From Limerick to London

The People’s Flag is deepest red

It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead

And ’ere their limbs grew stiff and cold

Their hearts’ blood’s dyed in every fold

Then raise the scarlet standard high

And in its shade we’ll live and die

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

We’ll keep the red flag flying here


The Red Flag, written by London Irishman Jim Connell during the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889.

Limerick in June 1815 was the busiest city on Ireland’s long Atlantic coast.

Its heart was King’s Island where a Viking band settled about 900 years earlier at the first fordable spot across the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. King John’s Castle, built by Norman invaders, and St Mary’s Cathedral dominated the skyline. In the previous century, prosperous landlords and merchants, benefiting from the booming trade in beef and pork, had demolished Limerick’s medieval walls and built fine houses and a theatre. The city’s economy was lifted by the introduction of free trade in 1780 which allowed Irish grain and livestock to be sold to England without duty. A lace-making industry had been established and was starting to flourish.

But there was only a veneer of prosperity. Across the Abbey River to the south was Irishtown, a squalid slum mainly inhabited by Catholic Irish where disease jostled with despair. To the west, Thomond Bridge crossed the Shannon. For more than 200 miles to the mountains of Cavan, the river defined the border between the territories of the Protestant Ascendancy and the boglands of Clare and Connacht reserved for Catholic Irish dispossessed by the wars of the 17th century.

Limerick was a frontier town between the new civilisation brought by the victors and their allies and what they saw as the superstitions and savagery of old Ireland. It was also the scene of the greatest of Catholic Irish disasters. They had loyally rallied behind King James II after he fled London in 1689 following the coup that brought William of Orange to the British throne. But at the Boyne in 1690 and at Aughrim in Galway in 1691, James’ army had been decisively beaten. Limerick had held out against a siege in 1690 but when William’s army returned the following autumn, the will to fight had evaporated. James’ army surrendered in October on the condition that Catholicism would be tolerated and there would be no further confiscations of the lands held by Jacobite supporters. About 10,000 soldiers and 4,000 civilians went into exile to France. But the promise of tolerance was broken. Among those that joined the Wild Geese was the Catholic 1st Earl of Limerick William Dongan. He was to die without heir and the title passed to his brother Thomas who was also to die without a successor. The Catholic line of the Earls of Limerick ended with him.

King’s Island was essentially a Protestant reserve. At the top of Limerick’s social pyramid sat the descendants of the first of the Protestant Earls of Limerick, Edmund Henry Pery, the son of the Church of Ireland Archbishop. The Perys originated from the southwest of England and were rewarded for their support for English policies with land and titles. After serving as speaker of the Irish parliament in Dublin, Pery was made an earl for voting for its abolition and the end of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was created the following year. Pery in 1815 spent most of his time in Westminster where he sat in the House of Lords, one of 28 Irish peers created as compensation for the end of the Dublin parliament.

The Protestant minority controlled the town and owned the countryside. Catholic men with the qualifying property credentials had been granted the right to vote in 1776 and most of the penalties imposed on Catholics had been removed. But professing Catholics were banned from sitting in the houses of parliament. Political rights were probably of little consequence for the majority of Catholic Irish who were peasant smallholders or unskilled labourers. Schools for Catholics were disallowed and illiteracy was widespread.

The Catholic Church, nevertheless, was in the ascendant. There were an increasing number of priests due to the work of Maynooth Seminary, which had been opened 20 years earlier. New churches were being built in stone and brick to replace the wood structures allowed by the penal laws. The church aimed to bring order to the anarchic Irish. What were considered to be uncivilised Irish customs were discouraged, including irreverent wakes around the open coffins of the recently deceased. The clergy also tried to prevent the use of Irish.Ireland in the summer of 1815, like the whole of the UK, was effectively under martial law. Britain had been at war with France almost continuously for 22 years. There were special factors making Ireland’s rulers wary. The memory of the 1798 rising was still fresh. The rebellion had been repressed and its leaders killed, executed or imprisoned. But it shook London’s confidence in the ability of the Protestant Irish establishment to keep order in Britain’s most troublesome possession. The abolition of Ireland’s parliament followed.

The British government said full Catholic emancipation would be the reward for the support it got from the Catholic Church for the abolition of Ireland’s parliament. Almost 15 years later, Catholics were still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. Conscious of hostility just beneath the surface of society, garrisons across Ireland were ready to snuff out any fresh revolt. But a new era was about to begin. On 18 June 1815, the French army was decisively defeated by the combined forces of Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia on rolling farmland close to the town of Waterloo south of Brussels. The British Army, up to one-quarter of which may have been born in Ireland, was commanded by the Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley, a scion of a Protestant landowning family with estates in Meath. Defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon’s challenge to the established European order. The French monarchy was restored.

But the end of the war raised expectations of political reform in Britain. Now that the threat of Napoleon had been eliminated, was it not time for the people to have more say in the way they were governed? This question was the change the face of British politics in the subsequent decades and was to find an echo across the island of Ireland.

The records show that Daniel O’Sullivan, Ted O’Sullivan’s great-grandfather was born in Limerick three years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, sometime in 1818. The details of his parentage and where he lived and worked are not yet known. But it is apparent he was literate, which would have put him in a small minority among his Catholic compatriots. As a young man, he would have been aware of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation led by Daniel O’Connell, a lawyer who founded, in 1823, the Catholic Association, effectively Ireland’s first civil rights movement. O’Connell’s election to the House of Commons in 1828 as MP for a constituency in Clare just across the Shannon would have excited Daniel’s household.

The following year, the Duke of Wellington, then British prime minister, persuaded King George IV to grant Catholic emancipation. It would have been a red letter day for Daniel O’Sullivan and his family, though it is unlikely his father was wealthy enough to qualify to vote. O’Connell, Catholic, moderate and known to Irish history as The Liberator, immediately launched a campaign to repeal the act of union and restore Ireland’s parliament. For a period, he co-operated with a reforming Whig government. But when the Tories were re-elected in 1841, he turned to more militant tactics. Mass gatherings in support of repeal of the union were organised across Ireland, some attracting up to 100,000 people. One of the Monster Meetings, as they were called, was held near Limerick in 1843. Daniel O’Sullivan, then aged 25 and politically conscious as his subsequent behaviour demonstrated, was probably there.

The government banned a meeting scheduled for October that year and O’Connell was imprisoned on charges of sedition. His younger and more radical supporters were disappointed with O’Connell’s moderation, but the demand for political reform paled into insignificance as the great potato famine started to sweep Ireland less than two years later. Daniel O’Sullivan would have seen sick and starving people flooding into Limerick from the countryside as the blight that destroyed the crop in 1845 struck again in three of the subsequent four summers. The sickening stench of rotting tubers polluted the air throughout rural Ireland. The starving headed for Limerick because it was the site of one of the two main depots (the other was Cork) where the British government stored American maize that was sold cheaply to relieve the famine. It was also one of the main ports of exit for those leaving Ireland. People who could afford the fare sailed for America. Many landed in Canada, New York and other east coast American cities after a journey during which tens of thousands were fatally-infected with typhus carried by the lice that infested their bodies. The more impecunious sailed for Scotland, Wales and England. The poorer refugees from the countryside queued outside Limerick’s workhouses, where the destitute were admitted and food was distributed. You never saw the most desperate cases. Weak with hunger and stricken with typhus and tuberculosis, they died, sometimes a whole family at time, in stinking crofts in Ireland’s hinterlands. The devastation in the countryside would have affected life in Limerick. Farm production collapsed as the rural labour force died or migrated. Every trade would have been hit by a slump in demand. Government relief measures, including job-creating public projects, failed to offset the famine’s economic impact. By August 1847, soup kitchens opened under an act of parliament were feeding 3 million men, women and children a day. People stopped dying of hunger, but began to expire due to typhus, then incurable, and other diseases.

More than 250,000 Irish tenant farmers were evicted across Ireland for failing to pay rent. The highways to Dublin, the main port of exit for Irish leaving their homeland during the famine, were filled with thousands of people walking east. Thousands died beside Ireland’s roads. By 1850, the population of County Limerick had fallen due to premature death by almost 30 per cent from the figure 10 years earlier. About 1 million Irish people died in no more than four years. The majority of migrants leaving Ireland during the famine headed for Liverpool. From there in little more than a decade, 1 million set sail for America. The mortality rate on Irish migrant vessels sailing to the New World was so high they were called coffin ships. Some figures suggest almost 20 per cent of famine emigrants to North America died soon after they arrived.

The feeble Young Ireland rising of July 1848 alienated the British government and diluted sympathy in England for the Irish tragedy. The potato crop that year failed again. The exit from the land resumed. Some charitable bodies suspended their activities because the scale of the disaster was beyond their capacities. The potato crop failed in the west of Ireland in 1849. In August that year, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert visited Cork and Dublin in an attempt to raise Irish morale. By then, nature and the law had had their effects. The weakest and most vulnerable had died or emigrated. Landlords enclosed land previously farmed by their tenants and increased the production of cattle and sheep. By the summer of 1850, the famine was largely over. But Ireland was a broken country.

Limerick in late 1840s would have been a terrible place to be. There was a constant stream of funeral processions for those dying in workhouses. In the graveyards for paupers, the dead were buried in layers. The consumption houses created to care for thousands suffering from tuberculosis became mass mortuaries. People were found dead from starvation in Limerick’s streets. In Limerick port, thousands waited for a ship to take them away from the nightmare that the west of Ireland had become. Some saw the famine as a punishment from God. The churches were packed with supplicants.

Daniel O’Sullivan, then in his early 30s, joined more than 1 million Irish people who fled Ireland in the famine years. There are no details of exactly when he left or how he made the journey. It is likely he either went directly from Limerick to London or crossed to Dublin and sailed from there to Liverpool. There are three family stories about why Daniel left Ireland. None of them are substantiated. One claims that Daniel was an official in Limerick and that he protested against English merchants adding water to corn brought to the city for distribution in soup kitchens. This tale has Daniel travelling to London to testify against them and not returning. His wife and two children were transported to Australia for unspecified reasons. A second family tale is that Daniel had a dispute with a magistrate who seized his house. This led to a trial with Daniel being convicted to imprisonment while his wife and children were transported to Australia. Daniel was brought to London as a prisoner where he was detained in one of the hulks of former Royal Navy vessels that were used as prisons at the time. Daniel was eventually released and remained in London. The possibility that Daniel was a victim of the courts and may have been involved in politics is credible, but there is no substance to the claim his family would have been deported without him. British justice at the time was harsh, but not brutal. A third story is less dramatic. It is said that Daniel had been promised a job in London, but why and by whom remains a mystery. Like other families that arrived at this time, the O’Sullivans have many myths. But it seems clear that Daniel O’Sullivan was an unwilling exile.

The first evidence of Daniel’s life in London is furnished by the census of 1851 which shows he was a lodger, perhaps with his sister Ellen who had been born in 1816, at Ladds Court in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. Ladds Court was a narrow dead end lying west of Southwark Bridge which has been demolished. Its western end was located close to what is now the perimeter of the New Tate south of The Globe Theatre, about 400 yards away from Borough Market.

With little evidence, it is difficult to construct the kind of life Daniel had in his first years in London. But there can be little doubt that he shared at least some of the hardships suffered by the hundreds of thousands of Irish people in the city, most of whom were living in dire poverty. Frederick Engels, the German revolutionary, wrote about the state of the labouring classes of the great cities of England in Condition of the Working Class, which was published in 1848. His descriptions capture the anti-Irish prejudices which were commonplace among the middle classes of the time.

“Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them. The lack of cleanliness, which is not so injurious in the country, where population is scattered and which is the Irishman’s second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities. The Milesian (archaic word for Irish) deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he was accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air. He builds a pig-sty against the house wall as he did at home, and if he is prevented from doing this, he lets the pig sleep in the room himself…The Irishman loves his pig as the Arab loves his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fit enough to kill. Otherwise, he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it, as one may see a thousand times repeated in all the great towns of England.”

It says something when a writer sympathetic to the downtrodden expressed such disdain about the state of its poorest layer: Irish men, women and children driven from their homes by starvation and landlords, many with no money or even possessions. Living in the docklands of London, where many of the most destitute Irish were to congregate in the search for work, Daniel O’Sullivan would have seen with his own eyes the dreadful existence endured by his countrymen and co-religionists.

Some time in the early 1850s, Daniel married Dinah Pearson, a Protestant born in Belfast in 1822, though, since he may have been previously married, this might have been a common law union. New information shows that Dinah was a widow when she came to London to find work. Her children were left in the care of her mother, also named Dinah. No record of the marriage between Daniel and Dinah has yet been found. In 1854, when his first son William was born, Daniel was living in Woolwich. William’s birth certificate shows his father was an Arsenal labourer, which suggests he was then working in the great munitions factory in east London. When his second son Daniel was born in 1860, Daniel gave his profession as wharf labourer, or docker.

In 1861 and 1871, Daniel and Dinah were recorded as living in St Margaret’s Court in Southwark, about 400 yards from London Bridge. Unlike Ladds Court, St Margaret’s Court still exists. According to the Charles Booth Poverty Map of London drawn in 1899, the street was then inhabited by the second-poorest class of Londoner with an estimated income of 18 shillings (90p) a week. Today, St Margaret’s Court is a narrow alley that leads to a dead-end. Some of the original building remains, but is difficult to imagine it as it was when Daniel lived there with several other poor families.

In 1881, Daniel and Dinah’s home was in Globe Street off Great Dover Street in the Borough area of south London. By this date, neither was fit. Dinah in 1881 was reported to have been suffering from a disease of the heart. Daniel had pleurisy, probably a derivative of tuberculosis that was endemic to Irish migrants of the famine years. Charles Booth’s Poverty Map for London of 1899 shows that Globe Street was inhabited mainly by poor and very poor families. Today, Globe Street mainly comprises modern housing blocks built since 1945. Dinah died in 1886 aged 64. Daniel died in 1891. He is said to have spent part of his last years in a nursing home. It was probably a workhouse.

Daniel would have witnessed the start of great projects designed to modernise and improve Britain’s capital. He may have visited in 1851 the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park which included a demonstration of a water closet (WC). After the River Thames was polluted by effluent in 1858, work was started on a sewage network which still serves London.By stopping the contamination of London’s groundwater, the new sewers at a stroke made the largest contribution to the health of its inhabitants in the city’s history. Before the 1850s, the death rate almost equalled the numbers who arrived. After, life expectancy started to rise and the population of London boomed until it was, by 1900, the most populous city on earth.

The first Liberal prime minister was appointed in June 1859. It was the start of an era of political reform that was to lead to an enormous expansion in the number of men allowed to vote. London in mid-century was a place of intellectual and artistic ferment. The comparatively high degree of political freedom attracted foreign exiles including European revolutionaries like Karl Marx who lived in the city from 1849. Charles Dickens created a new reading culture with popular serialised novels about the life of the city such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Presiding over the booming metropolis was the benign figure of Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 until 1901.Life in London, however, was difficult for Irish Catholics. They were doubly discriminated against: once on the grounds of their race, which was widely regarded in English society as backward and barbarous, and again on religious grounds. Daniel’s solution entailed becoming more English. He dropped the O’ from his name and became Sullivan. But his education and skills seem to have kept him out of the extreme poverty that enveloped so many of his countrymen.

Daniel and Dinah had three children that lived beyond infancy: William, Daniel and Eliza, who was born in 1858. She may have died young since her name disappears from the census records after 1871. Their second son Daniel was born in Southwark on 20 September 1860, probably in St Margaret’s Court. The principal drama of Daniel the elder’s life was his involvement in the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889. London’s docks were booming but the bulk of the men who worked there were employed casually and paid starvation wages. The majority of London’s dockers were Irish or of Irish descent, occupants of the lowest rung of the city’s social ladder. Working in London’s docks was hard and dangerous, there was no compensation for injuries, no holidays and no job security. Dockers were hired on a casual basis and queued each morning outside dock gates in the hope they would get a day’s work. The Dockers’ Union launched a campaign to establish a minimum rate for an hour’s work at six pence, or 2.5 pence in today’s decimal system, and some form of employment contract. The dock owners rejected the claim and more than 20,000 dockers went on strike in August 1889. The dockers’ leaders went to great lengths to demonstrate the claim was justified and discouraged violence. The head of the Catholic Church in England Cardinal Manning was approached by Irish dockers’ leaders. He sympathised with them and sat on the committee created to negotiate a settlement which met most of the strikers’ demands after a five-week stoppage. It was a seminal moment in the history of British trade unionism. It was the first time unskilled workers were organised effectively.

During the strike, Jim Connell, an Irishman from Meath, wrote the words for the Red Flag. It became the anthem of the Labour Party which was founded in London 12 years later. The hymn is still sung at the end of Labour Party conferences. Few of its members will know the extraordinary circumstances that inspired its composer.

The strike was a political epiphany for the London Irish. In the coming decades, they were to play an increasing role in London politics and produced many community leaders, councillors and, eventually, members of parliament. Generally poor and employed in some of London’s worst jobs, the London Irish were to become one of the bulwarks of the political machine that helped make the docklands a Labour Party stronghold. Manning’s sympathy for the strikers may have influenced an encyclical published two years later by Pope Leo XIII. It addressed “the condition of the working classes” and supported the right of labour to form unions.

Daniel O’Sullivan, living in the heart of docklands, would have been an eyewitness of the events of that summer and seems to have played a role in them. In return for a service rendered to the cardinal during the strike, he is said to have been given Manning’s silver-topped cane. It is now in the possession of his great-great-grandson Anthony O’Sullivan.William and Daniel were pupils at St Joseph’s Academy in Kennington Lane. The school, which was fee-paying, had been founded by the Catholic De La Salle order to educate low-income London Catholics. Later, it was to be divided into St Joseph’s College, Beaulah Hill, and St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath. At the age of 18, William left and joined the order’s college in Pondicherry in India. There, he studied for the priesthood but stopped at taking minor orders. He became a De La Salle brother and a teacher. He is said to have worked in French Indo-China, now Viet Nam.William moved to Paris where he taught in the order’s schools and colleges. At the turn of the century, he was promoted to headmaster. Due to France’s anti-clerical laws of 1907, William was given a choice: leave France or laicise himself. He chose the second option, became the lay head of the same college and married a French woman named Marie, although there is a family tale that he was married twice.

During the 1914-18 war, William did liaison work for the French and British, for which he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He always wore the rosette in his buttonhole and, as a result, was given special treatment when he traveled.The education of William and Daniel by the De La Salles had been financed, according to a family story, by a rich, titled family that Dinah wet-nursed for. The money was supplied so long as neither boy joined the order. When it became known that William was in breach of this commitment, the finance for Daniel’s education was terminated and he entered the London job market.

In September 1879, then aged just 18, Daniel married Frances Kezia Wayte, who had been born in the same year as him in Stepney, east London. Her mother, also called Frances, was born in Deptford in south-east London in 1837 and her father, Henry, was a former Royal Navy seaman and Crimean War veteran from Norfolk, though the location of the wedding suggests the whole family may have been living in London by then. The census records suggest that Henry Wayte was a widower when he married Frances. They had five children. Henry Wayte is the only one of Ted O’Sullivan’s great grandparents whose image is known. A photograph taken when he was probably 60 was recently found posted on an internet website. It shows him as a dapper gentleman with a full head of dark hair streaked with grey and a beard. On his chest are two medals: one a general service Crimean War service medal and the other a medal awarded to those who served in the battle of the Sea of Azov during the Crimean War.

Their wedding certificate shows Daniel and Frances were married in St Jude’s in Bethnal Green, at the time an iconic place of worship built as part of the Anglican Church’s decision to set up mission churches for the poor in London and elsewhere. This suggests Daniel had either abandoned his faith or that he could not persuade Frances to convert to Catholicism, the condition required for a Catholic marriage. Another explanation is that there were no Catholic churches in the area and St Jude’s was used instead. Their wedding certificate says that Frances was a dressmaker. She was probably working in one of the tailoring sweat-shops in east London.

According to the 1881 census, Daniel and Frances were living at Suez Terrace in Camberwell. This is an address that has now disappeared from London maps. It was probably a section of the southern end of Rotherhithe New Road. In the 1891 census, Daniel and Frances gave their address as Rotherhithe New Road, which may have been, in fact, the same as 10 years earlier. The Booth 1899 Poverty Map shows Rotherhithe New Road was then a mixed area with some poor people and some better-off residents. The records show that there was speculative building in that locality at the time. All this suggests that the home Daniel and Frances shared was almost new. Today, the Rotherhithe New Road still contains some of the original buildings. It is close to The Den, the home ground of Millwall Football Club, a team that originally drew its support from London’s dockers.

Daniel and Frances were recorded in the 1901 census as living in Camden Grove. The road appears to have been renamed as Cronin Road before the 1st World War. It was about 400 yards west of Rotherhithe New Road and ran north towards the Grand Surrey Canal, a waterway built in the early 19th century to connect Guildford with the Thames. The canal has since been drained and filled in. This whole area of Peckham was rebuilt after 1945 and now mainly comprises local authority housing.

Frances was rarely well. There is a tale that her ill-health was inherited from her father. It is said that Henry an unnamed disease during his service in Crimea, which is entirely possible. Frances’ infirmities may explain why so many of her children died at birth or in infancy. She had 14 pregnancies, but only four boys lived to maturity. Daniel, who was known as Henry, was born in 1880. Edmund, who was known throughout his life as Mick, arrived in March 1892. Leo, who was perhaps named after Pope Leo XIII, was born in 1894, and Thomas in August 1896. Soon after the birth of her youngest child, Frances became paralysed and blind. As a consequence, young Mick had the task of dressing and looking after his mother. She died in 1920 at the age of 60. Her husband Daniel was robustly healthy and lived to 91.

The 1881 census records that Daniel, then 20, was a clerk, possibly working for an insurance firm in the docks. A family tale has it that he was briefly employed in a bank owned by Jews and that he camouflaged his origins by calling himself Daniels. According to this account, Daniel’s true identity was exposed when he was spotted by a bank customer coming out of Mass and sacked. Jobless, Daniel was walking past a livery stable where a cab driver was having difficulties controlling a horse. He calmed the animal and was offered a job as a hansom cab driver. This story seems to have some substance since Daniel was registered in the 1891 census as a Hackney carriage driver.

Daniel was nicknamed “Dapper Dan” because of his smart appearance and there are stories that, after his wife’s death, he was a ladies’ man. His grandchildren remember him visiting and gruffly asking them who they were. When they answered, he would sometimes stick a sixpenny piece on their foreheads using spittle. It was interpreted in hindsight as a sign of affection. Daniel’s final years were spent in the home of his son Mick and their family.

Daniel’s four sons were educated at St Joseph’s, which suggests he had enough money to pay school fees. They all left school at 14, the age to which education was then compulsory. Mick applied for the position of van boy on the Great Western Railway (GWR). He put weights in his pockets to bring his weight up to the minimum level. Unlike the other applicants, Mick went to the GWR interview wearing a collar and tie. The competition was attired in the convention of the working class of the time in collarless shirts with wool scarves wrapped around their necks and tucked into their jackets. Mick got the job. He was to work for the GWR for 51 years.

Mick’s elder brother Daniel married and had one daughter named Gladys. Leo, who also got a job as a GWR van boy, married Ann Norah and had four children: Leo, Kathleen, Patrick and Maureen. Tom, who got a job at GWR thanks to Mick’s intervention, married Florence Maud and had four children: Francis (born May 1921), Ernest (born November 1922), Marie (born November 1926) and Olive (born April 1930). Frank, the 1935 London schools 800-yard foot race champion, served in the RAF in the 2nd World War and was ordained as a priest in 1956. He rose to the position of cannon and is now retired. Ernest was in the Royal Artillery in the conflict.

When he was 14, Mick was struck down by rheumatic fever, a killer of poor Londoners of all ages. It left him with a heart defect. Mick was expected to be an invalid for the rest of his life.

“With determination and a pair of Sandhows grip developers, he transformed himself into a fit young man,” his son Ted reported in his memoirs.

Mick was a voracious reader, particularly of non-fiction classics including Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin and Das Kapital by Karl Marx. He became a left-wing socialist and trade union activist, remaining a member of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) throughout his working life. Mick was also a devoted Catholic who wore with pride the green silk sash of his faith in church processions through the streets of south London. He was a Pioneer, a Catholic who had sworn to abstain from alcohol. “He was a Catholic communist, but never a party member (and) believed in evolution which was contrary to the tenets of his religion to which he was devoted,” Ted wrote in his memoirs.

The years before the start of the 1st World War were a time of political ferment and social change. The Liberal Party defeated the Conservatives in a landslide in elections in January 1906 and pushed ahead with reforms that have lasted to this day. The People’s Budget of 1909 called for a national system of old age pensions and sickness and unemployment benefits. The House of Lords tried to block the measures. British politics polarised sharply and the Liberals lost their commanding parliamentary majority in the January 1910 general election. Industrial unrest increased and Britain was divided by the government’s determination to grant home rule to Ireland. Mick, the idealist trade union militant and socialist, would have been in his element as Europe headed towards war in the summer of 1914. It was during a Catholic outing one summer weekend in 1913 that Mick met Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hanlon, a beautiful young Catholic Londoner from Camberwell, then aged 19, who worked in service. Lizzie said she and Mick cuddled in a carriage on the way home. It was a love match that was to last 66 years. They started to court. Mick, his watch in hand, would insist Lizzie did not return to the house where she worked until the moment her employer required. “This is your time, not theirs,” she recalled him saying.

Lizzie was one of at least 12 children born to John Hanlon and his wife Mary Anne Maloney. John was born in 1849 in Rock Street, Tralee, the county town of Kerry. His date of departure to England is not known. When he married Mary Maloney at Camberwell’s Sacred Heart Church on 9 March 1874, John Hanlon was a private in the 12th Regiment of Foot which was renamed as the East Suffolk Regiment seven years later. Where John Hanlon joined the regiment is not yet clear. It was serving on garrison duty in Ireland from 1872 and he might have joined then or when the regiment was based in England in 1867-72. From 1876, the regiment was on duty in India and participated in the second Afghan War which began in 1878. But it is likely John was already out of the army by then.

The marriage certificate gives John Hanlon’s address as 9 Nelson Street, Camberwell, the same as that of his father Edward, who was a labourer. John is recorded in the 1881 census as working as a brick labourer. But it seems he had some sort of classical education and was able to speak Irish, Latin and Greek.

“He maintained his friendships with many professional Irishmen and was a member of the Gaelic Society,” Ted wrote. “Lizzie often spoke of their calling at their house and greeting each other in their native tongue.”

How a man living in one of the poorest areas of south London could have acquired such a range of skills remains a mystery. But his learning may have been the result of the hedge schools of Ireland where teachers and priests would share a rich diet of scholarship with poor rural children denied even the most basic education.

Mary Maloney was born in 1853 in Camberwell. Before she married, she was a domestic servant and, in 1871, was working for Henry F Bussey, a parliamentary reporter who lived in Camberwell. At the time of her marriage, she cited her address as 12 Nelson Street, just across the road from the Hanlon household. Nelson Street was renamed and then demolished.

According to census records, John and Mary Hanlon were living in Sultan Street in Camberwell in 1881. This was classified in 1899 by Charles Booth as one of the poorest areas of south London. John and Mary Hanlon were recorded then to have been living in Hollington Street, also classified by Booth as inhabited by London’s poorest people. Practically all the buildings John and Mary would have known have been demolished either as part of a slum clearance programme or after 1945 due to bomb damage during the 2nd World War. John died prematurely in tragic but unspecified circumstances. Mary, a saintly woman devoted to her many children, lived until 1927.

In May 1914, Mick married Lizzie at Camberwell’s Sacred Heart Church which ran a school that Lizzie attended until she was 14. Less than three months later, Britain declared war against Germany and its allies. Many young Londoners volunteered and became part of Kitchener’s army. It was given this name because the recruits responded to an emotive message delivered in a celebrated poster showing Lord Kitchener, a former general born in Ireland who was then British Minister of War, pointing and the words “Your Country Needs You!”.

The Labour Party refused to support the war and Mick was ambivalent about the conflict, though he tried to join up in 1915. He was rejected because railway workers were in a reserved occupation. Later in the war, he said that his employers, irritated by Mick’s trade union activity, would threaten to release him to the army. “So, sentence me to death would you,” Mick responded. By this point, reports of mass death at the front and the constant sight of wounded soldiers had exhausted the enthusiasm for the war. Mick bitterly remembered the hardships on the home front caused by food shortages. Mick’s brothers all saw action. Henry and Leo were in the Army Service Corps as driver-mechanics. Tom served in the King’s Royal Rifles in France and Italy.

The war also dramatically affected Lizzie’s family. Her elder brother John Hanlon, born in 1877, was a regular in the South Wales Borderers before and during the 1st World War where he saw action in the 1915 Dardanelles campaign. He died not long after being released from the army in 1919 and was given a funeral with military honours because of his distinguished service. Edward (Ted) Hanlon, born in 1885, was in a trench unit team in the Royal Artillery. He was permanently disabled by gas poisoning. He never worked after the war. Ted Hanlon married Bella and lived until the early 1940s. Ted told a story, which is perhaps apocryphal, that he was awarded field punishment for a misdemeanour. It involved being tied to the wheels of a gun carriage. He was released when he appealed to an officer, a fellow Catholic, by declaring: “This is what they did to Christ.”

Joseph, born in 1889, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps on the Western Front despite being partially sighted. After the war, he worked as a commissionaire at the Tivoli cinema in the Strand. Daniel, born 1898, also joined up aged 15. He later re-enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he was a stoker. Lizzie’s eldest sister Mary, born in 1880, was in service in Greenwich in 1901 as a cook-housekeeper and married a master cobbler who was prosperous enough to own a horse and trap. Bridget, who was born in 1882, married a regular soldier in the 17th Lancers named Percy Thurston. He served in India and Persia before the 1st World War, rising to the rank of sergeant. Thurston then transferred to the Northumberland Fusiliers, was given a field commission and ended the war as town major in occupied Germany. Catherine, born in 1893, married Harry Easter, a print compositor who was well-paid and exempt from military service.

Like other poor London families, the Hanlons were stricken by many tragedies. Four of Lizzie’s siblings were dead by 1914 and another had disappeared. Her eldest brother Edmund, born in 1875, was a regular soldier and died of a tropical disease in India before the start of the war. Thomas, born in 1883, also joined the British Army, served in India and died of disease the week before Lizzie’s wedding in 1914. Michael, born in 1879, could not find work. Lizzie said he stowed away on a ship to America in the 1900s and she never heard of him again. Another brother, Patrick, died aged 4 in 1901. Lizzie vividly remembered the moment her elder brothers brought the boy’s body down for the funeral. A sister, Joanna, died of tuberculosis aged 15 or 16 in 1913 or 1914. These terrible experiences were not unusual for poor London families living in overcrowded slums.

Children came quickly for Mick and Lizzie. Daniel was born in 1915 and Ellen in August 1917. Lizzie managed somehow to work between births in a munitions factory and saw German Zeppelins on bombing raids over London. In the summer of 1918, she found she was pregnant again. It was clear that the war was drawing to a close. In September, German defences on the Western Front were breached. In October, the German armed forces started to mutiny. There were food riots in German cities. The Kaiser fled and, in the political vacuum this create, a new, republican government was formed headed by Social Democrats to make peace. The war finally ended at 11am on 11 November 1918.There is no record of how Mick and Lizzie celebrated armistice day. Mick did not drink much and Lizzie was unlikely to have indulged in the fourth month of her third pregnancy. But London exploded into a frenzy of celebration.

Almost 1 million Britons had died during the war. Amazingly, Lizzie and Mick, then living in a two-room flat in Cronin Road in Peckham, had lost no one. Lizzie had four brothers on active service. Mick had three. They all returned. Providence, which had decimated their families before the war, spared them further grief during the conflict and in the first year of peace when more people died in a global influenza epidemic than were killed in 1914-18.

There were, nevertheless, mixed emotions. Mick had a steady job, but it was poorly-paid. There would soon be another mouth to feed. They were already overcrowded and Mick feared millions of returning soldiers would put additional pressure on London’s limited housing stock. Competition for jobs was bound to increase. If he got ill, it would be a disaster. There was no national health service or social welfare system. For the average Londoner, life was precarious in the winter of 1918. Mick would encounter disappointment in December when the coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Lloyd George but dominated by Conservatives, won in a landslide in the first post-war election. Mick voted for the first time and cast it, as he was to do for the rest of his life, for the Labour Party, the socialist champions of the working class.

There were no divided feelings on 11 November for an Austrian less than three years older than Mick who had served in the German army on the Western Front since the war started. He was recovering from being gassed on the Western Front in a Munich hospital when the news came of the armistice. A corporal who had won an Iron Cross for valour, he buried his face in his pillow and wept bitterly over Germany’s humiliation. Parentless and jobless, the soldier had invested all his hopes in his adopted country’s victory. There were parallels in his immediate family’s experiences and those of Mick and Lizzie. He had been baptised a Catholic though he was effectively an atheist. His elder half-sister had married an Irish man. An elder half-brother who had died in infancy had been named Edmund. Like Mick, the Austrian was a teetotaller.

The future looked bleak, but the soldier was determined to make his mark. He did and was to cause many complications for Mick, Lizzie and their expanding family just over 20 years later.

His name was Adolph Hitler.

Read Chapter 4 here.