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.
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.
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.
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.
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]