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.

9 thoughts on “Black Country Irish: Walsall in the 1850s

  1. I enjoyed this. I guess mainly because I combine an interest in local history and being sometime town planner in Walsall. I had a bit part, maybe equivalent to “man in lift”, in the redevelopment of Town Wharf and surroundings in the 1990s and subsequently.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article. My late father once told me the area around Lower Rushall Street was a huge slum with a large Irish population. Conditions there were horrendous even by early twentieth century standards. The gruesome site overlooked The Queen Victoria Inn which still stands on the corner of Lower Rushall Street and Intown Row. The Irish residents hated the monarch and nicknamed the pub “The Cats”. The name stuck and today is officially registered as Cats Bar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mack. That’s interesting that the area’s conditions and reputation persisted well beyond the time I’ve looked at, and particularly the Irish reputation. Interesting fact about the Victoria as well – I wonder where the “cats” part came from?!


  3. Hi Simon,

    A really interesting article. One of my ancestors lived in Anchor Place – they are on the 1851 Census as Carley. Michael Carley had a daughter called Ellen. I was just wondering if you knew anything more about the character Irish Nell you mention? The names are a bit similar!!


  4. hi,
    my gg grandparents surname flynn were irish from mayo,they lived the ditch and gortons yard in walsall,also had family moran and connolly near rushall street,so this is all very interesting!


  5. The George Evans who wrote the poem is my ancestor and he was a curb-chain maker in Walsall, who started off with nothing, worked hard and became well respected. The founder of Walsall law firm Enoch Evans is descended from him too


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