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Poverty Poor Relief and Unemployment Benefit Crime, Prejudice and Racism Settlement in Manchester Arrival and Settlement in Liverpool The Irish in London
St Giles, Whitechapel*
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Luton and Croydon - the Post War Boom          

Their roaming and restless habits appear to have carried them to every place where there was any prospect of obtaining profitable employment.
George Cornewall Lewis, Royal Commission on the Conditions of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, Appendix G, The State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (1836)

Maps showing distribution of Irish population 1851, 1891, 1931
Maps showing distribution of Irish population 1851, 1891, 1931. Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain by Mary Hickman and Bronwen Walter (Commission for Racial Equality, 1997).
By 1841, there was already a substantial Irish presence (291,000) living and working in many towns and cities of England and Wales - 1.8% of the total population.

People settled where jobs were to be found - in the ports of entry such as Liverpool, the textile towns of the north-west, and the booming development areas of Tyneside and south Wales.

A Parliamentary Commission on the Irish Poor noted in 1836 that 'they settle exclusively in towns and, for the most part in very populous towns'.

The general character of the Irish immigration into Great Britain is that persons for whom there is little or no demand in their own country seek employment in England or Scotland at a rate of wages either not higher or somewhat lower than that paid to the lowest description of the native labourers. The kind of work at which they are employed is usually of the roughest, coarset and most repulsive description, and requiring the least skill and practice; and their mode of life is in general on a par with that of the poorest of the native population, if not inferior to it.
Royal Commission on the Conditions of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, Appendix G, The State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (1836), XXXIV p. iii.

Graph of the Irish born population of England and Wales,  and Scotland, 1841-1991, derived from census data
Graph of the Irish born population of England and Wales, and Scotland, 1841-1991, derived from census data. Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain by Mary Hickman and Bronwen Walter (Commission for Racial Equlaity, 1997)
This report is an essential source for anyone studying the Irish in 19th century Britain, although the evidence it took from employers who depended on cheap Irish labour may have been biased. It contains interviews with officials, employers and clergymen, Catholic and Protestant, and examines how the Irish in Britain lived, what they ate, what they wore, what jobs they did and what they were paid, with detailed studies of the Irish in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Dukinfield, Stalybridge, Stockport, Wigan and Preston.

The report also argued that large-scale emigration from Ireland had begun in the 1820s, prior to the potato Famine of the 1840s. The Famine did promote a great surge of Irish emigration, mainly to North America but also to mainland Britain.

In the late 19th century, over 80% of Irish emigrants went to the United States. From the mid-1930s, England became the main destination for Irish emigrants and by the 1950s over 80% headed for mainland Britain instead.

By 1861, the Irish-born population of England and Wales had doubled to 602,000 - 3% of the total. Thereafter it showed an erratic decline to about 1% by the 1920s. By 1991, over 837,000 Irish-born people, over 27% from Northern Ireland, were living in Britain - 1.5% of the total population. London, the Midlands and the south-east, rather than the north-west, had become the main areas of settlement.

These figures do not include the children of Irish people born in England and Wales who, some argue, should be taken into account when assessing the size of the Irish community. Including the first generation alone might double these figures. Note the very high proportion of women.

*Poverty*top of page

The Bye Ways of Life in London
'The Bye Ways of Life in London', The Pictorial Times 10th October 1846, p.225-226. This young man is shown starving in London in 1846 .
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025PICT18461010
Not all who fled poverty or starvation in Ireland found that they were better off in mainland Britain, which also saw food riots and starvation in the 1840s.

The Sullivan family fled the Famine in Ireland only for several of the children to die of starvation in England. The story is reported in the Cheltenham Examiner for April 1847 which you can read for yourself in the source material. Jeremiah Sullivan had been evicted from his smallholding near Schull in 1847. He sold his animals, a cow and a horse, but when the money ran out, the family sailed from Cork to Newport, intending to travel to London where he had an aunt. Penniless, they started to walk to London but only got as far as Charlton Kings near Cheltenham where the family was found by a policeman, under a crude shelter in a ditch. Baby Anthony Sullivan, aged three months, had died and the inquest on April 5th concluded a verdict of 'death by starvation'. A second inquest on April 12th on three more Sullivan children - Hannah (eleven years), Mary (ten years) and Dennis (five years) - was that they had 'died from the effects of starvation brought on by privations previous to their arrival in Cheltenham'.

The Crime of Poverty and its Punishment
'The Crime of Poverty and its Punishment' The Pictorial Times 29th August 1846 p.136-137
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025PICT18460829
This and other cases, reported in local newspapers, is described in Frank Neal's Black'47:Britain and the Famine Irish (Macmillan, 1998). How many Irish refugees did die of starvation in England is difficult to quantify, but Neal estimates that the maximum number in Liverpool in 1847 was 22.

For English as well as Irish people, the very poorest had few rights and life in the *workhouse, the final resort of those who had no resources of their own, was deliberately made as harsh as possible.

Whitechapel workhouse admission register - entry re Ellen Donovan aged 40, admitted with cholera
Whitechapel workhouse admission register - entry re Ellen Donovan aged 40, admitted with cholera
* Moving Here catalogue reference (LMA) STBG/WH/123/001
These registers record name, age, residence, marital status, occupation, religion etc. though not place of birth, so identification of Irish people had to be based on assumptions about 'Irish' surnames.

Nineteenth century Journalists could write of 'The Crime of Poverty and its Punishment', but such attitudes were not exclusively Victorian.

In Self-portrait, J B Keane describes poverty as a 'crime' that sentenced young Irishmen to a life of graft in 1950s London

Come all you true-born Irishmen and listen to my song, I am a bold buck-navvy and I don't know right from wrong. Of late, I was transported boys, from Erin's holy shore; My case is sad, my crime is bad for I was born poor.
And if you're born poor, my boys, that is a woeful state. The judge will sit upon your crime and this he will relate: 'I find the prisoner guilty and the law I must lay down: Let this man be transported straightaway to Camden Town
Then take him down to Cricklewood and lock him in the pub: And call the Limey guv'nor and propose him for the sub; Yes, take him down to Cricklewood, to mortar, bricks and lime And let him rot in Cricklewood until he serves his time.'

*Poor Relief and Unemployment Benefit*top of page

In the 19th century, each parish in England and Wales was responsible for looking after its own poor, paid for almost entirely out of local taxes. Poor people who did not have the right of 'settlement' within the parish, and who applied for help could be returned to their own 'parish of settlement' (where they were born, or had worked for a number of years) to be maintained there. This meant that Irish claimants could often be returned to Ireland where, until 1838, there was no national poor relief system.

Some Irish people starved rather than risk removal* by making a claim. Others, seasonal workers in particular, it was claimed, used the system to get free passage back to Ireland. Evidence heard by the Parliamentary Commission on the Irish Poor refuted claims that Irish migrants were coming to England to exploit the poor law system.

Minute by W C Orr re benefit payments to Irish migrants, 20/10/1937
Minute by W C Orr re benefit payments to Irish migrants, 20/10/1937
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) LAB 8/16
During the Depression of the 1930s, the accusation was again made that Irish people were coming to England to take jobs away from the English unemployed or claim unemployment benefit.

An inter-departmental committee was set up to investigate such claims. In 1937 it reported: 'There is no evidence that they come here with the specific purpose of obtaining, when unemployed, assistance from public funds'.

Far from depriving the English of work, it was difficult to find enough labour in mainland Britain for the 'heavy and arduous' labouring jobs Irish migrants undertook. Unemployment benefit could only be claimed by those who had worked for seven months; other payments were discretionary.

An investigation by London Council Council in 1938 reached a similar conclusion noting that 'the number of persons from Eire who become chargeable to institutions on account of destitution or sickness is not considerable'.

*Crime, Prejudice and Racism*top of page

Lancashire Quarter Sessions Indictment for Riotous assembly - John Fitzpatrick, John  Boyle, Patrick Keenan,1856
Lancashire Quarter Sessions Indictment for Riotous assembly - John Fitzpatrick, John Boyle, Patrick Keenan,1856
* Moving Here catalogue reference (LARO) QJD/1/239
The Irish form but one fourth of the population and yet they give nearly half the criminals. Gaols such as the Gaol of the Borough of Liverpool afford the wretched and unfortunate Irish better food, shelter and raiment and more cleanliness than it is to be feared many of them ever experienced elsewhere.
Edward Rushton, Liverpool magistrate to the Home Secretary, April 1849
HO 45/2674
Source: NA

Were the Irish in Britain more criminal than other groups in society? Some 19th century observers certainly thought so.

A number of police and prison officers discussed this issue in the 1836 government inquiry into the Irish Poor. Mr Redfern, prison-keeper at Birmingham, claimed that 'the Irish are not so dishonest as the English of the same class, but more riotous when drunk'.

Habitual Criminals Register for England and Wales, 1869-76 - entries for Michael Kelly  to Patrick Kelly
Habitual Criminals Register for England and Wales, 1869-76 - entries for Michael Kelly to Patrick Kelly
There were some gross exaggerations: in 1862, Henry Mayhew's The Criminal Prisons of London asserted that 90% of London's habitual criminals were 'Irish Cockneys, that is, persons born of Irish parents in the Metropolis'. Yet, far from possessing a natural criminality, many Irishmen served in the newly established police forces.

Statistics tell a more complex story, with offenders born in Ireland over-represented in minor offences, such as petty theft, prostitution, drunkenness and casual violence - offences symptomatic of alienation and poverty. The proportion of more serious crimes committed by Irish people was largely in line with their percentage of the population.

The offences recorded here are dominated by petty theft. The Habitual Criminals Register records 22,115 names but so many were aliases that these only represent 12,164 people. Of these 1,082 had been born in Ireland - just under 9%, more than three times the proportion of Irish-born in the population. Criminal registers do not usually state place of birth and an 'Irish' name does not necessarily mean an Irish-born person.

Palatinate of Lancaster: Court depositions - Deposition of Catherine Cline, translated  from Irish, 1851
Palatinate of Lancaster: Court depositions - Deposition of Catherine Cline, translated from Irish, 1851
* Moving Here catalogue reference (PRO) PL 27/13
Opening the Liverpool Assizes court sessions in February 1884, Justice Butt commented on the 'great number of Irish names' up for trial as evidence of a criminal streak in the Irish character.

Local journalist John Denvir angrily rebutted this charge - 'while offenders bearing Irish names are not, as he states, out of all relation to the number of people in Liverpool, they are chiefly of a class who have never seen Ireland and who have become contaminated by their surroundings in this country'.

As well as suffering from prejudice*, it is important to remember that Irish people were also victims of crime and of communa violence.

Court depositions can provide rare evidence of the life of local Irish communities from the inside. Occasionally evidence was given by witnesses who could only speak Irish and so had to be translated.

Criminal records can be a very useful source of genealogical information.

*Settlement in Manchester*top of page

Map of Manchester showing where the Irish-born population recorded in the 1991 census  lived
Map of Manchester showing where the Irish-born population recorded in the 1991 census lived
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025IESP199404
Manchester was already a significant centre of Irish settlement before the Famine. In 1836, Peter Ewart, a Manchester cotton manufacturer, told the 1836 government inquiry into the Irish Poor that 'about thirty five years ago there was a great influx of Irish to supply the extraordinary demand which existed at that time for hand-loom weavers; that was the first great immigration of Irish into Manchester. A good many also came about the same time on account of the [1798] rebellion'.

By 1851, over 13% of Manchester's population was Irish-born (52,504) - the second highest population density of Irish people in England after Liverpool. Twenty years later numbers had fallen to 34,066 (9%).

Manchester's booming cotton industry attracted many Irish migrants, but it was an industry prone to periodic depression and not all found full-time, permanent jobs.

Crisis came with the Famine. Between 1847 and 1848, one-third of outdoor relief payments in Manchester were made to Irish people, double the proportion of Irish in the population. This was also a period of trade depression with many mills closed and more local people claiming relief as well. Between December 1846 and March 1847, the number of Manchester residents receiving poor relief rose by 17% but the number of Irish poor by 125%. No significant assistance was offered by central government to deal with this situation to either Manchester or Liverpool. The costs of outdoor relief for the Irish poor in Manchester shot up from under 3,000 in 1844 to over 21,000 in 1848. Look at the Manchester Guardian for 1847, digitized in the source materials, to see how the events of this year were reported.

Were the Irish to blame for this situation or were they the victims of it ? As the historian Roger Swift has commented, in a situation of dire overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, unhealthy diet, disease, squalor and casual violence 'the Irish became an easy target and the poor Irish, who were the only visible Irish, became convenient scapegoats for environmental deterioration'.

Slum housing and overcrowding encouraged the spread of disease. Manchester's *Little Ireland was swept away in 19th century slum clearance schemes but the poor were still living in *two-up two-down houses a century later.

Contemporary observers and some later historians have claimed that Irish migrants in towns such as Manchester clustered together to form segregated communities. These were never ghettos in any racially exclusive sense, although they were, to some extent, ghettos of poverty. Local studies based on census records show that in most English towns there were few districts without some Irish residents.

Manchester remains an important centre of Irish settlement today.

*Arrival and Settlement in Liverpool*top of page

This is the sickbed of Ireland, the hospital of Ireland, the churchyard of Ireland.
Although Father Cahill was writing in 1853 in his Important letter....to the Catholics of Liverpool, his remarks could easily have described the crisis year of 1847.

Liverpool already had a substantial Irish population of about 50,000 in 1841, making it the most densely settled Irish town in mainland Britain. It became the main pressure point for Famine refugees in 1847-1848. The historian David Fitzpatrick estimates that, at the height of the Great Famine, a quarter of a million passengers were arriving in Liverpool from Ireland every year. Of these, two-thirds departed overseas and many others were seasonal workers who later returned to Ireland. Some, however, had no choice but to remain. As the Liverpool journalist John Denvir later remarked, 'many of them have set out from Ireland, intending to go to America, but, their little means failing them, have been obliged to remain in Liverpool'.

Since Christmas, the arrivals have amounted to nearly 300,000 and of these I believe the number now located among us in addition to our ordinary population is very moderately estimated at from 60,000 to 80,000 ... they have in many instances been found sleeping in privies and even in the open street.
The Home Office files for this period, held at the National Archives, are full of reports, complaints and petitions, urging central government to do something to assist or to stem the crisis.

The object of the great majority of these immigrants is not for the lawful purpose of emigration or seeking work, but wholly and entirely to seek assistance, and to become chargeable to and demand relief from the Parochial Rates of the different Parishes in which they arrive.
There were complaints that 'some of the immigrants come over in a state of actual infectious disease, and a large number so predisposed to it that they fall sick shortly after their arrival, and so spread and propagate disease and death among an otherwise healthy population ... *dysentery, diarrhoea, small pox and typhus'. Ratepayers called for restrictive legislation and new powers 'to remove such Irish poor as are guilty of felony and begging'.

At least 50,000 Irish people received emergency relief aid in Liverpool in 1847 and at the height of the Famine, between 1847 and 1848, over 40% of those receiving outdoor relief (emergency payments to the poor) in Liverpool were Irish, about twice the proportion of Irish people in Liverpool's population. Some still starved. On 1 May 1847, 8 year old Luke Brothers, recently arrived from Ireland, died in a cellar in Banastre Street in the Vauxhall district. The verdict was 'death by starvation' and the coroner described the cellar as 'not fit for pigs'. There were nearly 7,500 deaths from fever, dysentry and diarrhoea in Liverpool in 1847 and Frank Neal calculates 70% (5,500) of these were Irish.

How were events like this reported in the local press? The Liverpool Mercury for 1847, digitized in the source materials, clearly shows how the events of the year were reported. Every source carries its own bias and the historian Frank Neal comments that 'the coverage is less than one would have expected, given the calamitous nature of the fever epidemic. One reason for this is that the worst effects were felt in the working class areas, an alien world to the middle classes who made up the bulk of the readership'.

By 1848, the fever epidemic was over and the next ten years were to see an impressive programme of public health reforms, although the most overcrowded and insanitary districts remained those with the highest concentrations of Irish residents -Scotland, Vauxhall, St Pauls and Exchange.

Some evidence about the life of the Irish community in Liverpool can be found in newspapers produced locally by and for that community, where they survive. Many were ephemeral.

The Irish Programme
The Irish Programme
* Moving Here catalogue reference (BL) 025IPLV18840119
The Irish Programme was a weekly halfpenny newspaper, published by Liverpool journalist John Denvir, who was also President of the Central Council of the Liverpool branches of the Irish National League. Go to Irish Politics. The issues for 1884, reproduced as a Moving Here source, report on:

  • the opening of an Irish Literary Institute in Liverpool
  • weekly Penny Irish National Concerts and regular lectures
  • events of interest to Irish people in other cities
  • and editorials
Autobiographies can be another useful source. One account of life in early 20th century Liverpool, from the perspective of a third-generation descendant of an Irish immigrant, is given in Pat O'Mara's Autobiography of a Liverpool Irish Slummy.

*The Irish in London*top of page

This town is more Irish than most of the places back home ... the Irish in London...have a great life, plenty of their own people around them, galore Irish dances and somewhere to go every night of the week.
Donall MacAmlaigh, Diary of an Exile (RKP, 1964)

CRE Map of contemporary Irish settlement in London
CRE Map of contemporary Irish settlement in London. Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain by Mary Hickman and Bronwen Walter (Commission for Racial Equlaity, 1997)
Irish people have been living in London for centuries, although it was in the 18th century that a sizeable community first started to emerge. By 1851 there were more Irish-born people in London than any other city in mainland Britain, and more than in most towns or cities in Ireland: 105,548 according to the 1851 census, or 4.6% of London's population. They were heavily concentrated in St Giles, Whitechapel* and Southwark and, as in other English cities, it was the poor who attracted most attention from social commentators.

The Irish remained the largest and most visible migrant group in London until large scale Jewish immigration from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1890s. They were not overtaken numerically by people moving to England from the Commonwealth until the second half of the 20th century. In 1991, 3.5% of London's population was Irish-born; 5.2% born in India and 4.4% Caribbean.

In the 19th century, Irish labour helped to build much of London's infrastructure: canals, roads and railways. In the 20th century, major construction projects such as the South Bank complex relied on Irish labour. Many Irish labourers lived in the area around Camden Town. When Brian Behan first came to London in the 1950s, he worked as a pile driver at Southwark, sleeping in a nearby basement -'an old kip-house in Blackfriars Rd., we slept six to a room. To dress you literally had to climb up on top of your bed. You couldn't find room on the floor'.

In the 1980s, London became the prime destination for young Irish emigrants, attracted by life in the capital and jobs in the booming service sector. By 1991, the largest concentration of Irish-born people was in Greater London. They accounted for 30.6% of those living in Britain. London has also long had a significant Irish presence in the professions and the arts

The emergence of a more vocal middle-class presence in London is reflected in the establishment of the Irish Club after the Second World War, in the words of one member, to 'show the English we weren't all navvies and chambermaids'.

Class divisions might be more important than ethnic association. An advertising executive interviewed by Kevin O'Connor who came to London in 1954 made it clear that 'I didn't want to be associated with the Paddies' by living in Camden Town or Hammersmith, and a carpenter he spoke to stressed the divide between working class and professional people. 'There was simply no meaningful contact. We stuck to our circuit and they stuck to theirs . Mind you, I was from Mayo and these people would be from a city such as Dublin or Cork'.

*Luton and Croydon - the Post War Boom*top of page

The largest group of Irish-born people living in England at present are the generation who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, recruited during the post-war boom into construction, manufacturing, transport and the health service. Demand for labour was then strongest in the West Midlands, especially Birmingham, but also in towns further south, such as Luton and Croydon. Dan Dempsey from County Cork came to Croydon in the 1950s and worked on building its roads.

We worked on the flyover for about 12 to 18 months. Now they have machines but then it was all manual work. I used to cut the kerbs by hand with a pitching tool, you could take the skin off your hand if you weren't careful. It was good money but it was bloody hard work.
Dan Dempsey
Source : Croydon Museum

By 1971, Luton had one of the highest concentrations of Irish people of any English town or city: 5.8%, or 9,340 out of a total population of 161, 405. It had a large Irish club, two *hurling teams and two branches of the Comhaltas na Eireann (a cultural association fostering Irish music and dancing).

Luton had been a boom town during the years of inter-war depression. The New Directory of Luton reported in 1936 that it had grown by 20,000 people over the past few years - 'largely attributable to an influx of workers, chiefly from the North of England, and from Wales and Scotland, necessitated by the expansion of the town's industries'. Significantly the Irish were not mentioned. It was probably war-time industry that began to attract large numbers of Irish people to the Luton area. Local companies switched to wartime production: ball-bearings at SKF (Skefko); Churchill tanks at the Vauxhall car works; and depth charges at the refrigerator manufacturer, Electrolux.

James Cussen, who became mayor of Luton, came from Limerick to Northampton in 1939 to work on airfield construction. He lodged in Luton and married his landlady's daughter, Eve O' Connor. Kevin O'Connor's The Irish in Britain describes the Irish community in 1970s Luton.

In some areas, whole streets are not only Irish, but are occupied by immigrants from particular towns in Ireland so that an intensely clannish air pervades these areas. To the extent that, as one resident put it, 'If somebody comes over from the west of Ireland looking for a job, he has only to mention what town he comes from and I'll know what street to direct him to'.
This may not be entirely accurate, but it may have reflected feelings at the time. Good wages could be earned by skilled craftsmen in Luton in the early 1960s. On 20 a week they could afford to buy houses and cars.

Oral history recordings from Luton Museum and stories contributed by Luton's Irish-born residents such as Larry McGrattan , Tom Bourke and Frank Horan, in the Moving Here source materials, present a more realistic picture.

click here to listen*
Listen to the interview with Thomas Bourke
* Moving Here catalogue reference (LMS) LTNMG 2002/264/1
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By the 1970s, employment opportunities in towns such as Luton were in decline and London became the main centre of attraction, mainly for jobs in the service industries. This has left an ageing Irish-born population with a significant second and third generation community who, to varying degrees, retain their Irish roots.

Creators: Aidan Lawes

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