Black Country Irish: lies, damned lies and statistics

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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.

Proportions

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

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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.

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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.

Trends

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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2 Responses to Black Country Irish: lies, damned lies and statistics

  1. Paul Fullwood says:

    Hi Simon – you may remember (a longtime ago) we were in touch about a Lost Wolverhampton exhibition idea? It has finally got the green light and is scheduled for Autumn 2018. Are you still up for it? If so, can you give me your e-mail address again-sorry, but this has taken so long to get going I have lost it.

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