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.


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1967)


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


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1956)

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


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1885)

 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.

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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. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1887)

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.
© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (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 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. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1890)

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.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in History, Irish, Migration, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Black Country Irish: Red-headed Kilcoign


New Street, Stourbridge, in the 1970s (

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 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.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, Staffordshire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Black Country Irish: N. Hingley Ltd., Netherton


The Washington Street entrance to Noah Hingley’s Netherton Works, in the the 1950s [Bugle]

Identities can be a complicated thing. Each of us have several – I don’t mean like Norman Bates, I mean that each of us are different things in different ways, at different times. When I’m talking about the Irish in the Black Country, for instance, I’m talking about a nebulous group really: some had been there many years, some were fresh off the boat; some were from Dublin city, some from the wilds of Mayo; some spoke Irish, some did not; some were Catholic, some were Protestant. It’s true of anyone – identity might, at times, be based on nationality, religion, language (or accent). I might identify with the town I come from or the region. Identities are perhaps at their strongest when we identify with a wider social grouping such as a football club. It’s most certainly true that identities are expressed most strongly when they are against something: I might be English, not European; I live in the Black Country, not Birmingham (the very thought). They can be unpleasant too: do I identify as white? What would that mean?

I have the feeling that the Black Country identity is a fairly modern one. Certainly the array of local authorities made their stand as individual towns rather than a Black Country still to be defined on a map – if anything, they promoted themselves “despite” their location. Today, areas are keen to claim Black Country identity through the flag, the Day, and so on; 150 years ago, towns like Walsall were keen not to be seen as Black Country.

One form of identity that keeps cropping up, especially in the 20th century, is identifying with a firm. In the 1950s you could be proud to work for GKN, for Rubery Owen, for the Birmid, for Dudley Dowell. Why? Because that was a job for life. A somewhat paternalistic employer looked after you, provided for your leisure, social and healthcare needs as well as your financial ones. Stretch back to the 19th century though, and that’s a rarity. While many of these firms existed then, on the whole there was less of an interest for employers to provide so well when there was a mass of cheap casual labour itching for every job. I want to look at one example of a well-known firm whose workers did identify with them because their very reason for being in the Black Country was entirely bound up with that firm.

Noah Hingley

I have Peter “Pedro” Cutler to thank for this post – I know that he’s a great help to many local historians, and is full of useful hints. He flagged up Noah Hingley’s obituary in the County Express (3rd Nov 1877) for me – and you can hardly find a better known company than this in the 19th century.


Noah Hingley c.1870, as Mayor of Dudley [Dudley Archives]

Noah Hingley was born in the late 18th century in Cradley Heath – then still an untamed heath to the North of the metalworking hamlets of Cradley proper. He attended Reddal Hill Endowed School and soon turned to making nails. His entrepreneurial spirit shone through and he swiftly became a nailmaster rather than just a sweated nailer, moving into chains and trading. Around 1820 he opened a warehouse in the maritime capital of the world, Liverpool, selling Black Country chains and nails. His success met with hostility and he moved his works back to Cradley, making the chains, anchors and cables that his firm would become famous for. By 1861 he had acquired several collieries and ironworks, and moved his base to Washington Street, Netherton, where he set up possibly the largest chain, cable and anchor works in the world on the banks of the Dudley No.2 Canal. In 1912 the firm became famous for one particular anchor, as the pictures below show.

The Black Country of the mid-nineteenth century was yet to become the centre of expertise that firms such as the aforementioned were able to build up. The chain, nail and related trades were very much ‘sweated’, with desperately poor families all given over to long hours of toil in chain factories and backyard hearths all along the Stour valley. Their conditions were so bad that they were subject to an infamous exposé in Robert Sherard‘s The White Slaves Of England in 1898. The women chainmakers were part of an even more famous, and successful, strike in 1911, a major event in national trade union history. But when it came to expertise in, for example, anchor-making – skills needed to be imported. The centre of the trade up to this point was, much more logically than land-locked Staffordshire, Liverpool – that’s why Hingley’s business initially faced so much competition. Noah’s response was to combine the availability of raw material and fuel, so abundant in the Black Country, with expertise imported directly from Liverpool.


The Titanic anchor outside Lloyd’s Proving House, Cradley Road, Netherton [source]

It’s difficult to find too many references to Liverpool’s anchormaking trade, but John Bartholomew noted its importance in 1887 – Liverpool had an established metalworking trade as well as ready access to the West Lancs coalfield for fuel. Anchors seem a logical trade for such a port, and there was an anchor smithy set up by Thomas Steers not long after the town’s first dock was constructed. Steers’ wide-ranging civil engineering exploits might have something to do with the connection of Irish workers to the trade. He engineered the Newry Canal in Tyrone, as well as the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, and I’m sure that this will have brought him into contact with Irish navigators and labourers. Liverpool, being the chief port of the North-West of England, also saw the lion’s share of immigration from Ireland as poverty struck and occasional famines hit.

Liverpool’s Irish

By the mid-19th century, Liverpool had by far the largest Irish population of any town in England. It was the first stop for emigrants from the most famine-struck parts of Ireland in the 1840s, and not being able to afford the onward passage to America, many stopped there. The County Express believe that Noah Hingley saw kindred spirits in the “impulsive temperament” of the Irish – an uncommonly polite way for a contemporary newspaper to describe the immigrants. Either way, he considered the Irish anchormakers of Liverpool to be an important workforce, skilled and hardworking, and managed to convince a gang of Irishmen to follow him to the Black Country to man his anchor forge.

Netherton’s Irish

If we scan the 1861 census (the first after Hingley’s move to Netherton), we do notice some evidence of this in Netherton. The large majority of the village’s residents are very local – those that weren’t born in Netherton itself were born in Dudley, Rowley, Cradley or other nearby Black Country villages.


The Southern part of Netherton in 1904. Hingley’s works are shaded in red, and the roads highlighted are Cradley Rad (red), Halesowen Road (purple), Washington Street (blue) and Chapel Street (green). © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1904)

However, on Northfield Road we find Andrew Maguire – born in Ireland, he is a forge labourer, with two children born in Liverpool (aged 17 and 15) and the rest born in Dudley. This suggests to me a move from Ireland by 1844 (thus before the Great Famine) and to Dudley after 1846. At 79 Cradley Road lived Malachi Norton with his wife and six children, a labourer. His younger children had been born in Birmingham and Netherton, suggesting emigration c.1852. Possibly this was an Irish family encouraged to Netherton by Hingley, but there’s no evident Liverpool to corroborate that.

James Hawkins is more promising – living at 101 Cradley Road, Hawkins is an anchorsmith who’s moved around a fair bit. His children were born in Flintshire and Scotland. Even better are John Gilmore, a young man with wife and kids at 134 Cradley Road, an anchorsmith with children born at Liverpool then Netherton; Michael Johnson at 150; and James Healey at 155, with very similar stories.

Elsewhere, the Irish-born in Netherton are scattered, mostly boarders, and with a mixture of occupations: three coal miners, a chainmaker, a labourer, a marine store dealer, and 85-female year-old “former Nailer” at Darby Hand; and that’s all. I think there’s good reason to associate the Maguire, Hawkins, Gilmore, Johnson and Healey families with Hingley. For a start, all but the Maguires live on Cradley Road – although older OS maps aren’t so good for house numbers (and by the 1950s maps that do number the houses, massive environmental changes render them less than helpful), I’d place them in the vicinity of the canal bridge over the Dudley No.2 Canal. That’s about what you’d expect; Hingley’s Netherton Works are just yards away, adjacent to that very canal.


Prince William Street, Toxteth, Liverpool – 1849. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1885)

If we dig a little deeper, we find some corroboration. John Gilmore is found in the 1851 census at 77 Prince William Street, Toxteth – Liverpool. He’s a tailor by trade, common for Irishmen familiar with working cottons and linens. This is a street of infamous Liverpool courts and cellar dwellings, exactly where you’d expect to find the swelled immigrant Irish population in 1851.


72-74 Prince William Street in 1960, prior to slum clearance [source]

There is a James Healey in Liverpool in 1851 as well. He’s a resident in James Emms’ licensed lodging house at 62 Porter Street, in the Vauxhall area. Like Toxteth, it’s close to the docks and consists of rows of tiny houses arranged in courts. In this one (which was knocked through from two former houses), 29 people live. James is there, albeit with no wife or children, listed as an “Emigrant” rather than as an occupation, suggesting a very recent arrival. Jane, his wife, could be the General Servant at a house in Toxteth – not sure though.

Michael Johnson, on the other hand, is already in the Black Country in 1851. He is a blacksmith living at Brick Kiln Street, Quarry Bank, with his wife Rose, and Irish-born sons Stephen and John (they will be joined by a Netherton-born daughter Rose c.1856). Brick Kiln Street is still there, although the terraces won’t be the same ones – the current ones are early Edwardian. So perhaps this rules the Johnsons out of Hingley’s work placement scheme. Dubliner Andrew Maguire was in a similar position, lodging with his family in Bilston Road, Tipton in 1851. Perhaps he and Johnson were early arrivals, still waiting to get on the housing ladder, such as it was.

porter street

Porter Street, Liverpool in 1850. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1885)

The life of an Irish emigrant was a highly transient one, especially in these early years after the horror of the Famine. Families came over bit by bit, and had to make their living and their living space any way they could. Lodging Houses were a frequent first port of call; those who were better established managed to rent their own accommodation – although with an insecure weekly tenancy – in foul little houses where they could get by.


Court dwellings in Liverpool [source]

As in the courts of Wolverhampton or Birmingham, diseases like cholera and typhus were rife, human waste flowed down central gulleys, and poor families lived in tremendously overcrowded close quarters. These were casual labourers though – dockers, costermongers, bricklayers’ mates, and so on. If you were lucky you would learn a semi-skilled trade such as anchormaking, which paid just enough more to enable you to move out of the worst squalor.

Hingley’s Irish

Noah Hingley’s offer was not a philanthropic venture, rescuing Liverpool’s destitute Irish. Those who wished to work at Netherton were not the poorest and still had to be financially induced, and persuaded away from Liverpool. They were not coddled either – his obituary mentions that “at first they walked all the way from Liverpool, arriving ragged and footsore.” This was a commercial decision based on financial knowledge and trade expertise. But it worked: further Irish workers arrived and they kept on coming. Hingley was no ogre either – he’s reported to have added to the remittances sent back to Ireland by postal order.

The prevailing historiography of mid-19th-century Irish immigration is, with local variations, a sad one of extreme poverty. There are always exceptions of course (the Orangemen of Glasgow, for example). The Hingley anchorsmiths appear to be an example of Irish emigrées developing into a skilled labouring community, so much that they were the subject of competitive hiring approaches. Whether they found the hilly, sooty, land-locked Netherton preferable to the cramped courts of Liverpool is impossible to say, but it’s likely that descendents of these skilled anchorsmiths went on to produce maybe the most famous single item ever produced in the Black Country – the vast anchor for an unsinkable new liner that was to set off on its maiden voyage in 1912. Michael Johnson’s eldest certainly followed his father’s trade – Stephen has married a Dudley wench, Elizabeth, by 1871 and is an anchorsmith living in Chapel Street, Netherton (the street runs off Cradley Road, parallel to Washington Street where the Hingley works were). I’d place a bet that Stephen works for Hingley, like his pa.


Making chains for the Titanic’s anchor at N. Hingley [source]

It’s an interesting twist on the identity question. The Irish were often scorned both for their lazy and feckless nature, and for their willingness to do the hard graft and thereby undercut English workers. Engels hated on them for just this reason, as did political commentators from across the spectrum. It’s little wonder that when the Irish emigrées did organise, they did so around the nationalist cause and their Catholic faith, reminders of their homeland and their difference from their hosts. But here we have an example of labourers who seem to have chosen to identify with a firm and a trade. It’s an early example of mutual respect between employer and employee in a way that’s difficult to find elsewhere.


20 Clydesdale horses pulling the Titanic anchor from Netherton to Dudley station [source]

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Black Country Irish: Wolverhampton, 1851


North Street, Wolverhampton in the 1930s [Lost Wolverhampton]

I’m starting my series on the Irish in the 19th century Black Country by looking at Wolverhampton. This is familiar ground for me, or at least should be – so I’m broadening my normal hyper-local view of Carribee Island out to look at some quantitative data on Wolverhampton as a whole. My hope is that this will give me opportunity to place the Irish in my apparent “Irish quarter” in some sort of context; but also to have a look at how far one can get using solely quantitative sources.

Sources of data

Digital sources are an unquestionably fantastic thing. They enable me to gather vast amounts of data from my office chair, but they aren’t without their difficulties. I love the Online Historical Population Reports (HistPop) website for example – it publishes most of the census enumerators statistical tables for the whole of the 19th century and beyond, but it dates from c.2003, and the web technology shows it. More up to date is the awesome I-CeM project, which draws its data from individual census returns provided by FindMyPast and enables users to drill down into anonymised returns as actual, computable data. Its drawback? It’s subscription only.

The whole population

The first thing I noticed is basic counting differences. On HistPop, the original enumerators’ tables show an 1851 total population of Wolverhampton of 49,985, with an Irish-born population of 3,491 – that’s 6.98%. On I-CeM, calculated from individual census returns rather than these tables, the total population is 49,798, the Irish-born population 3,783, and the proportion 7.56%. This is point one, perhaps: no matter what your historical source is there is always human intervention somewhere along the line – there is no such thing as unbiased data.

The Irish population

I’ll continue with I-CeM’s data because of its flexibility, but bearing that in mind. Either way, the Irish-born population is by far the biggest minority in the town. Of that 3,763, most are young – the 26-30 bracket is 824 – and married (3,318 compared to 286 widowed and 86 single). Occupational categories are notoriously unhelpful, but we’ll have a look. The most common category is “farm labourers, general farming” with 533. In Wolverhampton? My theory here is something of an uncertainty on the part of the respondents; perhaps it’s comforting to define yourself by what you have come from in Ireland – what you hope to return to – and not by the way you are struggling by on one evening in March. Indeed, the Irish-born are way over-represented in this occupation – just 283 English, 16 Welsh, 2 Scottish and 16 others are in farming (and 10 English and 2 Welsh are “farmers’ sons”).

Job titles
Following this, 303 are “miners and quarrymen”, 265 unspecified workers, 254 “bricklayers, stonemasons and tile setters”, 144 in domestic service, 74 street vendors etc., and many other different categories. These make more sense of course – Wolverhampton is on the edge of not only a coalfield, but a geologically-rich site where many other iron, clay and lime was frequently extracted then worked. Those identifying as metal-workers actually come way down the list (although this nebulous subject was still causing problems in the mid-20th century – the post-war Conurbation plan was still grappling with imprecise categories in 1948). This can be compared to the population as a whole, in which 4.1% were lock or key makers; 2.49% metal product manufacturing workers and 2.35% in metal rolling (there are many other categories).
So far, pretty dull right? The only reason I’ve put in so many headers is to try and keep your attention. You’re bound to have spotted the massive lack of nuance in these figures. We can try and explain away some of them, but they don’t bring us much closer to the Irish experience in Wolverhampton. Fortunately, we can drill down further. In Wolverhampton’s Western division, there are 456 born in Ireland (2.58% of that division) – in the East, 3,307 (10.25%). We can start to bring in some general urban theory here: The East End of almost any industrial town is the poor end – think Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham… The prevailing wind in this country is from the South-West – it blows fumes, smells and smoke from West to East. There’s more population in the East, and more Irish amongst those – the Irish are likely to be poor. If we map the Irish-born population, this is what we get:
4 equal intervals

Irish-born population of Wolverhampton in 1851, mapped into four equal intervals.

This map appears to confirm the basic thesis [all maps can be opened out to larger versions by the way – just click on them]. The concentrations of Irish are on the NE side of the town centre. Producing this map threw up a few basic issues. This is a choropleth map – i.e. showing statistics by area – showing the 1851 census enumeration districts (imperfectly, I might add – it’s surprisingly difficult to judge the districts from their written descriptions alone). You can see the massive ones on the outside and the smaller near the centre – that’s to be expected really, but although the enumerators tended to try and divide up population areas reasonably equally, there are massive differences – some districts are 21 pages, others are 50. So this is a bit inflexible. They’re also tricky to map accurately without a digitised version of an 1851 map – which there currently isn’t. The other thing to notice is the lack of nuance in these categorisations – it’s interesting to note that every census district in town had at least one Irish-born individual, but we can’t distinguish here between 1 and 185. Perhaps if we had more categories?

10 equal intervals (2)

Irish-born population of Wolverhampton in 1851, mapped into 10 equal intervals.

This map shows ten categories and… it’s not all that different. We still can’t distinguish between 1 and 74 in the large Southern and Western districts of Penn, Finchfield, Merridale and Goldthorn Hill, for instance. We can get a bit of a better breakdown in the NE section – the densest districts are still those around Carribee Island and Stafford Street (which comes as something of a relief, seeing as I’ve predicated my thesis on the idea that there was a densest Irish area in the town). We can see that the Irish population extends up Stafford Street and across the town centre a bit as well – these are all areas which are densely populated and constructed with court housing to a large extent, which confirms my suspicions in terms of the homes of the Irish. We can draw some basic conclusions from here, but I still think it’s missing something, don’t you?

4 jenks intervals

Irish-born population of Wolverhampton in 1851, mapped with Jenks natural breaks optimization

The next map is categorised into non-equal areas. Happily, ArcGIS has a number of different breakdowns to switch between – this one is the cartographer George Jenks’ method of finding the natural breaks in a dataset and exploiting that for the best visualisation. You can find the full methodology here. We now see the density map in a lot more detail, showing with a lot more clarity clusters of other Irish populations in Wolverhampton – along Walsall Street and St James’ Square, for instance, and along Salop Street. This shows better what I’ve been expecting based on, for example, the Watch Committee minutes, which regularly mentions these areas as Irish hotspots. It throws up some unexpected results too – there’s a cluster on Merridale Street in the SW of town, and a high proportion in the as-yet-not-hugely-developed Springfield area, to the far NE. I would have expected this in 1881 or 1891 more so than here – the area was developed as part of the slum clearance programme that knocked down Carribee Island. There’s an interesting gap to note as well – despite being surrounded by heavily Irish areas, Faulkland Street (just to the North of the darkest green area) is very light. Certainly this includes St Mary’s church and Terrace, but what was it about this street that stood it out? It’s still a street of mid-century court housing.

1 StandardDev

Irish-born population of Wolverhampton in 1851, mapped by 1 Standard Deviation

The next option is Standard Deviation, which is no longer a measure of population numbers but a statistical measure showing deviance from the mean. So we can’t calculate people numbers – just difference. It’s a useful visual device though, particularly to show unusual results. The average number of Irish-born residents in a Wolverhampton census district in in 1851 is 50.75. In some areas of Wolverhampton this would be ludicrously high: the semi-rural area to the South of Chapel Ash has just one return, for instance. That compares to the aforementioned Merridale Street, not too distant, with 45 – enough to put it in a higher bracket in the Jenks distribution, but still below average. Standard Deviation ignores that sort of thing, but is really useful for showing us the outliers. From this, for instance, we can note immediately that the area to the West of North Street (where the town and civic halls will later appear) is unusual – and looking more closely, there are 117 Irish-born residents, right at the upper limit of the Jenks bracket. So – there’s a result I wouldn’t have necessarily clocked. Carribee Island, we see again, is more than 2.5 SDs outside the mean – in fact there are 743 Irish-born residents here.

0.25 StandardDev

Irish-born population of Wolverhampton in 1851, mapped by 0.25 Standard Deviations

A perhaps more useful SD visualisation is achieved using 0.25 SDs. Standard Deviation (he says, plumbing the distant depths of A-Level Statistics and failing to remember a single thing) is the square root of the average deviation from the mean. Got that? Basically, we now have a range of 16 categories instead of 4. We can see from this that while that district we just mentioned (W of North Street)is an outlier in some respects, it fits into a broader distribution of Irish around NE Wolverhampton, appearing to radiate out from the darkest blue – Carribee Island.

You can see that each of these maps tells a different story. All of the them are true in a basic respect – they are all based on the same raw data. But different statistical tools and measurements show quite different sides of the argument. There will be times when showing the basic, equally-categorised data will be enough. At other times, a statistical tool reveals a lot more.

It ought to be borne in mind that there are all sorts of other issues with using census data – try Higgs’ key Making Sense Of The Census for this. There are even more issues with just taking one snapshot day as representative data – especially because, like a modern geographer or social scientist, I didn’t design the research tool myself. For a historian, contextualising such data is the point of what we do. The biggest contextual point is that 1851 saw the first unblighted potato crop in Ireland since 1844. For the previous six years, the great famine had sent something like a million people fleeing their homeland; and a million dead of starvation. Many went to America, but many came to the UK and a fair few of those found themselves in Wolverhampton on census night 1851. Many will have been in transit – who knows how many? I’d recommend reading John Herson here – his description of Stafford as a transitory town for Irish immigrants is really useful. Immigration only increased after this point too. Many settled in the town too – but what is settled? Comfortable? Economically stable? Residentially secure? Not likely.

4 jenks intervals roads buildings canals

Irish-born residents of Wolverhampton in 1851 plus roads, canals and public buildings, mapped by Jenks distribution

A bit of geographical context would be handy too. Roads, canals, public functions – all play their part in the choice (or lack of) of where to settle. What I’ve not mapped is industry, residential districts, commercial districts… all play their part in a much bigger picture.

Choosing how to present data visually is going to be one of the biggest methodological challenges I’ll face in my PhD, I think. There’s a lot of pros and cons, limitations and extrapolations, and so on. Hopefully, this post shows a little of my workings – what I don’t think it does is to show fully the situation of the Irish in Wolverhampton by itself. Much more context and argument is needed. You can get a basic idea of the residential distribution of the Irish in the Victorian city from these maps – the biggest Irish populations lived where the houses were less pleasant, nearer to industry, between the shopping centre and the suburbs, typically to the NE. You can see, too, that the Carribee Island area – and the districts surrounding it – really was the hotspot of Irish population in Wolverhampton at this time. I could add topographical data, longitudinal data, more detailed general population data, other data sources, and so on – but you’ll just have to wait til my thesis is completed.

Posted in Black Country, Irish, PhD, Quantitative data, Space, Wolverhampton | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coming over here, taking our jobs…


The famine memorial in Dublin (Wikimedia commons)

Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns. The wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and byways… He is the sorest evil this  country has to strive with.

So wrote the great crusading reformer Thomas Carlyle in 1839. Heroes of the Left like Friedrich Engels were little better:

True, the Irish character, which under some circumstances, is comfortable only in the dirt…

These sorts of quotes sound almost shocking to our ears. Historians are used to our Tory and Whig politicians and newspapers of the day being unrepentantly racist, but it’s a surprise to see those we might consider forward-thinking and progressive come out with such prejudice. Karl Marx, in a letter of 1870, perhaps came closer to understanding the deep antipathy with which the English working classes were judged to consider their Irish counterparts:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life… This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.

This latter quote was used with great resonance by Gary Younge in his recent article on Brexit – as he notes, change a couple of words and it would ring true with regards to much of the discourse around immigration and immigrants today. This has come to be perhaps the defining political debate of our times. Yet in many ways it’s always been so, from Irish immigrants in the 19th century to antisemitic propaganda in the 1930s to “No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Irish” post-WW2 to the race riots of the 1980s to present-day handwringing over (particularly) Muslim immigrants.

The general disarray following the referendum shows that the ruling classes Marx mentions continue to use antagonism as a weapon. Immigration was, of course, such a major theme that many, many voters were prompted to vote solely on that subject. And it’s easy to see why. In the areas that voted to leave there are often major shortages of jobs – particularly well-paid ones, the sort you can be proud of and stick at for life. It’s “common sense” to attribute a shortage of jobs to an over-supply of people willing to do them (rather than a more systemic failure of the labour market). Reports showing that migrants contribute more to the economy than they take out mean little in these circumstances.


Captain Swing (image featured in History Workshop Journal)

I think you can trace it further. The early industrial era saw major working-class uprisings targeting churches (the Gordon riots in London targeted Catholics so inevitably featured a racial element), machinery (the Luddites targeted stocking frames etc., the Swing rioters threshing machines) and toll-gates (the Rebecca rioters in South Wales). These were tangible evidence of work being taken away from them, or barriers put in place by someone, or something out of control. The riots, just as the racism and prejudice directed towards the Irish in the Victorian city, was an outbreak of frustration and powerlessness. I’m rolling the idea around my head that such riots, racism and even brexit represent a crisis of representation as much as anything. More than just a voting system, I mean: people feel alienated from a system that has left them behind, from politicians that lie and fabricate, from technology that replaces their labour (still), from work and a class that used to be an identity worth maintaining, but just isn’t/wasn’t anymore. Sometimes, change hurts.

I’m hoping to write some posts in the next few weeks about the Irish immigrant populations of various parts of the Black Country, in the 19th century particularly. It’s not something that has received a great deal of academic attention. I hope to rectify that a little with my research into Wolverhampton, but the wider Black Country is a strange and confusing place. But Irish people there were, in each town.


Like most migrant communities in the UK, the Irish have been coming and going for many centuries. The rich and the poor, the noble and ignoble, for reasons as diverse as the migrants themselves. During the 18th century, seasonal migrants were common, with a few ending up stopping here. The West coast of Scotland in particular, with its Gaelic links, saw a large Irish population accumulate, as did Liverpool, the main port. Famines were fairly frequent, driving more people to this country, but it was the Great Famine of the 1840s that really changed the whole picture. The centrality of this event is a pillar of Irish historiography that I’ll grapple with, but there’s little doubt that quantitatively at least, its impact was vast and lasted for decades. Hundreds of thousands arrived in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol. Many managed to secure a passage to America; many couldn’t afford it and traversed Britain looking for work and a home.

There’s been loads of modern research into Irish immigration to Britain, starting with John Jackson’s The Irish In Britain in 1964. Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley’s edited volumes (1/2/3) (including Roger’s excellent articles on Wolverhampton) and Don MacRaild‘s books are the key texts, and there have been wonderful local studies: Birmingham (Carl Chinn); London (Lynn Hollen Lees); Bath (Graham Davis); Manchester (Melvyn Busteed). Mary Hickman’s sociological and Mary Poovey’s cultural/representational takes are also of great interest, and there are tons more that I could name. One you should definitely check out is John Herson’s great blog accompanying his book on the Irish in Stafford – he deals in great detail with many of the historiographical, methodological and just plain interesting parts of the debate.

If I have time, I’d love to dig a bit in other non-Black Country towns that have some meaning for me. In 1851, for example, 5.93% of the population of Winchester were Irish-born. Winchester! When I grew up there it was pretty much the whitest, most English place you could imagine. Certainly not an industrial powerhouse either – the densest Irish populations tended to be where there was substantial unskilled industrial labour. Settlement is unalterably spatial. John Lanchester puts this more eloquently when he says “geography is destiny” – it’s well worth reading his whole article on the fall-out of Brexit.

It’s easy to quantify people by birthplace, particularly when that’s the main source of information you might have about them (the census). It’s a bit of an abstraction though, and it’s easy to lose personal stories, family histories, culture and local networks which make such history so fascinating. That happens today – migrants or refugees often aren’t depicted as individuals, or families, but as “hordes” or statistics. They’re human beings with stories just like yours and mine, often with tragedy in there. Hopefully we’ll uncover a bit of that and perhaps undermine the prejudices of Engels and Carlyle, and the alienation of a restless nation.

Posted in History, Irish, Politics, Representation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments