At the end of January 1847 the Cardiff Guardians made their plans for an expected rise in the numbers of paupers passing through the town. In the new workhouse in Canton (later to become St. David’s Hospital), the matron was empowered to employ two extra nurses at a salary of five shillings a week, and to increase food stocks. In the event workhouse numbers rose from 177 per week in September 1846 to 327 per week in September 1847 – a dreadful and pitiful overcrowding. At the old workhouse, situated towards the north end of St. Mary Street, a committee of five men was formed to receive and supervise the fever cases lodged there. The military authorities allowed a temporary increase of accommodation at the Longcross Barracks at the end of February for the reception of the poor destitute Irish.
However, all this cost money : public finance was in its infancy and the fear of a rise in the public rate out of which the Union was financed was a very real one. The rates in towns – previously affected by far smaller numbers of destitute was already beginning to rise and the Cardiff rate itself had trebled in the previous ten years. Local ratepayers, who constituted a small proportion of of the total population, insisted that Irish landowners and civil authorities should look after their own poor. Also, people living in Cardiff had no conception whatsoever of the appalling conditions in Ireland during the famine.
Nevertheless, in spite of these prevalent fears even the most destitute Irish were afforded a sympathetic welcome when they arrived in Cardiff during the second week of February 1847. On the 12th of February the ’Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian’ described the first famine immigrants:
’’The Destitute Irish. During the week large numbers of those poor, miserable, friendless creatures have found their way into the town, and have been temporarily relieved by the local authorities. They seem to have suffered severely from the combined effects of famine and fever – their pale, wan, emaciated countenances disclosing tales of suffering truly heart‒rending. A humane correspondent suggests that a subscription should be immediately entered into for furnishing pea‒soup or messes of rice and oatmeal to the totally destitute who surround us. In many of the obscure localities of this place where those wretches congregate, the scenes that nightly take place are too horrible almost to describe.’’
However, the sympathy quickly eroded and within a year the same newspaper was regularly describing the immigrants in very different terms. On March 25th. 1848: ’’The Irish ’swarming’ season has commenced. On Friday afternoon last upwards of two hundred of the ’finest pisanthory’ were landed on Penarth beach, from the ’Fortitude’ of Cork, Travers, master, from which place they marched to Cardiff – men, women and children – forming an almost indescribable mass of impudence, beggary and wretchedness, essentially Irish in every feature. As a matter of course, they demanded to be fed, lodged and taken care of by the ratepayers of Cardiff, as soon as the town had been favoured with their visit – or rather VISITATION.’’
In the deluge of wretchedness that overwhelmed Cardiff, the old system of coping with mendicants completely broke down. Mr. Jeremiah Stockdale, Superintendent of Police, instituted a new system. Every single applicant for relief was taken to the Police Station at the north end of St. Mary Street and thoroughly searched. If the applicants had one shilling or more on their persons they were refused relief. A shilling, or so it was claimed, could support a family in food and lodging for sufficient time to find employment and therefore a place of permanent residence. Unfortunately, far too many Irish, though apparently able‒bodied, were too exhausted to work immediately, and genuinely needed relief. Little wonder that so many tried to hide the odd shilling they managed to save after their horrendous journey.
Those who were offered relief were given food and a bed in the old workhouse as long as they were prepared to work thoroughly. They were accompanied out of the town the next morning. Cardiff did not want anyone who was of no immediate economic value.
The truly destitute were taken to the new workhouse across the river in Canton, and the sick were taken to Longcross Barracks. At least that was the theory; but in the confusion some able‒bodied found themselves at Longcross and many of the sick were in the old workhouse in close contact with the town’s populace. In July 1847 several inhabitants of Cardiff petitioned the Guardians ’’that the cases of fever may not be brought into the old Workhouse.’’ The Guardians considered the petition but ’’ordered that the petition be rejected’’. Patients can remain in the old Workhouse because there is less chance of infection from there than from patients ’’scattered and cramped dwellings’’. Clearly the system of keeping fever patients away at Longcross was no longer operating.
In fact Stockdale’s new system of dealing with the Irish had completely broken down by the beginning of 1848 as the number of destitute seeking relief increased. Yet another system was introduced, and a very simple one at that: only the sick were relieved – the town just could not afford to assist anyone else. Everyone seeking assistance was taken to the old Workhouse and there searched. The police assessed each person's needs. All able‒bodied were refused any relief – they were given no food at all but were allowed to sleep one night on straw in the old Workhouse. The following day they were escorted out of the town. Sick destitute were sent to the Relieving Offices who never refused the police’s demands and ensured that the sick were properly tended. Stockdale admitted that occasionally he made a mistake and refused to help Irish who were genuinely destitute or ill. On these occasions he readily rectified his mistake as quickly as possible.
Stockdale justified his decision to refuse relief on the grounds that many Irish were not truly destitute, having means to support themselves for a few days. It was not the task of the civil authorities to help such people, ratepayers assisted only the truly destitute and genuinely ill. Obviously famine fatigue and exhaustion did not come under this category.
Just how many Irish entered the town during 1847 is not known, nor is it known how many arrived during the period 1847 – 1865 when the migration began to decline. The authorities stressed that the health of later immigrants, especially after 1852, improved and the problem began to lessen thereafter, though there were many ’professional’ Irish tramps for many years.
In 1847 Cardiff's total population was approximately 16,000. By 1851 it was 21,000. In the first year of the immigration, 1847‒48, Evan David, Chairman of the Cardiff Union, was not prepared to say how many had been refused relief, he just did not know. He agreed that between 1850 and 1854 very many more than 8,000 people had applied, and this when the Irish were far healthier. Matters were nowhere so bad in the 1850s as between 1847 and 1849. In the four years from September 1846 and September 1850 11,454 persons had received relief. This certainly was but a small number of the total who applied and were refused. And again this was a minority of the total numbers of immigrants.
Evan David did reveal that of the 5,000 Irish living in Cardiff in 1854, 36% were paupers who had received some relief, while all other classes of the labouring population had a total of 11% paupers. It must be remembered that most Irish only passed through Cardiff, only a small minority settled in the town.
Suffice to say that Cardiff’s small population found the greatest difficulty in withstanding the financial strain of supporting the Irish migrants. There is no doubt that the total numbers who passed through Cardiff, both receiving relief and otherwise, greatly exceeded the total population of the small town.
The editor of the ’Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian’ claimed in March 1847: ’’All paupers arriving from Ireland in any part of England and Wales should immediately be sent back by the parochial authorities at the expense of the County. The authorities neglect a paramount duty in omitting in any case to do so directly any Irish person requires relief at the expense of any parish’’ (March 13, 1847).
That such a policy once started failed to continue was probably due to the expense rather than pity at sending the Irish back to the chaos of the famine. To return all the 362 cost £223‒17‒6, far too expensive for a policy which had no guaranteed success.
There were two routes back to Ireland. Paupers could be placed on passenger‒carrying ships in Cardiff docks and so returned. On their voyage, many of these people found no difficulty in persuading the captain to land them secretly on a nearby beach so that they could return to Cardiff or another town. Anything was better than returning to the chaos of Cork, Kinsale, Clonakilty or Skibbereen. More expensive but far more reliable was to accompany the paupers on the ferry to Bristol where they were seen aboard the Cork ferry (Cardiff in 1847 had no regular Irish ferry). Not only was this costly, it was wasteful of public time. Although the paupers were actually taken to Cork, it was easy enough for them to return to Cardiff within a fortnight or so as many did.
Whole families and individuals were removed in this manner. So, for example, on June 18th 1847, one party of 21 paupers was returned to Cork including Tim Murphy, aged 47 years, his wife, Julia, 30 years, and their children, Owain 11 years, John 7 years, Mary 4 years and Mick 1 year with John Collins 47 years, his wife Mary 33 years, and their children, Jerry 15 years, Biddy 13 years, Nora 12 years, and Kitty 8 years. and 9 other individuals, both men and women.
Generally the Irish paupers were commended for their far better behaviour than the Welsh or English paupers, but when faced with removal to Ireland they very quickly became anxious and even desperate. Edward John, when a relieving officer, described the behaviour of a large number of newly arrived Irish beggars. As soon as they realised they and their families were to be returned to to Ireland, the men scaled the outer walls of the workhouse and disappeared leaving their families behind.
There is little doubt that some Irish paupers regularly used the relief system to their own advantage. Honora Swiney had received much public support both in Cardiff and Cork for most of her fourteen years, when she was removed from Cardiff in 1853 for the third time. In these fourteen years her father had died twice (the second time was genuine!) and her mother had genuinely died. When she was returned to Ireland in 1853, Honora claimed to be destitute, not revealing that she had brothers and sisters in Cardiff willing to support her. Yet cases such as this were very rare indeed though they gave the Irish a bad name.
Yellow fever, or relapsing fever, was another common fever when patients turned yellow from jaundice accompanied by high fever and sickness. During the course of the illness the patient suffered up to four crises before death or recovery in three to four weeks. Cork was the centre for this particular fever with up to one case there for every six typhus cases. Because both diseases were so similar it has often been difficult to distinguish between the two.
Diarrhoea and numerous forms of dysentery were also endemic in Ireland, both diseases having ulcers, blood loss and dreadful pains as symptoms. Very few Irish families indeed managed to avoid dysentery and the mainly liquid diet of soup and water provided by the public authorities only encouraged the disease.
Although those who were sick when they arrived in the town were originally sent to Longcross and latterly to the old Workhouse, others developed disease when they settled in the town or after they had passed through. It is very difficult therefore to establish exact figures for fever deaths. In spite of all the many immigrants only 66 people with Irish names died in the Workhouse or Infirmary during 1847, and 118 in the town as a whole. These, it must be stressed, are minimum Irish deaths as many Irish had English surnames and so cannot be distinguished. Previous to 1847 most Irish deaths in the town were amongst the under 5 years old, but during that year 50 deaths were of under 5 years and 68 over 5 years, 37 of these being of over 30 years. By 1848 the figures had returned to their familiar pattern.
The fears of the local people that fever would again appear in their midst were apparently groundless, and the medical authorities should have been complimented on their handling of the crisis. The fever was generally confined to the exhausted Irish and often confined to the workhouse and other buildings set aside for the sick.
Boase reported to Parliament in 1848: ’’The most mischievous disease is a low kind of typhus fever, which particularly attracts itself to the Irish, and which was in almost every workhouse last year, but has lessened considerably in the present year. The Irish coming over this spring are in a much more healthy state. It is very remarkable that although this fever has extended in many workhouses and cannot be eradicated to this day, it has generally proved fatal among the Irish only, and those in immediate contact with them, as nurses and washing their clothes.’’
On another occasion an Irish woman was seen near Cardiff carrying her dead child whom she wished to bury in the town. A few days later she was seen carrying a second dead child. She said she had walked from Cowbridge so that both of her children could be buried together.
In January 1849 Jeremiah Crawley, his wife, Ellen and four children landed at Penarth from the vessel, ‘Ellen and Ann’. The family came from Kinsale. Jerry was sick on board and was so exhausted that he had only worked for one and a half days since arriving. In April the family decided to move on to London and set off walking. When they were seven miles east of Newport one of the children became ill. As they had friends in Cardiff who could care for the child they decided to return. The child in question had not eaten properly for a fortnight and was becoming more ill. Presumably this was a case of diarrhoea.
On the Sunday morning after arriving back in Cardiff, Jerry went to seek help. When he returned to the lodgings at Michael Harrington’s house in Stanley Street, he found his wife and children standing helplessly in the street because they had been ejected by Harrington. As they had no money to pay the eight pence bill for their night’s lodging, Harrington had kept all their bedclothes in lieu of payment. Ellen Crawley carried her youngest child in her arms with the sick child lying dead on her back. The family struggled to the police and were admitted to the workhouse. Later an inquest at the workhouse found that the child had died by ’’a visitation of God.’’
Michael Harrington, himself an Irishman, was a notorious lodging house keeper whose house was crammed night and day. In these conditions sick persons were usually ejected, often callously, to protect the other lodgers.
Another sick person to be ejected from her lodgings was Mary Holland, aged 20 years, who was discovered in Union Street in March 1847. She was ’’in an exhausted state – almost pulseless – unable to move and to walk’’ and who was later described by Doctor Payne as ’’in a dangerous state’’. Fortunately, she recovered in the Infirmary, only to be returned to Ireland at the end of June. Later, Thomas Cohen, the Welsh lodging house keeper, was sent before the magistrates for his uncivilised behaviour. Unfortunately such behaviour persisted, especially during the great cholera outbreak in 1849.
Of those families who were taken ill, perhaps one of the most harrowing was the small Alley family. Arriving apparently destitute and sick in the first week of April 1847, they were admitted to Longcross Barracks on the 10th of April. What type of fever they suffered is not recorded, but one son, Denis, aged 13 years, died on May 1st. His mother, Betty, 30 years, died on May 9th and her husband, John, aged 40 years, on May 11th leaving young John, 10 years, as the sole survivor. During her illness Betty Alley asked a nurse to visit a Mrs. Moss living in Mary Ann Street to borrow ten shillings. The nurse discovered that Mrs. Moss claimed to be holding the Alleys’ savings of £5. When the story of the Alleys’ alleged deception was released, the ratepayers of the town used the family to point suspicious fingers at all the migrant Irish.
The ’Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian’ commented on May 16th 1847: ’’There is now one child left a burden on the parish. We do not wish to make any harsh comments upon these poor Irish wretches, nor uncharitably to reflect upon the training which they ALL seem to have received previous to becoming such adepts at deception; but we think it right to make the facts contained in the foregoing statement known to the country, in order that proper caution may be exercised in administering relief to applicants who now abound this locality.’’
In spite of the Guardian’s claim there is no evidence that such deception took place on a wide scale. Stories of any Irish who were discovered in deception were very quickly published and there are few stories. Most Irish migrants fleeing the famine were truly in need of assistance. Furthermore, the Guardian was well‒known for its anti‒Irish and anti‒Catholic stance so it could be classified as the main vehicle of local criticism. Other local papers, notably the ’Cambrian’ of Swansea and the ’Merlin’ of Newport were far more sympathetic to and understanding of Irish problems.
A criticism made by the Cardiff Workhouse authorities at a later date was that many an Irish husband deserted his wife, especially at childbirth, leaving her and any children to the care of the workhouse. After a month or so the families would reunite. In the four years September 1846 – September 1850, 183 Irish women in childbirth were admitted to the workhouse causing many problems for the staff and other inmates, and increasing costs for the ratepayers.
Sympathisers with the Irish cause argued that this practice did not reveal lack of understanding or care by the husbands. On the contrary, Irishmen knew that their circumstances were considerably straitened and that their wives and families would receive far better medical and social care in the workhouse than ever they could have provided. The husbands, it was argued, were showing a foresight considerably greater than the Welsh or English, even though the expense was the ratepayers’. In many cases this argument was undoubtedly the correct one.
One Irish husband who attempted this procedure found himself sent to prison. In September 1847 Peter McCarthy absconded from the workhouse leaving his wife and family there. A few days later he unwittingly came to visit them. Workhouse staff recognised him and the Superintendent sent for the police who arrested him. He was given seven days hard labour for his impudence and deception.
The ratepayers had other genuine grievances as well. Most Irish who were relieved in Cardiff continued their journey. The number of able-bodied who stayed was low. So Cardiff was paying the relief when other towns reaped the economic benefits. That the whole of Britain benefits eventually from an increased prosperity did not relieve the burden felt by the Cardiff ratepayers, who were properly aggrieved. But not even the local newspaper was able to present the facts correctly: ’’Something must be done; for it cannot be supposed that the inhabitants of this country are to be burdened with the pauper population of Ireland, while Irish landowners are to go scot free.’’ If the Guardian’s reporter knew of the true situation in Ireland, of the utter hopelessness felt by everybody, landowner and peasant alike, one wonders if the attitudes in Cardiff would have changed.
There was another economic grievance. The South Wales immigrants were characterised by a very high proportion of women and children, something not found in the other main places of entry at Liverpool and Glasgow. Boase highlights the problem : ’’Indeed the contrast between the Irish immigrants at Liverpool, and in Wales is most striking; the former, by their own account, come from distant parts of Ireland, walking from Mayo to Drogheda, and from Roscommon and Sligo to Dublin, to take ship, which none but the able‒bodied could do. And they really are, judging from those I have seen, chiefly lusty young men, ready to work, and unencumbered by women and children. But on the contrary those landing in Wales are nearly all helpless or burdensome to the community. The incredible number of widows with three or four small children who come over to ’’get a bit for the children’’; others professing to be married women whose husbands were supposed to be in London; young girls and boys looking for parents, brothers and uncles who may or may not be found; and again a very numerous class of old women who have tried the basket of tapes in vain for a livelihood, and who now undisguisedly say when asked where they are going – ’’I don’t know; just going up and down everywhere, your honour’’.
This is confirmed by Edward John, the Relieving Officer at Cardiff, who on March 25th 1848 received 139 immigrants seeking assistance: ’’...of whom eighteen were men, thirty‒nine women, and the rest were all below eighteen years of age, many very young. Of the ages, men are principally from eighteen to thirty‒five, with a few above forty‒five. The women are in general still younger, although there appears a greater proportion of very old amongst them. Children are in about equal numbers above or below seven years although the predominant appears to be in the number of those below seven”.
The argument of the relieving officers and ratepayers in general was very simple. Why should Cardiff pay relief to women and children who had no present economic value? The money could never be recovered even if these people settled in Cardiff. Most, however, moved on to other towns.
In June 1848 a large public meeting concerning the rate was held in Cardiff which agreed that all property in Cardiff should be revalued to spread the burden of the rates in more equable proportions. Many of the speakers complained of high rates which were driving business people from the town. Charles Vachell, the well‒known chemist, believed that the government should pay the cost of the Irish invasion. He would not leave these poor people to perish but he did not see why his business should be ruined to maintain the Irish.
From 1835 local authorities had been empowered – but not compelled – to raise money by local taxation to maintain local services, a new system to assist poor relief, health, sanitation and street cleansing. Until 1850 public power to undertake these duties was limited and far from satisfactory. Nevertheless the local authorities in Cardiff showed little real interest in improving sanitation and cleanliness in the town, preferring to levy as low a rate as possible So the arguments used by the ratepayers, supported in large measure by the public authorities, were against a new system in its infancy, destined to develop into the public health system of today.
From January 1st 1849 a Parliamentary Act stated that the whole Union was equally to share the rate burden, whereas previously each parish was responsible for its own poor rate. The rural parishes of the Cardiff Union immediately petitioned the Poor Law Commissioners that Cardiff should be divided from the rest of the Union. While they did not specifically refer to the Irish, the rural areas strongly objected to the increased charges they would be forced to pay to the common fund for assisting the poor and sick in Cardiff. When the Union was founded in 1836 Cardiff’s population was a quarter of the whole, in 1849 it was two-thirds of the whole. Furthermore over three-quarters of the workhouse inmates, the destitute and the sick were found in Cardiff – not all Irish but considerably swelled by them.
It is little wonder, then, that there was considerable antipathy to the poor Irish once the initial sympathy for the starving was replaced by hard economic facts.
©: Sean Cleary.
A retired secondary school teacher from Cardiff, he now lives in the Llantrisant area. His Irish forebears came from West Cork in the late 1830s. He has been a regular speaker at events arranged by the Wales Famine Forum since 1995 but he has become a contributor to 'The Green Dragon' only in time for its 10th and final edition.
Published in The Green Dragon No 10, Spring 2002.