Wednesday, November 27, 2019


One of the main characters in my upcoming book, The Edward Street Baby Farm, was born in Limerick in 1855. Harriet Lenihan moved to Australia in the 1880s and eventually came to Perth. Her father, Maurice Lenihan, was owner and editor of the Limerick Reporter, and was Mayor of Limerick for several years. He had connections with many of the leading political figures in Ireland. Harriet was very proud of the fact that her father had written a history of the city, which was widely acclaimed, though it never made its author any money. It had even received a commendation from the Pope.

As far as I know I’m not related to Harriet Lenihan. But I am related to another outcast from Limerick, John Mason, whose story I’ve told in several posts here. So I feel an attachment to Limerick despite never having been there.

John Mason’s convict records describe him as a ‘native’ of Limerick. He was certainly arrested, tried and transported from that city but I’m not entirely sure that he was born there.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the records of the Destitute Board in Adelaide, where he eventually finished up, describe him as English. Possibly he migrated to Ireland, or came from an English family living in Limerick. Whatever the case, at the age of eighteen he was working in Limerick as a boatman.

He must have been one of many boatmen in the water-bound city. Limerick sits some way inland, at the head of estuary of the Shannon river, and is accessible by ocean-going ships. Another waterway, the Grand Canal, makes it possible to navigate from Limerick in the southwest all the way to Dublin on the east coast.

A brief history of Limerick

As the much smaller Abbey River meets a loop of the Shannon, it creates an island, known as Kings Island. The Vikings established a settlement there in the 10th century. They maintained trade links with other settlements in Ireland and Europe and eventually integrated into the Irish population.

In 1195 the Normans from England captured Limerick, and Lord John (later ‘bad’ King John) built a castle on Kings Island and erected walls around the city. Although the city was nominally under English rule, it was fairly independent. In 1413 King Henry V granted it a charter as a city-state.

Henry VIII changed all that. He abolished the Irish monasteries, gave land to his supporters and by 1603 controlled the whole of Ireland. Limerick lost most of its independence.

Limerick in 1587, source unknown
In the seventeenth century the city was besieged four times, in 1642, 1651, 1690 and 1691. The final siege was carried out by the troops of the protestant William of Orange against the supporters of catholic James II, who were holed up in the city. After the Williamites broke through, a treaty was signed.

Under the Treaty of Limerick, James’ supporters were allowed to leave Ireland, in what was referred to as the Flight of the Wild Geese. Alternatively, they could join William’s army. Civilians were allowed to keep their land and property, provided that they pledged loyalty to William.

But the treaty was soon broken. Laws passed by the English and Irish parliaments, known as the Penal Laws, put Irish Catholics at a great disadvantage. Limerick became known by many as the City of the Broken Treaty

The city itself gradually expanded and the walls were dismantled and rebuilt to allow it to grow. The oldest part of the city on Kings Island became known as Englishtown, while the expansion to the south of the Abbey River was known as Irishtown. The two were joined by a bridge, the Baal bridge. In the eighteenth century there was a further expansion to the south, with a planned grid of wide streets, named Newtown Pery after its founder, landowner Edmund Sexton Pery. This area, with its Georgian architecture, became the city’s CBD.

When John Mason was born, in about 1814 or 1815, Limerick was a city undergoing great changes. A port was constructed to serve the growing agriculture and manufacturing industries. New bridges crossed the river. Many churches and schools were being built, along with hospitals, a court house and a gaol. (John Mason would see the inside of both the courthouse and the gaol.) Gas, water and sewerage services became available for the first time.

Limerick in the 1830s
Painted by French artist Alphonse Dousseau.
But in the 1830s, in the poorer Catholic areas, and the rural areas around the city, there was unrest. Not everyone benefited from the growing wealth of the city, and the new bridges tended to divide rather than unite the different economic areas. The wealthy moved to the new suburbs of Newton Pery, while in the old parts of the city many were destitute.

Food prices had been rising across southern Ireland as a result of potato crop failures. In 1830 merchants raised the price of oatmeal in Limerick by 25 percent. For many people, oats provided their only food supply. A riot broke out on 25 June 1830, and the mob raided warehouses, shops and factories. Although the troops were called in, the authorities also set up a relief fund to ensure that food was made available at a fair price to those who needed it and work was provided for the unemployed.

Leaving Limerick

This then, was the city in which John Mason lived in the early 1830s. Without knowing where John was born, it’s difficult to trace his background or his life in Limerick. Mason was not a common name in the county. A family named Mason had a property of 772 acres at Cappanihane in County Limerick in the early 1800s, but I haven’t found anything to suggest that John was related to them. The newspaper reports of John's trial say nothing of where he was from. My guess is that if the son of a local landowner had been arrested and brought to trial for stealing, the newspapers would probably have mentioned his family background.

Someone once told me that boatmen in Ireland were employed by the government as coastguards. They were often recruited from England so that they had no local ties that might lead to corruption. It’s possible that John or his father came from England in this way. The National Archives UK website has PDF images of the coastguard records of service available for download. So far I haven't been able to find any mention of anyone named Mason in these handwritten records from the 1800s, but I have many more files still to search through.

In the 1830s, many people from Limerick chose to migrate to Australia, some with assistance from the government or their landlord. John Mason wasn’t given a choice when he was given a one-way trip to New South Wales. He was transported in 1833 for stealing a length of muslin cloth.

I've described in another post (Muslin by the yard) my reasoning for thinking that the cloth that John stole came from a haberdashery shop in George Street, belonging to Thomas Evans and his family. George Street, now known as O'Connell Street, is the main street in Limerick, running from the bridge at the southern end of Kings Island through the Newtown Pery district, parallel to the Shannon.

According to the Limerick Chronicle, John broke a pane of glass to grab the cloth, while the owner's two sons were behind the counter. It seems a rather brazen thing to do, and he was easily caught. Could he have deliberately committed a crime to get himself transported? If so, he certainly wouldn’t have been the only person to do so.

The story of John Mason's life after he left Limerick, and that of his family, appears in other posts on this blog. It's also told in more detail in my book Susan: convict's daughter, soldier's wife, nobody's fool. It's available on Amazon and other online books stores. To read a preview of the first chapters, click on the cover image.

General references:

Roots Ireland - A brief history of Limerick - Our history
Irish walled towns network - Limerick
Wikipedia - history of Limerick
Liam Hogan - The 1830 Limerick Food Riots

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Hebden Bridge

When I was growing up, I associated the name 'Hebden Bridge' with romance. My parents had fond memories of taking long walks from Hebden Bridge to scenic Hardcastle Crags when they were courting.

By the time I visited the town for the first time in the 1980s, it was an attractive and trendy tourist centre, full of craft shops, boutique food outlets and cafes. But back in the 1860s, when my great great grandparents Samuel St Leger and Alice Dodd moved there from Manchester with their family, it was a working mill town.

Hebden Bridge, in west Yorkshire, stands in a deep valley where the Hebden Water meets the Calder River. The Rochdale Canal (opened in 1798) and the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway (opened in 1840) run through it, and it’s not far from the major wool-marketing town of Halifax. Until the industrial revolution, sheep farming and hand-loom weaving of woollen cloth were the main economic activities, and Hebden Bridge was less significant than the nearby hilltop village of Heptonstall.
Ducks by the Old Bridge over Hebden Water (my photo)

The availability of running water to power the looms led to the construction of many textile mills in the valley in the 19th century. While cloth of all sorts was produced, it gained the nickname ‘Fustianopolis’ because of its specialisation in the production of fustian i.e. corduroy and moleskin. And since these were used in the manufacture of hard-wearing work clothes, it was also known as ‘Trouser Town’.

Samuel St Leger and Alice were both fustian cutters, which provides one clue as to why they moved to Hebden Bridge with their seven children. The cotton famine in Lancashire in the 1860s led to many families moving to Yorkshire.

But they may have had other reasons for choosing to move, besides employment opportunities. There’s no record of Samuel and Alice ever marrying, perhaps because Samuel was already married, in 1840, to an Irish girl, Bridget Dobbs. Bridget moved back to Ireland from Manchester after the birth of their second child, but there’s no record of a divorce. Few working people could afford the legal fees for a divorce, so there were many common-law marriages like that of Samuel and Alice.

Such relationships were not necessarily accepted by everyone though, and they may have felt that they could live more openly as man and wife in a place where neither of them were known.

Their eldest son Ralph (who was probably Samuel’s stepson) married Alice Broadbent, a girl from Hebden Bridge, in 1865. It’s not clear whether Ralph moved with his parents, then married, or whether he moved first and the rest of the family followed. Samuel and Alice’s youngest child, David, was born in Hebden Bridge in 1868, so they must have moved sometime before this date.

When the St Leger family arrived in Hebden Bridge, it would have been a smokey, noisy, bustling place. By the early 1870s it had “a post office [..], a railway station with telegraph, a mechanics' institution, a news room, a public library, many large cotton factories, a silk mill, dye works, iron foundries, and a saw mill” according to John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales.

Because of the steep-sided nature of the valley, many houses in Hebden Bridge were built as double-decker terraces, with one family living above another. They were constructed from the local stone. Multistorey mills, with tall chimneys also constructed of stone, were dotted through the valley and up the hillsides.

At the time of the 1871 census, Samuel and Alice and their family were living at 24 Foster Mill Lane, which seems to have been a more traditional terrace, in which many of the occupants were employed in fustian manufacturing. Over seventy people in Hebden Bridge were listed as fustian cutters in the census, and many others were in related occupations.

By 1881, the St Legers were living in a house in Back Commercial Street, closer to the town centre. Only the three youngest children were still at home. Their sons Ralph and William, both fustian cutters, were still in Hebden Bridge, but two of the other children had married and moved back to Manchester.

Samuel St Leger died in Hebden Bridge in 1882. Alice went to live with her son Samuel and his family sometime before the 1891 census and died in Prestwich, Manchester in 1897.

Canal boats, Hebden Bridge
Unfortunately, when we visited Hebden Bridge earlier this year, on a day trip by train from Manchester, I didn't have much information with me. So I wasn't able to find and photograph any of the places where Samuel and Alice lived, though we probably walked past them on our way to see Hardcastle Crags. Even in the middle of winter, Hebden Bridge is a lovely spot, though in Samuel and Alice's day its attractions were perhaps less evident.

Photos all taken by me and copyright

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Husbands Bosworth

Husbands Bosworth in Leicestershire is one of those places that I’ve never visited, though I would certainly like to see it one day. So what follows is what I can glean from the Internet. For several generations it was home to the Orton family, ancestors of my maternal grandfather, Albert Edwin Orton

Farmland north west of Husbands Bosworth (1)
It’s thought that the name was originally “Baresworde’, which is the Saxon word for Bar’s farm or settlement. The village, on gently rolling, fertile land close to the Avon river and the Grand Union Canal, was given the prefix “Husbands” to distinguish from the nearby Market Bosworth. “Husbandsmen” is another name for farmers.

In 1086, when the Domesday Book was written, Husbands Bosworth had a population of seventy one households, and was in the possession of five Norman lords. In the middle ages the village was established enough to build a church. Much of All Saints church has since been rebuilt, but the tower dates back to the fourteenth century.

The village gained some fame (or notoriety) in 1616 when 15 women were arrested as witches, and nine of them were tried and hanged on the same day. The other six were reprieved by the king, James I, after he happened to be passing through the area. One had already died in prison.

Several versions of the story appear online, but the gist of it is that the women were called to cure John Smith, the young grandson of the local land owner, Erasmus Smith, when he began having epileptic fits. When they failed to cure him by exorcism, they were accused of witchcraft. (One version says that the boy himself accused them, then later admitted that he’d made it up).

Unfortunately there seems to be no record of the names of the fifteen women accused of witchcraft, so I'll never know if any of them were among my ancestors. The name Orton is common in Leicestershire and the neighbouring counties, in fact there is a town in Leicestershire with that name. The first Orton in my family line that I’ve found living in Husbands Bosworth was John Orton, born about 1774. He and his wife, Mary Steans, were married in the parish church there in November 1804.

Husbands Bosworth (2)
Mary was born in Husbands Bosworth, as was her mother, Elizabeth Illiff, so it seems her family had probably been in the village for several generations. I haven’t been able to discover where John came from, though it’s likely to have been somewhere nearby. Nor do I know what John did for a living. But given that his sons were carpenters and wheelwrights, he probably had a similar occupation. They would have provided a service to the local farmers and villagers, who relied on wooden carts for transporting people and produce, and wooden farming implements.

John and Mary had at least four sons, one of whom, John (born 1807) died at the age of four. As was common in those days, the next son born after his death was given the same name, John. The two remaining sons, Thomas and Richard, both died in their twenties. A child baptised under the name Mary Ann Horton in Husbands Bosworth in 1815 may be John and Mary's daughter.

The younger John seems to have been a bit of a larrikin, as I’ve described in a previous post. He married Mary Ann Brown from nearby North Kilworth, in August 1841, though their marriage took place in Birmingham. John could have been working there, or possibly there was some objection to the marriage. Mary Ann was pregnant with their first child, Thomas Brown Orton, at the time.

The Cherry Tree, c1908, now demolished (3)
John and Mary Ann lived in Husbands Bosworth for the rest of their married lives and had six more children. John was self-employed as a carpenter, when he wasn't in court or in prison. After his death in 1880, Mary Ann became a publican, running the Cherry Tree in High Street, Husbands Bosworth, for several years. She retired to Leicester to live with her daughter Lucy.

The village reached its peak population of 934 in 1871 and then began to decline, as people in rural areas moved to cities and towns looking for work. By the 1891 census most of the Orton family had left Husbands Bosworth. Thomas Brown Orton, my mother's great grandfather, moved with his family to Manchester. It must have been quite strange moving from a small rural settlement to a place as large and overcrowded as Manchester.

1.Stephen McKay, Farmland north west of Husbands Bosworth - - 172870CC BY-SA 2.0
2. Mat Fascione, Husbands Bosworth 1CC BY-SA 2.0
3.Cherry Tree. Image from the Bosworth Bugle, issue 249

Friday, August 23, 2019


Bee mosaic in Manchester Town Hall
Image from wikipedia.
Everywhere you go in Manchester, you’ll find bees - carved into buildings, decorating bollards and fountains, printed on flags, bumper stickers and tee-shirts, even tattooed on people’s arms.

Originally the worker bee symbolised the hard-working and productive labourers in the factories, those hives of activity during the industrial revolution. It was officially adopted into Manchester’s coat of arms in 1842.

More recently it has become a symbol of the unity and co-operation of Manchester’s population following the terrorist bombing of Manchester Arena in 2017.

Back when I began researching my family history, it certainly seemed as though Manchester was once a honey pot drawing families in. On almost every branch of the family tree, I discovered at least one family that migrated to Manchester, or the adjacent Salford, during the nineteenth century. On  my father’s side of the family, Thomas Ward's widow, Frances, left Walton le Dale and went to live there when she re-married, along with two of her daughters. Several of her grandchildren also went there to work.

On my mother’s side, Thomas Brown Orton and his family moved to Manchester from Leicestershire, the Bentleys from Yorkshire, the Landers from Dorset, the St Legers and the Hardmans from Ireland, the Holts and the Houghs from Cheshire.

So while my previous posts on "places" have been about towns and villages where one family lived, perhaps for several generations, this post covers many families. They often moved back and forth between Manchester and Salford addresses. Salford has its own distinct history, but in this post I'll consider it as part of Manchester.

Manchester's early history

The city gets its name from Mamucium, the name of a Roman fort built on a small hill in 79 AD to keep out the Celtic Brigantes. It was located close to the River Irwell, which meandered across an otherwise flat plain. After the Romans left in 407 AD, the little town around the fort stagnated until the thirteenth century.

In 1227 it was granted a charter for an annual fair, a sign of its increasing prosperity. By the 14th century a textile industry had grown up under the influence of Flemish weavers. Despite some setbacks due to outbreaks of plague and the English Civil War, the market town and its weaving industry gradually expanded.

Shambles Square, in the medieval quarter
Image from wikipedia

By 1720 Manchester was the most important town in Lancashire, with a grammar school, a collegiate church, a free public library and its own newspaper. The population of about 10,000 people had a single representative in the First Protectorate Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. This seat in Parliament was lost after the restoration of King Charles in 1660.

Manchester and the Industrial Revolution

Beginning in the late 18th century, the industrial revolution brought street-lighting, piped water, and a network of canals to transport coal and other goods. Britain’s first railway station was built in Manchester when the Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830.

The station built in 1830

An unprecedented influx of people arrived, drawn by the prospect of work in the building trades, the cloth manufacturing industries or the associated transport and service industries. By 1801 the population had reached 75,000 and thirty years later it had almost doubled again to 142,000. Despite this, the city had no representative in Parliament and most working people had no vote anyway.

Some people made their fortunes in the booming conditions, and used them to build impressive private and public buildings. For others, overcrowding and lack of planning led to poverty and hardship. Outbreaks of infectious diseases such as cholera were able to spread rapidly in the squalid conditions in which many people lived. High taxes and trade restrictions during and after the Napoleonic wars led to a recession and high unemployment. In 1812 food riots occurred in parts of the city.

On 16 August 1819, thousands of protesters gathered in a newly-cleared area known as St Peter’s Field to listen to the radical orator Henry Hunt and express their demand for parliamentary reform. The local magistrates sent the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt. They succeeded in capturing him, but in the process a child was killed and a woman was injured.

Map of St Peter's field and surrounds
Image by Jhamez84

The 15th Hussars were then sent to disperse the crowd. They went in on horseback with drawn swords, while other regiments blocked the exits to the square. In the panic and mayhem that followed, up to 18 people were killed and hundreds injured. The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre. It would be another thirteen years before the Reform Act of 1832 gave Manchester two representatives in Parliament, elected by eligible males.

Manchester continued to grow, absorbing the surrounding towns into its municipal borough and connecting to places further afield by rail, road and canal links. It was a place of exciting scientific discoveries, technical innovation, impressive engineering feats, and grandiose buildings, alongside social upheaval and radical political movements. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx developed some of their political theories after visiting Manchester in the 1840s.

My family in Manchester

John Fielding is the earliest of my ancestors to have lived in Manchester. He was born there in 1778, and it may be that his family had lived there for several generations. Perhaps he was the same John Fielding whose name is on the list of those arrested at the Peterloo demonstration. In 1802 he married Jane Hughes, from Wrexham in Wales. Their daughter Harriet (born 1811) married William Holt, who was born in Cheshire.

Harriet and William’s son  John married Elizabeth Hardman, who had migrated from Ireland with her parents as a small child. And so it goes on. John and Elizabeth’s daughter Hannah and her husband William Hough were both born in Salford, as was William’s father John Hough, but his paternal grandfather was from Cheshire and his mother, Mary Lander, was from Dorset. The brick-making Houghs and the stone-cutting Landers no doubt helped to build parts of Manchester.

In the 1860s the Lancashire cotton famine caused a lot of hardship. But by the 1870’s, when the Orton family moved to Manchester from Leicestershire, conditions had improved, with less severe overcrowding and poverty and a better life-expectancy. Manchester had a reputation for social innovation, with some of the world’s first free public parks and libraries, and early branches of the Co-operative movement, the Trades Union Council and the women’s suffrage movement.

The city fostered both the arts and education and it was not uncommon for working people to be self-educated through their use of libraries and newspapers. Friedrich Engels left Manchester and moved to London in 1870.
Cotton-milling machinery in the
Science and Industry, Museum, Manchester

Manchester reached its height of industrial activity with the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894. This allowed ocean-going vessels to carry goods right into and out of the heart of the city. The world’s first industrial estate was built on its banks at Trafford Park. By now the population of the city and its suburban area had reached over 500,000.

Manchester in the twentieth century

Even as late as 1913, 65% of all the world’s cotton moved through Manchester. The city’s name was (and still is) synonymous with cotton goods such as sheets and towels. But cotton milling and other textile industries gradually gave way to machinery exports, chemical industries and financial businesses.

The First World War interrupted trade and the Great Depression that followed led to a decline in Manchester’s economy. Its population peaked around 760,000 in the early 1930s, but people had already started to move away.

During the second world war, Manchester and Salford were heavily bombed in what was known as “the blitz”. Children were hastily evacuated to safer areas by the government, with little preparation. My mother and her sisters, after experiencing the trauma of spending their nights in bomb-shelters and seeing their neighbourhood destroyed, were sent away from their parents to Blackpool, on the coast. After some time, the family were re-united when they moved to Crawshawbooth in Rossendale, 20 miles (32 km) from Manchester. They never went back.

Much of Manchester was rebuilt after the war, and it remained the most important city in the region, but it continued to decline economically. When I was growing up in semi-rural Rossendale, Manchester was the place to go to watch a pantomime, to see Father Christmas in one of the department stores or shop for special-occasion clothes, but I never thought of it as a place to live. Even when I returned there as an adult in the 1980s it still seemed a rather grimy, utilitarian place.

Manchester today

In 1996 the centre of the city was bombed by the IRA. Hundreds of people were injured and many retailers went out of business in the aftermath. But the redevelopment associated with the rebuilding, coupled with the Commonwealth Games held in Manchester in 2002, led to a revitalisation of the city. Slums have been cleared, old factories and warehouses re-purposed and public transport modernised.

Manchester's Christmas Markets, a popular annual event

Manchester now advertises itself as a tourist destination, something that would have been considered a joke when I was a child. I was impressed with how much had changed when I returned to Manchester in 2013, and even more so when I revisited it in 2018.

I haven't followed my family tree far enough into the twentieth century to see how many descendants of those original 'immigrants' are still living there. If you recognise any of your own ancestors names here, I'd love to hear from you.

General references used:
Manchester: wikipedia
A brief history of Manchester