Published on April 6th, 2021 | by Andy Green


John Tully (1806-1879)

Surviving 19th Century Warrington – the life and times of John Tully (Born Ireland 1806. Died Warrington 1879).

A family of Irish immigrants head for the overcrowded ‘coffin ships’ on Dublin quayside (as depicted by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie in a 2007 memorial statue). 

“I’m sorry Mr Tully but it’s bad news.” 

One thing I know for sure about my 3x Irish great grandfather John Tully is that he heard the above phrase, or something similar, many times during his 70 or so years.

For those not familiar with family history ‘3x’ is another way of saying three generations, making John my great great great grandfather. He was also my first direct Irish ancestor to venture across the Irish sea to Warrington.

My initial research suggested he’d arrived in Warrington along with scores of other Irish immigrants around the time of the great potato famine of the late 1840s. This was a period of severe hardship for Ireland. With a third of its population dependent on the crop, its failure due to potato blight led to mass starvation and disease. Between 1845 and 1851 over a million people died and a million more left the Emerald Isle in search of survival, reducing its population by an astonishing 25%. 

An old Warrington town centre map showing a small part of Ship Yard, just one of the many claustrophobic and insanitary courtyards located behind Bridge Street in the 1800s.

For many, the most direct escape route was across the Irish sea to Liverpool, a precarious and often fatal journey. Weak with hunger, many had to trek to Dublin on foot before sailing to England on the open decks of dirty and overcrowded cattle steamers or ‘coffin ships’. Reports tell of people arriving in Liverpool frozen to the decks of ships and others dying under hedgerows as they searched in vain for overnight accommodation. 

Of the tens of thousands who did survive, hundreds found their way to Warrington, at the time an expanding industrial town with a population of around 19,000. Some of the new arrivals, thanks to their agricultural backgrounds, found shelter and employment in the outlying farming districts of Burtonwood, Rixton and Thelwall. But with not enough work or countryside dwellings to go round, the majority headed for the town centre and the cheap, ramshackle housing in the claustrophobic courtyards behind Bridge Street and Buttermarket Street.

Access to the concealed courtyards was via a series of narrow ‘tunnels’ and passageways found under the larger, more impressive houses and shops on Bridge Street itself. Today, only two of these survive. Click on the image to take a YouTube tour down one of them. 

It would be a good while before Irish eyes were smiling. The courtyards were a notoriously grim place to live with tiny slum houses, little air and no sanitation apart from the occasional outside ‘privy’. A damning 1872 sanitation report, commissioned after an outbreak of typhoid killed around a hundred people, described the houses as ‘dilapidated’, ‘dirty’ and ‘quite unfit for human habitation’ whilst the privies were labelled ‘pestiferous fæcal swamps’. Nevertheless, as the yards contained the cheapest housing in Warrington, they quickly became enclaves for scores of Irish settlers. 

By the time of the 1851 census, Bulls Head Yard, an area with 12 houses off Bridge Street had 102 inhabitants, 93 of whom were Irish or of direct Irish descent. In one section of another notorious yard, Ship Yard – located behind the old Ship Inn – there were 100 people (86 Irish) living in just nine houses. Here, in just one small house alone were crammed an astonishing 17 adults and three children – all Irish. In Angel Yard, located in the Town Hill area, there were 226 people, again mainly Irish, packed into 20 houses. So crammed were they, many of the adults slept in ‘shifts’.

One example of ‘low’ Irish behaviour taken from an 1853 newspaper report (names have been withheld to protect the guilty!) 

As well as having to endure such horrific living conditions, the lack of education, catholic faith and ‘low ways’ of the Irish led to much hostility towards them. Some (but not all) was possibly deserved for local newspaper reports tell of regular town centre violence involving ‘mobs of low Irish’ and ‘rough-looking Irishmen’ fighting, stealing and attacking bystanders. Prostitution was also a problem. But the Irish were by no means the only troublemakers in town. A pastime of some locals, according to Whitecross Wireworks owner Frederick Monks, was the wilful ‘baiting’ and ‘knocking down’ of Irishmen in an attempt to start trouble, a clear indication of the anti-Irish feeling that was prevalent at the time. 

But what of my ancestor John Tully? The first two historical records I unearthed for him – his 1861 and 1871 census records – suggested he’d managed to escape much of the hardship suffered by his kinsfolk.

Although the houses and cotton mill it led to are long gone, Cockhedge Lane still exists today.

In 1861 he was living in Cockhedge Lane, close to the old Cockhedge cotton mill where Asda now stands, with his wife Mary (nee Kelly) and four Warrington-born children, Thomas, Edward, Catherine and Luke. His 1871 record was a virtual replica apart from the addition of a new daughter, six year old Mary. On both censuses John’s occupation was recorded as a bricklayer’s labourer. 

In an era when infant mortality was high, it appeared John and his family were enjoying a period of stability and good health. However, his 1871 census record suggested life may not always have been so sweet: at 64 John was a quarter of a century older than his wife Mary. A copy of their 1848 marriage certificate revealed more – at the time of his marriage to Mary, John was a widower. Armed with this fresh information I began to delve deeper into John’s past and started to unravel a tale of personal loss and tragedy that even today is difficult to comprehend. 

A snippet from John Tully’s 1841 census record showing John, aged 35, with wife Nancy, son Michael and daughter Julia. Mary and Bridget Donaghue were lodgers

In 1851 John was living in Lower Bank Street, another area known for its pitiful living conditions, with his wife Mary and two children, Julia, aged 13 (from his first marriage) and Ellen, aged 3 months. Underscoring the overcrowding of the time, living in the cellar below them were another Irish family comprising a widow and three young children.

Next, I discovered John in 1841, this time with his first wife, Nancy (nee Boyle) and two children – Michael, aged 10 and Julia, aged 3 – in Turners Square, just off Scotland Road. His census entry shows that two lodgers were also living with him. Interestingly, Michael’s birthplace is listed as ‘Warrington’ and the year of his birth around 1831. This confirmed John must have been in Warrington before the age of 20 and a good 15 years before the potato famine turned a trickle of Irish immigrants into a flood.

St Albans RC Church, Bewsey Road – the scene of many Tully family baptisms … and burials.

So if wasn’t the famine that brought John to Warrington, what was it? His connection to the building trade suggests he most likely arrived after hearing of some construction work – at the time plenty of new buildings were being built to support the town’s burgeoning wire-working, textile, brewing and tanning trades. John’s job, bricklayers labourer, would have been hard going by anyone’s standards. Tasks such as hod carrying and mortar mixing were his domain and in an age when most builders burnt their own lime, the risk of respiratory disease such as TB from the ensuing fumes was substantial.

But what of John’s family life? To discover more I had to hope – and pray – he’d been a churchgoer and that I could find him listed in the baptism, marriage or burial registers of a local church. 

An 1843 St Albans burial register entry showing the death of Ann Tully, aged 17 months, from whooping cough. 

Fortunately by 1823 large-scale Roman Catholic worship had returned to Warrington with the opening of St Albans in Bewsey Street. Previously, small-scale services had been held at the Feathers public house in Bridge Street, a hall in Back Dallam Lane and a now demolished chapel in Foundry Street. As I browsed through the St Albans’ baptism registers I was surprised to find entries for a succession of John’s children who hadn’t appeared on any census records – Catherine (born 1831), Patrick (1833), John (1840), Ann (1841), Hugh (1843) and Marianne (1846). This begged a major question: if they weren’t on the census returns, where were they? Sadly, the St Alban’s burial register revealed more – all of them had died in infancy. 

Mary Tully (right), the last of John Tully’s 15 children. Born in 1863, Mary is pictured next to her daughter Mary, better known as Polly (my great nan).

Piecing together all of the information now at my disposal, I calculated John had in fact fathered 15 children, eight with Nancy and seven with Mary. Horrifyingly, only two of John’s first eight children had made it into adulthood – the eldest, Michael, and the fourth, Julia. In fact after Julia, between the years 1840 and 1851, John had lost four children in succession, then he lost his first wife Nancy, and then, after marrying Mary in 1848, he lost his next two children with her – a heartbreaking tally of seven bereavements in a row. Thankfully, his next five children, the last of whom was my great great grandmother Mary, all survived into adulthood.

Statistics from the time show that the average Victorian woman gave birth to 5.5 children and that three out ten children died before their first birthday. The Tully family therefore bucked the trend on both counts. In addition, by reaching the age of 70 (his stated age varies from census to census but 70 seems the best guess), John lived longer than most of his contemporaries as the average life expectancy at the time was 40. That said, reaching a grand old age had its own problems.

John Tully passed away on 22 September 1879 in the Union Workhouse, Warrington. With no welfare state to fall back on, John assumedly entered the workhouse on becoming too ill to support himself or his family. His death certificate records his cause of death as ‘old age’ and states his wife Mary, although not living in the workhouse at the time, was there to comfort him when he passed. One can only hope it was a dignified end to a long, hard life.

Mary junior (Polly) pictured again on her 1920 wedding day with husband Richard. Polly went on to have six children, her eldest (James) becoming Mayor of Warrington in the 1980s. 

Sadly, over 140 years later, I know nothing of John’s personality, his ways or his values. He may have been a good man, he may have been a bad man: such information is not recorded on census returns or marriage certificates. I like to think of him as a good man as, to the best of my knowledge, his name does not appear on any criminal records, plus some of his first wife’s family were happy to become godparents to his later children. If nothing else, the fact John left Ireland at such an early age and managed to reach the age of 70 in the tough conditions of the time and with the bereavements he suffered along the way tells me he was a brave man, a strong man – a survivor. 

In living his life to the full, John Tully gave life to many. His legacy continues to this day. 

John Tully’s children with Nancy Boyle (4 boys & 4 girls):-

John Tully’s children with Mary Kelly (4 boys * 3 girls):-

What happened to the Tully children?

Michael18291911Although some census returns show Michael’s birthplace as Ireland, he was baptised on 13/2/1829 at St Albans RC Church in Warrington. In 1851, aged 23, he married a 20-year-old Irish girl called Mary Tuhoy with whom he had 6 children (Winifred, John, Ellen, Catherine, Thomas & Edward). A labourer by trade, he spent his later years in East Riding, Yorkshire where he died in 1911.
Catharine18311832Born 19/6/1931. Died aged 9 months (cause known). Buried at St Albans 11/3/1832. 
Patrick18331833Born 7/2/1833. Died from convulsions aged 2 months. Buried at St Albans 27/4/1833.
Julia (Judy)18371899Born 16/7/1837. Aged 33, Julia, sometimes known as Judith or Judy, married labourer John Ward at St Elphins Parish Church. They had no children. Residences included Wainwrights Yard, Buttermarket Street and School Brow. In later years Julia was employed in the cotton trade. She died in 1899 aged 54.
John18401840Born 6/4/1840. Died from smallpox 5/10/1840 aged 9 months. Buried at St Albans 7/10/1840.
Ann18411843Born 27/8/1841. Died from whooping cough aged 18 months. Buried at St Albans 17/1/1843.
Hugh18431845Born 12/11/1843. Died from consumption 21/5/1845 aged 17 months. Buried at St Albans on 23/5/1845.
Marianne18461850Born on 22/2/1846. Died from whooping cough 6/1/1847 aged 10 months. Buried at St Albans 9/1/1847.
John18491850Born 12/4/1849. Died from diarrhea 9/7/1950 aged 13. Buried at St Albans 11/8/1851.
Helen (Ellen)18511851Born 6/1/1851. Died from gastric problems 9/8/1851 aged 7 months. Buried at St Albans 11/8/1851.
Thomas18521878Born 24/8/1852. Worked as a bricklayers labourer. Died aged 26 at 5 Hill Street, Warrington. Death certificate says “found dead in bed, cause of death unknown.”
Edward1855?Born 8/2/1855. At the age of 16 was living with his parents at 40 Cockhedge Lane whilst working as a labourer. Is not listed on any census returns thereafter so whereabouts after 1871 unknown.
Catharine1858?Born 1858, exact date unknown. At the age of 12 was living at 40 Cockhedge Lane with her parents and siblings. Whereabouts after 1871 unknown.
Luke18611915Born Feb 1861. In 1881 was employed as a fustian cutter and was living with his widowed mother and younger sister Mary at 9 Pump Yard. Whereabouts after 1881 unknown.
Mary18631944John Tully’s youngest child, Mary, was born in 1863. At the age of 17 she was employed as a cotton spinner living with her widowed mother Mary and brother Luke at 9 Pump Yard. The three later moved to Pierpoint Street, Bewsey, and it was from here, in 1888, that she married James Bennett, an iron puddler whose family hailed from the Midlands. Mary and James went on to have six children – Catherine (Kit), James, Mary (Polly), Sarah (Sally), John (Jack) and Lil. Mary died in 1944.

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