Sunday, 19 June 2016

My Mother's Life in Manchester in 1916

By Barbara Aherne

As the Proclamation was read in Dublin, back here in Cheetham Hill in Manchester, my mother was almost 10 years old. Her family, the McHerrons had arrived from Belfast at the turn of the century and the Titanic disaster in 1912, with its Belfast connections, had been a significant event in the household. Now, in 1916 she was witnessing the effects of the First World War on her neighbourhood.

My mother as a girl outside St. Chad's church. 

In North Manchester there were rows of terraced houses around the Cheetham Hill road area. It was a diverse area but its residents were predominantly Jewish. Mother said she was often asked to go into a Jewish household to light the gas stove or the fire on Friday evening as she was passing, at the start of the Sabbath. Sabbath was from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

My mother’s family were parishioners in the parish of St. Chad. There was a large Catholic population with many Irish immigrants too but often the local English and Jewish neighbours would call my grandmother ‘the Scotch woman’ because of her strong Ulster accent. My uncle was head altar boy until his untimely death at the age of 18 in 1921, due to a burst appendix, causing acute peritonitis, for which there wasn’t any cure in those days.

My grandmother, Mary Doyle nee Wood.

Life then was obviously very different to present times. There were still horse drawn carts and carriages on the roads, and bicycles, if you were lucky enough to have one. Parents were also very strict with their children, manners were very important. Women and girls wore very long dresses and coats, almost down to their ankles and did not wear trousers, as it was considered to be unladylike. My mother used to help the housekeeper in St. Chad’s presbytery. If mother answered the door and said to the housekeeper, “There is a lady at the door,” the housekeeper would reply, “is she a lady or is she a woman?” as there was a difference in those days. Not every woman could be called a lady!

My Aunty May

Manchester then consisted of just the town centre and surrounding suburbs. It was very industrial with factories in places like Ancoats and Moss Side. Cheetham Hill was full of clothing factories with workers often working in dire conditions. There was a lot of poverty in the Manchester area and the working class families living in newer housing estates were quite privileged.

My mother was fortunate and learned to type and do shorthand and got employment with a mail order company as a secretary. She was seventeen and a half when her father died in 1924 and she became the main wage earner in the family.  Irish families entertained themselves with storytelling, music, song and dance often in the home but sometimes they congregated in the local public houses. They managed to survive in spite of the poor conditions in some families.
Female workers at the factory of Churchill Machine Tool Co Ltd,
Pendleton, Manchester, 1916

My mother’s father worked at the Victoria Hotel in Manchester, and as far as I know was never in the army. He would have been about thirty seven in 1914. My mother always said he had poor health due to a rheumatic heart. They could also tell which were his boots because of the shape. His joints and particularly his feet had become misshapen.

St. Chad's church today. 

Whilst the war events in France were discussed widely in the newspapers and locality, happenings in Dublin were very low key. The Manchester Evening News of April 26th 1916 states that the ‘Country is Tranquil outside Dublin’; that censorship was vital to prevent neutral countries like America from gaining a false impression of the importance of what had taken place and that the Pope recommended the people to remain quiet. The Irish situation at that time was not discussed within the family. If my mother asked questions my grandmother would say “it is none of your business.”

Although my mother took me to the Gaelic League in the 1940s to learn dancing and the Irish Language, my parents never discussed anything regarding the history or politics of Ireland and it is only in my later years that I have learned more about Irish history.

Text & images © Barbara Aherne.
Image of Pendleton factory is Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Aherne has been a member of Manchester Irish Writers for many years. Born in the city in the 1940s, she has always lived in Manchester. Both of her parents were from Irish families. Her mother introduced her to Irish music and dancing at a young age. Barbara joined Se├ín Dempsey’s group of dancers when they moved into the Irish World Heritage Centre in the 1980s and has been a member ever since.

She is also a long-standing member of the Irish language group at St. Kentigern’s in Fallowfield. Her first piece of writing was done for Alan Keegan’s book “Irish Manchester.” She is interested in her family’s history and has recorded stories her mother told her from when she was a young girl.

Barbara wrote 'My Mother's Life in Manchester, 1916' for MIW's commemorative event, '1916: The Risen Word', which was performed at the Irish World Heritage Centre, Manchester on March 10 2016. MIW received the generous support of the Embassy of Ireland for this event.


  1. I can remember the distinction between 'women' and 'ladies' still being made in the late 40s / early 50s. We attended Haven Green Baptist church in a rather posh part of Ealing (West London). The primary Sunday school met in the Lower Amhurst room. Upstairs, the Upper Amhurst room was hardly used. It was kept for the 'ladies working party'. There was also a women's sewing group, but they used a different room. Later the room was used by more people, including the Youth Club.

  2. At the school I attended we were all expected to behave in a ladylike manner. This was in the 40's and 50's. We had to wear hats at all time when wearing the school uniform travelling to and from school.