The Irish in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire England Before, During and After the Famine
Wolverhampton lies about 69 miles southeast of Liverpool, Lancashire County, separated by the County of Cheshire, in Staffordshire County England. It lies only about 9 miles south of Stafford, another Town that had a large influx of Irish immigrants from County Mayo, Roscommon and Galway (Castlerea in particular).
Industrial growth was a bit slower to develop in Staffordshire due to the lack of navigable rivers in which to transport coal and other products. This all changed with improved roads and the introduction of the railroad.
Irish Emigrants began arriving in the Wolverhampton area in the late 18th and early 19th century due to the promising jobs in Railroad, Canal and Road Construction and the Ironworks industry. Transportation of products and resources via canals had its share of negatives such as slow transit times, cost and winter weather conditions; these factors left canal transit unable to keep up with the rapid expansion of the iron industry. By the year 1855 Wolverhampton had an array of railway lines connecting it with Birmingham and the many smaller towns in between as well as its own locomotive manufacturing industry. The Irish were significant contributors in the railway development; railway workers were referred to as navvies. Navvies were known for their hard work and hard living. In Victorian times the term Navvies was a derogatory term. The 1851 Wolverhampton census had Railway laborers in District 1f and 1ff.
Wolverhampton lies on the edge of an area referred to as the "Black Country." It is an area known for its iron manufacture and a host of products made from iron. The Black Country is comprised of about 200 square miles and lies between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in one direction and Stourbridge and Walsall in the other. Wolverhampton and Birmingham were involved in the more delicate, finished work and the "coarser, stronger material" was created in the central portion of the "Black Country." (Swift, Roger, 2002, p. 60). The Iron industry and its vast array of jobs was a big draw to the area for Irish workers.
The development of industry in the County of Staffordshire is covered in great detail in the book "A History of the County of Stafford- Volume II." Wolverhampton appears to have been the hub for a variety of different manufacturing businesses in the 19th and early 20th century including Farm Equipment, Colliery (Mining) Equipment (including the manufacture of pumps to control flooding in the coal mines), Locomotive Manufacturing, Japanning and Tin Ware, enameled and galvanized hollowware and Cycle as well as Automotive Manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 145,151,163,174,177).
The Irish held a variety of different jobs related to the Coal, Iron, Copper and Fireclay Mining Industry in the 1851 Wolverhampton Civil Parish, Wolverhampton Eastern census including: Stone Miner, Coal Miner, Collier's Laborer, Mine Filler, Coal Picker, Coal Heaver, Coal Porter, Iron Works Laborer, and trades secondary to the Iron industry such as Iron Furnace Man, Monitor at the Iron Foundry, Iron Plate Worker, Iron Roller, Iron Washer, Iron Brazier, Steel Dresser, Engraver, Curry Comb Maker, Key Maker, Nail Cutter, Blacksmith, Hardware Warehouseman, Locksmith, Lockmaster, Forgeman, Forge Watchman, Brass Founder, Brass Cabinet, Spectacle Maker, Hinge Maker, Lock Maker, Copper Plate Printer, Edge Tool Maker, Wire Worker, Polisher and Tin Plate Worker. Jobs also became available related to the Galvanization process (protective layer vs. rust). The Chain and Chain Cable and the Brass Foundry Industries had a hubs in and around Wolverhampton. The fireclay that was mined was used in a variety of manufacturing industries including Brass, Glass, Iron and the Potteries. Many of the fireclay brickfields were located around Wolverhampton. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 262, 269, 270). There were numerous brick makers, molders in the 1851 census. I am currently working my way through the Wolverhampton Civil Parish, Wolverhampton Eastern sub registration district, evaluating the Irish and their occupations in each area. An overview of the Irish in each district (in the Wolverhampton Eastern area) is documented in the pages on the Brennans, Corcorans and Gahagans in Wolverhampton listed in the table at the bottom of the page.
A Corcoran family that I traced through the census years in Wolverhampton were employed as Bricklayer's Laborers in the 1850's and 1860's and advanced into iron industry trades such as Blacksmith, Brass Dresser, Iron Brazier, Galvanizer, Japanner Stover, and Galvanizer (zinc) in the 1871-1891 census. By 1901 some members of this family were employed as Machine Tool Fitters and Brass Tube Drawers; jobs that came with advances and mechanization in the industry.
Wolverhampton was also involved in footwear manufacture (heel tips were produced there). There were scattered Irish-born shoemakers in Wolverhampton Districts 1c, 1d, 1e, 1f, 1g, 1ii and 1l. The Hand wrought Nail, Cut Nail as well as the Machine-made Nail Industry that evolved also had roots in Wolverhampton. This industry declined when the process of mechanization made prices fall; however, the business was kept alive by Boot and Shoe Makers who used nails to apply the soles to the footwear. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 233, 235, 241). Several Irish-born held jobs as Nail cutters in the 1851 Wolverhampton Eastern Census.
The Lock and Key Industry had been present in and around Wolverhampton for several centuries and some of the early breakthroughs in how locks function originated in the area. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 251-252). Several Irish-born and their descendents were employed as locksmiths in district 1ii. Edge-tool Manufacturing was prominent in Wolverhampton in the mid 19th century and 20th century. Edge tools created included items such as axes, adzes, hatchets and augers. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 259-260).
District 1i in the 1851 Wolverhampton Eastern Census had a large contingent of Irish-born employed as "privates in the army" at the Barracks on Old Mill Street in Wolverhampton. The vast majority of soldiers at this barracks were Irish-born. Also included in this census of the military barracks was a Color Sargeant and Sargeant in the army (both of which were Irish immigrants).
The Irish that immigrated to Wolverhampton during the famine came primarily from Counties Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon. Their community was centered on the crowded and unsanitary area that branched off of Stafford Street, Canal Street and Littles Lane. Caribee Island was regarded as one of the more impoverished run-down areas of this district and was the site of numerous clashes with police. The Cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849 seriously impacted the Irish community. Despite this fact, the area remained largely unchanged until the Artisan's Dwelling Act of 1875 was implemented. Enforcement of the act led to the demolition of the unsanitary living quarters in the Caribee Island area, forcing the Irish to move elsewhere in search of lower cost housing. Like many other Irish communities in England, the Irish in Wolverhampton were often blamed for increases in crime, outbreaks of disease and experienced hostility due to their catholic religious choice. (Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan; 1985, p. 179, 180, 183,184,189).
The Irish population in Wolverhampton expanded significantly with almost a fifth of the population being Irish by 1867. (BBC, 2004, Little Rome p 2 of 2). The chapter by Roger Swift in The Irish in the Victorian City, states that there were about 6000 Irish in Wolverhampton in 1851 with that number more than doubling by 1871. In 1830 there was only one Catholic Church to serve the growing Irish population on North Street. Saints Mary and John Church was founded in 1851 and St Patrick's Church in Littles Lane, Caribee Island followed in 1866. (Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan; Swift, Roger, 1985, p. 179, 181).
A compilation of the top 20 Irish towns in Britain between 1851 and 1871 that was presented in Roger Swift's book Irish Migrants in Britain 1815-1914 listed Wolverhampton as number 18 in 1851 with 7% of the population being Irish, but fell out of the top twenty by 1871. He did an analysis of some of the Wolverhampton Irish households on Caribee Island including Surnames McHale, Geraghty, Walsh, McLynn and Cunningham in this book. (Swift, Roger, 2002, p. 35, 42-44).
I have identified several of my Irish Surnames (Brannans from Mayo and Gahagans from Roscommon and ) in the Wolverhampton England Census Records and a fellow genealogist in England can document a shared migration trail of Gahagans from Castlerea in County Roscommon Ireland to Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.
My intention in this section is to try to identify the Brennan, Corcoran, Coffey and Gahagan Families (and all variations ) that were born in County Mayo and County Roscommon Ireland and trace them through the available records. Unfortunately, it appears that the Catholic Church records covering the Castlerea, Roscommon area aren't available in the LDS microfilm collection.
I have read a variety of great books that discuss the industrial development of Wolverhampton, Staffordshire and the impact the Irish workforce had on the area by some of the great authors listed below that I have referenced in this page:
Pugh, R. B. Editor 1967. A History of the County Of Stafford Volume Two. London, England: Oxford University Press. 1967.
Swift, Roger, Editor 2002. Irish Migrants in Britain 1815-1914 A Documentary History. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press.
Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan, Editors 1985. The Irish in the Victorian City. London, England Croom Helm Ltd.
I have obtained these great reads at University Libraries, but the publishers of these works should be able to assist you in obtaining them as well. If your Irish ancestors lived in the Wolverhampton, even for a brief period, these detailed works will give you tremendous insight in what life was like for them in Staffordshire in the 19th-20th century.
I found another resource by Roger Swift on the Wolverhampton Irish that appears to be available for purchase online: "Anti-Catholicism and Irish Disturbances: Public Order in Mid-Victorian Wolverhampton." I am sure it is well worth reading as well.
This is a work in progress!