Robbie William’s Farrell Family History

Robbie’s maternal Grandfather Jack Farrell was a big influence on his early life, but what is the family story behind the name?  Hopefully this article will help explain some of that in the context of the hard working Irish immigrants in the Collieries and Iron Works of Tunstall area of “The Potteries” around Stoke-On-Trent.

So the story begins with Michael Farrell born around 1785 and living in County Kilkenny in Ireland.  Michael married Mary Bergin around 1808, and they raised a family of two girls and two boys (Mary, Bridget, Pat, and Daniel) at St John’s Green Kilkenny in the early 1800s.  We don’t know much about the family at this time, other than that they were Catholic, and Michael was most likely a Labourer on the surrounding farmland.

Kilkenny Town was was divided between an “English” and an “Irish” town, which grew up respectively from the stronghold of the occupying Norman/English forces of the Strongbows and the settlement of the Native Irish. So there was a real social divide, but not an insurmountable one at the higher levels of society.
Kilkenny at the time was relatively peaceful and prosperous, although the Farrells coming from Catholic farming stock, were not among the richer end of the community.  Having said this there was investment coming in to the area for Catholic and Protestant alike, indicating a less repressive air towards the Catholic populace than was encountered in many parts of Ireland at this time.  This determination to make the most of the situation between the descendants of the “English” and the descendants of the Native Irish, came from the upper echelons of both communities, and was in no small part due to the collaborative and diplomatic policies two Catholic Bishops, De Burgo and Troy, between 1759 and 1786.In 1761 the City Hall on the High Street was built, and although floods in 1763 swept away the Town’s bridges and hit the local economy hard, more civic investment continued to take place, and in 1782, just before Michael was born, a school specifically for Catholic children was built followed by the founding of Kilkenny College. Having said this it is unlikely that young Michael Farrell had the opportunity to take advantage of an education, as he was needed to work on his Family’s small holding.
The air of growth and prosperity continued into the 1800s, when in 1829 two catholic councilmen took the oath to the king and become councillors, and a year later in 1830 a further 28 Catholic freemen were elected to the corporation after taking the oath of loyalty. In 1832 Councillor Richard Sullivan became an MP, and in 1836 Redmond Read became the first Catholic Mayor in half a century.  So it must have seemed to the Michael Farrell  that times were improving, with plenty of work, and Catholics actively running the town.
The 1840s came in as a time of change. In 1842 the Kilkenny Workhouse was built along with a Presbyterian Church to complement the new Catholic church that had been completed a few years earlier, and in 1843 work was started on St Mary’s Cathedral in Kilkenny.
At that time Irish Nationalist feelings were starting to resurge in the country, in 1842 Daniel O’Connell held a “Monster Meeting” in Kilkenny to demand repeal of the act of union Between Great Britain and Ireland, this must have had an affect locally as following on from this in 1843 all vacant seats on corporation were taken by “Repealers”, and during the same year a second Monster Meeting was held at the race course in Kilkenny.  (Similar meeting shown below).
However It seems that the locals, although interested in greater rights for the Irish in Ireland, were not prepared to take this to radical lengths, as in 1848 when William Smith O’Brien tried to raise support for his Young Ireland Rising, local support failed to materialise, although a former Mayor was imprisoned for joining the rising, only to be re-elected as Mayor a year later.  One unexpected consequence of the failed rising was that a young man called James Stephens joined the rising and went on to found the The Fenian movement.

Despite these political upheavals, an even bigger event to change the lives of the working class locals happened in 1848 when the railway line reached Kilkenny, this would transform journeys that would have previously taken days to a few hours, and open up the travel out of the area to anyone with the price of a train fare in their pocket.

Pat Farrell born 1816

St John’s Green

Kilkenny Ireland

For the Farrells the 1840s were also a time of change and growth;  Michael’s son Pat married Anne Butler on 24th May 1842 in St John’s Church Kilkenny.  In 1843 the family were living in William’s Lane, St John’s.  They had six children between 1843 and 1861 (James, John, Thomas, Patrick, Mary, and Anne) all born in St John’s Green Kilkenny.

The 1840s also heralded the advent of the Great Famine during which so many people in Ireland died or emigrated.  Kilkenny was much luckier than many parts, being propserous with good communications and excellent farmland meaning that the poor were not dependant on Potatoes as their only crop.  However the famine squeezed the whole Irish economy, and it is interesting to see that between 1845 and 1861 there are no children born to Pat and Anne, there could be many reasons for this, but given that they had children regularly on either side of this gap, and there is no sign that Pat had left the area, it seems likely that the family did not have enough to eat during the famine time, and that affected the couple’s fertility for a period of time.  Once the worst of the famine had passed in 1853, the couple moved to 5 Ballybought Street, Pennefather’s Lot, St John’s.

John Farrell 1845 – 1872
Sarah Phelan about 1839 – 1907
The Move to England
John Farrell had grown up in St John’s Green Kilkenny with his elder brother James and his younger siblings Thomas, Patrick, Mary, and Anne.  He was born just before the hard times of the Great Famine, and his early years would most likely have been marked by a degree of poverty and hunger not known to previous generations of the family.
But before leaving John married Sarah Phelan in St John’s Church, so Sarah, although originally from Queen’s County, had travelled at some stage to Kilkenny.  Depending on which account of her age we believe, she was between 4 and 7 years older than John, he was about 18 when they married, Sarah between 22 and 25.  This was relatively unusual as, although there was a shortage of men due to the emigrations, there were many more younger women in the community, so there must have been quite an attraction.  For the next few years they settled in Michael’s Lane, Kilkenny where first Elizabeth in 1864, and then twins Patrick and Thomas in 1866.  John was most likely a Labourer.
Having seen the perilous state of the living in Ireland John was one of a new generation of young men who decided to set their sights on a new life in England.  Unlike the original mass of migrants  who left to avoid starvation at the lower end of the social scale, and financial ruin in the middle classes as a result of the loss of their labour force, John’s generation were not starving and not facing immediate ruin.  His generation faced stagnation in a  community knocked flat by the effects of the famine and the emigration of a mass of the population, tipping the economy into what seemed like a perpetual recession.  By the 1860s there was an easy way out by train and steam ship across to Liverpool, and then on to the burgeoning industrial heartlands of England which were booming in the 1860s on the back of the growth of empire and an explosion of steam driven technology.
British Industrialists were always on the look out for cheap labour to work in their collieries and foundries, and stories would soon circulate back from England of the opportunities for work in such places.  John was the first member of his family to make the move to England, with three small children and a wife to provide for, and work with anything like a living wage being hard to find at home, the answer would have been clear; John, Sarah, and children Elizabeth, Patrick, and Thomas, would have taken the train then the Steam Packet to Liverpool, this may have taken them less than two days, and from there by train onto Goldenhill Staffordshire, just outside Tunstall, near the railway and industrial hub of Stoke-On-Trent.  The family made their move between 1866 and 1869, and  would not have been an accidental decision, effectively John would have known that there was work waiting for him through the network of fellow Irish workers who had already made the journey, and it is even possible that an employer had already signed him up.  And the family was just one of many, the number of Irish born people in the Goldenhill area rose from about 850 in 1851 to about 1,350 in 1861 more than a 50% increase, so although away from home, their environment in the home, at work, and in the streets and pubs would have been very Irish.
They settled in quickly, the family moved into 37 High Street Goldenhill.  John getting a job labouring in a local Forge, physically very demanding, working with hot iron in high temperatures.   The family grew, with Mary and John coming into the world in 1869 and 1872 respectively.  Their neighbours in the high Street at Goldenhill were typical of the area, large Catholic families, parents from Ireland, children a mix of those born locally and those who were born in Ireland and came over with the parents, plus a few lodgers in each house, often itinerant labourers, to bring a few more shillings in rent money into the household, plus a smattering of labouring locals from the Staffordshire area and further afield.  In John and Sarah’s case in 1871, they had two lodgers living with them and their children four children, Patrick Gibbon and Thomas Murphy, middle-aged Navies (Railway Workers) from County Mayo in Ireland.  It must have made the house very cramped but this was normal for the area; little privacy, and masses of children with a mix of Irish and Anglo-Irish accents running in and out of each other’s houses, and playing in the streets.
This close living was a breeding ground for disease, and by the early June 1872 John starting to get flu like symptoms with a sore throat and an aching back.  Within a week he was running a massive fever, being sick and was bed ridden, his skin starting to break out in small white spots.  The doctor was called, but it was too late, John had Smallpox and would be dead by the end of the month.  He was only 27 years old.
An epidemic of Smallpox was recurring during the 1870s due to the insanitary conditions, overcrowding of accommodation, and the numbers of unvaccinated Irish immigrants.  However it seems likely that Sarah and the children did get vaccinated, probably while in England, as they all survive John’s death.
A Woman Alone
The only thing on Sarah’s mind now was survival for her and her children, he five of them aged from 1 to 11.  During the 1870s Sarah and the children stayed in the house in The Square at Goldenhill, and Sarah started to take in washing to help earn enough to feed the children, she may also have sought relief from the Parish and the Church.  
The last thing Sarah needed was another mouth to feed, but in 1875 that’s what she got with the birth of Martin, three years after her husband died.  The last thing Sarah needed was another mouth to feed, but in 1875 that’s what she got with the birth of Martin, three years after her husband died.  But who was Martin’s father?  Sarah certainly didn’t remarry after John’s death, so it would seem that the birth was unintentional; a widow having a child out of wedlock in a Catholic community of the 1870s would have suffered greatly for her mistake.  The only certainty is that Martin’s father definitely wasn’t Sarah’s dead husband John.
There are a few candidates among the single male lodgers who lived in the same house, and indeed in every other house in the street, mostly Irishmen, who may have offered comfort and some degree of protection for Sarah and her children for a short time at least, but there is no sign of a longer term relationship, and the fact is that we will probably never know for certain who Martin’s father was.  
During the 1880s Sarah moved the family to 36 New Buildings Goldenhill, perhaps away from some of the wagging tongues.  She carried on washing laundry  As soon as the children were old enough they helped with the family income, Elizabeth and Mary were working in the Potteries as soon as they could leave school, in their case at 12,  Thomas was a Puddler in an Ironworks, pouring the white hot liquid iron into moulds, a hard and dangerous job, his brother Patrick was also working as a Labourer in Ironworks.  Having the children working would have made the difference between paying the rent and eating, or starvation and the workhouse.
By 1891 all the children except for her eldest daughter Elizabeth and her youngest son Martin had left home.  Elizabeth was a Potter’s Jollier, and young Martin a Potter’s Presser.  Elizabeth as a Jollier would have worked clay in a rotating mould with a shaping tool to get the finished product, Martin performed the simpler function of pressing the clay into a mould to get it into shape for the finished product.
John and Thomas had joined the Army reserves in the North Staffordshire Regiment, it also seems that John fails to report for muster in 1892, this is because in 1891 it appears that he was in Stafford Prison at the tender age of 19.  He had been working as a Forgeman with his brother Thomas, but after his turn in Prison took up a job as a Coal Hewer in a pit, where few questions would be asked about a man’s background.  Thomas for his part was lodging in new Buildings, and later in 1897 would marry Mary Cordon and move to Bilston, still working in the Iron and Steel Industry.
Patrick was working as a Puddler in an Ironworks and had married, he was still living in New Buildings in Goldenhill with his wife Mary (formerly Doonegan), she was a Potter’s Sponger.
Mary had moved out and was lodging in Lyndhurst street, working as a Sponger in the Potteries.
By 1901 Sarah was living at 15 Victoria Street Goldenhill, and her eldest son Patrick the Iron Forge Puddler, along with his wife, 5 children, his wife’s sister and her daughter, a total of 7 people living in 4 rooms, it must have been cramped to say the least.  Sarah would die six years later in 1907 in her late sixties.

Martin Farrell 1875 – 1942


Mary Kelly 1880 – 1962

The Potteries tended to employ women and children for many jobs, for two reasons, firstly that their hands tended to be smaller and more nimble than men, and secondly because they could be paid less than men, so, once he got into his teens, Martin would have been sacked from the Potteries and would have had to find a job that traditionally went to men.  He found it at Whitfield Colliery, Hewing Coal like his elder half brother John.
He grew up quickly in the mines, up until 1915 men had to hew the coal from the seams by hand with pickaxes, mechanisation didn’t come in till 1915, being hauled to the surface by ponies.
Martin soon moved out from his Mother’s household, married, in St Joseph’s Catholic Chapel to Mary Kelly, and set up home nearby to his Mother and brother Patrick in Victoria Street Brindley Ford.
There was a tradition among the Farrell boys of joining the North Staffordshire Militia from the 1880s onwards, Patrick, Thomas, and John had all joined, and we find Martin serving in the 2nd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment in South Africa between 1900 and 1901, for which he received the Queen’s South Africa Medal. He served in Cape Colony, Orange Free State, and the Transvaal before being invalided home from this, but reenlisted in the Militia of the 3rd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment reserves, interestingly he states his year of birth as 1873, which given he was already in his twenties and therefore legally old enough to join the Militia.
In 1901/1902 The North Staffs Regt Militia is in South Africa again, being drawn largely from Miners, provided men for the Mines Defence Force which Martin joined and was shipped out on 16th January 1902.  
In 1903 Martin is listed as 5′ 7″ tall, weighed 138lbs, he had Hazel eyes a pale complexion and dark brown hair.  He had a scar above his left eye, and “blue scars” (discoloured with coal dust) on the back of his right shoulder, from minor injuries sustained in the coal mines.  Interestingly all of his brothers are listed as having grey eyes, and brown or light brown hair, Martin was also slightly taller and thicker set than his brothers, all signs of his different father.  Martin was discharged from the Militia after serving out his time in 1907.  He received the King’s South Africa medal with clasps for 1901 and 1902.
Coming back to the mines after the Boer War, the most exciting event for Goldenhill would have been the visit of King George V in 1913, for which the locals put out the bunting on the local pub and put on their Sunday Best to greet him.
When War broke out in 1914, Martin reenlisted in 1915, at the age of 39 a married man with  six children working in a coal mine, all of which would have lessened the chances of him be called up into to services, but with the tide of war reaching a stalemate by 1915 and pressure growing on men to join, he volunteered for the 4th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment, and because of his experience in the Boer War was made acting lance Corporal, this reserve Battalion was shipped to garrison duties in Guernsey, so Martin’s age would not have been a problem in such a duty.  The Battalion was shipped back to England in 1916, once the likelihood of a German invasion had receded, and also to bolster the home front as part of the North Staffordshire regiment had been shipped out to Ireland to suppress the 1916 rising.  Staying in England while there was a war on in Europe didn’t suit Martin, so he took the only posting he could get in order to get back to the action, but, probably because of his age and possibly because he would have been used to looking after ponies in the coal mines, he was transferred to the Army Veterinary Corps in 1917.  He saw out the rest of the war in this service, and left the army in 1919.
On his return from the war Martin went back to the pits, to find some improvement in conditions, electrically driven coal cutters had been brought in, and some conveyors had replaced some of the Ponies, although they wouldn’t go completely until the 1930s.  Also during the depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s life became very hard for Martin’s family, hundreds of miners were laid off, and the mines themselves worked to a quota system which meant that when the quota of coal was reached, the miners were sent home and would receive no more pay that week.
From the later 1930s, things looked up for the Whitfield Mine, demand increased, over 4,000 men were employed, and it became in 1937 the first mine in Britain to reached a million tons of coal in a year, it equalled this total again in the the following year 1938.  So towards the end of his life Martin would have seen the fortunes of the mine pick up and the welfare of the community increase in line with this boom.  
No wonder that his son John “Jack” Farrell followed him into the pits during the boom of the 1930s.  Jack would become Robbie William’s Grandfather.
Martin’s end came suddenly on 8th December 1942, after some deterioration in his general fitness caused by a viral infection, the virus had weakened his heart, and Martin finally died of a massive heart attack, at 578 Newcastle Road, The City General Hospital, colloquially known as “London Road”.
John “Jack” Farrell the only boy amongst a family of sisters would continue the  Family name.  He would have two daughters, one of whom would become the mother of Robbie Williams, and would pass away in 1979.

2 Replies to “Robbie William’s Farrell Family History”

  1. I know you may not believe this but Im Robbie Williams and I just wanted to thank you for this post ..I only just found it and I sent it straight to my Mum ….god bless you from both of us ….


    1. OK, you may need to sing me a song to prove it, but I’ll take this on face value. In which case, thank you, glad you enjoyed it, and give my best to your Mum. It’s been a while since I worked on your family story but let me know if you have any questions and I’ll see if I can answer them. All the best. Paul


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