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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Liverpool: Gateway to a New Life

Many visitors will be flocking to enjoy Liverpool’s celebrations as Capital of Culture. During the 19th century, the port of Liverpool played a very different role – as a gateway to a new life. Poor Irish immigrants arrived looking for work, fleeing poverty and famine in their homeland. Some joined friends or relatives in Liverpool or Manchester, taking whatever work they could get; perhaps as railway labourers, on the docks, farm workers, or in the cotton industry. Living conditions in the burgeoning Victorian cities were filthy and unsanitary. Irish immigrants were often stuck with the poorest accommodation, such as the infamous cellar dwellings: the ‘black holes’ of the industrial age. In the 1840s, one Liverpool family slept in a bed over a well four feet deep in the bottom of their cellar dwelling; all the privies in the street above drained into their home. There were over 8,000 cellar dwellings in Liverpool alone, inhabited by approximately 38,000 people - so the cellars were crowded as well as damp. Many thousands more sailed onwards for a new life in America. Even if they could afford a place on a ship, the voyage was risky; diseases such as cholera lurked in the crowded conditions on board. But family after family braved the journey, searching for a new future…
You can find out more about living conditions for workers and their families in Victorian Lancashire in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.
Emigrants at Liverpool, engraving by G.P. Jacomb Hood, Lancashire by Grindon, Leo H., (Seeley & Co., 1892.)

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