A new book by Dean Kirby entitled Angel Meadow :Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum has been getting a lot of publicity in the press judging by the book’s website. I have yet to read it, and I am hoping that it’s a lot better than the publicity indicates with sensationalist headlines about gang wars, riots and cholera, which sounds a lot like Victorian slum fiction eg Arthur Morrison A Child of the Jago or the work in Manchester of the Christian evangelist Alfred Alsop. This is what Alsop wrote in A Deansgate Street, for instance
Upon every side are to be found houses, whose occupiers are returned convicts, sharpers, smashers, thieves, harlots, gaol-birds, fortune-tellers, unlicensed retailers of beer – all of them well-known to the police. Their looks are demonic – their language steeped in blasphemy – the very air is polluted by their horrid curses – their actions lazy, brutal, cowardly, drunken, demoralising – their morals are at the lowest possible strata. The very scum of the city, the very essence of hell seems to be concentrated here (p.3)
I looked at Angel Meadow in my book The Wearing of the Green : A political history of the Irish in Manchester (2000) and have posted below what I wrote then, which paints a picture of poverty, some criminality (which no doubt went on in other parts of Manchester) but also a community which was becoming better off, as Daniel Hearne noted in 1846. I have also added what I wrote about Daniel Boyle and Daniel McCabe, two Irish Nationalist /Liberal councillors elected for New Cross and St Michael’s, who were keyed into a network of Catholic educational charitable and and welfare societies. Does this picture of a politically engaged community really accord with the picture of “Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum”? And the use of the word “Savage” seems to me to take us back again to Victorian stereotypes of the Irish and those books that purported to explore “Darkest England” and report back to a tremulous middle-class readership.
Angel Meadow and Irishtown
This area was described by Father Sheehan, priest at St. Chads between 1852 and 1891, as “the most densely populated part of town where the poorest, the less educated and the most criminal members of the community live”. The nearby St.Michael’s graveyard was closed in 1842, but was seen as a continuing health hazard since the coffins were covered by just over a foot of soil. It quickly became a rubbish dump and rendezvous for gambling and fighting on Sundays. The area seems to have been regarded with apprehension by “respectable”Manchester from quite early on. In May 1825, for instance, the Manchester Guardian reported that a row between an Irish labourer and his “local girl” had given rise to “the most extravagant and alarming rumour” that the Irish Catholics had risen in a body and were murdering all the Protestants who came their way. In 1851 18,437 people lived in Irishtown, of whom 8,048 were either born in Ireland or had two Irish parents. A survey of 10,000 families in the Ancoats, Newtown, Deansgate and Portland Street areas in 1842 (of which 405 families were Irish) revealed that there were 627 English handloom weavers and 924 Irish.
The Irish brought the habit of making poitin with them from Ireland and the Excise in Manchester in the 1830s and 1840s spent much time trying to stamp out this illicit distillation. Their raids were rarely welcomed by the local population – presumably because poitin was much cheaper than the legal spirits sold in public houses – and the customs officers and their police escort often went armed. In November 1831 a raid on Pump Street off George’s Street discovered a still being operated by three women but news of the discovery soon spread. As the Exciseman Joshua Pritchard later wrote
“While we were destroying the concern a great number of Irish collected and the handcuffs being rather too large for them the Officers also used handkerchiefs to assist in securing them, as soon as we left the house the mob, women, rushed instantly upon us whilst the men continued in the rear, we not liking to use violence to the women, they continued in a heap to gather and Mary Lynch was rescued from us and took one of the handkerchiefs before we were aware of her escape, the mob followed us a considerable distance and endeavoured to get up a row, by calling other persons to come to their help.”
A historical study of Angel Meadow carried out by Mervyn Busteed and Rob Hodgson, using contemporary records, has revealed that the Irish were not spread evenly but were concentrated in particular streets with a majority of Irish residents in the eastern part of the area near Rochdale Road and also disclosed that they tended to live in multiple occupancy. The researchers concluded that, contrary to the views of many contemporary observers, the Irish were not living in the worst accommodation in Angel Meadow, which was down the slope near the river Irk into which industrial and human waste was frequently dumped. By contrast the Irish lived higher up the slope in streets which were not subject to flooding and away from the smell of the polluted river. To outsiders these may have seemed small distinctions, but to those living in the district moving from one house or one street to another was a testament to living life just that little bit better.
Between 1849 and 1851 the Morning Chronicle published regular reports of conditions in the manufacturing towns in the Midlands and the North, many of included commentary on the living and working conditions of the Irish. This is an extract from the report on Manchester where the reporter Angus Bethune Reach visited a cellar in Angel Meadow whose dwellers were from Westport, County Mayo and lived by making and selling matches. This was not the worst cellar, apparently.
“There were few or no Irish in the houses we had just visited. They live in more wretched places still – the cellars. The place was dark, except for the glare of the small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room, which might be about twelve by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women, and children, on stools or squatted on the stone floor around the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive. This not being a lodging cellar, the police had no control over the number of inmates, who slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw, which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place ”.
Reports such as these and others have led to the impression that the cellar-dwellers were literally at the bottom of society – living in dark, damp, crowded and unsanitary conditions – and were almost exclusively Irish. Research carried out by Sandra Hayton in the areas of St George’s, Ancoats, London Road, Market Street and Deansgate points to a more complex picture. She concluded that there were many similarities between the Irish and non-Irish, although the Irish were over-represented in the cellar dwelling population.
“However, in occupational terms fewer differences existed. Furthermore, there is little evidence that the Irish alone were condemned to areas of work that were low paid and had low security and status. Some Irish immigrants had the right to vote and a significant minority of them formed a part of a stable host community at the same address for many years. The restiveness of the Irish cellar dweller was no more marked than among the non-Irish.”
Anecdotal evidence that life in Irishtown had improved with the passage of time was provided by Daniel Hearne at a public tea-party at the Free Trade Hall on 15th June 1846, held to mark the priest’s departure from St. Patrick’s and from Manchester after many years service. In his address of thanks for the generous presentations and tributes made to him by his parishioners and Protestant, which was reported in the Manchester Guardian, Hearne said that twenty-one years before he would never have expected to see so many of countrymen and countrywomen so comfortably clothed and assembled around him and “looking like Englishmen and Englishwomen“.
“Living by the roadside, cut off from the rest of the town by vice and rags he found 11,000 Irish Roman Catholics in misery with a few hundreds creeping down the streets to mass on Sunday but a great number were kept away by vice and wretchedness. He came here and conversed with them and now he left 20,000 Irish Roman Catholics in St. Patrick’s to all of whom was credit due, for what could he have done without their co-operation?”.
Daniel Boyle and Daniel McCabe.
The two Daniels were Manchester’s most prominent Irish Nationalist politicians, both sitting on the City Council and representing adjacent wards with large Irish populations. Daniel McCabe was born in Stockpor, t but spent nearly the whole of his life in Manchester, receiving his education at the Christian Brothers school in Livesey Street and later studying at evening classes in the Mechanics Institution. According to his contemporaries McCabe spoke with an Irish accent, even in middle age, reflecting the close-knit nature of the Irish community in this period. He was a staunch Roman Catholic throughout his life and from a young age was involved with the work of the St. Patrick’s parish, an area he lived in himself despite its poverty. He served as Vice President of the Society of St.Vincent de Paul, as Superintendent and Registrar at the St.Patrick’s Sunday School – possibly the largest Catholic Sunday School in the country – and somehow found time to serve on the committees of a host of other Catholic organisations.
McCabe was also active politically in both the Irish National League, where he was president of the Michael Davitt branch, and in the Liberal party, where he was vice-president of the North Manchester Liberal Association. This dual membership and activity reflected the prevailing political wisdom that only the Liberal party would ever deliver Home Rule for the Irish people. McCabe’s political activity culminated in his election to the City Council in 1889 for the St.Michael’s ward, an area with a large Irish population and which part of the parish of St.Patrick’s. He served on the Market, Cleansing and Watch committees and in 1892 became a Justice of the Peace, only the second Roman Catholic to be so appointed. He was regarded as a model of what a Catholic public man should be – hard-working, respectable and devoted to both his religion and his public duties.
In November 1913 Daniel became Manchester’s first Catholic Lord Mayor. In his speech to the Council he drew attention to a number of urgent issues facing the city, in particular the need for clean air and the growing housing shortage, which he believed the council must act to solve. “If private enterprise fails to meet the growing demand for houses the Corporation must not stand idly by. The people must be housed and properly housed. Our future as a nation depends upon the health, intelligence and skill of the workers and health cannot be had in full measure without proper house accommodation”. The new Lord Mayor being unmarried, his sister Mrs O’Neill served as Lady Mayoress. The inauguration of the Lord Mayor was traditionally marked with a service at the Cathedral but Daniel was unable to attend, because in those days Catholics were still forbidden to enter Protestant churches. There were some attempts to stir up controversy in the press over this but public opinion was with Daniel in acting in accordance with his beliefs. A service of thanksgiving was held at Salford Cathedral to which his colleagues on the council were invited.
Daniel Boyle was born in January 1859 near Lough Melvin in County Fermanagh, the son of a farmer. In 1877 he left his home to come to Manchester where he found employment with the Midland Railway Company where he stayed until 1889. He became active in the Irish National league and was Secretary of the branch in the East Manchester constituency. His talents were soon noticed and, after assisting in the organisation of the INL convention in Manchester, he was asked by T. P. O’Connor to accept the position as representative of the Irish party in Lancashire and Cheshire. He was also very active in the Irish National Foresters – a sick and burial friendly society- travelling in his spare time at weekends to establish branches in the North and Midlands and acting as head of the society on several occasions as well as secretary of the Manchester district. Boyle also found time to act as the Manchester correspondent of the Freemans’ Journal and as vice-president of the Catholic Registration Society.
In 1894 Boyle was elected to the City Council for New Cross ward – adjoining St. Michael’s – which was the largest ward in the city and contained many Irish voters. On average Boyle polled 290 more votes than his fellow Liberal, invariably an Englishman, in this two member ward and by 1906 was attracting over 600 extra votes. On the Council he served on the Watch, Markets and Highways Committee. Soon after his election he lobbied and led delegations against a proposal to build huge lodging-houses and persuaded the Council to build cottage dwellings instead. He was also involved in the re-organisation of the Manchester City Police which had become widely corrupt, a work of some years. In May 1897 the local monthly magazine Manchester Faces and Places described him thus.
“It is as much by character as by speech that Mr Boyle has so soon secured the respect and ear of the assembly. Sound sense, good humour and the wit which is the dower of the Irish race – these are the qualities which tell powerfully for the cause for the cause he may be advocating. On the platform Mr Boyle….. is an orator. His voice is sonorous and musical….and when particularly he speaks on politics he gives the ring and earnestness and even of passion. Just the touch of the accent of his country aids rather than mars the effect of his speech.”
Perhaps Boyle’s most lasting contribution to Manchester was taking on the complex task of organising the replacement of the Corporation’s horse-drawn trams by a modern electric system, which was inaugurated in 1901. Speaking at the banquet to celebrate the opening, he said that the object was to provide a good service with the best possible conditions, and, not least, to give the ratepayers a decent return on their capital. Soon the service was responsible for 140 miles of track with 450 tramcars travelling 30,000 miles a day and carrying 130 million passengers.” Mancunian wits dubbed it “Dan Boyle’s light railway”. Boyle also had a strong interest in the welfare of the workers on the tram system and revolutionised the conditions of service, reducing the hours from 70 to 54, increasing pay and giving a week’s paid holiday while still making enough money on the trams to contribute a large sum in relief of rates. There were some accusations by political opponents that you had to be Irish to get a job on the trams, accusations angrily refuted at a public election meeting in November 1906. That same year he was the only municipal candidate endorsed by the local Trades Union Council.
Both Boyle and McCabe were on the progressive wing of the Liberal party, supporting the municipalisation of essential services and decent working conditions for council employees. Indeed on many issues they had more in common with the emerging Independent Labour Party than many members of their own party. In a speech at Shamrock Hall, Ancoats in July 1895 McCabe told his audience that Nationalists wanted as speedily as possible to bring about the freedom of Ireland and they believed that they could best do this by continuation of their alliance with the Liberals. He recognised, however, that were many at the meeting who were favourable to the labour movement.
“He above all others had not one word to say against the Labour party, and he believed that, above all other men, the Irishmen of this country had nothing to say against any party that went for the improvement of the condition of the labouring classes. The Irishmen in this country had to earn their bread from the sweat of their brows, and whatever was good for the working people and for the bettering of their condition would be to the advantage of the Irish masses in England. But he for one believed that the Irish alliance with the Liberal party would more certainly bring about the improvement in the condition of labour than by following the Labour party at the present moment”.
In 1896 they had supported the right of the Independent Labour Party to hold meetings at Boggart Hole Clough when the police and corporation did their best to stamp out socialist meetings by arresting speakers, including Emmeline Pankhurst. Some Irish Nationalists, however, were wary of being seen to be linked too closely with Socialists. When for instance Richard Pankhurst stood for parliament in Gorton in the general election of 1895 the Irish Nationalists refused to back him. Emmeline went to Liverpool to plead with T P O’Connor for the Irish vote but he replied “We have nothing but admiration for your husband, but we cannot support the people he is mixed up with”. Pankhurst was unsuccessful, losing to a Tory. Sylvia Pankhurst later commented in her book The Suffragette Movement “Thus…..the Irish Party officially refused its support to the man who, of all candidates, had been first and most staunch in upholding their demands”. There was less unease about the Labour Representation Committee (later the Labour Party) where socialists were in a minority. In the 1906 general election J R Clynes and G D Kelley stood in Manchester constituencies and were backed by the Irish. John Redmond came to Manchester to congratulate them on the victory and looked forward to the time when the party formed a majority in the Commons for “the labour representatives….are our best friends”. In December 1910 Clynes, after his re-election, visited the United Irish League branch in New Cross to thank the Irish who had worked for him in the general election campaign. Thus by the First World War Labour had replaced the Liberals in north east Manchester as the favoured party amongst Irish working class voters, although it took the events of the war to completely sever the Irish connection with the Liberal party.
Mr Eugene Garvey was kind enough to send me a copy of the programme for a “Conversazione” and “Send-off” organised by the Manchester and Salford District of the United Irish League of Great Britain for Dan Boyle, which took place in the Marble Hall, Albion Hotel, Manchester on Friday 9th September 1910 and was reported in the Manchester Guardian. Boyle was leaving for the United States on what was described in the programme as a “mission to the Irish Race of America” in the company of fellow MPs John Redmond, T. P. O’Connor and Joe Devlin. Boyle was to tour the northern states. The evening was chaired by Daniel McCabe and the programme consisted of familiar songs – “Ireland A Nation”, “Men of the West”, “Paddies Evermore” and “the Boys of Wexford” interspersed by Toasts, one of which was made by John Dulanty (later the Irish High Commissioner in London), who described Boyle as “the spearhead of the shaft of the Irish forces in Irish forces in this vicinity”. Replying to the toast Dan Boyle said that he looked upon his selection as one of the mission to the United States as a compliment to the Irishmen of Great Britain, who had shown unswerving fidelity to the Irish cause through trying times.
“I believe that this is a period for the rank and file of the party to stand solidly and unitedly behind their leaders, to do the thinking and working out of the plan of campaign. I believe at the present time we have leaders – I do not say merely a leader – who deserve, command, aye and receive a full measure of the confidence of the Irish people, whether in Ireland, in England or America. As a result of the statesmanship and diplomacy that these leaders have shown I believe our cause is nearer accomplishment than it ever was, and as Mr. Redmond recently said at Kilkenny, even the stars in the courses are working for Home Rule”.
At 10pm the assembled guests were asked by the programme to proceed to Exchange Station “and there a hearty ‘send-off’ will be given to the Envoy on his mission to our kinsmen overseas”. Dinner eaten and toasts drunk, this was duly done, although Boyle and his wife actually set off to Ireland to visit his constituency in Mayo North before joining his companions for the voyage to the United States, where they attended the conference of the National Convention of the United Irish League. The visit was denounced by Sinn Fein. Boyle had been elected as an MP f earlier that year and remained one until the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918 when he was defeated by the Sinn Fein candidate Dr Crawley who gained 7,429 votes to Boyle’s 1,761.He died in 1925.
Daniel McCabe was knighted in due course and appointed by the King as Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. It was in that official capacity that on 29th December 1918 he welcomed Woodrow Wilson to Lancashire when the President of the United States arrived at London Road station at five in the evening on the occasion of his visit to Manchester. McCabe died the following year and was buried in Moston cemetery where his tomb can be seen directly opposite the main entrance. His photograph hangs in Committee Room Four of the Town Hall and he is also remembered in the same building by a bronze relief in the sculpture hall.