The Irish in the County of Staffordshire, England and the Job Opportunities that Brought Them There Before, During and After the Famine

A vast array of industries offered job opportunities that drew Irish immigrants to the County Of Staffordshire. They included the manufacture of pottery, chains and chain cables, machine tools, tape, edge tools, tin plate, bricks, tile and brass; the mining of coal, stone and copper; and industries such as iron, steel, textiles (silk, fancy goods, woolens, cotton), glass making, nail making, saddleries, footwear, brewing, salt, fireclay and the metal tube industry.

Industrial growth led to the development of canals, railways and road to transport raw materials, connect the coal fields with major hubs and distribute finished products, all leading to additional job prospects.

Familiarity with the changes that occurred in the various industries of Staffordshire (and their timelines) might give us a glimpse of why our ancestors move about within the county and out of it in search of work. Jobs were lost to mechanization but others were created, resources (such as the mines) became exhausted and the labor force moved with the changing job opportunities.

I have been gradually compiling information on the occupations held by the Irish (and the counties, towns in which specific jobs were present) in England. It is a work in progress.

The pottery industry has been a factor in the county of Staffordshire since the late 1600's. The northwest part of County Staffordshire was sometimes referred to as the "White Country" due to its source of potter's clay. John Aiken's 1795 book "A Description of the Country from thirty to forty miles round Manchester" refers to this area as "the potteries," an area that incorporated key towns in potter manufacture such as: Golden Hill, New Field, Smith Field, Tunstall, Long Port, Burslem, Cobridge, Etruria, hanley, Shelton, Stoke Upon Trent. Lower Lane, Lane Delf and Lane End. (Aiken, J. 1795; 1986, p. 516-522). Some of the occupations associated with this industry were: engravers, enamelers, gilders, modelers, lathe makers, capers, oven builders, throwers, turners, dippers, warehouseman, scourers and oven men. Developments in the industry led to additional jobs such as mold maker, jiggerer, flat wear presser and towers. Those working in the pottery industry had to deal with occupational hazards such as lead poisoning (especially the dippers), and "pottery asthma or potter's rot" (pneumoconiosis) due to inhalation of flint dust.

Coal was mined in three different areas of Staffordshire: North Staffordshire, Cannock Chase and South Staffordshire. A geological "dividing line" or fault separates these coalfields with Cannock Chase to the north of the fault and the South Staffordshire Coalfield, the "Black Country" Coalfield to the south. The South Staffordshire Coalfield had more readily accessible coal and was developed earlier while the North was less accessible and was developed later. The North however, had great diversity in its coal; some was appealing to potters and for manufacture, and some was desirable for smelting and railway system needs. The South Staffordshire towns of Bilson, Wednesbury, Tipton, Coseley, Sedgley and Dudley were main areas coal was being mined in 1800 and West Bromwich and Rowley Regis developed later. Netherton, Old Hill, Himley and Wolverhampton were also located around the South Staffordshire Coalfields as well. North Staffordshire coalfields were surrounded by towns like Tunstall, Burslem, Shelton, Honley, Stoke Upon Trent, and Longton among others. Coal was used in many different trades in Staffordshire including nail making, steel production, brewing, casting of brass, lock manufacture, glass making, brick making to name a few. Mining wasn't without occupational hazards either as explosive gases, fire, flooding and falling debris were associated with the trade. (Pugh, R.B, 1967, p. 68,70,71,74, 76,90).

Numerous innovations in the Iron industry beginning in the late 1700's promoted growth and jobs in Staffordshire. Wrought Iron production was a major focus of the Iron Industry, but once a pneumatic method for making steel was introduced in 1856, steel eventually became a more desirable alternative to wrought iron as a "raw material for railways." (Pugh, 1967, p. 124)

Development of the iron industry lead to growth in other associated trades such as the nail industry and the manufacture of steam ships. Tipton, in south Staffordshire was responsible for creation of some of the first iron steam ships. Walsall and Wednesbury (also in South Staffordshire) created gun barrels and later gas and water pipes. The book "A History of Staffordshire with Maps and Pictures" goes on to describe some of the other key areas of Staffordshire industrial development such as Leek (silk industry) and Cheadle (copper and brass) in the north part of the county, Stafford (boot and shoe trade and electrical engineering), Wolverhampton (copper and brass), Bilston (enameling), Walsall (saddlery) and Willenhall (lockmaking) in the South. Cotton mills were thriving along the Dove (north), Trent (through the center) and Tame (central, eastern part of the county) Rivers as was the brick and tile industry growing in both the north and south. (Greenslade, M.W. and Stuart, D.G., p. 45-56).

The "Black Country" is an area in Staffordshire, about 200 miles in diameter, that extended from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and from Stourbridge to Walsall. This area was the site of major industrial growth and part of the South Staffordshire Coalfield. The Black Country's Smelting Industry began to decline as its iron ore and coal recources gradually became depleted. This decline was hastened by the introduction of cheap steel, coal mining in other areas that was cheaper, and the issue of flooding that posed a problem in accessing its remaining coal. Wolverhampton became a key center for the manufacture of pumps that were used to remove the water from the mines to aid excavation.

Limestone, Gypsum, Copper and Fireclay were also mined in Staffordshire. The Limestone Industry boomed with the development of the Iron Industry, but even after the Iron industry saw some decline, the need for using limestone as "road metal" was increased. The area around Caldon Low was a significant source of limestone as was Rushall, located in the southern part of the County. Gypsum mining and production took place near Tutbury, Burton and at Fauld. It was used in the form of Alabaster for architectural use and creation of monuments and is used today in different types of plaster and as a fertilizer. (Pugh, R.B., 1967, p. 194,195,201).

Copper was mined in Northeast Staffordshire as well (through the late 1800's). Brass work originated in Staffordshire areas like Wolverhampton and Walsall as early as the 17th century. Wolverhampton was the hub of the industry with about 20 foundries during the 19th century. Walsall became an important center for Buckle manufacture, and remained important in the brass industry for its manufacture until buckle making and harness making declined. Fireclay was also mined and manufactured in Staffordshire (especially in the southwest part of the Black Country). Fireclay was used to manufacture other goods like firebricks. Mines were found in the Stour Valley, Bilston, Bradley, Tividale, near Walsall, Dudley, Port, Delph, Lye, Amblecote and Stourbridge. This industry exploded in growth due to the needs of other industries that were developing in Staffordshire. Women were often employed in molding bricks made of fireclay. (Pugh, R.B, 1967, p. 266, 269, 270).

According to the book "Staffordshire" by Phil Drabble the following towns in the County of Staffordshire were recognized for the quality of their products: Willenhall (locks), Walsall (buckles, small hardward and leather), Wolverhampton (safes), West Bromwich (spring coils) and Smethwick (glass). Staffordshire was well known for chainmaking among other industries. (Drabble, P., 1948, p. 199, 204).

Many of our Irish ancestors were drawn to County Staffordshire due to the industrial development that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the promise of possible jobs that came with it.

I have read a variety of great books that discuss the industrial development of the County of Staffordshire and the Irish and their impact on the Potteries, Black Country and the rest of Staffordshire, England by some of the great authors listed below that I have referenced in this page:

Aiken, John, 1795; Reprint 1968. A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester. New York: Augustus M Kelley Publishers.

Drabble, Phil 1948. Staffordshire (part of the County Book Series). London: Robert Hale Limited.

Greenslade, M.W. and Stuart, D.G. 1965. A History of Staffordshire with Maps and Pictures. Beaconsfield, England: Darwen Finlayson Limited

Pugh, R. B. Editor 1967. A History of the County Of Stafford Volume Two. London, England: Oxford University Press. 1967.

I have obtained many of these great reads at University Libraries, but the publishers of these works should be able to assist you in obtaining them as well. If your Irish ancestors lived in the County of Staffordshire, even for a brief period, these detailed works will give you tremendous insight in what life was like for them in Lancashire in the 19th-20th century.