Plaque at 64 Walmgate, York YO1 9XF

Erected 13th March 2020

Familiar in York as seasonal agricultural workers, Irish migrants came to the city in larger numbers to escape the Great Famine of the 1840s. They lived in squalid, insanitary closes and yards mainly in the Walmgate area. Leading Quakers, particularly the Tuke family who lived nearby, campaigned for an improvement in their living conditions, as did the Roman Catholic Church. It was not until the late 1930s, however, that the inadequate housing was cleared and the residents moved to the suburbs.

In the early 19th century, York had a small Irish population scattered throughout all but one of the city’s 34 medieval parishes. The national census of 1841 shows that, out of York’s 28,842 inhabitants, 430 had been born in Ireland and a further 351 people were either children of the Irish born or married to them. The majority of them lived in the poorer, south-eastern quarter of the city, between the Foss and Ouse rivers, Walmgate, Hungate and the Water Lanes which ran from Castlegate down to the river. Although they were employed in a wide variety of occupations, they were mainly labourers either in agriculture in the villages on the borders of the city, such as Dunnington, Clifton and Middlethorpe, or around York’s cattle market outside Walmgate Bar. A number of migrant Irish workers used to come every year to work on the corn harvest on the Wolds’ farms east of York and were known as the “July Barbers”. Employment in York at the time was largely in domestic service for women or in less appealing industries such as in the tanneries, butchery, the flour mills or the iron or glass works for men. By the time of the next census in 1851, the situation of the Irish in York had changed significantly.

Irish Famine

The most telling change is the increase in numbers of ‘Irish born’ recorded in York in 1851. Their numbers had increased from 781 in 1841 to 2,618 in 1851 making them 7.2 per cent of the city’s population. Their numbers rose to 3,248 in 1861 and 3,380 in 1871, keeping them at between 7 and 8 per cent of York’s steadily-growing population. This growth in numbers can be related directly to the Irish Famine that began in 1845 with the failure of the potato crop and continued at its most severe until 1849. The famine was the direct result of the potato blight that struck Europe in 1844. This was most damaging to the small settlements on the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland where people lived off tiny land holdings as tenants and had become dependent upon the potato to feed and support their families. The combination of systems of land ownership that discriminated against Catholics and the very poor agricultural, boggy and windswept land in the western Irish counties of Kerry, Roscommon, Galway and Mayo meant that starvation soon took hold and those who were able were driven to seek a living elsewhere. Existing links between York and Ireland brought some of these refugees from famine to the city.

Tuke and the Quakers

Living just outside Walmgate Bar on Lawrence Street was Samuel Tuke, grandson of William and Esther Tuke, prominent Quakers who in the 18th century had founded the Retreat, a psychiatric hospital founded on Quaker principles of rationality and a humane approach to patients. In the winter of 1846-7 Samuel’s son, James Hack Tuke, visited Ireland, prompted by Irish relatives, to investigate the effects of the severe famine that was taking hold. In the following year, he travelled into the western province of Connaught where the famine was most severe. He told his father of the terrible scenes he had witnessed and the efforts of the Irish Quakers to supply some relief. Samuel Tuke lobbied the Government at Westminster to take note of the plight of the Irish. He supported the campaign to reform the system of land tenure in Ireland. Of the absentee landlords he wrote, ‘If he had the will, he has not the ability to do his duty; his land is mortgaged or the rents are paid into the Court of Chancery.’

Samuel Tuke also refuted the charges often laid against the Irish of idleness, ignorance or fecklessness. He pointed out that they came in large numbers to work in the heaviest unskilled manual labour in London, Liverpool and Manchester for little money, most of which they sent home. He remarked upon how, since the famine began, the Irish in England and America had sent huge sums of money, all made up of small remittances of notes, ‘managed on an excellent system, and in some instances the poor emigrants have written on the backs of these bills short notes to their friends and relations’. In 1847, as the crisis in Ireland deepened, the more able-bodied took to the roads. To stay at home looked like certain death, either from starvation or from the typhus fever, rife among those trying to make their way to Irish workhouses.

Partly because of the reputation of the York Quakers for attempting to bring relief and to influence the British Government, many of the Irish made their way to York. Frances Finnegan notes the increase in numbers arriving in York in 1847; the York authorities noted that about 45 destitute Irish were arriving every day, many of them suffering from fevers, smallpox or measles. After some discussion, it was agreed to set up a temporary fever hospital on land by Walmgate Stray, behind the Retreat. This was done at the behest of Samuel Tuke. It was recorded by his daughter that he visited the sufferers there and was most affected by a small girl whose father had died in the night in a ditch because no one would give them lodging. Samuel told the girl that if her mother died too he would arrange a home for her. This sympathetic treatment, along with the possibility of employment in the chicory and other agricultural trades to be found principally to the east of the city, were the factors that brought many of the Irish to York.

64 Walmgate

Life in Walmgate

Although they were saved from death by starvation, many of the Irish who now began to crowd into Walmgate and its neighbouring closes and yards were still living in terrible conditions of overcrowding and filth. One in five children born in the area did not survive infancy. Having survived the journey on foot to York from the west of Ireland, they were probably the strongest among their contemporaries but now they would have to endure lives of hard labour and an unwelcoming environment. Many York citizens feared or despised them and the local press did little to encourage integration. Frances Finnegan noted that the local papers were always quick to characterise anyone being prosecuted for drunken or disorderly behaviour as ‘Irish’. No account was taken by the general York populace of the dreadful conditions in which many of the poor migrants were living, nor of the fact that so many were only very temporary residents, the turnover of persons between censuses each decade being very high.

Alexander Yard in Walmgate, in about 1933, showing properties associated with York’s Irish community, shortly before demolition. IMAGE. York Explore

In 1850, however, the York Catholic community, who had been worshipping openly at a chapel in Blake Street and at the Bar Convent Chapel in Blossom Street since the early 18th century, had been planning to build a larger church for themselves close to York Minster. The needs of the fast-growing Catholic Irish population in Walmgate meant a change of plan. It was decided to build a church for them and a site was purchased at the corner of Margaret Street and George Street. Designed by York architects Joseph and Charles Hansom in Early English gothic style to hold a congregation of 500, the church was built rapidly and cost £3,550. It was opened on 4 September 1850 and dedicated to St George, patron of a pre-existing medieval church on the site.

St George’s Catholic Poor Boys’ and Girls’ schools for the immigrant children were opened in 1850 close to the church. The girls were taught by Sister Christiana of the Bar Convent nuns, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary as they were then known. In 1869, she wrote of the children as being ‘exclusively of the poorest of the poor…. In the winter months the congregation is reduced to the lowest ebb of misery and starvation with their consequent fevers. Deaths from want of food have occurred daily during the past few months.’ Catholic children from other parts of the city were invited to attend but few did and St George’s school was used exclusively by the immigrant children for many years to come.

The Irish Famine refugees were the first large wave of immigrants that York had seen in modern times. Although life was extremely hard, the Catholic Church, in particular the parish clergy and the nuns of the religious orders, did what they could to alleviate some of the worst of their suffering and to help them to create a social life and eventually to become an educated population in the area. Some of their descendants live in York to this day. The parish of St Aelred in Tang Hall grew up when the Walmgate area was cleared and rebuilt in the 1930s and many of its former inhabitants moved out into the new suburb with its parks and gardens that were a far cry from the old courts and closes of Walmgate.

Members of York Irish Association, York Civic Trust, and local businesses and residents celebrating the blue plaque unveiling, 13th March 2020

Further reading

Frances Finnegan, ‘The Irish in York’, The Irish in the Victorian City, Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley, eds (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016). An excellent book, expensive in print but available in a Kindle edition.

Frances Finnegan, Poverty and Prejudice: Study of Irish Immigrants in York, 1840-75, Borthwick Texts and Studies 43 (York: Borthwick Institute, University of York, 2019)

Suzanne Roberts, Catholic Childhoods: Catholic Elementary education in York, 1850-1914, Borthwick Paper No. 99 (York: University of York, 2001). A very good account of the influence of the schools on the Irish families and the parish.

B. Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty, a Study of Town Life (Bristol: Policy Press, Bristol University, 2000) Originally published in 1901, now available in a facsimile edition.

William K. and E. Margaret Sessions, The Tukes of York in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries (York: Sessions of York, 1971). Chapter on Samuel Tuke and the Irish in York and in Ireland.

David Wilde, George of the Beanhills (York, 1982). An excellent account of the building of the church and school and the early days of the parish by a former teacher.

Van Wilson, Humour, Heartache and Hope: Life in Walmgate (York: York Archaeological Trust, 1996)

© Sarah Sheils

Photographs (unless otherwise stated): Rachel Semlyen