Irish not welcome in 1830s Preston

The Rev John Clay Preston prison chaplain

When the Rev John Clay (left), the 19th-century Preston prison chaplain and social reformer, was asked to supply evidence to a Royal Commission ‘on the state of the Irish poor in Great Britain’ he responded, ‘…it would be advantageous to this town and neighbourhood if the immigration of Irish could be completely stopped.’

The Royal Commission ‘for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland’ was established in 1833 and one of its members, George Cornewall Lewis, produced an extensive appendix on the situation in Britain [1]. He sought evidence from towns where most Irish had settled and received a number of responses from Preston, including the Rev Clay’s, which are published below.

These responses provide a very good indication of the prevailing attitude towards working-class Irish in Preston and give a rough approximation of the number of Irish migrants who had settled in the town.

Clay’s evidence headed the list, and as can be seen from the above quotation he was quite clear in his attitude. He was soon to demonstrate a similarly uncharitable attitude to all the town’s poor. See ‘Child murder’ in Victorian Preston.

The next witness, William Taylor esq., was also clearly no friend of the Irish, ‘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.’

Others were less hostile. Richard Walton, Overseer of the Township of Preston, made it clear they were not a burden on the poor rate, ‘Except in very rare instances, we never take them permanently on the parish: the removals to Ireland, during the last eight years, have only been five families.’

Thomas Walton, Deputy Constable of Preston: ‘There is not in this town more crime among the Irish than the English, in proportion, nor have we more trouble with the Irish than our own townspeople on account of drunken riots’. Although he did blame them for introducing illicit spirit distilling into the town.

James Harrison, Honorary Surgeon of the Preston Dispensary, showed much less prejudice than the more hostile witnesses, ‘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.’ He estimated there were about 200 poor Irish families, or nearly 1,000 individuals, in Preston.

His estimate conflicts with that of the Rev John Bird, of St Wilfrid’s, who reckoned there were ‘about 200 or 300 Irish in Preston’. The Rev Bird should, perhaps, have known best as most of the Irish would have been Catholics. If he meant to say ‘Irish families’ then that would concur with the estimate of James Harrison and with that of the Rev Clay, who estimated that there were ‘220 families (Irish) of the operative and labouring classes resident in Preston’.

That would suggest around 1,000 Irish in the town when the population of the town at the 1831 census was 33,112 and growing rapidly, which seems a more likely figure than the Rev Bird’s ‘200 or 300’. Would the Rev Clay’s clear prejudice towards the Irish have mellowed a decade later when they were counted in thousands ?

There was no mistaking the prejudice of Cornewall Lewis ‘… the Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilized population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilized community; and. without excelling in any branch of industry, obtaining possession of all the lowest departments of manual labour.’ [2] Perhaps that is why he placed the two witnesses most hostile to Irish immigration at the head of the Preston section of his report.

See also:
Anglo-Irish relations in mid-nineteenth-century Preston
Irish ‘ghettoes’ in 19th-century Preston


The Preston witnesses [3]

Communication from the Rev. John Clay,
Chaplain to the Preston House of Correction.

1. Although in a very slight degree, it would be advantageous to this town and neighbourhood if the immigration of Irish could be completely stopped; because, during the harvest, they occasionally find their way here in greater or less numbers, and, in passing through the town, they obtain relief either from the parish or from casual sources; and because they interfere to a certain, but perhaps trifling, extent with the English labourer.

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

3. There are about 220 families (Irish) of the operative and labouring classes resident in Preston. It is supposed that these families furnish about 150 weavers and spinners, and about 100 labourers; and their competition may have lowered the rate of wages in a greater degree as regards the latter class than the former, because Irish spinners and weavers are to the English as only one in twenty, while the Irish labourers are as one to eight.

4. Immigration from Ireland has scarcely increased the amount of poor’s rates, the relief to the poor from that country being only about one-seventieth part of the whole. Out of 150 applications for assistance, made to the Preston Provident Society, there were only three Irish cases.

The Preston House of Correction contains at present about 250 prisoners furnished by three hundreds, of which the population is 286,000. Among these prisoners there are fourteen Irish, of whom two arc soldiers from a regiment quartered in the neighbourhood, three were convicted at Liverpool, four had been upwards of ten years in England, and three are itinerant hawkers, &c.

William Taylor, Esq.

In answering the following questions, I must premise by stating that there are perhaps fewer Irish persons in Preston, for the number of its inhabitants, (nearly 40,000,) than in most other manufacturing towns in the county of Lancaster.

1. I believe that the introduction of a compulsory maintenance of the aged and infirm poor in Ireland would tend to check the immigration of the Irish to this part of the country, because many come over here who are aged and infirm, and live either by mendicity, or following some trifling employment in the towns. With regard to the young able-bodied men it could not make much difference, except in the feeling that must naturally attach every one more closely to the country that will support him when he becomes aged and unable to work and I should think that, in that point of view, such a provision being made, would prevent many from leaving their country that might be induced to do so if they could have no support when incapable of following some employment at home.

2. 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, because we have at present a population of our own quite adequate to meet the demands of both the manufacturer and agriculturist for labour.

3. As before stated, I believe the work of the town could be done without Irish assistance and there appears to be no need of it in the country for agricultural purposes. Even the harvest could be got in by our own labour. If Irish immigration were checked or stopped, wages in agricultural employments might advance a little, which would be at this time beneficial, rather than injurious, to the general interests of the country.

4. As a general principle, it may be said that the wages of labour increase and decrease with the demand for, and the supply of, that labour; and as we have had, for many years back, a number of Irish persons employed in this part, particularly during the harvest, the general rate of wages must have been lowered thereby, or, at all events, been prevented from rising.

5. Irish immigration has undoubtedly somewhat increased the amount of the poor’s rates of Preston and its neighbourhood, though, from the cause I at first stated, viz., our not having had a great number of Irish residents in proportion to the size of the town, it has not been in any great degree the case.

Mr. Richard Walton, Overseer of the Township of Preston.

We only relieve the unsettled Irish, as casual poor, in cases of sickness or temporary distress. The expense arising from this source does not exceed £100 out of £7,000 a-year. We are not in the habit of removing them, and we prefer relieving them during their temporary distress. Except in very rare instances, we never take them permanently on the parish: the removals to Ireland, during the last eight years, have only been five families.

Mr. Thomas Walton, Deputy Constable of Preston.

There is not in this town more crime among the Irish than the English, in proportion, nor have we more trouble with the Irish than our own townspeople on account of drunken riots; this arises from the smallness of their numbers. Illicit distillation was introduced by the Irish into the town about seven year ago; many stills have been taken, and, I believe, there are many now in the town; it prevails now among both English and Irish.

Mr. James Harrison, Honorary Surgeon of the Preston Dispensary.

I have by visitation ascertained the condition of betwixt 800 and 900 of the poorest families in the town, and I should conceive that there are about 200 Irish families, or nearly 1,000 individuals, in Preston. The men arc chiefly labourers; there are also a few weavers, lodging house keepers, and small shopkeepers; the girls and boys are employed in the factories. It frequently happens that two Irish families reside in one house, but not a larger number. Their diet is chiefly potatoes and buttermilk. I think their number is here so small, that their example has had little influence on the habits of the English.

A Provident Society has been recently established in this town; and, on looking over a list of sixty mendicant applicants, I ascertained that there were only three Irish. The practice both of dram and beer drinking has materially increased of late years, since the passing of the beer bill. 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.

I know that there are a considerable number of English bricklayers’ labourers in Preston, and that they carry the hod.

Rev. John Bird, Resident Priest of Preston for Twenty Years.

There are about 200 or 300 Irish in Preston; the greater part belong to the working classes; they are chiefly employed in factories. There are some bricklayers’ labourers; some also make sacks at their own houses.

It appears a hardship that the Irish should pay rates in a parish and not receive parish relief. The parish officers are very unwilling to relieve the Irish.


[1] George Cornewall Lewis, Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland : Appendix G: State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain (London: HMSO, 1836), http://archive.org/details/op1245313-1001.
[2] Lewis, iv.
[3] Lewis, 90–91.

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