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Researching the Irish in Britain: Simon Briercliffe on the Irish in the Black Country

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After spotting Simon Briercliffe’s bibliographic map showing the British towns and cities with histories written about their 19th century Irish communities, we got in touch and asked him some questions about his research and the Irish in the Black Country.

We were impressed with Simon Briercliffe’s interactive map of regional studies of 19th century Irish communities and migration to Britain (available on his blog here). We love a bibliography at Irish in Britain (see our own Bibliography of Research, a collation of scholarly work and research on the community which we regularly update), so it was great to hear about Simon’s and his own fascinating research. Our policy officer Ruairí Cullen asked Simon to tell us more:

Tell us about yourself Simon.

I am a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham in the final stages of my PhD in the history of Irish immigration into the West Midlands. I am also a researcher at the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) Dudley, focusing on bringing the history of this industrial region to life. Simon Briercliffe

My most recent work with the museum is our BCLM: Forging Ahead project, which brings the museum’s timeline into the 1940s, 50s and 60s through a new street and industrial area. My book on the Black Country in the post–war years will be published soon by History West Midlands.

What is your research project and what led you to it?

My doctoral research focuses on tracing the history of a particular neighbourhood in Wolverhampton known as Carribee Island. It was a collection of dilapidated, insanitary houses off Stafford Street (pictured, photo from Wolverhampton Archives) and became notorious as the unhealthiest, most criminal, most notorious neighbourhood in Wolverhampton. A large part of that perception is because the population was majority Irish.  Stafford Street, Wolverhampton

I came to the research with a background in studying Victorian working–class housing, and a particular interest in the Black Country region (this is the industrial region to the North and West of Birmingham which provided coal, iron and manufacturing for the Industrial Revolution. Wolverhampton is in the north–west corner of the Black Country). My initial interest was in the living conditions of the poor in Victorian towns, but it soon became obvious that this question was inseparable from the living conditions of Irish immigrants. Almost every industrial town developed an Irish quarter, usually in the poorest, most run–down neighbourhoods. Manchester had Little Ireland and Angel Meadow, Liverpool had the Scotlands, London had the St Giles Rookery and Wolverhampton had Carribee Island. The main explanation is simple: the Irish were often the poorest people in town.

So my research began to develop into what made these areas distinctive: how the attitudes of the host population affected the material lives of the Irish; how popular perceptions of the Irish affected the way they were policed and governed; and how they were able to stake their own claim within English society. My research stops when Carribee Island was demolished around 1880 as part of some of the earliest slum clearance programmes. 

The picture from Wolverhampton Archives shows nearby Coles Croft during the 1880s demolitions. Coles Croft, Wolverhampton, during 1880s demolition

How did the Irish community in Wolverhampton change over the course of the 19th century?

Wolverhampton never had as large an Irish population as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow or London, simply because it was a much smaller town to begin with. These cities had an established and organised Irish community even before the Famine. Wolverhampton had a small number of Irish workers and they were already settled in the Carribee Island area, but this population leapt from the late 1840s. In 1847, local doctors began to record growing numbers of “Irish beggars” in town – these were people escaping the worst of the Famine, and mostly came from Counties Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, landing in Liverpool and walking the rest of the way. By the 1850s, around one in eight in Wolverhampton was Irish.

To begin with the Irish were blamed for almost everything: degrading living conditions, driving down wages, attracting epidemic diseases like cholera and increasing the crime rate. A lot of these drew on well–worn stereotypes of the Irish as being different to the English. Newspapers, cartoonists, politicians and scientists all wrote about the Irish being naturally different – lawless, prone to drunkenness, feckless and lazy. They were heavily policed because they were an easy target, which just meant they became over–represented in conviction rates, which supported this narrative that they were fundamentally different. 

In fact, of course, the Irish poor and working class living in Carribee Island were little different to their English neighbours. They suffered from the same poor housing, insecure work and class prejudice. The stereotypes hung around for a long time, but with such a substantial population, the Irish began to be able to organise themselves. A lot of this was rooted in the Catholic Church. Wolverhampton has a long Catholic history, although it must certainly have been a shock for the upper–class English families who suddenly had to start sharing their pews with starving Irish immigrants. In 1867, a new church, St Patrick’s, was opened especially for the Irish and its priest, Father Walter Hall, was a longstanding pillar of the community.  Canal Street, at the heart of Wolverhampton's Irish quarter

Despite official discouragement from the Church, Father Hall was also broadly supportive of nationalist groups which formed across Britain and Ireland. Wolverhampton did not have a Confederate Club in 1848 like some towns (so far as I can find evidence for) but it did have a reading room of the National Brotherhood of St Patrick in the 1860s, the Home Rulers in the 1870s and the Land League in the 1880s. 

The image from Wolverhampton Archives shows Canal Street and the heart of the 19th century Irish quarter. 

When the area was demolished, some of the wind was knocked out of the sails of the local Irish community. There was little new immigration, and many Irish people chose to assimilate into British society rather than maintain a distinctive Irishness. This remained broadly true until the 1950s.

Tell us about your bibliographic map of local studies of the Irish in the 19th century Britain.

The interactive map (pictured) started life as an exercise in collating all the studies that had been published into Irish communities in Britain – I was hoping it would be useful in my literature review section! I am a geographer as well as a historian, and I get a lot out of visualising things in maps, so this seemed a logical next step. Local contexts are crucial for understanding differences in experience. Image from Simon's bibliographic map

The bibliography aims to be a useful resource for anyone else considering a study of the Irish in Britain and hopefully to encourage people to fill in the gaps. I have included studies in peer–reviewed or similar learned journals, academic works, PhD theses, Google Scholar, the Bibliography of British & Irish History, and particularly the bibliography compiled by the Irish Diaspora Histories Network. I am sure there are still gaps, but it is a constant process of revision and I am always interested to hear of more.

My other favourite resources are the Integrated Census Microdata and Vision of Britain websites. These are a great starting point for the demography of your chosen location and will give you statistics directly from the census on how many Irish people can be found in any given place. 

Why is it important to study the history of migration to Britain?

Academic historians have always pointed out the evidence for diversity in British history, but there still seems to be a lingering belief that British people have existed in splendid isolation since the Saxons arrived, and that immigration is a recent phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth: the Irish have been coming and going for centuries, as have others. 

It is important to view the Irish as part of the bigger picture too: although they were the largest group of immigrants at the time, their experiences with prejudice and assimilation have been similar to those arriving in Britain ever since. Prejudices around housing, public health and crime which are experienced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people in Britain today, for instance, have strong echoes with historic Irish experiences. It is important to keep on pressing the point that the movement of people around the world is not exceptional or recent, but normal and well–established. It is also sadly necessary to keep on pointing out that this stereotyping and discrimination based on point of origin – racism – is systemic and deep–rooted in this country and cannot be solved with quick fixes. Studying the history of migration helps us understand this better and can hopefully push back against racism and other forms of discrimination.

What other projects are you involved in?

As well as my studies, I am a researcher at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. We tell the industrial and social history of the Black Country through living interpretation and through a recreated built environment, often buildings saved from demolition and brought to us brick–by–brick. My main focus in the last few years has been providing research to support our successful major National Lottery Heritage Fund application, BCLM: Forging Ahead, which will extend our site with new buildings and bring the history we tell into living memory. 

Part of the story we will be telling is immigration from the Commonwealth, which has made the Black Country one of the most diverse parts of the country. We had a desperate shortage of labour after World War Two, but the contribution of workers from Eastern Europe, Ireland, the Caribbean and South Asia, made it into one of the most prosperous working–class districts in Britain. This is a great opportunity to research the Irish in the Black Country in these post–war years and compare their experiences with other communities.

As part of our plans we will be building a second pub (see the image below for the other pub at the museum). It will be a replica of the Elephant & Castle, originally situated on the corner of Stafford Street and Cannock Road, Wolverhampton. It was just a few hundred yards from Carribee Island and seems to have remained a meeting place for Irish drinkers long after the Irish quarter was demolished. The landlord in the 1890s for instance was an Irishman named Patrick O’Kane, who is mentioned in several reports of Irish nationalist meetings in the town. Our oral history research has shown that the Elephant & Castle remained an Irish meeting place at least into the 1970s.  A street in the Black Country Living Museum

In the 1950s the Black Country was a popular destination for those leaving Ireland – compared to home it was prosperous, with well–paying jobs in construction and industry. Some local firms, such as ICI and Midland Red transport even had recruiting offices in Dublin. 

⭐We are very keen to hear from anyone that remembers the Elephant & Castle in the 1950s or 1960s – it may be that you can help us to get the decoration right, or tell us what drinks were served, or even tell us about the regulars and the Irish community in Wolverhampton. There is more information on the BCLM website and we would really welcome anyone with more information getting in touch at collections@bclm.com