By Angela Clark
Between the middle of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, the Irish came to England in droves, mostly because of the potato famine and lack of work in their homeland. A large proportion of them settled in the North West, this mainly due to the proximity of the Port of Liverpool to Ireland, and most came from the south and west of Ireland, the areas hardest hit by the famine.
On arrival in England and with very little money, they were forced into slum accommodation by wealthy and unscrupulous landlords, eager to make money. Steven Street, Boughton, in particular, was a good example of this: houses built of cheap brick, and with only two bedrooms, one sitting room, and a small kitchen. Residents had small yard with an outside toilet and a water tap. I suppose if you were penniless it would appear to be luxury.
Most of the Irish Catholics congregated in the Boughton area, and it quickly became known as “The Irish Quarter” of Chester, if not Cheshire as a whole. Father John Briggs stated in The Chester Courant in 1847 that there were 469 Irish people living in Steven Street alone, most of them sleeping three to a bed and sometimes only on straw. Furthermore, in December 1880, Irish children were given tickets entitling them to free meals at the Town Hall, and at one point clogs were handed out, because so few of them had adequate footwear. In spite of all this poverty, there was a feeling of familiarity and friendliness, and indeed the Parish Priest between 1903 and 1924 used to say that Boughton was the heart of the parish.
Possibly because of this community atmosphere, the residents of Steven Street moved houses within the same area regularly. Indeed my own family lived in several different houses in the street at different times. With the proliferation of Irish families and pubs in a small area, one can only imagine the shenanigans on a Friday and Saturday night, and the priest was regularly called out to separate warring families and reprimand them at Mass on Sunday. But this way of life was soon to come to an end.
With the storm clouds gathering in Europe, everyone knew they would soon have to do their bit. The men of Boughton young and old alike, heeded Lord Kitchener’s call and volunteered to fight, fathers and sons together. They left their families, some of them never to return. For the men of Boughton who did not enlist, a number of them worked at the Leadworks which was located on the canal side at the top of Steven Street. At that time they were making munitions for the war effort and were exempt from call-up.
Life at this time became very difficult for the families at home, with a lot of the breadwinners fighting at the front. They were left to eke out an existence and to this end they all helped each other. They nursed and looked after their sick and delivered their babies, as this was pre NHS and money was not readily available. The Irish community also had a local “Tontine” and residents borrowed from it when their need was greatest.
Life would never be the same again, and when the men who had survived returned from the First World War, many were unable to work due to both mental and physical impairment, and thus relied heavily on their neighbours in Boughton to see them through.