Liverpool and The Great Irish Hunger

Kitty Wilkinson, the Irish Saint of the Slums who established the wash houses to help with the appalling squalor in which many Irish migrants lived in the 1840s

I have just got back from spending a sunny morning in Liverpool wandering around most of the Heritage Trail which marks the role that Liverpool played during the Irish Famines and the role that the Irish have played in our City since then.

I must admit it was a real eye-opener. Of, course, I was aware of the role of the City and the influence of the Irish in the City. I have often boasted about being the 5th biggest Irish City and talked of the clear bonds between Liverpool both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The scale of what has happened though was beyond my comprehension. As I went around, I not only thought about that Irish role but also the influence that all migrant communities can have in the place they choose to settle.

I didn’t actually know that there was a Heritage Trail until Greg Quiery came to see me about problems with the way that the Famine Memorial is being treated in what is supposed to be a council park at the side of St Luke’s, the Bombed-out church, in Leece Street. I have taken this up with Council but as yet have had no response.

The famines of the 1840s caused by the failures of the potato harvest and the attitudes of landlords caused millions of people to leave Ireland in search of a new life, or at least just full bellies. Many went on to what were then the British colonies. Many, however stayed. Many died because of their weak condition. Many tried to establish a life here but in absolutely disgusting conditions.

What kicked in was self help as it does in most migrant communities. The undoubted heroine was Kitty Wilkinson the so-called, “Saint of the Slums”. Until recently hers was the only female statue in St Georges Hall where she was surrounded by a pantheon of men. She was honoured for her single-minded determination to provide clean clothing and clean bodies for the poor.

Her wash houses lasted until the 1980s and in 2018 a new community led launderette was opened, Kitty’s wash house, to serve the same, albeit reduced need to today.

The oldest school in the City is Pleasant Street some of those original buildings still exist where they have been converted into apartments. Education and hard work are the epitome of migrant communities as they are determined to give their young people a chance of life that they themselves did not have.

Life in the ‘Courts’ was grim. “Six in a bed at the Old Pier Head”, would have seemed like a luxury. Cramped, squalid conditions led to terrible lives and early deaths. In Lace Street 181 people died in just three months in 1847. The alternative was poor relief and the workhouse.

The Metropolitan Cathedral is built on the site of the Brownlow Hill workhouse which was the largest in Britain. Stern guardians dealt out misery and proscription in return for meagre food and shelter.

Food was dispensed at a ‘Relief Station’ in Fenwick Street. Up to 4,500 people, of which 75% were Irish, could be fed in a day.

I didn’t visit the whole of the Trail. I don’t mind going over the sea to Ireland but baulked at the idea of crossing the Mersey to Birkenhead! Erica and I do hope to visit Louth in the company of our friend, Sen John McGahon to see the ‘other’ end of the famine when travel becomes freer again.

So, two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. Just the tremendous contribution the Irish have made to our City. Much of what we now see and know has been created by our Irish Citizens. Large elements of our welfare state were created by people like Kitty Wilkinson and Father Nugent whose organisation, Nugent Care, provides great services in the City to this day. It was the scale of the population that just shocked me as I wandered round the Trail. It really challenged some of my perceptions about the roots of modern-day Liverpool.
  2. It made me think about all migrant communities and the role they play in developing our modern times. Liverpool has not only been shaped by the Irish but also by the descendants of West African and Caribbean seamen who married and had children in our City. We have the oldest Chinese Community in Europe and the first mosque in the UK. We are indeed, “the World in One City”.

Later generations include those from S.E. Asia and Eastern Europe. All bring their traditions, faiths, music, skills and cuisines to make Liverpool, and the wider UK, what it is today. They too practice self-help and support, have a strong belief in education and go on to help shape the area that they live in.

As a Lib Dem I welcome migration to our Country and City. The fusion of those different cultures and behaviours creates a stronger future than a mono-cultural community which looks solely to the past.

I’m now going to find out more by getting a copy of Greg’s book, ‘In hardship AND HOPE’, which I am reliably informed can be purchased at News from Nowhere in Bold Street.

If you have got a minute you too can be challenged by the Heritage Trail. Two hours walk and some thinking in our lovely Liverpool. I can’t think of a better way to spend Sunday morning.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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