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Irish London

The Irish Immigrant Community in Eighteenth-Century London

Irish immigrants have formed an important part of the London population from at least the early seventeenth century, becoming particularly associated with seasonal labour, street selling, and the areas around St Giles in the Fields during the course of the eighteenth century. Irish men and women formed a particularly large percentage of the poor. At the end of the eighteenth century, Matthew Martin found over a third of the 2000 beggars he interviewed were Irish, and the Irish are very well represented in the Proceedings.

During the nineteenth century a pattern of growing prosperity and integration in the first half of the century was fundamentally transformed by the desperate, large scale migrations associated with the Irish famine. The Irish born population of London reached its peak around 1851, when the census counted their number at 109,000. This large population, in combination with London’s role as the centre of British politics (and hence, in the nineteenth century, of Irish politics) ensured that the city was a primary site for both Fenian political agitation, and violence.

Contents of this Article

Patterns of Migration

The greatest flow of emigration from Ireland to London occurred in the early to mid nineteenth century, in response to the agricultural depressions following the Napoleonic Wars, the increasing demand for Irish labour associated with the Industrial Revolution; and finally, and most dramatically, by worsening conditions in Ireland associated with the Great Famine (1846-9). But by this time Irish communities had been a common part of the London scene for at least two hundred years. Early migration patterns were dominated by seasonal employment at harvest time. This was significantly modified during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the workings of vagrancy and settlement legislation, which ensured that many seasonal workers were forcibly returned to Ireland by parochial and county authorities. As a result of the military adventurism of the eighteenth-century state, large numbers of Irish soldiers found themselves discharged onto the frequently unwelcoming streets of London at the conclusions of Britain's innumerable wars.

Overall, the number of Irish born Londoners reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century, when approximately 4.5% of all Londoners fell into this category. From this high-point of 109,000 individuals, the Irish born population of the capital fell, year on year. In 1861, this figure had fallen to 107,000, in 1871 91,000, and in 1901 60,000 souls.

Employment

Men with shovels and wheelbarrows work at a series of open pits, digging gravel

Seasonal work at harvest time formed the core activity of Irish migrants throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the more settled and stable Irish communities of London also provided the basis for participation in a range of other employments. Hawking, costermongering (selling fruit and other wares from a barrow), and street selling were occupations in which large numbers of Irish men and women could be found. In the early 1850s Henry Mayhew estimated that there were 10,000 Irish men and women employed in these quasi-beggarly professions. With the building, first, of the canals from the 1780s, and then of the railways in the nineteenth century, Irish men were brought to England and London to move earth and build the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, in London, many building labourers, chairmen, and porters were Irish, as were the owners of lodging houses, alehouses, and chophouses frequented by Irish clientele. Beyond this, the silk industries of London and Dublin were closely connected, drawing Irish silk and linen weavers to Spitalfields – though this trade declined rapidly in the early nineteenth century.

But religious and racial bigotry, expressed through riot and violence as well as through more subtle social mechanisms, contributed to the virtual exclusion of the first generation Irish from the better-paid sectors of the London economy. As a result, even the settled Irish communities remained relatively poor and financially and socially insecure. This problem was exacerbated in the mid nineteenth century when large numbers of very poor rural Irish men and women emigrated to London in response to the Great Famine. In the decades that followed, traditional migrants from Ireland frequently came into conflict with this newer, poorer group.

Housing and Communities

A black and white image of a street scene in the rookery of St. Giles, one of London's worst slums

The first and largest Irish colony in London could be found in St Giles in the Fields and Seven Dials. But by the early nineteenth century Irish migrants could be found living in all parts of the capital with the exception of the City. Beyond St Giles, recognisable Irish communities could be found in Whitechapel and Saffron Hill, Poplar and Southwark, and perhaps most notoriously in the Calmel Buildings off Orchard Street in Marylebone. By the end of the century, most parts of the capital had their Irish settlements.

The living conditions suffered by the inhabitants of many of these districts were awful – particularly as the Irish community grew in size following the Great Famine. Owing to London's high cost of living, several Irish families frequently shared a single room. In one house in Saffron Hill investigated by Thomas Beames in 1849, 88 men, women and children, were found living in a single five room house. And when this overcrowding was combined with primitive sewage arrangements, poor ventilation, and few opportunities for washing of either bodies or clothes, the mortality rate among London's Irish population rose to frightening levels.

Many Irish immigrants were also from a rural and agricultural background, which left them ill-prepared for life in a large city. Complaints about Irish families keeping pigs, and about the sanitary implications of Irish funerals, were commonplace.

Politics

In the latter half of the nineteenth century London became a significant locus of Irish Republicanism and violent political agitation. The Irish Republican Brotherhood made its first London appeal in 1861 and by the middle of that decade there were secret Fenian societies in Soho and Finsbury. The first substantial outcome of this agitation was the "Clerkenwell Outrage" of 1867, which, in a bungled attempt to release two Fenians from the Clerkenwell House of Correction, resulted in the deaths of twelve people in the adjoining Corporation Lane. Michael Barrett, along with five others, was eventually tried at the Old Bailey for these deaths, though only Barrett was found guilty. He became the last person to be publicly executed in England when he was hanged outside Newgate Prison on the 26th of May 1868.

In the 1880s, and associated with the agitation for Home Rule, two unsuccessful attempts were made to blow up the Mansion House, and in March 1883, to destroy the offices of The Times. More successful attacks were made against government offices in Parliament Street and against passengers at Paddington Station – injuring 74 people. In February 1884, a bomb exploded in the left-luggage department at Victoria Station, while three further devices were discovered and defused at other London stations in the same year. Attempts were also made to blow up Nelson’s Column, Scotland Yard, the Junior Carlton Club, London Bridge, the Tower of London, Westminster Hall, the Admiralty, and the House of Commons. This wave of bombs and bombings gradually petered out towards the end of the century, to be replaced by an equally violent wave of anarchist attacks.

Legal Contexts and Trials

Both social prejudice and legal barriers exacerbated the social and economic insecurity of many Irish Londoners. They were effectively denied the support others received from the Poor Law, and were therefore over-represented among those dealt with through vagrancy legislation and in the pages of the Proceedings themselves. London's long tradition of anti-Catholicism also resulted in riots and assaults directed at Irish men and women. The rise of Irish Republicanism and the concerted bombing campaigns of the later nineteenth century contributed more.

Seven Dials on a busy adternoon, with a large number of children and men in the narrow street.  On the left of the image a woman is walking purposefully towards the viewer.

The Proceedings also provide good evidence of the workings of more subtle social prejudice. In the early Proceedings Irish and other accents were frequently rendered phonetically as a way of ridiculing the evidence recorded. In 1725, for instance, James Fitzgerald claimed to have had his watch stolen by an English prostitute. His testimony was recorded with ill-disguised humour: "O' my Shoul, I wash got pretty drunk, and wash going very shoberly along the Old-Baily, and there I met the Preeshoner upon the Bar, as she wash going before me." The acquittal that resulted from this trial was certainly as much about anti-Irish prejudice as legal process.

At the same time, Irish men and women can frequently be found among those accused of theft. For example, in the 1720s and 30s they were at the centre of criminal gangs such as those run by Moll Harvey and Isabella Eaton. This pattern continues in the nineteenth-century Proceedings, though the fact that an ever growing proportion of less serious crime was being dealt with by Police and magistrate’s courts means that these kinds of trials become less common after mid century.

Search Strategies

Identifying Irish men and women in the Proceedings and the Ordinary's Accounts is difficult, and does not lend itself to searches on specific categories of information. Irish people can be found in a wide range of criminal trials as victims, witnesses and perpetrators, but they are not easy to find.

Keyword searches can be more productive. The best terms for searching include Irish, Irishman and Ireland, although it should be noted that the term Irish is frequently paired with linen, in the phrase "Irish linen". Specific counties, towns, and cities in Ireland can also be used as search terms, as can political labels and organisations. Fenian brings up a significant number of results, as do words such as Republican and Brotherhood.

Irish name types that include Mc and Mac, and the Wild Card *, as in Mc* can be used for searching with good results, but care needs to be exercised as this search will also produce a substantial proportion of unrelated trials.

Introductory Reading

  • Jackson, John Archer, The Irish In Britain (London, 1963)
  • Lees, Lynn, Exiles of Erin: Irish migrants in Victorian London (London, 1979)
  • Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan, eds, The Irish in Britain 1815-1939 (London, 1989)

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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