Welcome to Minnocks on Money, in which I talk to my older family members about how they’ve managed money throughout their life, in a world where FinTech didn’t exist (or did it?).
Nowadays the global remittance market is valued at over $700bn. Remittances are when money is earned or obtained in a foreign country and sent back to a home market, usually by foreign workers to their families. These, and international money transfers more widely, are an area that FinTechs like Wise and Revolut have sought to disrupt.
In 1950s Ireland, remittances usually meant a family member was working abroad (often in England) and the money arrived in a special envelope with a cross on it. I spoke to my dad about his memories of my grandfather, Andy, who sent money home from his work in England throughout the years – before the family would end up emigrating.
For context, some of the below information comes from interjections by my mother, second generation Irish, who also remembers the experience of immigrant families in England – and, like many women her age, has taken on the task of remembering things on behalf of her husband.
Firstly, why was it necessary for your father – and so many other people’s fathers – to go and find work in England?
There were not many jobs, simple as that. There was high unemployment.
It’s safe to say the running of the economy was not a strength of the government when the Free State was formed. Globally, the economy was hit by the Depression of the 1930s; a World War and some poor decisions by the government all contributed to a poor economy and not enough resources to support those who needed it.
My father personally would have had his job opportunities diminished by the fact he served in the British Army in the War, which excluded him from jobs in local authorities.
But why did it make sense for so many Irish people to go and live in a different country, support themselves there, and still send money back?
Very simply, there was no alternative. At least if they were earning money, they had something left over. They lived very frugally and so did whoever was left behind.
There was a big demand for workers in Britain at that time, so they could work overtime. It wasn’t that people went over “on spec” to see if there was work – they knew there would be work.
It was a time of adjustment for the country. There wasn’t a huge manufacturing industry in Ireland and demand for farm work had decreased. Lots of younger people went and made a life for themselves, but there was also a stratum of people who spent their time just earning money for their families back home – some did it on a full-time basis, some on a seasonal basis.
My father picked hops seasonally in Kent, and did things related to farming, which was what he would know about. I’m not sure how much he did in building, a trade lots of Irish people worked in, but I remember he got a job in a chemical factory in the North of England. He came home once with a pair of clogs, which all the factory workers wore.
He would divide his money between a frugal room for himself, and sending what was left over to my mother.
What was the attitude of people in England to the Irish migrant workers?
Of course, my father heard the statements from people, especially in London, about signs reading “no blacks, no Irish” and sometimes adding “animals accepted”. But he had great misgivings about it: his personal story was that people were very reasonable, based on how he treated them.
He felt some attitudes were justified because some people renting rooms from Ireland would have been reluctant to pay, and very into drinking. So, they would have been capable of doing damage and would have been very unreliable. From his point of view, he never had a problem – and he also took the responsibility of bringing over a number of young people from our town, finding them places to live and monitoring how they behaved toward people.
So that was his understanding.
What do you think led to the behaviour of certain people away from home?
One cause of this situation which he felt aggrieved by – and I also experienced when I went to England, so I can see his point – was a tendency among judges in Ireland to punish people for crimes by giving them the option of a fine, jail time… or leaving town and going to England.
So, some people over there would have had a criminal record and so on. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s what happened, and others were then tarred with the same brush. People like my father very much had to build their own reputation.
Also, a lot of people would go to what you might have called “ghettos”. And there’s something to be said for that – the comfort of being with people from the same place as you. But comfort also came from the abuse of alcohol a lot of the time, which brought on depression and became a vicious cycle.
This was the cornerstone of a reputation for fighting or drinking – some of it was justified, some of it wasn’t. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the migrant workers would in fact have been very sober, and would set about building their homes, buying houses, and saving money. Their children, the second generation, would have been very highly educated. That was a big thing; they made sure of that.
How often was money sent back and how did it get there?
Once a week, by registered letter. It was cash – always in notes, no cheques. Sometimes it was a postal order. Currency wasn’t an issue – the Irish pound’s value was linked to the English Sterling, and the currency didn’t break until the late seventies. It is worth noting that of about 25 houses on the road we lived in, over 20 would have these letters delivered, if not weekly then once a month. They played a significant part in supporting businesses as the money was very quickly circulated in the local economy.
Was it ever a bit uncertain waiting for the money to come back? Did your mother know what she was going to get each week?
It was always the same amount unless he would do overtime, or have to save up money to come over for a holiday – but that wasn’t often as it wasn’t that many years he worked over there. Eventually he came back because the local economy picked up, there was building work more locally. He would have had constant employment for a few years, but then in the early sixties it began to break down again and he wanted different opportunities – we emigrated as a family in 1964. My older brother had finished his apprenticeship and was working and married, so there were only two boys left, myself and my younger brother.
My sister was already over there working and would also have sent a bit of money back.
I was going to ask, was it primarily the men like your father who went over…
No, the younger people would have gone over and lots of girls would have worked in shops, offices, factories and also as nurses. They would have sent some money to their parents and families too. Probably more ad hoc in some cases.
Were most of those families on your street relying solely on the money from England, or did people like your mother find any work?
My mother would have been quite exceptional, I think, insofar as she did a few different jobs and was quite proactive. I can’t think of anyone else on the road who was employed, except a widow who was the housekeeper for the local priest and a few local spinsters who had to provide for themselves.
My mother did tasks she was good at. She cleaned the offices of a solicitor and the houses of a couple of teachers. She also worked from home for the local butcher preparing poultry – plucking hens, turkeys, ducks and also pheasants. Some of this was seasonal, and it made for especially welcome income around Christmas time. There was some bartering involved: she would get meat in return for her labours.
She also reared chickens and kept geese to provide us with eggs and meat. We became used to parts of the shed and kitchen being covered in feathers and the distinctive smell when the innards were removed and disposed of. It soon passed, and we would have the money spent on new shoes or clothes, so that was a good consolation.
Looking back, she was very entrepreneurial (a word not used at that time) and I developed a good work ethic from her which I hope has passed down the generations.
Were there ever any times the money didn’t arrive, though?
Sometimes, if they money didn’t arrive one week, the shopkeepers who knew your family member was in England would have a slate and you would get a little bit of sympathy. Local charities – usually the clergy – would sometimes step in.
Usually it would arrive regularly, and also people would continue to send money back – sons to their parents for example – even once they’d started their own families. It was simply seen that people in England were richer. We’d have to look into what the cost of living and currency rates were, but your money seemed to go further in England and the wages were bigger. It was more frequent, it was constant, it was more.
Of course, nowadays you can text someone and you know the money will arrive very quickly. I would feel insecure waiting for an envelope of money.
We felt secure in our family, but some people did occasionally disappear into the ether. Some men nominally went to England to work and send the money over but never came back. Or they did for a bit, and then it fizzled out. You never heard from them again.