Carribee Island: Wolverhampton’s Victorian Irish Quarter

Caption: Section of Robert Syar Hoggar’s plan of Wolverhampton, 1851-4. This is scanned from the remaining copy of the map retained by the Wolverhampton Council Sewerage Committee and later annotated with the completed works. Used by kind permission of Wolverhampton City Archives and Local Studies, ref. no. MAP/388b.
Lichfield Street and Little Berry Street, 1851(ish). My study area lies just to the North of this map. Courtesy of Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies.

I have recently completed a PhD at the University of Birmingham entitled ‘“The blackest shadows are cast by the Irish quarter”: the making of Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, 1832-1882.’ The thesis is currently embargoed while I work out whether I’ll be able to write it up into a publication, so without wanting to give the game away too much, here’s a quick précis of what I found. If you wish to use any of the information from this, or from the whole blog, please kindly acknowledge where you found it, or better still get in touch – I’d love to hear from anyone with an interest in the subject.

Stafford Street in Wolverhampton is today a mixture of University buildings and Victorian shopfronts, running between the ring road and Princess Square – here it meets Broad Street which goes East towards Wednesfield, the railway station and the canal. It’s a slightly shabby corner on the North-Eastern side of the city centre, its back streets either composed of late Victorian terraces or blasted through with the ring road, and its shops a mixture of takeaways and, ahem, Private Shops. Littles Lane exists as a stub on the opposite side of Ring Road St Patrick.

Simon Image 2
Coles Croft under demolition, 1880s. Courtesy of Wolverhampton Archives.

150 years ago, it was still a shabby part of Wolverhampton, but looked very different. Rather than the wide thoroughfares of today, the streets were still at their medieval widths, and built up to maximum density. Behind the street frontages were a maze of some of the poorest, most haphazard houses in the town. Built cheaply and quickly during the town’s rapid industrial expansion, many suffered from very poor construction, lack of access to water or waste disposal, and too much access to stinking rows of privies pressed up to the back of some of these buildings. The distinct courts were known by a variety of colourful names: Back Lane, Dog & Partridge Yard, Coles Croft, Brazier’s Yard and, most (in)famously, Carribee Island.

The census returns for these streets show us what set Carribee Island apart from other similar environments in Wolverhampton. In Coles Croft in 1851, for example, 100% of heads of household were born in Ireland. Since 1845, rural Ireland had been crippled by repeated failures of the potato harvest, and as this made up the large part of a subsistence diet for most farmers, the result was famine. An gorta mor, the great hunger, was the worst humanitarian disaster in nineteenth-century Europe, and was catastrophically mishandled by the British government, who then occupied Ireland. Estimates suggest that around a million people died of starvation and resultant disease, and a million and a half emigrated: to the US, Canada or Australia where they could, but often just as far as Britain. Wolverhampton – like so many other towns – saw its small Irish population swell to over 6,000, or 8% of the population. The majority of these were found in the Stafford Street, Canal Street, Littles Lane and Carribee Island area, living amidst hostility, prejudice and poverty.

My research investigates the experiences and perceptions of this new Irish community in Wolverhampton between the 1830s and the 1880s, and in particular how the so-called “Irish quarter” was made to stand in for numerous vices, complaints and problems. I have looked at how this neighbourhood was categorized as a “slum” – a pejorative term at the time which insinuated much about the fecklessness and dirtiness of the residents. This image was constructed in different discourses, around public health, criminality, Catholicism and more. But it’s important to note that the community formed itself in positive ways too: community solidarity was strong, diasporic Irishness was worked out, and a new kind of community became apparent – only for the council to demolish this area in the 1880s.

Public health

Carribee Island’s infamy began in its environment. Long one of Wolverhampton’s poorest neighbourhoods, it was one of the worst hit by various outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases. It was also one of the most densely-populated parts of town: one street in the 1851 census housed an average 10.25 people per one-up, one-down, 10ft square cottage with no water, communal privies and sewers that ran down the middle of the street. Few solutions were ever offered (other than to knock it all down) and rather than being treated with sympathy, the neighbourhood was stigmatised as a problem space using public health language that was shot through with racial and social stereotypes. Different types of authority – medical, professional, civil – were rooted in a worldview that “knew” that the poor – particularly the Irish – were cradles of disease, immorality and disorder.

Crime and justice

Residents at the corner of Stafford Street, Horse Fair, Berry Street and Canal Street
Residents at the corner of Stafford Street, Horse Fair, Berry Street and Canal Street. Courtesy of Wolverhampton Archives 

The other side of Stafford Street’s reputational coin was its criminal and antisocial associations. This reputation was also carefully constructed by local elites whose view of the poor generally, and the Irish specifically, was grounded in Victorian prejudices about poverty and race. Newspapers reported about “Stafford Street Rows” and ethnic violence – forgetting to mention that the police targeted Irish pubs to meet arrest quotas, and that solicitors magistrates used essentially racist views about the Irish to make a variety of claims. The effect was what modern geographers might call “territorial stigmatisation” – a methodical campaign to denigrate the neighbourhood and its residents so that they could “reclaim the street” and regulate them. As with any such attempt, this was only partially successful.

Catholicism and anti-Catholicism

One of the specific criticisms levelled at Stafford Street was its imagined home as a base for Catholic intrigue and threat. This seems almost absurd from a twenty-first century vantage point, but for some in Protestant Victorian Britain, the Old Enemy seemed an ever-present danger. Wolverhampton was historically a more Catholic town than most, but the arrival of the Irish (almost entirely Catholic here, compared to a mixture of loyalties in some other towns) coincided with the Pope’s decision to reinstate the hierarchy of bishops in Britain in 1850, leading to all sorts of wild theories. For a good twenty years, anti-Catholic lecturers roamed the land, whipping up anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feeling, and inciting violent mobs on both sides. In Wolverhampton, Irish Catholics robustly defended their faith by attack lecture halls and protesting the (to be honest) bile proclaimed by lecturers such as William Murphy. My interpretation of events here is that they were integral to the development of Irish national feeling amongst locals.

Nationalist politics

The Irishman, 7 June 1873
The Irishman, 7 June 1873

This feeling developed particularly in the 1860s and 1870s through nationalist organisations such as the National Brotherhood of Saint Patrick, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Home Government Association. They often straddled a line between an open, constitutional campaign for more autonomy for Ireland, and a more clandestine, radical campaign for complete Irish independence. Both sides of the campaign found widespread support amongst the Irish diaspora across the world – in Wolverhampton, despite a slow start, they ended up convincing local MPs to vote for Home Rule a few years later. Both radical and moderate versions of nationalism found the Irish quarter to be fertile ground for support. Irish pubs and landlords hosted meetings, Irish clergy hosted fundraisers and lectures, group leaders met with fellow nationalists from around Britain to further the cause – one was even imprisoned alongside a later Irish republican hero, but that’s a story to write up another day.

Why was the Irish quarter like this?

When it boils down to it, any neighbourhood is an amalgamation of fact and fiction, reality and reputation. Carribee Island, Stafford Street, the Irish quarter – this was no exception. Hopefully my research punctures some of the persistent myths about the neighbourhood as a criminal, filthy, problem space. In fact, it was home to ordinary people doing ordinary things like going to work, to the shops, to the pub. Once you pick apart the myths which landowners, councillors, doctors, policemen and judges layered upon it, it was just an ordinary neighbourhood. But that’s the great thing about social history – even the ordinary, especially the ordinary, is fascinating.

Here comes the science theory bit

Excerpt from GIS map of Stafford Street, showing birthplace of head of household, with pubs highlighted.
Excerpt from GIS map of Stafford Street, showing birthplace of head of household, with pubs highlighted ((c) Simon Briercliffe).

This project has drawn on a variety of theoretical understandings of space and place. My sympathies lie with approaching history “from below” (in the tradition of EP Thompson, Raphael Samuel etc.), although I tend to think you need to identify and pick apart the myths and constructions that surround a subject – in history terms, my favourite example of this is perhaps Alan Mayne’s The Imagined Slum, which uses a postmodernist approach to language and culture to break down the layers of discourse around urban housing in the late nineteenth century.

The same applies with space. In particular, I have drawn on Henri Lefebvre, whose distinction between ‘spatial practice,’ the “real” and material everyday use of space; ‘representations of space,’ the “imagined” conceptions of space through which ideas and ideologies are projected (as seen in Mayne’s work); and ‘representational space,’ the directly-lived “space of everyday experience,” has been really useful. I’ve enjoyed comparing Lefebvre’s mid-century work with more recent spatial theories by, for example, Doreen Massey, Avtar Brah, Loic Wacquant; and comparing them with work on constructions of race and whiteness by Catherine Hall, Steve Garner, Matthew Frye Jacobson; with work on ‘small histories’ by Julia Laite; and many more.

One of the big methodological aims of my research was to see how far you could push spatial history when researching the history of poverty and the poor. I had a go at using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on this, and will hopefully share some of the findings on the blog. This proved… challenging. I love maps, and can/do spend all day playing with them, but the thing about histories of the poor are that they are fragmentary and imperfect, because someone else generally wrote them down. I have plotted census returns onto a map of the area, and can get a good sense of spatial patterns: which courts were more Irish than others, where there were clusters of people living together in overcrowded environments, where there were lodgers or children at work, etc. But they will only ever be impressions, because the census enumerator didn’t bother to write down the house numbers of poor households like he did with slightly better off ones. This historic laziness/class prejudice means that someone living in one of the mazey back courts of Carribee Island or Littles Lane can’t be identified in their place like a shopkeeper or publican can be – that’s a finding in itself of course.

After Carribee Island

Stafford Street junction © Jaggery, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.
Stafford Street junction © Jaggery, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

In 1877, Wolverhampton Council availed itself of the 1875 Artizans’, Labourers’ and General Dwellings’ Act to apply for funding to knock down the worst bits of the town. Carribee Island and its surroundings were inevitably doomed. They were demolished from the early 1880s and replaced with terraced housing here and in Springfield, and some more modern public buildings facing Stafford Street and Lichfield Street. The population was dispersed (because of course, they couldn’t afford the newer houses) and the Irish community broken up, spatially at least.

I’ll keep this site updated when/if I get to write something more substantial from my thesis, but in the meantime I’m very happy for people to get in touch – whether you had ancestors in this area, or you’re an academic with an interest in slums, space, Wolverhampton or whatever, please drop me a line. If you’d like to read more, there are a pile of blog posts in the archive: try clicking here.