This post follows on from these two about the afterlife of Carribee Island, for forty years the assumed – and stigmatised – home of Wolverhampton’s Irish population in the nineteenth century. The Carribee Island area was part of a major clearance scheme in the late 1870s and 1880s which transformed the North-Eastern area of Wolverhampton town centre, changing the demographic face of the community for ever.
This post is inspired by the fantastically detailed work that volunteers and staff at Wolverhampton City Archives have been doing with the Wolverhampton’s War project, tracing the lives and families of Wolverhampton’s Great War. Particular credit should go to Claire Jones, who has researched the mysteries of the Little’s Lane street shrine exhaustively. I have to confess here that I’m no Great War scholar; but I am curious about the continuing life of the area I’ve been studying in the mid-nineteenth century. I’ve taken all these records from that website.
At the bottom end of Stafford Street, opposite the University of Wolverhampton, stands a building described in 1912 as “a considerable pile in an Early Gothic style” designed by Daniel Arkell of Birmingham. It’s student accommodation now. When built in 1890, it was headquarters for the Staffordshire Yeomanry, coupled to a now-demolished drill hall. It’s a lasting link to the Black Country’s military connections, although neither the hall nor the South Staffordshire Regiment it was built to serve, are in operation now. It sits on the site of a row of Georgian (or perhaps older) houses that were cleared under the Wolverhampton Improvement Scheme of 1877, extending back over the land that was once the infamous Carribee Island. Stand facing the Staffordshire Knot insignia and, 150 years ago, you would have been looking right into the heart of that place.
It was by no means a done deal that if you were from this part of Wolverhampton, you would sign up for this regiment. Nevertheless, many did. Among these was John Edward O’Hara, one of the few veterans born within the lifetime of the unhealthy area, and then only just. He was born to Patrick and Bridget O’Hara in 1881, in a court on Littles Lane. and lived in court 3, Littles Lane – typical back-to-back properties in part of the area untouched by clearance schemes. Patrick, a general labourer, was from Roscommon, Bridget from Cong, Co. Mayo – both counties affected by the aftermath of the famine of the 1840s. They appear to have married in 1868, in Wolverhampton, and John had several older siblings. Irish immigration into Wolverhampton was by no means limited to the shocking crisis events of the late 1840s: the reorganisation of land and social structures in Ireland was a continuing process for decades. John enlisted with the South Staffs Regiment in 1915, aged 34, ayear younger than me.
Also from Little’s Lane, this time in the large court 9, was the labourer George Dodd – of English stock this time, born in 1885. By the outbreak of war he was living close by in Southampton Street, and enlisted in the South Staffs 6th Battalion. The Drill Hall was HQ for that battalion; in other parts of the regiment were Charles Henry Harriman of 16 Broad Street (formerly Canal Street), and John Evans, formerly of Stafford Street. Arthur J. Lloyd, a toolmaker at Chillington ironworks, (probably) joined the Sherwood Foresters, having grown up in Thornley Street; a neighbour of his, Thomas Appleby, a recently-married kinematograph bill inspector from Heath Town, joined the Royal Field Artillery. Littles Lane was probably the most populous part of this area then: Albert Pearce from court 6, a tube manufacturer’s labourer, enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery; William Green (a merchant’s labourer living in Cannock Road, having grown up in Little’s Lane) and Edmund Bennett (of court 9 Littles Lane) in the Worcestershire; Stephen Patrick Williams (a colleague of Lloyd’s at Chillington), from Court 2, in the Durham (probably); and Martin Lavelle – the oldest resident of this area found on Wolverhampton’s War – the King’s Shropshire Light
Lavelle was a mighty common Irish surname, and would not have been out of place in Back Lane, where Martin was born in 1879. His parents Martin and Bridget were both born in pre-famine County Mayo, still a desperately poor place and one hard hit when Martin senior was just 9 years old. Back Lane had recently been condemned and demolition was only held up by the lack of new houses built by a recession-hit private construction sector. In 1881 the newly laid-out plots at Springfields were offered up to the market at auction – with zero takers. So life in Back Lane must have been constantly anxious, a sword hanging over the spot – this was where Martin Lavelle entered the world. Martin signed at Leominster in 1915.
Oh! What a lovely war
There’s no sense here that these soldiers made up a group of pals – the Little’s Lane shrine talks about a different group of people with, I think, stronger connections to place, kinship and friendship. This group’s experiences of war however were all very different. Soldiers today tend to get branded as “heroes” no matter what their record or attitude, but this wasn’t always the case. Stephen Williams and Albert Pearce both seemed to have struggled with military discipline. Williams was put in detention for a while for stealing other soldiers’ possessions, and absented himself from duty several times. Pearce was a disorderly soldier, confined to barracks more than once for drunkenness and tardiness. George Dodd on the other hand was decorated and an inspirational sergeant: he received the Distinguished Conduct medal in 1916 for “conspicuous gallantry,” and the Military Medal and Décoration Militaire in 1917. These men survived the war and lived long lives in Wolverhampton.
A.J. Lloyd was captured as a Prisoner of War in 1918, his later whereabouts unknown.
William Green was killed at Gallipoli on 7th May 1915.
John Evans died on 30th June 1916 in North-east France, and is memorialized at Cabaret-Rouge cemetery.
Edmund Bennett was killed in action on the third day of the Battle of the Somme: 3rd July 1916.
John O’Hara suffered trench foot, “traumatic psychosis,” and “delusional insanity” due to the “stress of the campaign.” He was interred at an asylum and died in Lichfield in 1917.
Charles Harriman rose to Second Lieutenant and was a pioneer airman, but was killed in action over France on 29th October 1917.
Thomas Appleby died in a field hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, on 22nd April 1918.
Martin Lavelle was decorated too, but died of wounds received in France, in an Exeter hospital on 29th April 1918.
None of these men could claim a memorable link to Carribee Island. Yet it’s clear that Irish ancestry was common amongst the residents of this area, both before and after its clearance in the early 1880s. Littles Lane, a survivor of the Improvement Scheme, seemed to be the natural home for the town’s Irish in this period: adjacent to the Carribee Island locale, this appears to be typical of mid/late Victorian urban ‘regeneration’. Legislation required sufficient new homes to be built to house the dislocated; in practice – as Alan Mayne and Carl Chinn both point out – this rarely proved satisfactory. The evicted parties were inevitably moved to other nearby areas – probably already overcrowded, and thus likely to become just as physically unsuitable as the cleared area. And in fact, in Wolverhampton’s next phase of slum clearance, Little’s Lane was one of the affected streets.
Looking at such war records can provide useful demographic tools for understanding the changing occupation and usage of space, when official records aren’t available, or aren’t complete. But it shouldn’t distract from the reason those records exist. Men from Littles Lane, Stafford Street and the area formerly known as Carribee Island went to war for Great Britain. They included many of Irish ancestry, and its worth noting that a number others recorded on Wolverhampton’s War died in Ireland itself, in battles relating to the Easter Rising. They also included men of longstanding English ancestry. Whatever structural prejudices that may have existed, war did not discriminate between working-class English and working-class Irish. War is absurd, and this war particularly so: it cut short the lives of Wulfrunians whatever their background.