Looking through the material discovered by the In Their Own Write project team, a group of letters from Stockport Union resonated with the recently dramatised story of Anthony Bryan, a member of the Windrush generation who, in 2016, came very close to being deported to Jamaica, a place he had not set foot in for 50 years. (“Sitting in Limbo”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08g29ff/sitting-in-limbo).
Viewed in this context, one item in the Stockport letters stands out. It is a newspaper clipping, dated 27 April 1848, from The Freeman’s Journal (a Dublin newspaper) sent by the Irish poor law officials to the Commissioners in London. Under the intriguing headline, “Important – Transmission of English Paupers to Ireland” it outlined the shocking case of Mary Anne Henley, a resident in the Dublin workhouse. Mary Anne was no regular pauper inmate, but had been removed to Dublin by the Board of Guardians in Stockport.
Mary Anne claimed she had been removed to Ireland entirely against her own wishes. She was, she insisted, an English woman born in Liverpool to English parents, although her father had Irish ancestry. She was 19 at the time of her removal and had been working steadily “earning her own bread” since the age of 9. In 1858 she was living in Stockport and earning enough not only to support herself but to send money to her widowed father who still had a large family of younger children to support. Some weeks before her removal, she had been struck down with fever and having no-one locally to look after her (her father lived in Glossop) she was forced to go into the Fever Hospital. It was here she came to the attention of the authorities. Once recovered Mary Anne planned to go to her father to convalesce before returning to her job in Stockport, but instead two men from the Stockport Workhouse arrived, “took charge of me” and carted her off to the workhouse. There Mary Anne told officials repeatedly that she should not be in the workhouse and would return home, but the response she received was “Oh never mind, you are going to Paddy’s Land”. An inmate who witnessed the scene told officials, “it was a pity to send that poor Lass to Ireland … she was crying her eyes out at being sent away to a Strange country”. Poor Mary Anne – this was probably her first encounter with officials of any kind; she had little grasp of her rights, although it was clear she had a sneaking suspicion that what was happening was illegal. Further argument fell on deaf ears. “Neither I or any of my family have ever received any kind of relief,” she told one of the Relieving Officers, “you have no right to send me away”. But she was forcibly removed from the workhouse, the men threatening to handcuff her if she resisted; she was taken to the railway station at Stockport, transferred by train to Liverpool and from there to the Irish packet bound for Dublin. Four or five men guarded Mary Anne, and a number of other paupers in a similar situation, along the whole journey to prevent escape. On the boat she was given a 4lb loaf and nothing else; she had just two pennies to her name. Once in Dublin and destitute and with no friends in the city she was obliged to go to the workhouse, which is where she made this statement. All she wanted to do was to go home and return to her job in the mill (TNA MH 12/1142/14249 and 20338).
One of the Dublin officials declared that the central authorities in London should “not permit the unfortunate English poor to be thrown thus upon the guardians of this country” and that they ought to take steps to prevent such cases from occurring. It was observed that “the number [of such cases] … latterly was greatly on the increase. There were double the number this year than last”.
In removing Mary Anne to Ireland, the Stockport Guardians were treading a thin line with respect to the law. The 1846 Poor Removal Act was supposed to protect the poor against removal if they could convince two magistrates that, among other things, they had lived continuously in the parish for at least 5 years. But the law left many loopholes for Guardians to exploit in their efforts to remove unwanted ‘burdens’ from their ratepayers. By her own admission Mary Anne had lived in Stockport for only 12 months prior to be being taken ill, so the 1846 Act provided her with little protection and the Guardians may have been within their rights to remove her either to Liverpool (where she was born), or perhaps to Glossop where her father lived. Why they decided to send her to Ireland where she had no connection was never explained.
Mary Anne was probably inadvertently caught up in a deliberate strategy on the part of the Stockport Guardians to clear Irish paupers from their books. In the same year four other controversial cases of pauper removals to Ireland, all of whom had been resident in Stockport for many years, were brought to the attention of the Poor Law Commissioners. Some were better informed than Mary Anne and quoted the law back at the Union officials, but to no avail. In the case of Patrick Egan, three times the magistrates upheld his objection to his removal, but the Union went ahead anyway and he was removed along with his three younger children to Dublin, leaving his two older, working-age children to fend for themselves (TNA MH 12/1142/9038).
The Stockport Guardians were not alone in taking these peremptory (and possibly illegal) actions. Mary Gibbons, a resident in Tynemouth for 12 years, went before magistrates in 1860 after applying for relief and was told she must be removed to Ireland. She stated she was born at sea, but as her mother had been born in Ireland the magistrate told her she must find her mother’s parish and be removed there. She was subsequently sent to the workhouse in Belfast with her two children. The Belfast Guardians were less than pleased and complained to the London authorities, who also seemed displeased by the removal. The Tynemouth Guardians were instructed to investigate. Unfortunately the outcome was not recorded in this case (TNA MH 12/9161/33725).
In 1858, the Bradford Union was accused of devising its own rules for removability. Clearly outraged, W.F. Black wrote that: “The Guardians are determined … to pass to a country they may have forgotten and where they may be unknown all Irish who seek relief, regardless of the number of years they have lived here” (TNA MH 12/14729/11842). In 1847, Stephen Power, a victim of Bradford’s local rules, was sent to Dublin despite having lived in Bradford for 18 years. The Relieving Officer made things quite clear: “he threatened to send me to the parish in which I was born in Ireland [and] said he would send all the Irish home no matter how long they had lived in Bradford” (TNA MH 12/14726/4937).
Age was no barrier. Francis Dowling was 72 in 1858 when he was removed from Stockport to Dublin, despite having lived in Stockport for 15 years, paid rates and earned the right to vote for the town council. The Stockport magistrates ignored these qualifying characteristics; he was Irish-born and should go back to Ireland, a place he not seen for 45 years. Poor Patrick Ryan, a 10-year-old boy, was shipped back to Ireland alone by the Merthyr Tydfil Guardians. An orphan, born in Ireland but sent to Merthyr to live with his Aunt, Patrick found himself in the Merthyr workhouse in 1858 and then on a steamer to Waterford. “No person had charge of me” during the journey, he testified, except a young girl of 14 who was also being removed to Ireland. On arrival he was incarcerated in the Waterford Workhouse (TNA MH 12/16331/34617).
There are many more examples of Irish (and supposedly Irish) removals from all over the English and Welsh Poor Law system. The Guardians were taking advantage of the poorly drafted Act to deal with the burden placed on them (as they saw it) by the large influx of Irish migrants in the mid-century. The constant refrain that the victims of removal had no connection with Ireland appeared to elicit little sympathy: they were ruthlessly separated from friends and family and sent into the unknown.
It is hard not to see parallels with the experiences of the Windrush generation. Geographically, Ireland may not be as remote from mainland Britain as the West Indies, but in nineteenth-century terms it was a huge distance. It is hard to imagine the distress caused to people (as young as 10 and as old as 80) uprooted with little or no warning from familiar places and unceremoniously dumped with no means of support in a strange country.