‘Little Ireland’ is a name that has become synonymous with the name for area of slum housing in 19th century industrial towns and cities. Little Ireland, which was located near Oxford Road in Manchester, existed for only a few decades but it left an infamous legacy across the city.

Little Ireland, 1850s map (Source: http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/roam/historic)


The Irish in Manchester

The population of Manchester began to rise dramatically from the late 18th century; in 1773 it was recorded at 22,400, by 1811 it had risen to 89,000 and by 1851 it was over 303,000! The reason behind this population boom was advancements in technology and transport, the canals and railways brought industrialisation right to the heart of Manchester and with it thousands of people seeking work.

Among these new workers were Irish immigrants, who had begun arriving since the dawn of the industrial revolution. However the flow of migrants was exacerbated by the Irish Famine (1845-49) which caused at least a million deaths and another million people to leave Ireland. In the decade of the 1840s, Manchester had the third highest population of Irish-born residents (behind London and Liverpool). In 1851, 15% of the population of Manchester was Irish-born.

Anti-Irish Sentiment

Across Britain there was a great deal of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment, which lasted throughout the 19th and well into the second half of the 20th century. Manchester, like all large cities, was a melting-pot of different backgrounds, religions and races, and really it was no different to any other city at the time in its treatment of the Irish. In 1836 Conservative MP Benjamin Disraeli (later Prime Minister) said this about the Irish:

“[They] hate our order, our civilisation, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race has no sympathy with the English character… Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”

 However within Manchester conditions were intensified as Irish-born residents had the same access to poor relief as their English neighbours. In May 1847 there was 217 applications for relief from Little Ireland; 203 Irish applications and 14 English. In 1867 Fenians (a collective name given to members of various organisations fighting for Irish independence from Britain) Thomas J. Kelly and Timothy Deasy were arrested in Shudehill, Manchester. In September they were being transported from one prison to another, when upon passing under a bridge, some 30-40 Fenian supporters accosted the van and freed the prisoners. However within the scuffle an unarmed policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett was shot and killed.

This naturally incensed the public and a crowd of 8,000-10,000 people turned out to watch the hangings of those convicted of murder; William P. Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien. However the hangings had quite the opposite effect and the three men became known as the “Manchester Martyrs” and became a public figure head for the cause of Irish nationalism in Ireland, Britain and America. In fact in 1898 a large monument to the Manchester Martyrs was erected in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston in Manchester just over a mile and half from Sergeant Brett’s grave in Harpurhey.

By the end of the decade obvious tensions between the two communities was reaching breaking point and this is shown in the tragic death of Ellen Higgins. Ellen Higgins was the daughter of Irish migrants Martin and Mary Higgins and lived with her widowed mother and sister in Hulme. One day in June 1869, nine year old Ellen, her sister and two friends were walking along Little Peter Street when they reached a group of young boys. The girls were chased up the street, the boys throwing stones at them. Ellen was slower than her companions and the boys caught up with her and beat her.

Ellen made it home but was in a great deal of pain, over the next 24 hours she suffered from vomiting and convulsions and subsequently died. A post-mortem showed that she had died of a bleed on the brain after being struck violently and repeatedly. Four boys were taken to the police station and attended the inquest but the jury found them innocent, despite one boy admitting to the coroner he hit Ellen about the head.

Why was Ellen Higgins attacked in the street? Because she refused to acknowledge the boys when they asked if she was a Catholic or Protestant and when they told her to “take off the green”, referring to the green ribbons the girls were wearing on their bonnets. The green ribbons being a badge worn by the Irish the day before at an Orange men parade. Ellen was attacked  for being of Irish descent – a justifiable excuse to take a life?

Little Ireland

It is little wonder therefore that the Irish immigrants tended to stick together and form their own communities. The Irish were offered cheap, unskilled work and this lack of income therefore meant they forced into the poorest living conditions. It was quite common to find one or more families sharing a room or even a cellar. In 1835 the Manchester Statistical Society estimated that some 15,000 people were living in around 3,500 cellar dwellings.

From around 1828 the Irish began to settle around the area just off the north of Oxford Street/Road (they merge seamlessly into one long road). The houses lay so low in the curve of the river Medlock that only the chimney’s of some three-storied houses could been seen from Oxford Road. Here they lived in a handful of streets which would become so infamous they were recorded in literature of the time and sparked massive social change.

An aerial view of Oxford Road taken in June 1926. The Street at the centre of this picture if the area formerly known as Little Ireland. Some of the industrial buildings still exist today. (Source: Image M6595, Imperial Aerial Photo Co, 9 June 1926 http://images.manchester.gov.uk/index.php?session=pass)

In 1844 German industrialist Friedrich Engels was visiting Manchester and his companion (and lover) was a young Irish woman, Mary Burns who showed him around the less desirable parts of the city. Engels descried Little Ireland in his 1845 work The Conditions of the Working Class in England:

” In a rather deep hole, in the curve of the Medlock, and surrounded on all four sides by tall factories and high embankments covered with buildings, stands two groups of about two hundred cottages, built chiefly back-to-back, in which live about four thousand human beings, most of them Irish. The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavements; masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among the standing pools in all directions; the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia of these, and laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall chimneys. A horde of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps and in the puddles… The race that lives in those ruinous cottages or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench…must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

Engels contemporaries described Little Ireland with the same discontent. James Kay-Shuttleworth, visited Little Ireland a decade earlier in 1832 after the outbreak of Cholera epidemic. There exists some records about the first 200 victims of this epidemic in Manchester. Two victims lived on Wakefield Street in Little Ireland; 5 year old Thomas Cavanagh and his mother 36 year old Elizabeth Cavanagh. The records note Elizabeth worked as a washer woman from home. She was described as a “healthy-looking, hearty woman” but was susceptible to the disease for a number of reasons; the filth of the slum, a natural susceptibility as she often has severe diarrhoea when suckling her children, she was “half-starved” living off nothing but potatoes and tea and she was also “brutally treated by the man she cohabited with.” Her son Thomas started displaying the symptoms of Cholera (vomiting, dehydration, blue-grey skin colour) on the night of Sunday 27th May 1832 and he died at 9pm on Tuesday 29th May, his mother subsequently passed away also. They were the third and fourth victims of the epidemic to be recorded.

The records, although tragic, provide an insight into life in Little Ireland. They were complied by Dr. Henry Gaulter, who eventually discovered that the disease was carried in dirty water and not through ‘bad air and smells’ as previously thought. After the epidemic Kay-Shuttleworth visited Little Ireland and his writings describe the living conditions with the same xenophobic attitude as Engels:”The district has been frequently the haunt of hordes of thieves and desperadoes who defied the law, and is always inhabited by a class resembling savages in their appetites and habits.” Kay also noted, with much disgust that whole families slept in the same room together, in some cases with a pig or other animal as well.

A rare survivor of Little Ireland, ‘The Salisbury’ Public House. It was on the periphery of Little Ireland boundary with Oxford Road. The 19th century cobbles sloping down towards the pub give us an idea of the low lying setting of the slum. The pub was certainly there in the 1840s when it was known as “Tulloghgorum Vaults”. Along side it runs James Leigh Street which would have been crowded terraces. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)

 A letter was drawn up by the sub-committee of the Board of Health to the Manchester Magistrates specifically about Little Ireland. Their findings somewhat vindicate the shocking eyewitness testimonies of Engels and Kay-Shuttleworth. The report described the unpaved streets as overflowing with sewerage and slops thrown from the windows. They note there are far too few privies (outside toilets) for the number of residents and those that do exist are “in a most disgraceful state, inaccessible from sewerage”.

The report goes on to describe the living and sleeping arrangements of the inhabitants of Little Ireland. Without photographs or other visual sources, these contemporary accounts are the closest descriptions we have of Little Ireland:

“The cellars consist of two rooms on a floor each nine or ten feet square, some inhabited by ten people, others by more: in many, the people have no beds, and keep each other warm by close stowage on shavings, straw etc; a change of linen or clothes is an exception to the common practice. Many of the back rooms where they sleep have no other means of ventilation than from the front rooms. Some of the cellars on the lower ground were once filled up as uninhabitable; but one is now occupied by a weaver, and he has stopped up the drain with clay, to prevent the water flowing from it into his cellar, and mops up the water every morning.”

Who actually lived there?

Of course the sources that still exist were written by the educated elite of 19th century society and, as shown in the words of Engels and Kay-Shuttleworth, they were quick to judge the Irish inhabitants of the slum. However who were these Irish people? What did they do? Of course this was a slum and petty criminal activity is rife. Reports from Little Ireland are reported in the local newspapers all the time, decade after decade, the earliest being an illegal whiskey distillery in 1830. However I have attempted to use the 1841 census to trace some of the residents of Little Ireland, as this is the first surviving British census that falls in between the time frame of the two studies of the area made by Kay-Shuttleworth and Engels.

The records I have examined will focus on just the streets shown in the map at the top of this post; Wakefield Street, Anvil Street, Forge Street, Frank Street and William Street. It must be noted that the houses on these streets were built back-to-back, therefore meaning that the majority of the terrace would share three walls with neighbours. As these were built before building regulations, most of the walls were probably only the width of a brick apart.

In 1841 there was 61 inhabited households on these streets with some 381 people living in them. Of these 381 persons; 118 of them were born in England and the other 263 were Irish-born. The majority of the English-born residents were the children of Irish couples. The census also reveals that there was some ‘mixed marriages’ with at least three households consisting of an English father and an Irish mother. This too appalled contemporary writers at the time, Kay-Shuttleworth blamed these ‘mixed marriages’ as the cause of the deterioration of the English working classes.

Wakefield Street

This street consisted of 14 households and was home to some 98 people. It easily has the most over-crowded house of any street, number 1 Wakefield Street. It was home to 15 people comprising of 3 different families. Andrew and Catherine Donnigan and their three teenage children, Patrick and Catherine McGough and their three children, William and Esther Oxley and their two children and also a lodger Margaret Mirthnell.

The street is predominantly Irish-born and most of the men are recorded as labourers. To supplement their income most households have lodgers; such as Thomas and Ellen Brynne who have four male lodgers as well as their four children. Or Mary Clong, a 30 year old widow with three children and three male lodgers.

In 1832 there was a disused old factory located on Wakefield Street which the residents of Little Ireland used as a Catholic Sunday School. There had been some disagreements and violence between the men of Little Ireland, predominantly those from County Roscommon vs. those from County Leitrim. Two priests called a community meeting between the groups on the fourth floor of the Sunday School and about 200 people were present. Suddenly the floor gave way and the majority of the people fell down onto the third floor, which then also buckled under the pressure and they fell again to the second floor. There were 59 seriously injured persons with broken bones.

Anvil Street

This street was recorded in the 1841 census as “Hanvil Street” which appears to have been a result of an error made by the enumerator. It is the most populated street in this area of Little Ireland, with 24 households occupied by 107 Irish-born people and 35 English-born people.

There is more of a range of occupations recorded on this street, for example at Number 3 was William Clewis (born in Ireland in 1791) who was recorded as a locksmith. Despite this obviously skilled role, the family income is supplemented by his children. Samuel aged 13 and Jane aged 11 both work in the nail industry and 9 year old George is recorded as a ‘dyer’.

Anvil Street is also home to some of the older residents of Little Ireland. It must be remembered that enumerators in the 1841 census rounded the ages of adults up or down to the nearest multiple of 5. So although Catherine Felin, John Mahoney, Michael Reilly, Thomas Flynn, John Whitmouth and William Oldham are all recorded as being 60 years old, they could have been slightly older and despite their advanced age (for the era) they are still working in physical jobs.

Forge Street

Forge Street consisted of only 12 households in 1841, with quite a number of properties being recorded as unoccupied. There are 51 Irish-born people on this street and 18 English-born residents. 65 year old John White, a clasp maker, is the only adult English-born resident, the rest are children of Irish parents.

Number 20 is another congested household. 40 year old widow Ann McManus and her five sons live there, as does John and Ann Keefe and their young daughter and also three teenage siblings Michael, Patrick and Mary Mills, all born in Ireland. In 1848 Bridget Craig, aged only 51, had lived on Forge Street since at least 1841. She died in her home when she fell backwards down the stairs, leaving four children behind. The newspaper reports made sure to note that she was sober at the time of her death.

Another victim of the 1832 Cholera epidemic lived on Forge Street. Ellen Gordon was 51 years old, she worked in a factory and was described as having a “Naturally strong” constitution. It was noted that she suffered from constipation as she lived mainly on drinking tea. Her home was also described as “clean-ish” and inhabited by 3 other people who were all English. Ellen was struck down with the illness on Tuesday 3rd July 1832 after her aunt, Mrs Ann Walker had stayed and slept in the same room as her. Two days before Ann Walker and her husband had travelled to Liverpool with the intention of emigrating to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia). However in the lodging house they were staying in, two people died of Cholera and the others were taken off to hospital. As such Ann unknowingly carried the illness back to Manchester, where it killed her niece.

Frank Street

The original wooden 19th century street sign for Frank Street. Only the faint remains of the “K” and “ST.” remain. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)

Frank Street was a much smaller street than the other, with only 7 households being recorded on the 1841 census. At one end of this street was the Frank Street Mills, beyond that was the River Medlock and then the Chorlton Street Mills, so the air would have been choked with smoke and smog.

As with the other streets there are households made up of different families and lodgers all sharing the same space. At Number 4 Frank Street is Francis and Alice Mary, John Davies, Mary Waters, Patrick Hage, Cain and Sarah Dowerty and their daughter Catherine.

A number of residents of this street are employed in the cotton industry. In September 1842 there was a large open-air meeting in Little Ireland of powerloom weavers, complaining at the practice of mill owners to employ those not in a union. The women there complaining they were staving and the police eventually broke the meeting up. Later the same month some 15 girls were seen leaving Little Ireland to throw stones at the windows of Marsland’s Mill on Chester Street.

William Street

The smallest street in Little Ireland, it shares its space with a row of houses known as the Johnson Buildings. The 6 households to occupy the Johnson Buildings are all entirely English, whereas the 4 households on William Street are a mixture of Irish and English residents, the latter being the majority.

As shown in the map, William Street and the Johnson Buildings were built alongside the River Medlock, the waters of which were described in 1862 as being “as black as ink”. So when the river flooded, as it often did, the residents of these houses would have been the first to suffer. During the floods of 1847 all the residents of William, Anvil, Frank, Forge and Wakefield Streets were all submerged under four feet six inches (1.37m) of water.

Little Ireland: Slum Clearance

The reports of living conditions of the working classes by Kay-Shuttleworth and Engels sparked huge social changes. The Royal Commission into the Health of Towns was conducted in 1844 in the wake of yet another Cholera epidemic. The report discovered that in Manchester the average life expectancy of a gentleman was 38 years old and of a labourer, just 17 years old. Crucially however the report discovered the links between sanitation and disease, including the true cost of cheap slum housing. In 1851 upon visiting Manchester, Queen Victoria described the residents of the city in her diary as “A painfully unhealthy and sickly population, men, as well as women.” 

Manchester led the way with social reform with its 1845 Sanitary Improvement Act, followed by the 1847 Manchester Corporation Waterworks Act and fundamentally the 1853 Local Act, which prohibited the use of cellar dwellings. In 1847 the houses of Little Ireland were whitewashed to prevent another outbreak of fever.

National reform was slower, as the Government had a somewhat lassiez-faire attitude. The 1848 Health Act was rather passive, although the Nuisance Acts of 1848 and 1853 gave authorities legal powers to remove nuisances to everyday life, such as over-flowing cess pools. The Lodging Houses Acts of 1851 and 1853 made it a requirement for tenants to have access to a fireplace and a privy and for landlords to be registered and regularly inspected.

Red Plaque commemorating Little Ireland, Great Marlborough Street, Manchester. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)

One of the most significant changes to Little Ireland was the arrival of the railway, especially the opening of the Oxford Road Station in 1849, which cleared a vast area of houses and split Wakefield Road in two. In 1847 residents of part of Little Ireland were forcibly ejected from their homes by the railway company “disposed very much in gypsy fashion, with no covering, save the blue vault of heaven.” as the scene was described in the Manchester Times. The station was expanded in 1857 and rebuilt in 1874, each taking more and more land from the slums around it. As early as 1848 the newspapers noted:

“The Little Ireland of Manchester is not precisely what it used to be. Once it was a compact spot, like a Hottentot Kraal, or a New Zealand stockade, from whence the inhabitants like a swarm of angry bees could suddenly issue forth… but the South Junction railroad is now piercing it, and laying the district open.”

An amusing incident occurred in 1848 when 18 houses were suddenly to be sold in one of the streets in Little Ireland. The tenants of said houses decided to take compensation as they would be left homeless. So they took their compensation in the form of doors, grates, windows, shutters, staircases etc and left the houses as little more than brick and mortar.

The industrial buildings around Great Marlborough Street slowly began to encroach on the slum as well. Despite this, as late as 1861 some properties on Wakefield, Frank, William and Anvil Street were still occupied; seemingly as crowded as ever. In 1861 Number 3 Wakefield Street was home to seven members of the Meehan family and four lodgers.

By the 1880s the area was devoid of any domestic housing and was entirely an industrial area and its former residents were scattered to other working class areas of Manchester such as Hulme and Ancoats. Still in July 1882 two policemen were stabbed (non-fatally) in “Little Ireland, a rough quarter of the city” when the attempted to remove a drunk woman from a pub and were subsequently set upon by three men and two women.

The site of Little Ireland, 2016 Looking down Great Marlborough Street, on the immediate left would have been William Street, then Frank Street, followed by Forge, Anvil and Wakefield Streets until the railway bridge. (Source: Own Photograph, 2016)

Ironically today the area is home to some of the most expensive city centre apartments, including a renovated Chorlton Mills and Liberty Heights, up-market student accommodation. Little Ireland did not survive long but the legacy of this slum is still as powerful and shocking today as we remember those who came before us and silently powered the industrial revolution.

Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath