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.

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