Telling family stories

The residents of 15 Coles Croft according to the 1851 census

As part of my research I will inevitably have to tell you some family histories. I say have to – it’s a vital, fascinating and relevant part of my research. But have you ever had someone try to tell you their family history? I’m guilty of this, because my own family history is really interesting – to me. To others, it’s a bit, well, listy. This is one of the challenges of writing family history: it’s often a bit boring to read. I’d like to note the honourable exception here: John Herson’s new book Divergent Paths (and blog) is a really excellent study of family life among the Irish of Stafford – his stories are contextualised, clear, interesting and entirely relevant, so it certainly can be done.

I’m going to try it from a slightly different angle. I’m surrounded by a mass of individual data, looking for needles amongst the demographic haystack, and there’s often not a lot to tell. Inspired by the ethoses behind Storying The Past, the Modern British Studies group at UoB, and an interest in the value and importance of ordinary lives that are central to history from below, I’m sure there are ways of doing making even the sparsest tale worthwhile so forgive me if I treat you as guinea pigs for a while – I’d like to try out some different ways of telling family stories and these are very amateurish attempts, with no pretence to literary value. Perhaps other networks and connections will make themselves known over time. I really hope so…

Oral history: Michael Grany, 24th December 1878
Me: This is an interview with Michael Grany of Wolverhampton, on Christmas Eve 1878. Michael lives in Wolverhampton now but was born in Ireland in 1818. Michael, tell me what you can remember about your upbringing.

Kilbeggan, show in the OSI Mapviewer 25″ historical view (1897-1913) (c) Ordnance Survey Ireland

MG: Well, I was born in the township of Kilbeggan, in County Westmeath. My parents were called Martin and Elizabeth, and they baptised me there at St James’s. It’s just a small place, or it was at least, but it had a market and a church and everything. Times were hard, you know, we had not much to eat really and when the potatoes didn’t grow, we really went hungry. I worked mostly on my father’s plot, growing what we were going to eat. When we couldn’t grow enough to eat, which happened more often than we’d have liked, we had to go tramping for work. My brothers went spalpeening, we called it, they travelled around for work during the harvest. I myself was luckier, the Public Works man found me a job digging the canal in Kilbeggan, so I didn’t have to go far away. But that didn’t last, it was almost finished when I started. I looked for more work, I tried at the distillery even, but they wouldn’t take me on.

Me: Tell me about your family.

MG: I married Margaret in about 1837, I think it was. We were only young, I must have been 18 then and she just 16, but that was pretty normal around there. We had Bridget first, then Sally, well her name was Sarah really but we called her Sally, then Mary. Mary was born not long before we came over you know, when the potatoes failed again. That was a real bad time. I know lots of places had it worse than us, I know of people just over in Roscommon that had it much worse, but still, we just couldn’t make ends meet, you know? It’s a long time ago now.

Me: what happened?

MG: Well, we couldn’t eat. So we had no choice. We weren’t kicked off or anything, but we decided to sell what we could, which wasn’t much, and take our chances. We walked all the way to Sligo, can you believe that? That was one of the ports that we heard would take people over to America or England, and we just got on the first boat we could. I still don’t know if we made the right choice; we passed many people who were in a much worse state than us but couldn’t afford to get out.

Margaret and the girls came with me, of course, this must have been 1848 or something – truth be told, I can’t recall it exactly. Thank God we came through alive and well, no fever or anything, and came to Liverpool. Well, that was just too much. It’s too big for me, so many people in these huge buildings. We’re just country people, you know. So we headed off, not sure where to go, and ended up here, just following the crowd!

Me: what do you remember of Wolverhampton then?

MG: it wasn’t as big as Liverpool, that’s for sure! But it was still so different to what we were used to. We didn’t have much of a house or anything, that’s for sure, but at least it was in the fresh air, with the bogs and the fields around. Here it was all straight streets of houses all joined together, with factories behind: we had never seen so many chimney stacks, and the smoke! The air was black. Well, it’s not much better now is it. I remember walking down Stafford Street, past the tollgate, and the smell hit you – the wind picked up and we could smell the soot and coal from the chimneys, the stink from the manure works, and that rotten sort of smell you get when you cross the canal. We were amazed though – in the middle of all of that, we carried on down Stafford Street and began to hear Irish voices. There was even a pub called the Hibernia, that’s still there. I couldn’t read the sign, but I know it now.

Me: tell me about your home.

MG: we stayed in lodgings for a little while, then found a house to rent in Coles Croft. We stayed there for a long time, even though it wasn’t up to much – it must have been only 10 foot square, right at the end of the street. You could cut around the back to Stafford Street or Canal Street, or climb over into Carribee Island. They’re going to knock the whole street down, did you hear that? About time I think. Those privies must have been here as long as the town, and not emptied since then neither.

Coles Croft 1871
Coles Croft (incorrectly described here as Carribee Island) in 1871 (C) Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies. The star marks Michael Grany’s house.

We didn’t have much of course, and that was true for a long time. I did work where I could get it: on building sites and in factories, but it was only ever just enough to make the rent. The best job I had was in the mines, that lasted for a little while. But it was a long way each day, not like back home; it was two or three miles each way, you couldn’t just walk out onto your plot. That Mr Brassington used to come around to collect the rent, he was nice enough, but you got short shrift if you had no money, you know. If you didn’t pay up, you were out on your ear. To be honest, I think he took pity on us. We had Patrick not long after we arrived, and I think he felt sorry for us with a baby. A babby, they call it round here. We weren’t the only family in there either, even though it was just two rooms. I remember Daniel Reenan and his lot, Darby Whealon and his boy, the Connors. They all came and went. I remember when the census man came around the first time, he couldn’t believe it. If I remember right, there were 17 of us in there, can you believe that? He asked us what we did for our occupations, but we didn’t really know what to say. I was only pretty new really, I said I’m an agricultural man myself, and everyone else agreed. I think he put that for everyone in the house. Probably the street as well – everyone in Coles Croft was in the same state. They’d have to be – they wouldn’t choose to live there if they didn’t have to, I shouldn’t think.

Coles Croft pic
Coles Croft in the 1880s, during demolition (c) Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies

It was so dirty, you know. Compared to our little house in Ireland it was awful. And don’t think they ever bothered about how we were doing down there, you know, the council or the landlord or whoever, except when they came and telt us we were dirty and we had to clean up. I remember one year the water pump broke down and we had to walk and walk to get something to drink, because everywhere nearby was dry. It was so hot, and there were Margaret and the girls all tramping over to Horse Fair to carry pails of water back with them. It’s no wonder everyone kept getting ill, is it? I remember old Ben Riley on our street. All six his children came down with the scarlet fever at once, poor things, I forget how many lived but it wasn’t many.

Me: did you have any more children?

MG: ar, I did, Thomas. He’s the one getting married on Boxing Day, up at St Patrick’s. They only built that about ten years ago. Before that, we went to mass up in the main church behind the Corn Exchange, but everyone found it a bit strange – the Irish and the English aren’t very much alike when it comes to the church. No, Thomas is getting married to a lovely English girl from just over the road, Betsy. I’m so proud of him really. Betsy’s father makes locks and keys, he lives over in Canal Street. A good job that! He won’t tell me how they met, I don’t think she’s from the Church or anything so maybe he just met her around. They’re only round the corner. Thomas, he works at a foundry – he’s really got himself established here. He doesn’t remember Ireland of course, nor Patrick, and even the girls hardly now. I think perhaps if one of the girls had married an Englishman I’d have been quite sad, because then they’d never have got to go home, back to Kilbeggan I mean. But Thomas, well, it doesn’t mean the same to him. I’d have loved to go back, but now that Margaret has been taken from me, I don’t think I shall ever go. We’ve better lives here than we had there though, there’s no point going back to that.

[This is, of course, mostly fictitious. The details are real, they come from censuses and the like, the filler from what is known about the Irish migrant experience. This isn’t thesis-worthy, either, it’s just a thought experiment. But imagining an oral history is an interesting way of going about it. In real life, I suspect Michael could have told me so much more detail that I couldn’t possibly guess. The records are scant, particularly as his surname seems to spelt differently in every single census, certificate and reference, so that it’s proved tricky tracing the rest of the Graneys. There’s some interesting work to do on them though: Thomas Graney married Betsy Collins, an English girl from round the corner, and theirs would have been the story of the experience of slum clearance: they lived at various times on Canal Street and Short Street, and had children of their own who moved out to newer accommodation on the edge of town. Perhaps my next interview should be Sara, Thomas’s daughter…]

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