The most significant moment from Newport’s Irish past. The Wanderer disembarked with 113 destitute Irish fleeing famine at home. A horrific sight and a human tragedy the town struggled to deal with.
The building of the docks, roads, railways, the market and other buildings in Pillgwenlly in the early 1840s would have increased the demand for labourers and nearly every labourer in Newport was Irish and nearly every Irishman, who was not a soldier in the Barracks, was a labourer. The general pattern of settlement seems to have been that the men came over to find work and once established their wives, sisters or girlfriends came over to join them. A number of Irish men would also have married local girls. The situation at the time with the poor law was that the local parish was only responsible for looking after people who had been born within the locality or who had been resident there for more than five years. However all parishes had a duty to make sure that nobody starved to death. Ireland of course was at that time part of the United Kingdom and there was nothing to stop Irish people travelling to what we rather arrogantly tend to call the mainland.
On 23 December 1846 the ship Wanderer left Baltimore, a small port far out on the south-west coast of Ireland near Fastnet. After a five-week voyage in mid-winter, the Wanderer deposited 113 destitute men, women and children, of whom 26 were dying, at Newport in Monmouthshire, deep up the Bristol Chanel and beyond Cardiff. Soon the streets of the little town were crowded with starving Irish, brought there by stories of well-paid work and of public assistance, spread partly by people anxious to be rid of them.
Those arriving at Newport in 1847 were initially met with assistance in the Refuge for the Destitute, which provided food and temporary accommodation, from the Poor Law Union and from a local relief fund. However, as numbers outgrew resources, sympathy evaporated and some groups were sent back to Ireland or told to leave town. Anger and resentment set in, made worse when stories circulated that the migrants’ passage money was paid by their landlords and by the poor law authorities in Ireland.
About 40 per cent of the Irish in Newport had some sort of fever and two ministering priests there died of typhus that year. It was suggested that all vessels be put in quarantine but although this was done at Quebec, Boston and New York it was never done in England. Categorised as vagrants the migrants were generally not eligible to be received into the local workhouses though great numbers were given some assistance from the Poor Law Unions through which they passed. As today, the few refuges in which they were able to sleep were seen as a magnet for other vagrants.
Some had a little money, a few shillings perhaps the proceeds of the sale of their possessions at home, but persisted in begging. One family at Newport which was found to have £3 was sent home at its own expense. In fact, however, there were not many complete families amongst the migrants assisted in the area, many being widows and women with young children and older decrepit men and women, the young men either preceding them or leaving them at the port of entry to go and search for work.
Jim Dyer Newport Past notes – The Monmouthshire Merlin in February 1849 records about 200 mainly sick were thrown ashore by an Irish collier, some way down the river, to find their own way to town. The next day 60 crawled from the mud banks to the streets. The steady flow would continue for two to three months. The Merlin of this time is crammed with such heart-breaking stories. Many were seen begging on the streets without shoes or stockings and there were tragic reports deaths, soup kitchens, hunger and misery. One woman clutching a suckling baby walked the streets bare-footed. They lived squalidly and had few possessions. The Poor House records indicate that from January to May 1847 12,872 cases were dealt with, including a vast number of Irish who were ‘fed and lodged.’ By 1849 the population of Pillgwenlly alone was 7,000 or so and the Merlin indicates that in one month 1,500 Irish went into the Poor House.
Hansard 22 March 1847 Sir B Hall stated “Then, as regarded Newport, in South Wales, he found the following statement:— “Overwhelming Immigration of the Irish Poor to Newport.—The streets of our town present an alarming and lamentable appearance, being literally crowded with famishing and ball-naked strangers from the most distressed parts of Ireland, several shiploads of whom, amounting to many hundreds, have been huddled together in the holds of coal vessels for this country at the expense of local committees, to lessen the number of famishing creatures at home. Five of the perishing beings who were removed from the hold of that floating pest-house, the Wanderer, at the risk of the lives of charitable gentlemen, have since died; and, in another case, it is known that the captain of a vessel absolutely forced two poor women with children from on board, into the snow on shore, during the late severe weather, at half-past ten o’clock at night, below Pillgwenlly, who, from weakness, then lay down to perish, and would have sunk, were it not for the humanity of two poor men accidentally passing, and who carried them on their backs to a place of warmth and shelter for the night.” He wished to ask, whether the right hon. Gentleman (Sir G. Grey) had had his attention called to this subject, and whether the first of the cases was a solitary instance of the kind or not? “
The Health Report of 1850, describes the conditions of life in Fothergill Street as follows:
“There are 21 houses in this street, several consisting of four or five rooms, occupied by separate families, and again sublet by them to eight or ten or sometimes twelve to fourteen persons, nearly all Irish, having but the limited accommodation of one room, in which they all sleep in beds made of shavings and rags, on the floor, with windows closed and the fire-places stopped up, breathing the same atmosphere over and over again; this very room having been used for all household purposes during the day, and in some instances having had wet clothes hung up to dry in it.
“Previous to the institution of the Sanitary Board, I seldom visited these houses unless in search of bad characters. Since then I have had recent experience of the misery, disease and death generated by these ill-regulated and over-crowded dwellings
“I found in one room, six men in each bed, three with their heads in one direction, and three with their heads in the other, one had fever; these are mostly Irish lodging-houses of the worst class. In one instance I found 42 human beings sleeping in a room of 12 feet by 12 feet. The atmosphere was insufferable. It is no uncommon occurrence to find old women or children sleeping in cupboards with the doors closed, and in one case the straw bed had not been changed for two years, and in another the mother of the tenant was found with three grandchildren sleeping in a small cupboard 20 inches wide and 4 feet long.
“The tenants are willing to pay 2d or 3d a week for water, but the landlord refuses to make the necessary outlay for fittings, &c., although offered by the Water Company at a reduced rate. This street has no drains or surface gutters, and is always in a filthy state, as all slops and refuse are thrown into the highway. One side of the street is in the new and the other side in the old borough, and this may account for the neglected state of the place. There is a slaughter-house here, lately erected adding to the impurities of the place. These cottages are let by the week, and pay no rates, although a valuable property to the landlord. For example, Margaret Holland’s house is divided into four compartments, each of which lets at 2s 6d a week, being £26 per annum to the landlord (perhaps £5000 in today’s money), and no poor rates to be deducted”.
In 1847 257 Irish vessels sailed into Newport with a total tonnage of 19,409. This represented about one sixth of the total number of ships sailing into Newport that year and between a third and a quarter of the tonnage. The most important cargo for Newport was the export of coal, on the return journey these ships may have contained some agricultural produce, possibly live cattle, or just ballast. Most emigrants from Ireland would have travelled on these cargo ships. Sometimes they were unkindly referred to as human ballast. Frank Neal has calculated that an upper limit of 19,275 immigrants arrived in Newport from Irish ports between 1849 and 1853. Many of these would have moved on but a number would have settled in the town
The population of Newport increased from 10,492 to 19,323 in the decade of the famine. Out of a total of nearly 549 children born of Irish parents in Newport, as recorded in the 1851 census, over three quarters were born after 1840. In 1847 257 Irish vessels sailed into Newport with a total tonnage of 19,409. This represented about one sixth of the total number of ships sailing into Newport that year and between a third and a quarter of the tonnage. The most important cargo for Newport was the export of coal, on the return journey these ships may have contained some agricultural produce, possibly live cattle, or just ballast. Most emigrants from Ireland would have travelled on these cargo ships. Sometimes they were unkindly referred to as human ballast. Frank Neal has calculated that an upper limit of 19,275 immigrants arrived in Newport from Irish ports between 1849 and 1853. Many of these would have moved on but a number would have settled in the town.
In a lecture at the National Eisteddfod at Llanelli in 2000 secondary school teacher Martin Culliford said that in 1851 the main streets where Irish people lived were as follows: in Fothergill Street there were 472 Irish men, women and children in 28 houses (an average of just under 17 per house, one house contained 30 people ), Castle Street 245, Mellon Street 172, Friar’s Fields 167, Cross Street 139, Ebenezer Terrace 133 this included four families living in one house totalling 26 people, Globe Cottages 103, Courtybella Terrace 96, Mellon Bank 94, Rees Street 86, Canal Parade 83, High Street 59, Commercial Wharf 52, Club Row 49, Potter Street 47, King’s Parade 46, Charles Street 43, Wedlake’s Court 35, in Water’s lane there were 19 which does not sound many but 14 of them were in two rooms. There were also 9 in the workhouse and 20 in the hospital.
For all that, because of the widespread belief at the time that the immigrants were impoverished to a man, the appearance of a body of respectable-looking Irishmen on the streets could cause great surprise. When the Hibernian Society of Newport paraded in April 1850 one newspaper expressed its astonishment at seeing a body of young and middle-aged men “who in point of dress and propriety of demeanour would bear comparison with any body of gentlemen in the country”.
Irish businessmen achieved prominence in local government. James Murphy became the first Roman Catholic Mayor of Newport in 1868. There was an Irish editor of the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1840, Edward Dowling.
The demand for Irish labour would have been greatly enhanced by the expansion of Newport in the mid to late nineteenth century to build docks, canals, roads, railways, tramways, the market and other civic buildings. In addition the barracks built to fortify the town following the Chartist rebellion was occupied by an Irish regiment for a number of years.
There is limited evidence of anti-Irish violence – In January 1846 Mary Ann Hughes received a months imprisonment for assaulting an Irishwoman, Mary Welsh. In another incident a fight between Irish tinman John Richardson and John Collins a Welsh haulier occurred at the Globe (in Maindee) and resulted in the death of the former, leaving Collins with just a month in jail for the killing. Additionally there were tensions reported between the Clare regiment stationed at the barracks and local men with some of the soldiers charged after a brawl in which they chanted ‘Ireland for ever’.
Catholic associations achieved greater prominence integrating the Irish and Catholic societies with wider Newport society. There were regular St. Patrick’s Day and Whit Monday processions. They participated in civic occasions such as the opening of Belle Vue Park in 1894 and the Hibernian Club, the United Irishmen Benefit Society was followed by the founding of the Newport Hibernians rugby club. In 1894 the South Wales Argus commended Newport’s Irish community for the adherence to the festival of St. Patrick’s Day.