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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