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Searching for Liverpool’s Famine Victims

Carol Davis visits a church in Liverpool that has tragic links with the Irish Famine. The opening of a new study centre there will assist those trying to trace ancestors affected by the disaster.

The elegant egg-shaped burial chambers built in 1833 as part of the Roman Catholic church of St Anthony’s in Liverpool bear witness to a grim tale. Stacked five high and seven deep, they and the recently unearthed paupers’ mass grave behind the church were filled to bursting point in the black days of 1847.


The appearance of potato blight in Ireland in August 1845 was the start of a terrible chain of events. In 1847 116,000 Irish refugees trudged from the western Gaelic-speaking counties to spend their last shillings on a passage to Liverpool. The long march weakened them further, and by the time they disembarked in England many were already carrying the seeds of the typhus and dysentery that would kill them.


Penniless and starving, they swarmed to the city taking shelter in the rank cellars of the poorer districts. Here, as many as forty could be crammed into one tiny room, according to Liverpool’s medical officer Dr W.H. Duncan. Duncan ordered the cellars to be closed for fear of an epidemic. But the doctor’s recommendations were ignored, and soon body lice were rapidly spreading typhus from one weakened body to the next. Of the poor Irish refugees, some 60,000 were treated for typhus.


One of the victims was eight-year-old Luke Brothers. He lived in a wretched hole with his parents and three or four brothers, ‘steeped to the lips in poverty and scarcely ever out of a sick bed’, as the Liverpool Mercury reported. A neighbour collected their three shillings weekly from the parish, but on at least one week she handed over only one shilling.


The children begged ‘when they were well enough to crawl out … but the proceeds of their mendicancy must have been small.’ When Luke died, the surgeon who carried out the post mortem said he could discover ‘not the least particle of food in the stomach, and had not the slightest hesitation in swearing that the deceased had died of pure starvation.’

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