Does the district known as Little Ireland that was firmly established in Preston by the middle of the 19th century qualify as a ‘ghetto’? It was home to Irish immigrants attracted by the town’s employment opportunities and driven by the famine that was devastating their country.
Ghetto is a strong word with uncomfortable associations. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ghetto as:
A quarter in a city, esp. a thickly populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usually as a result of economic or social pressures; an area, etc., occupied by an isolated group; an isolated or segregated group, community, or area.’
The Cambridge Dictionary supplies ‘an area of a city, especially a very poor area, where people of a particular race or religion live closely together and apart from other people.’ For Merriam-Webster it is ‘a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.’
The key defining characteristics are thus:
- a distinct quarter or district
- densely populated
- slum housing
- home to a minority group
- area chosen/forced by social or economic pressures elsewhere
- residents belong to a particular race or religion.
One dimension that is ignored by the above definitions is that of the ghetto as a place of confinement in which the inhabitants are prevented from leaving their district by means of controls such as curfews imposed by the host community. Ghettoes of this type strongly discourage integration into the host community.
That this dimension did not apply to the Irish in 19th-century Preston was demonstrated in an unpublished BA dissertation ‘The Irish in Preston, isolation or integration? c.1829-c.1867’ by Jack Hepworth, a summary of which can be found on line.  Jack has built on that research in an article, Anglo-Irish relations in mid-nineteenth-century Preston.
Tackling the dictionary definitions, it seems that two paths help determine which areas of Preston were candidates for the designation ‘Irish ghetto’. First, a mapping of all the relevant data collected for the 1851 census should indicate those areas that constitute densely populated and distinct districts, the homes to the Irish immigrants. Secondly, the evidence of contemporary witnesses should reveal whether any candidate districts suggested by mapping meet other characteristics of a ghetto.
There were 4,948 persons identified as Irish-born in Preston in the 1851 census, when the population of the town was 68,596 (excluding the inmates of the town’s House of Correction and its workhouse). This underestimates the number of Irish because it does not include second-generation immigrants, who could be considered Irish by the rest of the population if not necessarily by themselves. Comparing the Irish-born heads of households with the figure for all heads of households provides one way of accommodating these ‘missing’ Irish. Although this again could be an underestimate if the Irish tended to have larger families than the general population, and it could miss the many Irish in lodging-houses run by local landlords.
Mapping the Irish
The top map shows two distinct concentrations of Irish-born residents at the time of the 1851 census: the Friargate district (traditionally known as Little Ireland) and the Marsh Lane district. The distribution of those not born in Ireland shown in the second map is much more dispersed.
One striking, and unexplained, feature of the above maps is the almost complete absence of Irish immigrants from the Frenchwood district, despite it having a relatively high population density and cotton mills offering employment. Perhaps even more puzzling is the fact this was a district with a high concentration of Catholics. Indeed, St Augustine’s had only recently been opened to serve them. So why did Irish immigrants, who were predominantly Catholic, not settle around St Augustine’s?
The Catholic presence in the district was well-established by 1820 as the census of the town’s Catholics conducted in that year (and the heat map above showing the distribution of Catholics in the town) reveal. (Counting Catholics in 19th-centrury Preston).
Do either of the two districts, in which there is a clear concentration of Irish immigrants, meet the dictionary definition of a ghetto?
The Friargate district
The district was roughly bounded by Friargate, Canal Street and Edward Street, with mills and the canal to the west. It included Canal Street, Back Canal Street, Hope Street, Back Hope Street, Savage’s Court and Pottery Hill. Those streets had a population of 1,416 in 1851. Of these, 782 were recorded as born in England, 621 in Ireland, four in Scotland and one in Wales, with no country given for the remaining eight.
So, Irish-born residents were out-numbered by mainland-born residents which would mean that the district did not qualify as a ghetto according to the Cambridge dictionary definition, ‘an area … where people of a particular race or religion live closely together and apart from other people’, if we substitute ‘Irish’ for ‘race’.
The table gives the figures for individual streets (the negligible numbers of Scots and Welsh have been omitted):
|Street||English-born||English-born %||Irish-born||Irish-born %||Total|
|Back Canal Street||174||59||121||41||295|
|Back Hope Street||40||91||4||9||44|
The Marsh Lane district
The district was bounded by Marsh Lane, Spring Street (now Bow Lane), Poplar Street and industrial land to the south. The streets within the district were Poplar Street, Clarence Street, Buckingham Street, Springfield Place, Brown Street, Rhodes’ Square and Back Rhodes’ Square. There were 946 residents listed in the 1851 census: 472 Irish-born, 463 English-born, 7 Scottish-born, one born in Gibraltar and three with no country given.
There were as many mainland-born residents as Irish-born in this district which again would mean that the district did not qualify as a ghetto. Irish-born residents made up a substantial majority in Clarence Street but were almost totally absent from Poplar Street. The table gives the figures for individual streets (again the negligible numbers of Scots and Welsh have been omitted):
|Street||English-born||English-born %||Irish-born||Irish-born %||Total|
|Back Rhodes’ Square||14||38||23||62||37|
What is clear from the above figures for the two districts is that when the rabidly anti-Catholic Preston MP Robert Townley Parker set the working-class thugs in his Operative Conservative Association loose in the district they would not find it easy to separate Catholic and Irish households from their Protestant Preston-born neighbours. This was not Derry.
Townley Parker, as Nigel Morgan noted, was the man who had ‘exploited the sectarian and anti-Irish animosities of the lower orders, and quickly established a well-knit web of political connections through the Operative Conservative Association’.
If the Friargate and Marsh Lane districts fail to meet the geographical qualification for ghetto status, they certainly matched another of the OED’s criteria: ‘a thickly populated slum area’. Contemporary commentators were in no doubt that these two districts contained some of the very worst slum housing in the town.
The most frequently quoted witness to the appalling conditions endured by the residents of these streets, both by his contemporaries and by modern scholars, was the Rev John Clay:
There is in the ‘lowest deep a lower deep;’ and in the ‘districts of the worst kind’ there are certain streets and courts, &c. the worst of the district. These have been most minutely and carefully examined by the agent of the Preston Charitable Society, a person well qualified by his intelligence for the task he has performed. The names of these streets, &c. are Canal-street, Back Canal-street, Hope-street, Holden’s-square, Holden’s-yard, Edward-street, Buckingham-street, Clarence-street, Poplar-street, Willow-street, Queen-street, and Savage’s-court. 
Generally, Clay’s evidence on all manner of social issues affecting the town has to be treated with caution because of the clear bias that is shown in some of his reports. But even one of his sternest critics, the proto-feminist Eliza Crook, would have concurred with his above account. Seven of the 12 streets in Clay’s list are in the two districts under consideration: Canal Street, Back Canal Street, Hope Street, Buckingham Street, Clarence Street, Poplar Street and Savage’s Court.
Their condition was little improved at the time of the next census in 1861, to judge by a report that John Hoghton, the census enumerator for one of the census districts which included part of the Friargate area, included with his returns.
That overcrowding persisted undermines the notion that the earlier overcrowding was a response to the humanitarian crisis in Ireland in the 1840s: Irish immigrants fleeing the famine in their home country would have to be housed somewhere when they arrived in Preston. The conditions that Clay and his contemporaries described, however appalling, would have been infinitely preferable to those left behind in Ireland. That there seems to have been little if any improvement by 1861 means that such an emergency response to the influx of Irish immigrants resulted in long-lasting social deprivation in the districts affected.
And the situation does not seem to have improved by 1872 when the Preston journalist Anthony Hewitson published his account of local churches and chapels, including this description of the Irish congregation of St Mary’s Chapel in Friargate:
It is a chapel of ease for St. Wilfrid’s, and is attended to a very large extent by Irish people. … The locality in which this chapel is placed is crowded, dark-looking, and pretty ungodly. All kinds of sinister-looking alleys, narrow yards, dirty courts, and smoky back streets surround it; much drinking is done in each; and a chorus of noise from lounging men in their shirt sleeves, draggle-tailed women without bonnets, and weird little youngsters, given up entirely to dirt, treacle, and rags, is constantly kept up in them. …
Large congregations attend this chapel, and the bulk, as already intimated, are of the Milesian order [by which he means Irish]. At the rear, where many of the poor choose to sit, some of the truest specimens of the “finest pisantry,” some of the choicest and most aromatic Hibernians we have seen, are located. … The whole of the worshippers at the lower end seem a pre-eminently devotional lot. How they are at home we can’t tell; but from the moment they enter the chapel and touch the holy water stoops, which somehow persist in retaining a good thick dark sediment at the bottom, to the time they walk out, the utmost earnestness prevails amongst them. Some of the poorer and more elderly persons who sit near the door are marvellous hands at dipping, sacred manipulation, and pious prostration. Like the Islams, they go down on all fours at certain periods, and seem to relish the business, which, after all, must be tiring, remarkably well.
I think this is one of the most telling examples of the contemporary prejudice against the Irish community in Preston persisting throughout the 19th century. And, as so frequently with Hewitson’s writing, I find my gag reflex triggered. For a fuller discussion of his account of the history of St Mary’s see here.
What is clearly lacking from the above is any description of life in these overcrowded streets from the inside, from those who experienced life there on a daily basis. A trawl of the town’s newspapers might yield something, although most descriptions found there are from the outside, and usually distorted by the wearing of middle-class spectacles.
A personal note that perhaps supplies such a view from the inside: my mother’s family lived in what post-war planners described as slum housing in Fletcher Road in Preston. Her sisters continued to live there until their house was demolished as part of the town’s clearance program. In planning terms it was unfit housing: outside non-flushing lavatory, one cold water tap, with all hot water supplied by a heater over the kitchen sink, a single coal fire and two very small bedrooms. Yet I remember it as warm, welcoming and comfortable. My aunts certainly preferred it to the council housing they were moved to.
It is possible that many of the problems in the ‘Irish’ districts of Preston were not so much the result of poor housing so much as overcrowding (my mother’s family would not have considered themselves overcrowded). For example, there were 156 people living in Savage’s Court in the Friargate district. This aspect of the subject will be considered in a separate article on the Rev John Clay’s ‘lower deep’ of the town’s ‘lowest deep’, which might shed light on why the Irish did not choose to settle in Frenchwood.
What I think is clear is that even if Irish immigrants clustered in certain streets, those streets were not separate from the rest of the town. They did not form a ghetto. In the same streets and in neighbouring streets would be found just as many, and often more, English families. In their shared impoverishment, those Irish and English families probably had more in common than they had with the clergymen and journalists who treated them as subjects for investigation and comment.