1828 - 1865

The Growth of the Catholic Community in Wolverhampton (part 4)

The Irish Immigrants

The dramatic increase in the size of Roman Catholic congregations in many industrial parts of England during the first half of the nineteenth century can be largely attributed to Irish immigration. Though the influx was to reach its climax during and immediately after the great Irish famine of 1845-51, it had been taking place at an accelerating rate during the previous three decades. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars there was a constantly expanding flow of young Irish labourers who sought work in the docks and in the mines and new factories of the North and Midlands. Many of their number came only for a few months, usually at harvest-time, and then returned with earnings which helped to pay the rent and tithes at home. In the ten years after 1841, the number of Irish born residents in Britain increased by over 73 per cent to 727,326 [C.O’Grada "A Note on Nineteenth-Century Irish Immigration Statistics" in Population Studies 29 1975 pp 145 – 8] and Wolverhampton, with one-eighth of its population Irish by the mid-century, [PP Public Houses 1852-3 403 St.6903] was one of a number of industrial towns where the impact of this mass movement of people was to have major repercussions. M.A.G. O'Tuathaig, in describing the settlement of the Irish, explains that the important factors of rent-levels, proximity to work-place, and transport costs dictated that the immigrants should locate themselves in the city centres "where residential competition was least intense". [[M.A.G.O’Tuathaig "The Irish in Nineteenth Century Britain: Problems of Intergration" RHS 1980 p154].

Indeed, many of the labouring Irish and their families who moved to Wolverhampton made their home in Caribee Island, a run-down central district on the north side of Stafford Street. At the end of 1847, J. Dehone, writing in 'The Journal of Public Health', described the buildings in this area as "most squalid ....containing a population of frequently 10 or 12 in a room, without either beds or even the commonest articles of furniture". The population of the district, he noted, which was of a migratory character, was 20 times more likely to contract typhoid than the other inhabitants of the town, and 30 times more likely to die from it. [WC 8th Dec 1847].

Conditions continued to deteriorate as the more destitute Irish crowded into the area. Early in 1849, Mr E.H. Coleman, surgeon at Wolverhampton for twenty-five years, told Inspector Robert Rawlinson that typhus fever was rarely absent from Stafford Street and Caribee Island since there were no drains in "this loathsome neighbourhood". Instead "an open gutter passes down the passage between the houses, or rather the whole was an open gutter ....[with] some of the houses being below the level of the street". Rawlinson heard that rent levels of 1/6d for old houses were common, and that, in general, the Irish were prepared to pay more than English tenants because "the former took in so many lodgers" [WC 7th Feb 1849].

The experiences of Wolverhampton at this time were common also to many other parts of the Black Country. When, in 1856, A.M. Sullivan, a special correspondent of the Irish 'Nation', visited the Irish colonies of the Midlands, he wrote that "it is lives that are bought and sold in the furnaces and forges of South Staffordshire". [J.Denvir "The Irish in Britain" 1892 p188] He found that in the appalling conditions he encountered in Darlaston, Wednesbury, and Oldbury, safety precautions were almost unknown, and many Irish labourers died of over-work and exhaustion. Sullivan discovered that most of the Irish still communicated in their native tongue, and he noted that in many of the houses of Wednesbury "not one of the women could speak English and I doubt that in a single house Irish was not the prevalent language". Indeed, the Church was so worried by the situation in Bilston, three miles south-east of Wolverhampton, that it despatched Father Sherlock to the town to hear the confessions of the Irish labourers and their families in their native tongue. [D.Gwynn "The Irish Immigration" The English Catholics 1850 – 1950" 1950 p.267].