My Duke

Duke Ormsby was my great great great grandfather. He was born somewhere in Ireland (we don’t have that nailed down yet) and married Mary Ann Charlton in 1830 in Kilmemoroy, County Mayo. duke-mary anne marriage.

He does not appear on any landowner records, which indicates that the family was not wealthy, but on his children’s baptism records, he is listed as a ‘farmer’ rather than a farm laborer. how hard it must have been to go from tenant farming to what he experienced when he left.

Sometime between 1848 and 1851, the family moved to York in England. This means that they left Ireland right in the midst of the potato famine that killed more than a million people and drove Irish immigrants to leave the country en masse.

The potato famine hit County Mayo and County Sligo particularly hard, and while we don’t know for sure that’s where Duke was from, we do know his wife was from Sligo and that all of the other men named Duke Ormsby seem to have come from those two counties (most of them from Mayo). Here’s a little background on the impact of the famine on Sligo (these are bullet point summaries of key points in the book The Great Hunger Ireland 1845 by Cecil Woodham-Smith:

As things worsened, the anger of the people turned to their landlords. Many of the gentry left the country in fear. By December 1847, a sub-inspector of police had a list of at least 10 landlords in Leitrim and Sligo, who were marked men. ..their lives are not worth a sheet of paper.
Mid-summer 1848 found the disease on the potato crop was still present. Throughout the West, including Co. Sligo, the blight was the same,, as in 1846.
In October, the British Chancellory stopped the issuace of relief supplies and the people who were still alive realized they had to emigrate to survive. These emigrants were farmers; of a good class; and the country needed them. In Sligo and Donegal, a Poor Law inspector reported that,,,the better, more energetic farmers are selling up and going.

We have no record of them leaving Ireland, so we don’t know where they arrived but Liverpool seems the most likely, since the other ports accepting Irish ships were in the south. We do know that, wherever they landed, their journey was hellish. This web page describes a tragedy in 1849, when over a hundred Irish immigrants died en route to the UK as a result of being locked in a space that was too small for them. They quote the Liverpool Mercury as saying this about the way the Irish were being treated:

…the inhumanity of the human cattle trade, for we can call it nothing less, now carried on for the mutual benefit of the steamboat owners and of persons on the other side of the water who find it convenient to ship their paupers here.

And this about the immigrants themselves:

chiefly… the wretched and destitute class who are pouring into England and in such multitudes and who are landed daily in our streets without a penny of money, and with scarcely rags enough to cover them.

And things were no better when they arrived. Prejudice was rife, living conditions were barbaric, and Irish workers could get only the most menial work. There was no chance to lift yourself out of poverty and no matter what you had been doing back in Ireland, you were relegated to the most low-paying work once you arrived in Britain.

Duke and Mary settled here, in Plow’s Rectory Buildings on Walmgate.


The area was rife with prostitutes and slaughter houses abutted people’s homes, so you can imagine the hygiene! One book I read said that 1 in 5 Irish children under the age of 5 died during this time in Liverpool. I haven’t found stats about York, but it seems conditions probably wouldn’t be much better.

They shared their house with several lodgers, which I understand was common at the time. Duke is listed as an agricultural laborer and in York at that time, ag laborors walked anywhere from 5 to 20 miles from the city to their place of work every day.

Not surprisingly then, Duke didn’t last long after the move. He died in 1855 in Wenlock Street at the age of 54. Here’s his death certificate:

Duke Ormsby death cert 1855

is death certificate lists acute rheumatism and heart disease as the causes, but I’ve read that rheumatism was often cited for any number of infections. Given the conditions in which he lived, and the way he had to work, infection is hardly a surprise.

His wife Mary Ann lived for many years after his death. Heaven only knows how she supported herself, but from what I have learned, irish women in York rarely entered prostitution, so that probably wasn’t it. Here is her death certificate.

We’re currently tracing other Ormsbys who were in York at the same time, because it seems there might be a connection between some of them. More to come.


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