1861: “Hard up for a new suit; or, an Irishman in a sack”

In 1861 Michael Querk found himself in Ketley, possibly seeking work in one of the many ironworks or coal mines that had sprung up in recent years. The industrial revolution was in full swing, having started just a few miles down the road in Coalbrookdale.


Etching by T. Smith, 1816 https://talkinghumanities.blogs.sas.ac.uk

Like many of his fellow countrymen he was having a rough time it and on the 17th August 1861 he went to the one man who’s supposed to help.

An unsympathetic Wellington Journal takes up the story…

A dwarfish individual, who gave the name Michael Querk, an importation from Paddy’s land, was charged with being guilty of riotous behaviour on Saturday last, at Ketley. The prisoner, it appears, visited the house of Mr. Vickers, the relieving officer, and asked for relief; also requesting an order for his admission to the workhouse. Mr. Vickers declined to give him one, and the prisoner then became very violent in his actions, and used abusive language. Police-constable Deakin fortunately being near, once took the diminutive specimen of an Hibernian into custody; and had no sooner done so, than the offender drew forth a knife, and with dramatic gestures brandished it in the air, but for what purpose himself seemed totally unconscious, and consequently was unable to enlighten his captor. He was then safely conveyed to prison.


In those days workhouses were feared places and people would often rather starve or freeze than go to one. There were rumours that if you died in one, your body would end up in the following week’s dinner for the other sad inhabitants.

So Mr Querk must have been particularly desperate to try and get in one.

There was a huge influx of Irish Immigrants between 1845 and 1851, largely paupers, forced to out because of the potato famine.

Most of them settled in the port towns and cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow, South Wales as well as the industrial areas where labour was needed, such as in the Midlands.


He sat in his sell with no further incident pondering his next move. Still dirty and disheveled, and desperately in need of new clothes he decided to take matters into his hands once again.

On Monday morning, on again being visited by Serg. James he declined bis mandate to “come forth”, and urged in excuse that he wasn’t fit to be seen.’’

Astonished this circumstance, the officer quickly put his head into the cell and as quickly withdrew it, for there, in the middle the cell, stood Mr. Querk with not a particle of clothing upon his devoted body.

At a short distance from him lay a heap of rags, that bore an unmistakable resemblance to the clothes he wore the previous day, and such proved to be the case.

The “knowing” prisoner had torn his clothes to shreds for the express purpose of being provided with a new suit.

The difficulty now arose—how was he to appear before the magistrates?

A good question – and the answer would come in a comical conclusion to the scene, with the prison officer getting the last laugh…

Large antique hessian, 1887,from Germany. https://picclick.co.uk/Large-antique-hessian-sack-from-1887-Erzingen-202388619262.html

 It would appear that as the obstacles arose against his so doing, the inventive faculties of the officer rose also; for, in a short time he had procured a bag, and, having made two holes near to top and hole from which Querk could protrude his head, he equipped the worthy Irishman in a garment that would have done honour to the establishment of Messrs. Moses, in which state he was brought before the magistrate, and committed for fourteen days.

This less than sympathetic write-up of the story was typical of Victorian attitudes to Irish immigrants, as mentioned on the website Victorian Web;  “In much of the pseudo-scientific literature of the day the Irish were held to be inferior, an example of a lower evolutionary form, closer to the apes than their “superiors”, the Anglo-Saxons . Cartoons in Punch portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features and the Irishman, (especially the political radical) was invariably given a long or prognathous jaw, the stigmata to the phrenologists of a lower evolutionary order, degeneracy, or criminality.” 

Incidentally Messrs. Moses was a famous tailors with branches across the country, well-known for its affordable fashions, an early Primark perhaps.


Moses operated on what was still a fairly novel concept of low margins on a high turnover. Success depended on being able to keep the prices low and demand growing. Prices were kept low through a combination of cost-cutting in manufacturing and obtaining discounts on fabrics. (Tony Seymour)

Shop in Tottenham Court Road

Below are the clippings of the story from the Wellngton Journal.

So what happened to Michael Querk?

Without any more information on his age it’s impossible to say, but according to findmypast there are only a few possibilities..so it;’s likely he’s one of these listed below..


Assuming the paper spelt his name correctly then he’s either one of those who emigrated to America (not the one born in 1830 as he traveled there a year before the incident in Ketley) or the one who died in 1876 in Nottingham at the age of 61 – not a bad age considering his circumstances.


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