Roscommon to Rotherham — the history of Irish immigration

Roscommon to Rotherham — the history of Irish immigration

By Andrew Mosley | 01/04/2021

Roscommon to Rotherham — the history of Irish immigration


IMMIGRATION to Rotherham has been commonplace for hundreds of years, as new arrivals sought shelter or a better wage.

Before the 1840s it was mainly internal migrants from elsewhere in the UK — perhaps only distinguishable by their accents.

After, Rotherham become a favoured destination for Irish incomers, either drawn by economic opportunity or fleeing the horrors of the Great Famine.

The 1841 census showed a small Irish contingent, mainly from the midland counties of the country. Twenty years on they made up three per cent of the town’s population — with names like Fenoughty, Hampstead, Kennedy, McNulty, Kenning and Moran appearing, and many families establishing deep roots here.

Rotherham was already becoming a centre of industry, attracting workers for its heavy metal and associated industries.

The Irish connection was embedded due to Rotherham’s cattle market, where Irish cattle were sold.

Newspapers over in Ireland featured reports on the beef and corn prices at Rotherham market, showing the importance of the trade.

In 1844, the Dublin Monitor estimated that 5,000 cattle and 60,000 sheep made the trip over to  Rotherham. New opportunities of employment attracted people from across the country, including Irish families already domiciled in the UK.

Historian Peter Feek, who has researched the subject, said: “One of those drawn to Rotherham was Joseph Hampstead.

“For those who remember Rotherham in the days before central heating, ‘Tommy’ Hampstead, the coal merchant, was a familiar sight around town.

“His grandfather, Joseph, a soldier, had served in Roscommon in Ireland and had married an Irish girl, Ann Morris, and settled in Cheshire before arriving in search of work, first in Masbrough, and then in Parkgate, where a dynasty developed!

“The onset of the Great Famine in 1846 in Ireland would increase and change the make up of Rotherham’s Irish community.

“In the west of Ireland life had always been precarious due to the lack of land.

“Smaller plots, and a reliance on the potato crop, meant subsistence farming was the norm and cash not usually a feature of this economy.

“Consequently, reaping teams from the west of Ireland were a feature of the British agricultural economy, as they came annually to get in the harvest before returning with cash to pay their rent.

“However, the failure of the potato crop was disastrous. In the next five years the west of Ireland lost, either by death or emigration, nearly a third of its population.

“Those who emigrated to North America were the better off small farmers, as they could afford the passage fare of £7.

“Others, without resources, walked to Dublin and paid 3d to share the decks of the transporters moving cattle from Dublin to Liverpool. It was this group of desperate people who ended up in Rotherham.”

They were principally from Tipperary, Roscommon, Mayo and Galway, initially. They settled on Westgate, Wellgate and Bridgegate.

Active yards on Westgate included Moxon’s, Hanby’s, Mann’s, Morgan’s, Lang’s and Steer’s — presumably all named after their owners.

Orchard Place, at Masbrough, was regarded as being Irish but they made up less than half of the population there.

Westgate — one of the gateways to Rotherham — was boxed in at either end by commerce and middle class properties. It had almost 1,400 residents but only a tenth were Irish-born, the 1861 census showed.

Mr Feek said: “Ironically, health reports tended to highlight problems where the Irish lived, thereby ignoring the majority of the English who lived in the same areas!

“When disease broke out in these areas it was often the Irish who were to be said to have introduced it.”

Masbrough’s Irish contingent continued to grow, with many men gravitating to the heavy industries and construction, while women took up domestic positions or worked at the flax mill on the Don.

Three such were Ellen and Elisabeth Wallace and Ann McGuire, all of whom lived in Boot and Shoe Yard off Bridgegate.

On Lower Millgate could be found Ann Gill, a charwoman whose granddaughter married into the Braidley family of Eastwood. Peter Braidley, a heart surgeon at the Northern General, is one of her descendants still in the area.

Catherine O’Neill, from Galway, who lived on Westgate, may have faced more demanding work as a coke washer.

Few men occupied affluent positions, though shopkeeper John Kenning was one whose family succeeded him on Wellgate.

Advertiser reporting of the time included mention of one defendant showing “true Irish cunning and dexterity” in an attack on a policeman — terminology certainly of its time.

In 1861 the magistrates dismissed a case between Bessie Rowntree and Ann Melody as they clearly did not understand what had happened. It was characterised as an “Irish row”.

Less confusing for magistrates was the case of Patrick Merea, who was described as follows: “physiognomy gave unmistakable evidence of being a genuine importation from the Green Isle”.  

Later in the 1860s defendants in an assault case were referred to as “six darlings of the Emerald Isle”.

Another case — indicating sectarian differences in Boot and Shoe Yard — was dismissed by magistrates, though the Irishmen were said to have given their evidence “with a good deal of enthusiasm”.

Regulars at court included Peter Creegan, who appeared more than 100 times accused of being drunk and disorderly — each time promising to reform.

Back in Ireland, Roscommon and Tipperary had been the most active counties in opposing the authorities — often violently — with police seen as the tool of the landowners. These counties provided a large proportion of the Irish arriving in Rotherham.

Mr Feek said: “It was, perhaps, this culture which informed Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, from Ballinderry in Tipperary, to assault PC Kershaw on Holmes Lane in 1862, when Kershaw ‘requested’ Mr Kennedy to go home as he was drunk.

“What was clear is there was an antipathy to the police becoming involved in any Irish affair; a situation in which the Irish community banded together to oppose them.

“There was a strong vein of Irish nationalism in the community. The Fenian society, the forerunners of the IRA, had been formed in the 1850s.

“When Michael Larkin was hanged for the murder of a police officer in Manchester, killed when Irish nationalists tried to release Fenian prisoners, the Irish community in Rotherham organised a concert for the widows and orphans of the Fenian ‘martyrs’.

“It was well supported at St Bede’s schoolroom, with the evening ending with the singing of God Save Ireland.

“Court cases also reveal that monies were collected in pubs for the Fenian cause, the Spellman family being at the forefront. The Sheffield press claimed that Masbrough was a hotbed of Fenianism.”

Ireland’s Home Rule movement from 1870 — campaigning for self-government — was backed not only by the Irish in Rotherham but the town’s Liberal politicians.

The Irish National Land League formed branches here, with meetings held in Patrick Fenoughty’s Cutlers’ Arms, Patrick Lawless’ Sun Inn and other Irish-run pubs.

“Interestingly their meetings were reported in the Dublin press but not in the Advertiser,” said Mr Feek.

“St Patrick’s Day became the occasion for large scale political events with Arthur Ackland, Rotherham’s first member of parliament, being a regular speaker.

“In the second half of the century, the Irish community were constantly refreshed with new members as land issues and evictions provided steady streams of immigrants from the Emerald Isle.

“As second and third generations, and intermarriage, came along the Irish identity in Rotherham perhaps weakened, although, in 1920, Gaelic football was being played in the town.

“Local people testing their DNA may be surprised how much Irish they have in them.”

* Mr Feek (left) is working on a history of Irish Rotherham which is set to be published next year. Anyone with family history they wish to share can email book@thunderclif