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Preston’s 1830s Irish community, “a less civilised population spreading themselves” 

Posted on - 19th November, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Friargate, History, Preston City Centre, Preston News
Evictions during the Irish potato famine, 1848 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Evictions during the Irish potato famine, 1848 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The lead image shows tenants being evicted during the Irish Potato Famine of 1848. Over one million died of starvation and many left Ireland. Some came to Preston. However, Preston had a large Irish population long before this. In 1833 a Royal Commission was formed to look into “The state of the Irish poor in Great Britain” and Reverend John Clay reported on the Irish community in Preston. 

The ruling classes looked down on the lower orders, and in particular the Irish, with disdain and often contempt. The Irish had fled Ireland to escape extreme poverty. However, even in the best of times conditions in Preston were only marginally better. 

First, we look at the Royal Commission’s responses from Preston.

The hostile witnesses

The Rev John Clay Pic: Preston Historical Society
The Rev John Clay Pic: Preston Historical Society

John Clay himself was particularly scathing of the Irish and displayed an attitude that is still prevalent in certain politicians today:

“I am of the opinion that the work of the town could be done, and the harvest got in, without the assistance of Irish labourers.” 

This has echoes of the current migrant debate. William Taylor Esq was also similarly biased:

“I have no hesitation in saying, that it would be generally advantageous to this part of the country if the immigration of the Irish here were at once completely stopped.”

More favourable reponses

Preston Shambles, 1830 Pic: Linda Barton, Preston Historical Society
Preston Shambles, 1830 Pic: Linda Barton, Preston Historical Society

Other officials had a more balanced view. Richard Walton, overseer of the Township of Preston, thought the Irish were not a burden on the poor rate and that they were never permanently on the parish. Thomas Walton, Deputy Constable of Preston, said that there was not more crime amongst the Irish than the English, in proportion. He also stated that there was no trouble with drunken riots. He however blamed them for introducing illegal spirit distilling to the town. 

James Harrison, Honorary Surgeon of the Preston Dispensary, was more sympathetic. The Beer Act of 1830 had liberalised the regulation for the brewing of beer and many new public houses opened. This was blamed for an increase in drunkenness in Preston.

He stated: “I attribute the increased consumption both of spirits and beer, and the great increase of prostitution, which has resulted from these causes in this town to the beer bill, and not to any influence of the Irish.”

Lee Jolleys’ research and the size of the Irish population in Preston

Irish areas in Preston Pic: Preston Historical Society
Irish areas in Preston Pic: Preston Historical Society

James Harrison estimated that there were about 200 Irish families living in Preston. The 1831 census gave the total population of Preston as 33,112, with the Irish making up about 1,000 of these. This article was prompted by the research of Lee Jolleys, a Blog Preston reader and Prestonian with Irish ancestry. 

He has researched his family history and found their probable origin in Ireland. Lee’s grandmother was named Mary Ann (Molly) Flynn and she was born in 1920, in the Marsh Lane area of Preston. This was known as the Irish Quarter even by the 1840s. Molly’s parents were married in Preston in 1908 and the family struggled with extreme poverty. There was always the threat of the workhouse.

Further research revealed that some of Lee’s ancestors also lived in Prescott’s Yard, which was hidden down an alleyway behind the Friargate shopfronts of Victorian Preston.

Lee said: “The Friargate area in Victorian times was a horrendous place to live and described by the census enumerator in 1861 as one of the worst slums in England.”

Lee has also researched the origins, in Ireland, of the Flynn name, and found that his ancestors probably came from County Mayo, possibly the village of Foxford in the townland of Toomore.

The Location of Foxford in County Mayo, Ireland Pic: Google Earth
The Location of Foxford in County Mayo, Ireland Pic: Google Earth

Read more: Dig into more Preston history with Geoffrey

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