Three stories of the Irish in nineteenth-century Manchester
May 16, 1846
“This is decidedly the most miserable place I ever visited,” Mr. Chapman grimly remarks, his knees shaking as he descends the dangerously steep stairs into the cellar below. Tasked with looking into the tragic circumstances surrounding a boy who had burnt to death at his home in Little Ireland, the investigator can almost feel the despair pressing down on him as he gazes around the windowless hovel.
The room comprises two cells, which he estimates as not exceeding three and a half yards square, and beneath his feet he notes the complete absence of pavement. Shavings lie piled in two corners, undoubtedly where the labourer who inhabits this particularly sad dwelling and his children sleep, in between the long hours of the working day. The sight of it leaves him wondering if perhaps “misery” is not a strong enough word.
March 11, 1848
Filled with revolutionary spirit, a young Irishman stands at the head of a crowd. With oratory flair, he directs their passion towards the mill owners, the pampered and rich aristocracy, the tyrant masters at the root of their misery. Three cheers echo throughout New Islington for the Young French Republic as more workers flock to their cause. Stones and brick-bats in hand, they march onwards, pounding against mill doors and smashing windows with makeshift weapons, each shard of shattered glass a cry for the liberation of working people.
December 2, 1867
The green ribbon in the little girl’s hair flutters in the breeze as she clutches her weeping mother’s hand. Figures clad in black pour down the streets from Stevenson Square to Salford like raindrops on a windowpane. Amidst the heavy downpour, voices singing ‘Litany for the dead’ echo mournfully, yet firm and resolute.
The above are three real stories of the Irish in nineteenth-century Manchester, inspired by articles published in the Manchester Times newspaper. Though the thoughts, feelings, and expressions of the members of this diasporic community were not monolithic, their experiences form a patchwork of fragments woven together through time and space. Read on to discover more of their contributions to the machinery of life in the world’s first modern industrial city.
Desperation and emigration
The Irish presence in Manchester was not new in the nineteenth century – records indicate that there were Irish residents living there for at least two hundred years before that. Rates of immigration increased during the Industrial Revolution for many reasons. Ireland’s population was rising, advances in technology made it easier and cheaper to travel, and a free trade provision in the 1801 Act of Union negatively impacted the Irish textile industry, forcing people to look for industrial work elsewhere.
During the devastating Great Famine of 1845-1852, a blight that struck potato crops made the existing inequalities of British colonialism in Ireland even worse, particularly the domination of English absentee landlords over the majority rural, dispossessed Irish Catholic population. Facing mass starvation and eviction, many Irish people had no choice but to emigrate and try to build a life for themselves and their families elsewhere. Thousands of migrants settled in Lancashire, seeking relief through opportunities for employment that rising industries offered.
The 1841 Census recorded 30,304 Irish-born residents in Manchester – 12.5% of the city’s total population.
Through death and emigration, the population of Ireland fell 20-25% between 1841 and 1851.
2.1 million people emigrated between 1845 and 1855. Approximately 1.5 million people went to America, while Britain, Canada, and Australia were also major destinations.
Community and poverty
Irish immigrants to Manchester tended to cluster together into certain areas, including ‘Little Ireland’, although the neighbourhood of Angel Meadow was actually the largest and longest-lasting settlement. These districts were not exclusively Irish, nor did Irish people exclusively stick to these areas. Sharing familiar cultural norms, religion, and the Gaelic language motivated Irish people to live in close proximity to one another, as did low wages which forced them into the cheapest parts of town.
Relations among the Irish were not always harmonious, as regional differences sometimes provoked disputes, but they would often stand in solidarity with one another when feeling threatened by English authorities or anti-Irish agitators.
“The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity. This is the impression and the line of thought which the exterior of this district forces upon the beholder.”
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Full text here.
Conditions in Little Ireland and other predominantly Irish settlement areas were notoriously awful, as many contemporary observers like Friedrich Engels, who lived in the city in the 1840s with his Irish-descended partner Mary Burns, remarked. Engels’ usage of the term ‘race’ indicates how Irish people were socially othered in 19th century Britain and imagined to be a separate race to the English.
A family in a cellar dwelling, 1838.
Multiple families often lived together in crowded housing, particularly in cellars such as the one pictured above, owning very little furniture. Stories of crime and public drunkenness were widely reported by the press, and poor sanitary conditions led authorities to fear that diseases such as cholera could easily break out and spread to other areas. Conditions like these forged an association between the Irish and poverty in the minds of many at this time, who blamed this on people’s imagined “character” rather than their economic and social circumstances and rampant discrimination.
The toils of labour
The cotton industry in Manchester offered a source of employment to immigrants faced with eviction and starvation in their homeland. Most Irish workers came from an agricultural background and often took work where the main requirements were physical strength and stamina. Many Irish men, women, and children found employment in cotton mills, where jobs ranged from weaving and spinning to dying and printing, as well as sizing, stretching, wool combing, silk twisting, crofting, and yarn dressing. The Twist Factory, pictured below, was located next to Little Ireland.
A large number of Irish Mancunians worked as handloom weavers, a job which Engels once called “the last refuge of workers thrown out of employment in other branches”. Handloom weavers mostly worked in their own workshops, but there were a few who were employed in factories too. As English and Scottish handloom weavers gained jobs in power loom mills, Irish workers often took the lower-paid positions they left behind.
Irish handloom weavers working at home could work for fourteen to eighteen hours a day, typically earning between five and eight shillings per week. In contrast, male workers in factories tended to earn around fifteen, and women around seven, shillings per week.
Working conditions were often dismal, as rooms were kept intentionally damp to prevent cotton threads from snapping. Other jobs that Irish workers tended to take included construction labouring, bricklaying, old clothes dealing, keeping boarding- and beerhouses, and other low-skilled factory positions. These Irish ‘unskilled’ workers tended to be paid the same amount as others, but were discriminated against in other ways, such as being denied advancement to better jobs or being laid off first in a crisis.
A Handloom weaver at work, 1824.
Discrimination and resentment
“Debased alike by ignorance and pauperism, [the Irish] have discovered, with the savage, what is the minimum of the means of life, upon which existence may be prolonged. They have taught this fatal secret to the population of this country.”
James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester, 1832. Full text here.
Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments in Britain far predated the nineteenth century but they found new form during the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. The physician J. P. Kay-Shuttleworth’s influential pamphlet, quoted above, has been credited with bringing a new industrial slant to old prejudices, blaming the poor living conditions among the Irish on their own immorality, rather than the discrimination and poverty they faced, and claiming that this was also negatively influencing the English working classes.
Feelings of animosity between English and Irish workers became stronger during times of crisis when resources were scarce, as some complained about the disproportionate amount of Irish migrants applying for the limited amounts of poor relief available.
“The moment I have a turnout, and am fast for hands, I send to Ireland for ten, fifteen, or twenty families, as the case may be.”
James Taylor, Manchester silk mill operator, 1836.
Irish workers were often blamed for depressing English wages, particularly because they could be drafted in by owners to break strikes. There was a notion that because Irish people were apparently “used” to a lower standard of living than their English counterparts, they undermined efforts to increase wages. Although their situation meant they were often the workers most exploited by bosses, Irish people could thus become scapegoats for problems facing society as a whole, such as low wages, poor working conditions, and an inadequate standard of living that the entire working class faced as a result of industrialization.
Resistance and solidarity
“I want to better the condition of the people – to have them stand erect, and look boldly in the faces of their masters, and to tell them, ‘We are not your slaves; we are your equals. We are one side of the bargain, you are only the other. We give an equivalent of what we get from you, and are therefore entitled to, at least, equal respect.’”
John Doherty, The Voice of the People, August 27, 1831.
Although sometimes excluded from unions because of their nationality, Irish workers played a major role in trade unionism and fought alongside their English comrades for workers’ rights. Manchester was a hub of progressive politics during the nineteenth century, and the Mancunian Irish were particularly politically active.
Many Irish people campaigned for causes including the repeal of the 1801 Act of Union (which joined Ireland to Britain under the same kingdom), Catholic Emancipation (voting rights for Catholics), Chartism (a movement that sought to extend the right to vote to working-class men), the repeal of the Corn Laws (to allow grain imports during famines), and Abolitionism (calling for an end to slavery).
Among these Mancunian Irish reformers and agitators was John Doherty, who was born in Ireland and came to Manchester in his late teens to work as a cotton spinner. While there, he became involved in union activity, joining the Cotton Spinners’ Society in 1816. Most notably, he played important roles in the major strikes of 1818 and 1829.
“John Doherty, the secretary of the Cotton Spinners’ Society, appeared to conduct the cases on sixteen informations laid against different masters for improperly employing children in factories.”
Manchester Times, June 27, 1829.
Despite anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments among some workers, Doherty was elected secretary of the Cotton Spinners’ Society in 1828. There was some opposition to this – a fraction of the union split away to form their own group rather than be led by an Irishman. Though Doherty supported many causes such as repealing both the Corn Laws and the 1801 Act of Union, he was first and foremost a trade unionist and advocate for workers’ rights. He vigorously opposed child labour and took many factory owners to court over violations of child employment laws.
“A vote of thanks was then passed to Daniel O’Connell, Esq. M.P., with three times three tremendous cheers.”
Manchester Times, Jan 29, 1831.
Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician and leader of the movement for Catholic Emancipation, also found significant support among Manchester’s Irish. At a meeting at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute on repealing the 1801 Act of Union, though not present, he was celebrated for his efforts by the audience.
John Doherty himself was a lifelong supporter of O’Connell, even though the two men differed greatly in their ideas on social policy, with Doherty’s first priority being trade unionism rather than Catholic rights. O’Connell notably received praise for his passionate anti-slavery campaigning from Frederick Douglass, who visited Manchester in 1846 to campaign for abolitionism.
The legacy of the Mancunian Irish
Today, the memory of Manchester’s nineteenth-century Irish community lives on in their descendants and in the physical landscape. They left their homeland, many fleeing desperate circumstances, and the new lives they found were often difficult, facing poor living and working conditions and discrimination.
In spite of this, the Irish became a permanent and celebrated part of Manchester’s heritage. Finding support in their new community, they kept their culture and traditions alive through language, song, and cuisine, and created organisations that strengthened community bonds despite the often hostile environment around them. Theirs is a story at times of great poverty and struggle but also of resistance, hope, and survival, woven into the fabric of Manchester’s industrial past.
Find out more
If Those Walls Could Talk, Long Lost Histories: ‘Little Ireland’, Manchester.
Pride of Manchester, A History of ‘Little Ireland’.
Mervyn Busteed, Little islands of Erin: Irish settlement and identity in mid‐nineteenth‐century Manchester, 1999.
Mervyn Busteed, The Irish in Manchester c.1750–1921: Resistance, adaptation and identity, 2016.
R. G. Kirby and A. G. Musson, The Voice of the People: John Doherty 1798-1854, 1975.
John M. Werly, The Irish in Manchester, 1832-49, 1973.
This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.