 20th century [Wikimedia Commons]

For the Wednesbury Irish, life had been a series of upheavals in search of a better life, and they faced disappointment at every step. From desperate poverty in Ireland to poverty and hard labour in the ironworks of South Staffordshire; from persecution in Wednesbury to persecution in Santa Catarina; from rags and starvation in Rio back to hard grind in the steel mills.

Global citizens

Theresa May recently told us that if you think you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. This is backwards-looking , nationalist conservative rhetoric at its worst. It takes aim at some sort of imagined metropolitan elite who think (shock horror) that the nation-state might not be that glorious an idea. As with other conservative politics though, it’s those upon whom global citizenship is forced, without choice, that suffer from being citizens of nowhere. Children seeing their makeshift homes in Calais demolished might have travelled across the world but it was hardly what they wanted. Likewise those fleeing despotic regimes in Eritrea, everyday war in Libya, or grinding poverty in Pakistan, have become citizens of the world, but thanks to economic and political forces over which they have no say, are now citizens of nowhere.

The Irish of Wednesbury had become global citizens, fleeing poverty and starvation in Ireland to a new home amongst the mines and furnaces and backbreaking labour of the Black Country. They were encouraged to try again, by a well-meaning kinsman pushing them to go, and another encouraging them to come across the ocean. But global forces and parochial nationalisms prevailed again, leaving them homeless and in tatters, hoping against hope for a living.


  • Kester Aspden, Fortress Church: The English Roman Catholic Bishops and Politics, 1903-63, Gracewing, 2002
  • Oliver Marshall, Petition to Pope Pius the Ninth, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006
  • Edmundo Murray, Brazil and Ireland, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006
  • Miguel Alexandre de Araujo Neto, Great Britain, the Paraguayan War and Free Immigration in Brazil, 1862-1875, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 4:3, 2006
Posted in Black Country, Irish, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Legitimate concerns?

There’s been a lot said in the last few days about migrants – how they should be listed and categorised, how people’s “legitimate concerns” over influxes of labour should be heard, how funding should be changed so we don’t have to invite so many, say, doctors to work here.

I am not a migrant in these terms. I grew up in a small village in rural Hampshire. I moved to the big city, London, aged 19, and to the Black Country aged 29. I have stayed within this country my whole working life. Yet I am a migrant, and it would be foolish to imagine otherwise. I moved to London to grow my opportunities for work, culture and life in general, settling into a huge metropolis with all its attendant urban characteristics. I moved away from London as an economic migrant, unable to afford to live there any longer and moving to somewhere where I hoped I could make a better living. I got a job at the University of Birmingham, presumably meaning that someone else, someone local, didn’t.

This puts me within a mobile population which dates back before the imagined golden era of the 1950s, before the Industrial Revolution. My subjects in Wolverhampton came there from across the world. The map below shows their countries of birth in the 1851 census – the large majority in England, of course, but also from France, Italy and Germany (and this was before some of the major waves of immigration from those places); America and Canada; the growing British Empire (India, Australia, Jamaica); exotic places like Madagascar, Turkey, Liberia, Indonesia.


Birthplaces in the 1851 Wolverhampton census

But we can drill down too. 3,763 of the 49,798 were born in Ireland (and it should be remembered that Ireland was part of the same country at the time). 44,229 were born in England – but where? Of those that ICEM can trace, we can produce a map here too.

1851Wolv counties.jpg

Birthplaces within England in the 1851 Wolverhampton census

The most are from Staffordshire, unsurprisingly – this includes 22,189 born in Wolverhampton itself (although go back just a generation or two and a very different picture will emerge). But apart from that, hardly a county is unrepresented. Rural Shropshire sent 4,691, and Warwickshire and Worcestershire both sent over 1,500. Mining areas like Yorkshire, Lancashire and North Wales are there. Even migrants from the big city (represented by Middlesex) – just like me.

I think encouraging people to dig into their own family history could be a really crucial thing in combating the idea that just because someone is born somewhere else, they shouldn’t have the same right to work, live, study or whatever. We are all migrants, if we look closely.

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Black Country Irish: Red-headed Kilcoign


New Street, Stourbridge, in the 1970s (Stourbridge.com)

Irish Rows

If there’s one thing you learn researching the Irish in the Victorian city, it’s that 19th century newspaper editors love an Irish Row. Roger Swift wrote whole papers about the policing of Irish rows in Wolverhampton, but it’s an expression that comes up time and again, wherever you find the poor Irish crammed into a town.

It was my starting point for Stoubridge, to see whether Irish Rows were common in this otherwise comparatively genteel Black Country town. Stourbridge was always the country market town of the Black Country – it’s outside the coalfield and served as a market centre rather than a manufacturing one (this is despite the famous glass trade of the town, so-named from the central meeting place of producers at the Talbot Hotel, rather than the manufacturing centre of Amblecote and Wordsley). But it had its urban ills like anywhere, and the Irish influx was certainly considered to be one of those. Like Wolverhampton and most of the other towns round about, Stourbridge’s Irish population was tucked into small, central living spaces, predominantly around Coventry Street and Angel Street. Eric Hopkins (whose work is essential on Stourbridge history) quoted the 1851 census enumerator:

“From 88 to the end [of Hughes Yard, off Coventry Street] consist of chiefly Irish who live in dilapidated houses consisting of only a room down and a room up and are crowded to excess, and are known as Irish lodging houses.”

Stourbridge was thus a town like so many others in the aftermath of the great Irish famine, and home to many hundreds of Irish men, women and children. In fact, prior to the famine there are several – we find a 15-year-old Mary Kilcoin living up at Stambermill in 1841, lodging with Bartholomew Daly and his family.


Remastered version of the 1781 street plan, plotted against a later map by K James [source]

The Kilcoins of Stourbridge

I’ve picked out Mary Kilcoin for a reason. By 1851, the town is heaving with Kilcoins (of various spellings). Bartholomew Kilcoin is in Griffiths Yard with his family and Anthony Kilcoin in Crown Lane, a lodger of another group of the family. John Kilcoin, a “flashily-dress Irishman” was convicted for assaulting one Mary Clarke at an Irish lodging-house in Stourbridge, in 1848 – the Worcestershire Chronicle considered that it highlighted the “gross immorality” of some of the lodginghouses of the town. The costs John was ordered to pay included surgeon’s fees for Mary’s evident suffering.

The town at large would have become increasingly familiar with the Kilcoins over the next decade or so, though. In 1855, Anthony Kilcoigne [sic] was fined 10s for what we’d think of as aggravated assault against one John Murphy, at whom Anthony (and possibly his cousin Patrick) had thrown a jug at Murphy and struck him with a bludgeon. Anthony, in particular, was gaining a reputation as the leader of the Kilcoins – a tall, red-haired Irishman with an unpredictable violent streak, and prone to holding grudges. “Red-headed Kilcoigne” appears frequently in the local press and criminal records.

“Jemmy, brother, I am done for!”

It was later that year that Anthony was profiled to the public at large. Leaving Burke’s public house in New Street around 10pm on Sunday 15th July, Anthony was well on his way to drunk. (Stourbridge wasn’t short of pubs – an 1851 gazetteer estimates around 90 pubs and a futher 60 beerhouses). According to the initial police court hearing, two men came out of an adjoining pub and just “set upon him”. The trial of Alick and James Welch (or Welsh) in December 1855 suggests Anthony made the first move – in fact, the matter of who started it is essentially what the trial boils down to, and was never successfully resolved. It reminds me of a stand-off between two terriers in the park: they’ll sniff and face each other for a bit, then suddenly both erupt at once. I would be surprised if Anthony was an entirely innocent victim here. One of the defence witness claimed that the Welches were just making their way home.

1837 stourbridge.JPG

Central Stourbridge on John Wood’s plan of 1837. As is typical of this period, you can see the gardens being swallowed up by housing development, courts and passages. New Street, leading out of the bottom left of the map, is now mostly underneath Tesco – there’s just a short stub next to the old Market Hall [source]

A cousin of Anthony’s, James Kilcoigne, was standing by and watching, hands stuffed in  pockets. I’m guessing from this that he was used to seeing Anthony fight, and not too worried. It was when he was literally dragged into the fray that things got really serious. James Welch, clearly unimpressed with being watched, strode up and laid into James and with help from another Welch, Edward, dragged the younger Kilcoigne across the street and into a beating. By this time a crowd had gathered from the surround pubs, including yet more Kilcoignes. Patrick Kilcoigne now flings himself into the melée to protect James – his younger brother – just as Alick Welch is standing over him having raised what looks like a hatchet. Heroic as that was, it proved fatal for him. Alick struck Patrick Kilcoign with the hatchet. Mr Freer, the surgeon, later examined Patrick and found a healing wound, except for an area of bare bone with a wound pushing a piece of skull half an inch into the brain.

“Oh Jemmy, brother, I am done for!” he cried out. “Get up if you can!” James managed to get away as the Welches piled in on Patrick. Edward Welch took a poker to the stricken Irishman, another took a brick. Newspaper court reports are often oddly specific recording this sort of event. It’s wonderful detail to know that Edward Welch had a poker, and that “the blood flowed profusely from the deceased’s head”, but I’d love to know where Anthony was at this time, or who the crowd were cheering for. Were the Kilcoins the victims of a premeditated, gangland style execution? Were they or the Welches the dominant force in the Irish underworld in Stourbridge? Who was the goodie, and who the baddie here? We know that bricks and stones were flying around, but who threw them?

Patrick was “conveyed away”, back to his lodgings. After three weeks of agony, he died of his wounds. By this time, PC Turner had raided Michael Luddin’s lodging house on Queen Street, where the Welches stayed, and had found a part of a spade used for chopping meat that might have been the murder weapon. He also found, and arrested, Alick and James Welch, but never managed to capture Edward Welch (who seems, out of all of them, to have a psychopathic streak reminiscent of Joe Pesci in Casino). At the inquest, held at the Talbot Inn in December, both sides wheeled out witnesses to try and ascertain who started the fight. Catherine Kilcoigne swore that the Welches had “thrown up their jackets” and sworn that they wouldn’t leave a Kilcoigne alive. The family feud was clear: she had never, and would never have a Welch for a sweetheart. Mr Kettle, for the defence, took the discreditation route, alleging that it “was just a regular Irish row” – he brought out Sybil Gibbons, who was in Burkes, who claimed that Catherine and Alick Welch were once sweethearts; he brought out Bridget Burke, presumably of the pub itself, who claims to have heard Catherine swear that if this went to court, she would “hang the Welches”; he brought out one Bridget Bannan, who had seen the Welches that night and swore that it was Anthony Kilcoigne who started the fight.


New Street, 1884 [(c) Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd 2016, all rights reserved (1884)

A family affair

This was clearly a thoroughly Irish affair. The Kilcoignes and the Welches came from the same part of County Mayo, and James Kilcoigne joked in court that they had been quarrelling “since before they were born.” Welch is the less common form of Walsh, a Saxon word for someone of Celtic origin, but Kilcoin, however it’s spelt, is thoroughly Irish. It stems from O’Cadhan, or “wild goose”, with the prefix Kil meaning “follower of”. Wild geese have a special place in Irish history. The term was used to describe those Irish soldiers who fought under the Jacobite banner that were forced to flee to France under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. It came to refer to generations of Irish soldiers that served Spanish, French, Italian and other armies over the next century. The surname comes from the West coast of Ireland – Galway and Mayo, where Anthony’s family came from. Victorian censuses rarely recorded a hometown (or townland) for the Irish, so we have to take James’s word that the Welches and Kilcoins hailed from the same spot.

The charges against the Welches are recorded in the Criminal Registers for 1855, handily stored on Ancestry.com. James Welch was discharged, but Alick was sentenced to 12 months incarceration. In my feeble understanding of the law, this means that Alick met two criteria (as the law stood in 1855): firstly he was provoked into an act that was sudden and unmeditated (although the provocation could be over a long period); secondly, that the provocation was such that a “reasonable man” would act in the same way. That sounds utterly subjective to me, but apparently falls under strict guidelines – we even have a type of unreasonableness named after a Black Country town. So Alick went off to jail, probably in Worcester.

Red-headed Kilcoigne

Anthony, “red-headed Kilcoigne,” got off lightly here – my guess is he was the provocation. It certainly wasn’t his last appearance in front of a jury. On trial at the Police Court for inflicting grievous bodily harm on one George Kinchin in 1860, the Worcestershire Chronicle describes both him and his accomplice, Edward Gibbons, as “men [who] have frequently been convicted for assaults, and each of them has narrowly escaped being convicted for the crime of taking away human life.” On that occasion, and in an opportunistic attack on Benjamin Hill near the Stambermill turnpike gate in 1861, he shows a propensity for sudden, extreme violence – as well as a fearsome reputation. Pinning him down in censuses proves tricky – there are more than one Anthony Kilcoigne in town, and both live in the densely-populated Irish streets around Coventry Street and Angel Street (now Angel Passage, near the bus station, and bisected by ring road). There are a swathe of other Kilcoin families, as well as Welches and other names that crop up.

The police were kept busy by the vicious likes of Edward Welch, Edward Gibbons and Red-headed Kilcoigne, but the problem wasn’t limited to the Irish population. Violence was a way of life for many in the Black Country, and their birthplace was less relevant than other things – some of which, if Catherine Kilcoigne’s testimony was as flawed as claimed, were much more personal than ethnic. What is evident is that, although Wolverhampton and Wednesbury have the reputation as Irish towns in the 19th century, even a small town like Stourbridge had its share of the good and the bad in both Irish and English society. As a historian, I try and walk a balance between some sort of representative reportage of the ‘facts’ as they happened, and acknowledging my own prejudices and biases. Given the instinctive resentment of the Irish at the time (sadly similar to that towards migrants now) I naturally want to take their side, to represent them in a more positive light than they were at the time, when prejudices and biases were flung about left, right and centre. But it’s worth the occasional reminder that however hard done by were the Black Country men and women of years gone by, some of them were just vile.

[Reports taken from the British Newspaper Archives, particularly from the Worcestershire Chronicle and Wolverhampton Chronicle]

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Black Country Irish: Walsall in the 1850s


Rushall Street 1902-3, by Henry Somerfield (New Art Gallery)

Sometimes, otherwise wonderful digital sources are a great frustration. John Denvir, in his survey of the Irish in Britain, points to a mysterious attack upon the Irish in Walsall, in 1851. Excellent, I thought: a story to hook a post on – there are three Walsall newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive. Of course, none of them go back as far as 1851 so I’ll have to take a different approach – until I get to Walsall Local History Centre to explore this further, I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows anything about that.

The Walsall Irish

So what of the Irish in Walsall? Unlike in Wolverhampton, Birmingham or many other industrial cities, little has been written about any influx of Irish migrants to Walsall in the 19th century. This isn’t because there wasn’t an influx though: in 1851 there were 1,732 individuals born in Ireland and living in Walsall – although this is a long way short of Wolverhampton’s 3,762, the Irish-born make up 8.9% of the whole population of Walsall and Walsall Foreign (for comparison, in the much larger district of Wolverhampton, the overall proportion is 7.55% – although it’s significantly higher in the poorer Eastern half of the borough).

Trying to piece together a historical sketch from the data downloadable at I-CeM and the digitised census pages at somewhere like Ancestry is not always straightforward, but, it is possible to get an idea of the areas where the Irish-born are found in high numbers by spotting where there are a high number of Irish-born residents on a census enumerator’s sheet. I learnt Pivot Tables in Excel for this, I hope you’re grateful. There are a maximum of 20 names that can appear on any one sheet – by looking out for those in the high end of that, or where there’s a run of high results, we can find clusters.

Town End

There are eight such clusters in the 1851 census for Walsall. Winning some sort of award for ironic/racist placenaming, the first we find is “Potatoe Square”, near the corner of Park Street and Marsh Lane. As in Wolverhampton, the first OS town plan of Walsall is after an early slum clearance scheme (on which more). A truncated Marsh Lane still exists, by the canal terminus, but Aulton’s map of 1875 shows us that Marsh Lane originally followed a crooked-er version of modern-day Marsh Street. My guess is that Potatoe Square was probably done away with as part of the Town End Bank demolitions that re-routed the street. It was a collection of 9 very overcrowded homes, of which 7 had an Irish-born head of household. A report in the Walsall Free Press also notes that 8 of these were lodging houses, often with up to 20 lodgers at a time. The property owner was one John Smith, complained of in 1858 for allowing the privy to be in “a foul and offensive state”. Their situations were very typical of the Irish in Britain at the time: many were lodgers, sometimes widows or widowers; jobs included hawkers, mining, farming or construction labourers, or stone breakers for the men, dressmakers and musicians amongst the women. Further Irish families were found adjacent in the census on Marsh Lane itself.


Excerpt from Aulton’s 1875 map of Walsall (source). The area around Park Street and Marsh Lane was a distinctly Irish area.

On the opposite side of Park Street was St Paul’s Row, also known as Court 3, and here (and in the houses surrounding on Park Street itself) was another cluster of Irish residents. Here you’d find John Sweeney, a collier living with his wife, two daughters, mother, and seven lodgers; or Thaddeus Shelley, a 30-year-old labourer with his young family and another cluster of lodgers. This court wasn’t quite so monocultural – also in St Paul’s Row were Walsall-born Jane Brooks, on parish relief; and Charles Hopkins, pursuing the once prosperous trade of bucklemaking.

This area around Town End certainly had the reputation of being the Irish area, as Carribee Island did in Wolverhampton. It even prompted one local poet, George Evans, to pen a poem:

Here English, Irish, Scotch and Frenchmen too,
At fall of day crowd thick upon the view;
Here Cadgers, Tinkers, Pedlars may be seen,
In tattered garbs of most forbidding mien;
Italians, too, with ‘Images’ so white,
Give to the coterie a chequered sight.
Blind Fiddlers, led by dogs, for lodgings seek,
Not for a night perchance, but for a week,
Till they in Walsall every house have ‘tried’,
And have at every door been thrice denied.
Here ragged children flock about in swarms,
And groups of women stand about with folded arms;
And beardless youths among them oft appear,
Whose filthy language wounds a modest ear.
Here ‘Irish rows’ break out like thunder storms,
And each blood-thirsty veteran flies to arms;
As by electric shocks, the skirmish spreads,
Which ends in crippled limbs and broken heads.

The “Irish row” was a regular newspaper trope in the local press: the Irish were considered prone to violence and drunkenness and many different reports of disorderly conduct could be subsumed under the banner of “Irish row“, as though it was just a part of their natural state. It’s an evocative poem (and thanks to John Barnes (not that one, probably) for posting it on Facebook), but it could have been written about any industrial city of the time. Interesting to see the other nationalities mentioned: there were only 234 Scots, 29 French and 28 Italians in the 1851, suggesting that sometimes, even artists see what they want to see.

Rushall Street

I think we can skip over a cluster in Lower Rushall Street in which two large Irish families just happen to live next door to one another, but our next cluster is on the same street, this time in several courts: Tailor’s Court, Anchor Yard, Bulls Head Yard and another prizewinning name, “Limerick”. This is an old part of town. Where Marsh Lane really was at the “Town End,” Rushall Street was an ancient thoroughfare – in fact the main way into town. It’s residences were therefore much older. John Snape’s map of 1782 gives us an idea where these courts were – handily, the redoubtable Bev Parker has got a tidied up version of it.


Walsall, 1782, based on John Snape (c) Bev Parker

We can see Anchor Yard and Bull’s Head Yard here – I think the former correlates with Court 13/14 on the first OS map, and the latter features. Limerick, a Taylor’s Yard and an Archer’s Yard also appear on a rare transcription of the family names taken in the 1801 census. You’re hard pressed to find an Irish name here this early, mind: a William Slaney is a tailor in Taylor’s Yard, and that might be it.


Anchor Yard in 1885 (c) Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd (2016). All rights reserved (1885)

Anchor Yard was home to a cluster of Irish families: the McKinnons, the Murthys, the McAnns, the Connollys, the Comleys, the Cunninghams, the Broadways, the Brehenys, the Kains, the Taylors, the Murphys, the Carneys, the Giblins and the Finnings, with all their myriad lodgers, extended families, and a scattering of English-born residents. Court 15, aka Limerick, showed a similar pattern. Bulls Head Court appears frequently in the pages of the Walsall Free Press, described in somewhat sarcastic tones as an “elegant locality” in 1858. Despite its heavy Irish distribution, I find little obvious over-emphasis on “Irish rows” in the same way as we find in Wolverhampton. There are certain insinuations though: Ellen Carr, aka “Irish Nell” was “one of the most revolting and disgusting revelations of Bull’s Head-yard life” in 1859 – she had stolen 5 shillings from a customer at a brothel in the yard.

Urban development

The courts off Rushall Street are classic early urban development. The street was lined with houses, much as in Somerfield’s sketch at the top, and behind those, gardens were parcelled off and rows of cottages built – these were clearly in evidence by the time Snape made his map in 1782. As the town expanded, previously unusable areas were built on to accommodate the swelling masses of people – of which the Irish were just a handful – that converged upon the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North. Marsh Lane suggests to me low-lying, flood-prone land. A few years after Snape’s map, the Walsall Canal was cut through, terminating at the crook of Marsh Lane, and the area around was built up with industry – even more so when the railway arrived there too. In the cracks, housing emerged and it was this dilapidated, unsanitary housing stock that inspired Walsall to a slum clearance scheme (more details here), similar to Wolverhampton’s Carribee Island plans, and the much bigger Corporation Street area in Birmingham. In the end, the Town End area was knocked down and rebuilt, although Marsh Street retained dimly-lit, seedy reputation, and was the go-to resort for prostitution in Walsall for many years after.

In the end, both Town End and the courts and yards of Rushall Street were cleared: Town End in the 1870s/1880s, and large areas off Rushall Street in the 1930s. Anchor Yard and Limerick are now buried beneath the imposing multistorey accommodation of Warewell Close. Bulls Head Yard suffered a happier fate, being incorporated into the grounds of St Matthews – you can trace its route by walking the footpath from the Lyndon House Hotel to the back of Lidl. St Paul’s Row survived as an arcade but now lies under a multistorey car park. Potatoe Square, I would guess, is now under the New Art Gallery.

Playing with data

Town End is the better-known Irish part of Victorian Walsall, and the census returns corroborate Evans’ poem. But drilling into the anonymised ICEM data can throw up some useful data points that reveal new areas of analysis. A heat map would be a good way to visualise this – if only I had the time, but perhaps it’s something worth doing in Wolverhampton for my formal research. I wouldn’t have known about Anchor Yard, Limerick or Bulls Head Yard without this, or that the Irish were by no means confined to back courts with no presence on the main thoroughfares. If I’m trying to write history from below, new visualisations and ways of revealing data might just be an excellent way to start.

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