29 June 2020

When Catholic Staffordshire
was once pitied as
‘the fag-end of the world’

Inside Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … built before the arrival of Irish Catholics in Lichfield in large numbers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In my stories in recent weeks about Staffordshire Catholics and the Wolseley family, many families emerge as prominent Roman Catholics in Staffordshire for successive generations, so that, as Michael Greenslade says in his book Catholic Staffordshire, it is obvious how Catholicism survived in Staffordshire more strongly that anywhere else in England except Lancashire.

These families included the Aston, Biddulph, Clifford, Comberford, Draycott, Fitzherbert, Fowler, Giffard, Harcourt, Howard, Littleton, Perry, Stafford, Stanford, Sutton, Talbot, Weld and Whitgreave families.

The late Sir Charles Wolseley was anxious to point out to me that his family were Catholics too. Some 16th and 17th century members of the family, including Cassandra, Erasmus and Walter Wolseley, were Catholics. But later members of the family became Catholics through marriages with some of these families, including the Clifford and Weld families. So, in the traditional understanding of the term, his family were not one of the old recusant families in Staffordshire.

Some of these families had early Irish connections, including the Wolseleys, and in the complex, tangled web that is their family tree, the English title of baronet was inherited in the Irish branch of the family, and another Irish branch of the family who received their own title became, in turn, heirs to the English title.

Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle … designed by AWN Pugin and built for the Earl of Shrewsbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some of the early Irish connections with Staffordshire Catholics include the marriages between the Dillon family and the heirs of the Stafford family and of the Lee family, Earls of Lichfield.

The self-styled Sir James Fitzgerald, who used an Irish title of baronet from Co Limerick or Co Cork, was living at Wolseley Hall at the time of his death in 1839. His widow, Lady Fitzgerald, lived at Maple Hayes, near Pipe Hall, Lichfield, before moving to Castle Ishen, Co Cork, with her children in the 1840s or 1850s.

John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who lived at Alton Towers and commissioned AWN Pugin to build many churches in Staffordshire, including Saint Giles’s Church in Cheadle, was once ‘the most prominent British Catholic of day’ – although he was the last Earl of Shrewsbury to be a Roman Catholic.

Lord Shrewsbury extended his family’s Irish connections when he married Maria Theresa Talbot, daughter of Thomas William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford – an Irish branch of the Talbot family that were patrons of Pugin too and that for generations claimed close kinship with the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury, in a way that parallels the claims of the Comerford family in Ireland to kinship with the Comberford family in Staffordshire.

The Talbot mausoleum dating from the early 19th-century in the mediaeval churchyard at John Street, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

John and Maria were the parents of two daughters who married two Italian princes. Their elder daughter, Lady Mary Alathea Beatrix Talbot, married Prince Filippo Andrea Doria-Pamphilj Landi in Rome in 1832 after meeting at the coronation of Queen Victoria, who suggested Lady Mary as one of the eight coronal train-bearers as a gesture towards her father who was then the oldest earl in the kingdom and a Roman Catholic. Later, Mary was given the title of Prinzessin von Bayern, or a Princess of Bavaria, by King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

Their younger daughter, Lady Gwendoline Catherine Talbot (1817-1840), was described by William IV as the ‘greatest beauty in the realm.’ She too married an Italian prince: Prince Marcantonio Borghese, Prince of Sulmona, in Rome in 1835.

The families of both daughters – like many leading Staffordshire Catholic families of the day – attended the society wedding of Sir Charles Wolseley and Anita Murphy in London in 1883. Today, the Anglican Centre in Rome is housed in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.

A carved portrait at Oscott College of Father John Kirk … he built new churches in Lichfield and Tamworth in the 1820s

But, despite these Irish connections by marriage and descent in earlier families, the perceived wealth and social status of the Dillon-Lee, Fitzgerald, Talbot, Wolseley and other old recusant families in Staffordshire, isolated them from the Irish silk weavers who arrived in Staffordshire in the early 19th century, and the impoverished Irish immigrants who arrived in Lichfield and other parts of Staffordshire from the mid-19th century on.

Irish immigrants had settled in the potteries by the late 1820s, but those Irish silk weavers who late moved on to Manchester and Macclesfield in the 1830s.

Meanwhile, Father John Kirk built Holy Cross Church in Lichfield in the 1820s and a new church in Tamworth partly endowed by Lord Shrewsbury in Tamworth.

When Kirk extended the church in Lichfield in the 1830s and the 1840s, there were about 60 communicants and a small number of children. Numbers increased slightly with the arrival of French prisoners of war, but even when the core congregation increased to 75 or 80 in the early 1840s, the few Irish people – apart from Lady Fitzgerald and her family – may have been people stopping off on the road between Liverpool and London, bringing the number of churchgoers to about 90.

The Irish population in Lichfield in the mid-19th century was living mainly in the Sandford Street area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

However, the composition or makeup of his parish changed as a large number of Irish people moved into the Sandford Street area of Lichfield by the middle of the century. At the same time, new Catholic churches were built in Bilston and Burton-upon-Trent in response to the arrival of new Irish workers attracted by expanding local industries in the 1840s.

The Rugeley mission was described in 1847 as ‘paralysed with poverty.’ At Walsall, the priest said an early mass on Sunday mornings in 1851 ‘for poor people who from want of proper clothes do not like to appear out of doors at a later period of the day.’

The people who arrived in Staffordshire in a new ‘influx of Irish’ in the early 1850s were described by one priest as ‘mostly very destitute.’ Mother Margaret Hallahan, a Dominican nun who established a convent at the Foley in Fenton in 1851 before moving to Stone in 1853, described the area as ‘a complete range of dust hills. The people say it is the fag-end of the Potteries; I think it is the fag-end of the world.’

By the mid-19th century, the old recusant families had become a minority among the Catholic population of Staffordshire, and the immigrant Irish families were fast becoming the majority.

Today, the Catholic population of Staffordshire is much more diverse, and descendants of those poor Irish immigrants of over a century and a half ago are completely integrated into English life.

The arms of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, represented on the doors of Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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