Isolated or integral? Irish workers in Preston, c.1829-1867.

Diasporic ancestry can highlight gaps in the literature, and even if you don’t have the chance to delve into the subject for a book-length project, it’s hoped that shining a light on understudied communities can provide inspiration for other researchers. Here Jack Hepworth, a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, provides a glimpse into the history of the Irish in Preston, particularly the city’s nineteenth-century labour movement.

As a final-year undergraduate at Durham University in 2014, I researched and wrote a dissertation on the Irish community in Preston between Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the Fenian Rising (1867). As a product of the Irish diaspora in the north-west of England, migration history interested me. The diaspora remains important in Preston today. The enduring strength of the city’s Catholic community owes much to the legacy of Irish migration, as well as more recent Polish immigration. Preston North End Football Club’s Irish scouting networks have been vital to the team’s successes in the past few years, with no fewer than seven players signed from the League of Ireland since 2014. I wanted to know how the Preston Irish interacted with their new host society, in terms of politics, class, religion, and Anglo-Irish relations through the mid-nineteenth century.

Then as now, Preston lived in the shadow of its larger north-western neighbours, Liverpool and Manchester, thirty miles south-west and south-east, respectively. Yet Preston’s population and industry grew exponentially in this era. The local population multiplied fivefold between 1811 and 1861, and 29.5 percent of the town’s residents worked in the cotton industry by 1851.[1] The same year’s census listed more than 191,000 Irish migrants – 26 percent of the total in Britain – resident in Lancashire.[2] So how did the diaspora interact with socio-political upheaval amid the Industrial Revolution?

No case-study of Preston existed, although excellent scholarship by Lynn Hollen Lees, Frank Neal, and W. J. Lowe, to name just a few, examined the contemporary Irish experience in London, Liverpool, and south Lancashire.[3] Among numerous comparable works, I noticed similar interpretations, with the Irish experience in mid-nineteenth century Britain defined by social isolation along lines of nationality, religion, political allegiances, and class. Frank Neal perceived an Irish community in Liverpool preserving its identity in the face of Orange and Tory sectarianism.[4] Kevin O’Connor described ‘congested Irish ghettoes… tight, clannish communities whose residents retained a distinctive cultural identity’.[5] John Walton added a class dynamic to this analysis, since migrant workers’ ‘perceived willingness to accept low wages and undercut English labour was especially divisive’.[6] Sheridan Gilley was a rare dissenter against the thesis of Irish isolation. When ‘clad in ordinary working-class costume’, Gilley argued, ‘the Irishman merged into the English crowd… a process of seamless integration aided by class commonalities’.[7]

Archival evidence illuminated the complexity of Irish roles in Preston’s labour politics. Historiographical portrayals of politically disengaged Irish immigrants rested upon characterisations of the Irish as strike-breakers in the Preston Strike of 1853-1854.[8] Yet a militant Irishman, Michael Gallagher, led the Operative Spinners and Minders Committee during the strike. Gallagher urged his colleagues to reject compromise, and they in turn elected him to represent them in the stand-off with cotton lord Thomas Miller.[9] Although capitalists ‘imported’ Irish blackleg labour from Belfast, many Preston workers greeted would-be strike-breakers sympathetically. Irishman John Burn was brought from Manchester to Preston in February 1854, to break the strike at Sharples & Co. On arrival in Preston, local union officials gave Burns food and drink in a local pub and successfully persuaded him to join their cause.[10] Perhaps the Irish influence in the Preston labour movement influenced this class solidarity outbidding national divisions.

Irish militancy became embedded in Prestonian labour politics with the Chartist movement during the 1840s and the experience of repression. Preston Irishman Patrick O’Rourke was elected as chairman of the local Chartists in May 1839, and two of his countrymen brought a motion to support the Chartists sending their National Convention to the monarch.[11] Thousands of Preston cotton workers commenced a strike for a ‘fair day’s wages’ on 12 August 1842, and so the Plug Plot Riots began. Soldiers killed four workers the following day, one of them a 17-year-old Irishman called Bernard McNamara.[12]

Irish workers and their local colleagues did not enjoy entirely harmonious comradeship. In the Farington Riot of May 1838, Irish workers constructing the Northern Union railway line between Preston and neighbouring Leyland brawled in a local pub with English colleagues. In the ensuing melée, an Irishman shot dead a local adversary.[13] Small-scale antagonisms flared sporadically throughout the period and received postage stamp coverage in local newspapers. Yet local people also raised large sums of money for relief during the famine.[14] Close statistical analysis revealed that a significant minority of the Preston Irish married local spouses.[15]

Yet contrary to many historiographical trends, the Irish were not isolated socially, nor did they occupy a distinct position in Prestonian society defined exclusively by its obscurity and ‘otherness’. Through their religiosity, their political behaviour, and the complexity of their variegated social roles, the Irish in mid-nineteenth-century Preston helped forge the burgeoning social institutions of a flourishing civic community.


Jack Hepworth is a third-year Research Excellence Academy PhD candidate in the School of Historical Studies at Newcastle University, supervised by Dr Sarah Campbell and Dr Matt Perry. His doctoral research analyses the dynamic heterogeneity of Irish republicanism between 1968 and 1998. Jack also has research interests in Irish migration to the north-west of England since the mid-nineteenth century, and the cultural and political dimensions of music and sport in Ireland.  He can be contacted at j.w.hepworth2[at]


[1]J. K. Walton, Lancashire: A Social History, 1558-1939 (Manchester, 1987), pp. 111, 252; R. J. Morris & R. Rodger, ‘An Introduction to British Urban History, 1820-1914’, in R. J. Morris & R. Rodger (eds.), The Victorian City: A Reader in British Urban History, 1820-1914 (London, 1993), pp. 2, 4.

[2]J. G. Williamson, ‘The Impact of the Irish on British Labour Markets during the Industrial Revolution’, in R. Swift & S. Gilley (eds.), The Irish in Britain, 1815-1939 (London, 1989), p. 140.

[3]L. H. Lees, Exiles of Erin: Irish Migrants in Victorian London (Manchester, 1979); F. Neal, Sectarian Violence: The Liverpool Experience, 1819-1914 (Manchester, 1988); W. J. Lowe, The Irish in Mid-Victorian Lancashire: The Making of a Working-Class Community (New York, 1989). Lowe’s monograph contained some references to Preston, although most of his detailed observations pertained to the Irish in Manchester and Salford.

[4]Neal, Sectarian Violence, pp. 58, 111.

[5]K. O’Connor, The Irish in Britain (Dublin, 1974), p. 23.

[6]J. K. Walton, Lancashire: A Social History, 1558-1939 (Manchester, 1987), p. 183.

[7]S. Gilley, ‘English Attitudes to the Irish in England, 1789-1900’, in C. Holmes (ed.), Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (London, 1978), p. 102.

[8]H. I. Dutton & J. E. King, “Ten per cent and no surrender”: The Preston Strike, 1853-1854 (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 115, 177-181.

[9]Preston Pilot,22 October 1853.

[10]Lancashire Records Office, Preston: Archives of friendly societies DDPr/37/137/87a.

[11]Northern Star, 25 May 1839.

[12]Preston Pilot, 20 August 1842.

[13]Preston Pilot, 26 May 1838.

[14]Preston Chronicle, 30 January 1847.

[15]Lancashire Records Office, Preston: Census enumerators’ returns (1841, 1851, 1861). For full residential statistics, see here.

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