Sunday, 23 October 2016

Refugees, and how Liverpool could teach us a thing or two.

Research - is there no end to it? I knew that Barbara Weldon died in New Zealand but was born in Ireland - and for some reason she travelled via Liverpool and Australia. (If you're wondering who Barbara Weldon is - I came across her in a bleak gold town on New Zealand. You'll have to scroll back a post of few to find out why she intrigues me!)

Once I understood the misery of the Irish famine, it was reasonable to assume that starvation had driven her across the Irish Sea. So it was time to turn my attention to life in Liverpool for those who escaped the stinking potato fields in Ireland and crossed the Irish Sea to look for work, and food, and shelter - just enough to fulfil their basic needs.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the residents of Liverpool didn't welcome them with open arms. There was a conviction that they came to take jobs, to demand homes and so deprive local people, and they brought diseases associated with poverty - plague and cholera. (Sound familiar? Let's not allow needy people anywhere near our own doorsteps ...)

I struggled, trying to fill in the details of life of the Irish refugees in Liverpool. I suspect that, in retrospect, the city is ashamed of the squalor in which they were forced to live. However - to the credit of the powers that be (and prompted by a growing union movement pressing for change) -they did eventually realise that the solution lay in improved public health and better housing; Liverpool introduced some of the earliest public health provision in the country.

However, there is nothing left of the streets where the Irish were ghettoed; not even a blue plaque on a wall. I found only passing mentions in museums and one small reconstruction (without what must have been terrible smells).

But then I had some luck. I went to visit the city for a few days, staying in a B&B away from the centre. I got to chatting to the landlord (as I do) and discovered that he was researching his family history and knew all about nineteenth century Liverpool. He drove me round those streets that still survive, and gave me two laminated maps of the city, with the old road systems and docks - so very different from the layout of Liverpool today. (Bill, I owe you!) And from that I could find enough photographs online to give me the details I needed.

So, I knew that Barbara Weldon spent time in Liverpool, and she went from there to Australia. Why Australia? And was there a warmer welcome the other side of the world than she'd found here?


  1. Very interesting Jo. I have read a lot of fiction books about people who left Ireland for Liverpool,mainly men who went for work to feed families back home. These books did not touch on the conditions these men lived in except perhaps to say that that was the reason they were there on their own.

    1. The conditions were grim - and there were families there, surviving somehow. But it was the foundation for some creative unrest that led to huge changes - so Liverpool learned a lot, and could teach the rest of us!

  2. Fascinating again, Jo! I winder now whether se went or was sent to Australia. How the circles of life come round! The Irish were so badly treated in so many places...awful! And we still don't learn that much...well, maybe Liverpool did!