The Tale of Dennis Manning, a Migrant from Co. Roscommon to London

Dennis Manning, my only proven Irish ancestor, left Ireland to better himself in England.  Unfortunately he ended up in the slums of London until being picked up by the naval gangs to serve in the Coast Blockade. He endured a hard life until being entered as a Greenwich Pensioner where he found a better life until his demise.

My great-great-grandfather Dennis Manning was born into a poor, Irish-Catholic tenant, land-farming family in the year 1798 in the parish of Kilbride, County Roscommon, Ireland – a large scattered parish of some 7,122 acres with a population of about 3500 persons situated some 3 to 5 miles north of the county town of Roscommon. In the 19th century it was sparsely covered with trees and had little landscape to see except very large tracts of undulating wild bog.IrelandMapBrownshutterstock_108264455

Dennis’s family probably lived in a one roomed cabin built of mud and earth sods, the first two or three feet being made of stone without mortar.  The roof, constructed of branches and potato stalks covered with turf, was then laid with straw and rushes, which were held down by large stones.

The family’s main diet would have been potatoes, which they grew on a small plot of poor quality land adjoining the cabin, and occasionally, buttermilk.  Dennis’s early childhood would have been spent in the almost bare cabin with very little furniture, possibly a table and a few stools.  An open turf fire would have been used for cooking, with a hole in the roof for ventilation.  Bedding was made with dried straw and rushes laid on the bare earth, shared with other members of a usually large family.

His education would have been received at a hedge school usually in the open air.  When old enough to find work, he would have spent his days labouring for the local Protestant landlord. During the early nineteenth century, from about 1816 to 1819, the Province of Connaught suffered from widespread potato crop failures, caused by heavy flooding of the River’s Shannon and Suck.  Small pox and typhus fever also became rampant causing many deaths among the poor.  In 1822 Ireland suffered a famine caused by a potato blight, followed by a typhus epidemic, which resulted in much poverty, starvation and death. Many fled to the towns in search of food, whilst others, of which Dennis may have been one, made their way to coastal ports hoping to obtain passage to another country.  As was the custom of the labouring classes at this time, Dennis would have walked the almost 100 miles from Roscommon to Dublin from where he would have sought passage on a cargo boat sailing for England.  Many Irish farm labourers who came to England made their way southwards to work in the harvesting of hay and corn in the southern counties and market gardens around London.

By late 1824, Dennis was probably in lodgings among the impoverished Irish in East London, around the slum district of Shadwell by the River Thames. Here Irish immigrants were being taken on for the digging of the London and St. Katherine’s Docks. After a hard day’s labouring what time remaining would have been spent in local public houses where their wages were usually handed out to be spent on cheap beer.

On Thursday the 28th April 1825, Dennis was recruited as a ‘volunteer’ into the Royal Navy on board H.M.S. Perseus, a 552 tons, sixth rate sailing ship, which had for several years, had been lying in the River Thames, off the Tower of London, as a receiving ship.  Recruiting parties were sent out to raise new men for the Royal Navy, many ‘recruits’ being picked up after a night of heavy drinking.  Dennis was mustered on board at six-thirty the same evening, being inspected by Captain James Couch.  He was then taught basic seamanship by the ship’s Boatswain.  Dennis was also entered into the muster list as a ‘supernumerary’ seaman for the Coast Blockade.  This was when his name was probably anglicised to Manning, from the Irish Belgic surname of O’Mainnin, ( pronounced as “Mawnyeen”.)

Greenwich#2On the evening of Tuesday the 3rd May 1825, Dennis with thirty-one other supernumerary seamen mustered for inspection before being discharged to H.M.S. Prince Regent, via her tender the Star, proceeding down the River Thames to the Nore. H.M.S. Prince Regent, a 2940 tons, first-rate sailing ship with 120 guns, had been lying at anchor near Folly Point on the River Medway where she received the seamen from the Star on the afternoon of the 4th May.

On the 8th May, Dennis was discharged with sixty other seamen into the cutter Surly, for continued service with H.M.S. Hyperion, a fifth rate wooden sailing frigate of 1100 tons. She was moored in Newhaven Harbour, Sussex as part of the Eastern Division of the Sussex Coast Blockade.  Dennis joined her on the 10th May 1825 as a ‘Landsman’, the lowest rank in the navy.  For the Coast Blockade, H.M.S. Hyperion had some twelve hundred men on her muster lists under the command of Captain William James Mingaye.

The purpose of the Coast Blockade was to prevent smugglers landing and disposing of contraband goods on the south coast of England.  Seamen from the ship were detailed into groups of between twelve and thirty men, with a lieutenant in command, each officer being issued with a pistol and a cutlass.  They were along the Sussex coast in the Napoleonic Martello Towers.  Occasionally an old ships hulk was used for quarters, from where a party of seamen would launch a long boat to pursue the smugglers.  On the 17th May 1825, Dennis was part of a detachment from Hyperion posted for three years to the eastern district station of Rye, situated at the mouth of the River Rother on the Sussex coast. This district contained the Camber watch-house, the old hulk Enchantress, beached inside Rye Harbour and the Martello tower number 30 nearby. Billeted here Dennis’s job, with other seamen, was to daily search the six miles of beaches and shore line of Rye and Camber for illegal cargoes being landed.

An incident in which Dennis would have been involved was on Thursday the 27th April 1826, when a galley with illegal spirits on board, beached on the east hills at the entrance to Rye Harbour.  A large body of armed smugglers came over the sand hills for the purpose of running the goods, upon which an affray commenced between the smugglers and a party of Blockade men, killing one of the latter and leaving several wounded.  The Blockade party ultimately seized the galley and fifteen tubs, but the smugglers escaped.  Just a month later on the 22nd May, Dennis was promoted from Landsman to Ordinary Seaman at the Rye station, his daily earnings rising from ten pence to eleven and a half pence.

All through the hot summers and cold winters between 1826 and 1828, Dennis and the watch crews, would have spent many hours trudging through the heavy shingle beaches of Rye and Camber or rowing up and down the coastal waters around Rye Harbour in search of smugglers, undoubtedly taking a toll on his health.

Dennis returned to H.M.S. Hyperion on the 14th August 1828, having served for three years and four months as a sentinel at the blockade station. He was discharged from the ship on the 23rd August with several other shipmates into the naval cutter Wolf, which proceeded to Portsmouth, from where he collected his back pay from the navy office and proceeded to return to London.  By December 1828, Dennis had settled down in the Irish district of Ratcliff in Stepney.

In January 1829, Dennis having found employment in the newly built docks also made the acquaintance of local girl Ann Sharp.  Following the calling of their marriage banns between the 25th January and the 8th of February 1829, she and Dennis were married on the 24th February 1829 at the parish church of St. George in the East, Stepney, Middlesex.  Ann had been born in the City of Westminster, (later records state Ratcliff), in 1813, the daughter of John Sharp, a Mariner and Mary, (nee Conaway) of North Shields, Northumberland.

Dennis and Ann found lodgings in the docklands area of Ratcliff, and their first child, a daughter Mary Ann, was born in 1831 and baptized at the Catholic chapel of St. Mary and Michael in Virginia Street, Wapping.  Just over one year later on the 9th November 1832, their first son Thomas was born and soon baptized on the 3rd. February 1833 at the same church. Their third child, a son John, (the author’s great-grandfather), was born on the 2nd November 1834 and baptized on the 9th November 1834 also in the same church.  Their last child a daughter Sarah, who was deaf, was born on the 26th April 1837 and baptised on the 28th.May 1837 in Virginia Street too.  During this period Dennis was employed as a Ballast Heaver in the docks at London, loading and unloading lighters and ships of gravel and shingle, once the holds had been emptied of their cargos.

When the first full national census was taken on the 7th June 1841, the Manning family were recorded as living in the ground floor rooms of No. 2 Love Lane, Ratcliff, Middlesex, (a three story terraced house), Dennis was aged between 40 and 45 years, (he was in fact 42 years old), born in Ireland and employed as a Sailor, his wife Ann aged 28 years born outside Middlesex, and their four Middlesex born children – Mary Ann (10), Thomas (8),  John (6) and Sarah (4) years.  In the same census at No. 12 Love Lane, Ratcliff, were living the mother of Dennis’s wife, Mary Sharp aged between 45 and 50 years, (she was in fact 48 years old), born outside Middlesex, (later found to be Northumberland), and her children Elizabeth (13), George (9) and Caroline (6), all born in Middlesex. Their father John Sharp was away at sea.Greenwich#1

During the month of June 1842, whilst Dennis was working in the docks and now suffering the aches and pains of his earlier naval exploits, an application was made on his behalf to the Admiralty for him to become a candidate as a ‘Pensioner’ at the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich in County Kent.  It was stated that Dennis was unable to continue his work as a Ballast Heaver, as he had lost the use of both his legs, probably as a result of the continuous daily walking along the six miles of shingle beach at Rye during his service in the Coast Blockade.  His application was approved by the Admiralty on the 22nd June 1842, and two weeks later on the 7th July 1842 Dennis was admitted as an In-Pensioner to Council Ward, one of eleven wards in Queen Mary’s building at the Naval Hospital.  His admission describes him as being aged only 45 and 5 feet 5 inches tall.  He was First Clothed: 8th July 1842; (with a later entry), Second Clothed: 11th November 1842.  The clothing he would have been issued with was the Hospital uniform of a long blue square cut coat with large cuffs, a long tailored waistcoat, a white cravat, a pair of hose stockings, a pair of black buckled shoes and a blue tri-cornered hat.  His further clothing issue included two nightcaps, three pairs of black shoes, three pairs of hose stockings and four shirts.

After Dennis had been in the Royal Naval Hospital for two years, he applied through the Hospital Board to the Admiralty, on the 28th August 1844, for the admission of his youngest son John, now aged 9 years, to attend the Lower School of the Royal Naval Asylum at Greenwich.  The application form that was submitted on Dennis’s behalf gave details of his family and described his wife Ann and children living in the hamlet of Ratcliff as being a ‘real object of charity’.  The naval school contained up to four hundred boys, admitted between the ages of nine and twelve years, the sons of Warrant and Petty Officers or Seamen who had served or were serving in the Royal Navy and had been either wounded or maimed in service.  John was entered into the school claims and candidates register at the Greenwich Hospital School on the 2nd September 1844.  Two weeks later, a certificate was sent from the Admiralty to the Naval School giving official approval for the admission of John to the school and in November 1844, John was nominally placed in class five at the school until a vacancy occurred at the Lower School.  In the meantime he returned to live with his mother, brother and sisters in the Ratcliff Highway, where his family had now moved.  However, two years later, on the 12th November 1846, the Admiralty returned all the documents relating to the admission of John, who had not entered the school, to Dennis, who was still residing in the hospital.  This was probably because John was now too old to enter the school being six days over his twelfth birthday and that he was still unable to write which was a requirement for entry.

When the next national census was taken on the 30th March 1851, the records show that, Dennis was still residing as a Pensioner, aged 53 years old, at the Hospital in Greenwich, Kent.  His birth parish was recorded as Kilbride, Co. Roscommon, Ireland and that he was still a married man.  Due to the hospital regulations, pensioners’ wives were not permitted to live in the hospital.  Dennis’s wife Ann, working as a Charwoman, now aged 36 years, was living at number 3 Labour in Vain Street, Shadwell with their unmarried son Thomas aged 18 years – he was employed as a Coalwhipper unloading coal from ships in the docks on the River Thames.

Peter Manning

Peter Manning, FIGRS

IGRS Fellow, Vice President and Hon. General Secretary

On the 29th August 1859, Dennis Manning died of Phthisis in the infirmary of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich; he was 61 years old and had been a Pensioner at the Royal Hospital for seventeen years.  He was buried on the 1st September at the Royal Naval Cemetery at Greenwich in grave number 26c plot A.

Whilst Dennis may have enjoyed more comfort in the last years of his life, he had undoubtedly had a very hard life that took him from the wilds of Co. Roscommon to the genteel surroundings of Victorian Greenwich.  His son John went on to become a Boatswain in the Merchant Service and raise his own family from whom the author descends but I wonder how different his life might have been if he had managed to obtain an education in the Royal Naval School as his father so dearly wished?


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