Irish Families in Liverpool Parish Records

Liverpool was sporting a large Irish population even before the potato famine began driving many more starving immigrants to its port in the mid-1840s. Some stayed in Liverpool, while others moved on to other industrial cities in England seeking work. Many ended up going on to America and other destinations. Before moving on though, some of these immigrants had children, met and married spouses, and during the famine years in particular, saw family members die. These events are a part of the family story and often they were recorded in religious records. has just posted records of Liverpool Catholic baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials, as well as post-1812 Church of England baptisms, confirmations, marriages and banns, and burials.  Church of England baptisms, marriages and burials, 1659-1812 have also been added. (Links to all the collections can be found here.

While the availability of records varies from parish to parish, there are some Catholic records dating back to the early 19th century (and 18th century for some marriages) and some Church of England records date back to the 17th century.  A treasure trove for those with Liverpudlian roots, even if those roots don’t run deep.

When I look at a pedigree chart of my mother’s family tree, there are two limbs that end abruptly with her great-grandfathers. On the end of one of those limbs is Thomas Howley. I have been chasing Thomas for longer than I care to admit, but with the addition of these records I may have gotten a step closer.

One of the interesting things about Thomas is that unlike most of the other people on my mom’s tree, he was not born in Ireland. All of the records I have found on him tell me he was born in England, but the 1880 U.S. Federal Census also reveals that his parents were from Ireland. Family legend has it that he was born in Liverpool so as you can imagine, there was some celebration in my office with the addition of these parish records.

Family Studies
One of the most helpful factors in identifying lost ancestors is establishing family structure and because these records typically include the names of both parents (and in later records the mother’s maiden name), they can be very helpful in establishing that structure. Because I ran across quite a few Howleys in the collection of baptisms, I started narrowing my focus to the various parishes included in the database. This would make it easier to group the families.

Looking at the parish of St. Peter’s Priory, which was established in Liverpool in 1788, I noticed a Thomas born to James and Mary Howley. I removed the given name from the search box and did another search for all the Howley baptisms in St. Peter’s Priory (specifying exact location), and added the father’s name of James.

Although I only specified James as the father in the options for other family members, had there been listings with a different mother’s name, I could have also added Mary as the mother to further narrow the search. At any rate, simply including James gave me a list of Howley children all born to parents James and Mary.  I noticed a rather large gap between Thomas’ birth in 1836 and William in 1841. Wondering if perhaps there were two James and Mary Howley families in the parish, I sought them out in the 1841 census of England.

A quick search of the 1841 census turned up James and Mary Howley with two children, Bridget and William, whose ages matched two of the children in the baptism listings and told me that despite the gap I had noticed, Bridget and William were from the same family. It appeared young Thomas, who would have been about five in the census may have died by this point.

The Lay of the Land
Not being familiar with Liverpool geography, I did a little research on the church. I found some help on GENUKI: UK and Ireland Genealogy 
.  Navigating geographically to England, Lancashire, and then through the link in the geographic description to Liverpool, I found a list of links to churches in Liverpool. This gave me the street name for the church, and clicking through to the link for that church I was able to plot it on one of several mapping options that are available.
Since the family is shown in the 1841 census living on Hurst street, I went back to the church map I had found. Not far from Seel street, where St. Peter’s Priory was located, I found Hurst street, so I can see that not only do the ages match up, the James Howley family lived in the neighborhood as well. 

Looking for Extended Family
Another cool thing about these records is that they list the names of the godparents. Since family members are often chosen to be godparents, this can be a good way of finding extended family. I thought it would be interesting to chart some of the families. I chose a spreadsheet so I could do some sorts on the various fields as needed, and I highlighted any sponsors that shared the Howley surname.

Looking over some of the Howleys I had entered in the spreadsheet, I noticed that a James Howley was listed as godfather to several of Patrick and Mary Howley’s children and wondered whether this was the same James I had found in 1841, so I did a little digging on that family as well. While I couldn’t locate Patrick’s family in 1841, in 1851 what appears to be only Patrick and a son John, are listed in the same sub-registration district (St. Thomas) as James and family. Interestingly, Patrick and his son John are living with the Brogan family, a surname that also appears in the list of sponsors for their children in the baptisms at St. Peter’s Priory.

Since there were eight children baptized at St. Peter’s Priory whose records listed Patrick and Mary Howley as their parents, it was sad to see only the father and son living together in 1851. While we would need to do more a more extensive search to prove that all of the children belonged to the same Patrick and Mary, even if they were, sadly it’s not that surprising that only the two survived.

Here it helps to be reminded of the context of history. As hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants flooded the city due to the potato famine in the mid- to late-1840s, while many moved on, many stayed finding whatever shelter they could, often in cellars that held stagnant water, refuse, and other unsanitary conditions. As a result, cholera, typhus, and other diseases spread rapidly in the crowded Irish communities.

In his "Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population and on the Means of Its Improvement" (1842), social activist Edwin Chadwick reported on the average age of deaths in Liverpool. Among the “gentry and professional persons, &c.” the average age at death was 35, for “tradesmen and their families” it was 22. For “labourers, mechanics, and servants, &c.” the average lifespan was only 15 years. He goes on to reveal that,
“Of the deaths which occurred amongst the labouring classes, it appears that no less than 62 per cent of the total number were deaths under five years of age. Even amongst those entered as shopkeepers and tradesmen, no less than 50 per cent died before they attained that period.”

While I still haven’t been able to identify my Thomas Howley in these records, just exploring the records of this one parish and the conditions in Liverpool for many of the Irish working men and women who lived there made me all the more appreciative of what so many went through during those difficult years.  Thomas only lived to be around 45, but he paved the way for generations to come.  

A Few Tips from the Journey
> Even if you suspect your ancestor was Catholic (or Protestant) be sure to check the records of both denominations.  You may find an ancestor intermarried with someone of another faith or chose a church that was convenient.

> Follow up finds in these church records with the UK Censuses.  They can help you sort out family groups and for those with Irish roots, some will reveal the county of origin in Ireland like this one from the 1851 England Census in the parish of St. Bartholomew.

> Explore Parish Records from Lancashire, England 

Other articles in the 01 May 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

> A Slice of History: Moving Day

> Family History Tip: Birth Certificate Error 

> Photo Corner